I remember saying “cross my heart and hope to die” as a youngster to cement promises. There are many such phrases ranging from pinky-swear to “on my mother’s grave.” Most of these are child’s play and a way to gain a feeling of surety or credibility. Simple oaths with no real power behind them which are meant to shore up our word. There are, of course, adult examples as well such as the oath to tell the truth when called as a courtroom witness. Even business contracts are a kind of oath with stipulations, expectations, and consequences upon failure. Oaths, vows, contracts, and convents are a part of our everyday world.
This acknowledgment makes our next Jesus says command a bit challenging. “But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:34–37, NIV)
The first question we must ask concerns the scope of Jesus’ command. What kinds of oaths are being covered here? The rash oaths of childhood? The off-the-cuff oaths between adults? The solemn oath to tell the truth? The contracts and covenants of the business world? How about the oaths we make to God? I believe Jesus covered them all.
The context of Christ’s command is oaths before God. This was a serious matter in the ancient near east. There are several instances in the Bible where someone spoke an oath which was later kept at a great cost. Keeping our vows, oaths, and promises are important to God. Even God made oaths through various covenants in the Old Testament. The writer of Hebrews observes, “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself,” (Hebrews 6:13, NIV) This brings us to our second question.
If God could swear an oath why shouldn’t we? This conflict is settled in the understanding that God didn’t make covenants to bind Himself to His word. There was no need. “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.” (2 Corinthians 1:20, NASB95) God keeps His promises.
This leads to a thought chain that I’m still processing. God entered into covenant promises with all the accompanying oaths and actions to help those involved hold on to them. God is going to keep His word no matter if the promise is simply spoken or ratified with vows, oaths, and covenant actions. God made covenant promises to make faith in them easier to hold. To help the hearers trust that God said what he meant. Which bring us to the final question.
What does this mean for us? Is it wrong to swear an oath in court? Speak wedding vows or other solemn promises? Enter into contracts and covenants? Is it right to pinky-swear to confirm our word to a child? Should we gird up our words by invoking a greater power or dire consequence?
The answer to the questions above is found in God’s own actions. Sometimes it is appropriate to speak vows or enter into a covenant for the sake of the others involved. Where we get into trouble is when we make an oath or swear something is true to gird up our own credibility. Therefore, I find no issue with the courtroom oath. I’m going to speak the truth whether the oath is given or not. From my perspective, the oath is for the court’s sake.
Let’s make this a little more day to day because rare are the times when I’m a courtroom witness. In fact, I don’t recall ever being one. But almost thirty-eight years ago Betty and I stood before God, a Pastor, our family, and our friends and made solemn covenant promises to each other. They were vows confirmed with the giving of rings; a covenant of love’s promise. Let your yes be yes means keeping all of those promises every day.
I think Jesus’s command is meant to lead us to live a life of integrity where our yes really means yes, and our no really means no. Our word is to be our word and bond with no other vows needed. On one hand, it means being wise in making promises and obligations. On the other hand, it means remembering our promises and doing them. Jesus said let your yes be yes.