Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. (Matthew 5:33-36)
We continue today studying the most foundational of Jesus’ sermons, ‘The sermon on the mount’. It has been described as Jesus’ manifesto as he sets out and clarifies what the Old Testament has been leading up to. We have seen already that the Scribes, Pharisees and religious leaders have been interpreting God’s laws with their own ideas, but Jesus is having none of that religious nonsense. He is spelling out how He expects his people to live and it is all about the heart, not religious observance. The religious leaders have actually strayed a long way from God’s original plan through their pseudo piety and Jesus is determined to show them where they have gone so wrong.
Since the part of the sermon we call ‘The beatitudes’ Jesus has been challenging various aspects of what the Pharisees have set out as ‘religious observance’ and what they have felt God requires. We have discovered that their way is a lot less radical and a whole lot safer than what God requires. They have stopped at not murdering being enough, but Jesus has explained that they should not even get angry in their hearts. They stop short at adultery and Jesus says that even looking at a woman lustfully endangers them to the fires of hell. And last week we saw that Divorce was only permissible on the grounds of adultery, not because she burnt the dinner or he just fancies someone else.
Some people think that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is adding to the Old Testament and some think He is taking away from it. He is doing neither. What He is simply doing is re-establishing the biblical standard over against their sub-standard system.
If you notice Jesus says in verses 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, and 43 “You have heard that it was said”. Jesus was contrasting what was said against what was written. It was all quite similar but subtly different. What was written was the word of God, what was ‘said; was their erroneous interpretation of what was written.
In today’s verses, Jesus tackles another area of their piety, the issue of ‘oaths’. This part can get a little confusing but we need to understand the background. Jesus is not saying you should never swear an oath as some people have interpreted it and refused to do vows in a marriage ceremony or law court. He is simply addressing the Pharisee’s hypocrisy and their silly rules.
Let’s state briefly what an oath actually is; It is making a statement and calling God to witness to the truth of that statement, and invoking a curse from God if, in fact, you’re not telling the truth. It is appealing to a higher authority.
In the time of Jesus they were swearing by oaths all the time. The Pharisees had developed a set of intricate rules where if you swore by one thing you had to keep it and if it was another thing you didn’t. For example if you swore by the altar you were ok, but if you swore by the sacrifice on the altar you had to keep it (see also Matthew 23:16). This was one example of hundreds and it was all done so they could feel good about themselves in their “safe religion”. Usually the difference was if you invoked God’s name in an oath you had to stand by that promise and if you didn’t use His name you were not obliged to keep your oath.
When Jesus said in verse 34 “Do not take an oath at all” He was telling them to avoid that type of oath taking, He was explaining; You can’t swear by Heaven and avoid God; that’s His throne. Or by earth, that’s His as well and Jerusalem is His city so you can’t use that either, oh and by the way you may think your own head is yours, but actually that belongs to Him too. Actually everything is invoking Him in some way or another, you can’t avoid Him. He was calling for consistency and for God’s true people to stand out from the crowd and live their whole lives in an honest way. You can’t be one way in church and another way when you are away from it. God is and should be in every part of our lives and this should be obvious to all around.
Next week we will look at verse 37 and the alternative that Jesus gives us to live by, instead of making Oaths.