The Use of Oaths and a Call to the Truth - Matthew 5:33-37

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Here’s the truth: By nature, we are not honest people. Sometimes we add something to the story to make ourselves look better and other times we hold back details that would paint us in a poor light. In our flesh we are prone to exaggerations and half-truths and even blatant lies.

But as we come to Matthew 5:33-37 we hear Jesus calling the people of God to be people of the truth. While the scribes and Pharisees had developed a system of oaths that allowed them to shade or sidestep the truth, Jesus wants us to know that God calls His people to a greater level of honesty. It’s a passage about oaths and the misuse of oaths, but beyond that it’s a passage about telling the truth.

The Context – A Righteousness of the Heart

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is teaching what it looks like to live as the people of God. What becomes abundantly clear is that God’s standard is much different than the standard of the scribes and Pharisees.

In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus offers six examples contrasting the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees and the true law of God. What’s clear is that the righteousness of God is a righteousness of the heart and it goes far beyond the lines and parameters of the religious leaders. Further, we can never perfectly live up to God’s standard – but instead He gives those who are His new hearts – hearts that hunger and thirst for true righteousness.

In 5:33-37 Jesus gives the fourth of His six examples – this time contrasting the scribes and Pharisees’ teaching on oaths with God’s standard for truth.

The Teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees on Oaths (5:33)

  • You have heard it said – As we hear this repeated refrain from Jesus it’s important for us to remember that He isn’t taking issue with the law of God. Jesus isn’t dismissing God’s law, rather He’s contrasting the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees and the true law of God
  • A Biblical statement misapplied – The teaching that Jesus quotes in verse 33 isn’t a direct quote from the Old Testament, but it is a good summary of several Old Testament texts (i.e., Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:1-2; Deuteronomy 23:21-23). The problem here isn’t the quote itself but the larger teaching of the scribes and Pharisees that it represents.
  • An example of a false standard (Matthew 23:16-22) – What Jesus is addressing here is a system of oaths that had become common. In this system they had different kinds and degrees of oaths. Some oaths were binding and others were not binding. In Matthew 23 Jesus exposes and shows the fallacy of this system oaths.

The Teaching of Jesus – A Call for Truth (5:34-37)

  • A complete forbidding of oaths? – Many have understood this text to be a clear prohibition from Jesus against all oath-taking. Others suggest that it may be a more specific prohibition against the false and improper system of oaths that had developed. Either way it is certain that Jesus is calling His people to be people of their word. 
  • A seeming contradiction – positive examples of oath taking – One reason why it seems possible that Jesus is not completely forbidding all oaths is the prevalence of oaths throughout the Scriptures. Paul uses language that is oath-like (Romans 1:9; Philippians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 1:23) and even God Himself is said to use oaths (Hebrews 6:13-18). The Old Testament has many examples of oaths being used (i.e., Genesis 14:22-23; 1 Samuel 20:16-17; Ezra 10:5) and also passages that seem to give direction for oath keeping (i.e., Ecclesiastes 5:4-5).
  • A possible solution – As we weigh the evidence of the specific way the scribes and Pharisees were using oaths and also the broader context of Scripture it seems likely that Jesus is not forbidding all oath-taking. Although at the very least this passage should greatly limit the use of oaths and we should take pause before making any kind of oath.
  • The main idea – We must be people of truth - The scribes and the Pharisees had a system where truth could be shaded or sidestepped. Jesus says, your word must be your word. Your yes should be yes and your no should be no. As the people of God, we must be people of the truth with no exceptions (Ephesians 4:25; Colossians 3:8-10; Psalm 15:1-2; Psalm 51:6).
  • Application: Are you a person who tells the truth? Do you have a reputation of being trustworthy or have you given people reasons to be slow to trust you? Are you prone to exaggeration or to withholding parts of the truth in order to make yourself look better? We serve the God of truth and as His people we should examine our hearts, guard our tongues and strive to be people of our word. He has set us apart as salt and light and we should long for the world to see the trustworthiness of God on display through the way we live.