Have you ever made a “pinky promise”? When I was growing up, the “pinky promise” (or “pinky swear”) was the most serious and binding promise any child could make. We made it by interlocking our little fingers together and making a promise. We were not exactly sure what would happen if we broke our “pinky promise”, but we knew it was serious business. Why did we make such vows? Because we did not really trust each other. Daniel Doriani wrote about such vows, “the very request for a promise testifies that we are not reliable.” We were unreliable and untrustworthy. Therefore, we had to promise each other to keep our word on the idea that something bad would happen to us if we broke it. Not being able to rely on our honesty, we had to resort to the fear of consequences to seal our promise. In our sermon this morning, Jesus speaks on oaths and the importance of honesty.
What is an Oath?
An oath (or vow) is the practice of regularly confirming your truthfulness with an appeal to a higher power. It is a solemn promise in which “people swear by something greater than themselves” (Heb 6:16) as a witness to their truthfulness. In the Law of Moses, God permitted the Israelites to make oaths in His name (See Numbers 30:2, Deuteronomy 6:13). While the Israelites were to use oaths in the name of the Lord, they were to be careful not to misuse the name of the Lord. Exodus 20:7 says, “Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God, because the Lord will not leave anyone unpunished who misuses his name.” Also, Leviticus 19:12, “Do not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God; I am the Lord” (See also Deuteronomy 23:21-23). God permitted oaths and even made oaths. God swore an oath to Abraham when He promised him that He would bless him greatly (Gen 22:17, Heb 6:13-17).
What’s Wrong with Oaths?
If God allowed for oaths in the Law of Moses and even made them Himself, why does Jesus say, “But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all…let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no’” (Matt 5:34). In this verse, Jesus is referring to a specific type of oath that is little more than a cover for hypocrisy. John MacArthur spoke of this: “The tradition Jesus mentions in verse 33 seemed to be biblical, but it had several flaws that made it fall short of what the Old Testament actually taught.” He goes on to say that in Jesus’ day, “Indiscriminate and insincere vows became so commonplace that no one took them seriously. Instead of being a mark of integrity they became a mark of deceit. Instead of prompting confidence they prompted skepticism.” Edmond Heibert adds, “The force of an oath that to all appearances seemed binding could be evaded by minute inaccuracies in the formula used. They developed the fine art of hiding the truth behind their pious oaths.”
The Jewish religious leaders devised a system of oaths with various levels of accountability and responsibility. Jesus gave an example in Matthew 23:16-17, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the temple, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gold of the temple is bound by his oath. Blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold?” As you can see, the system became so convoluted that the true nature of making an oath lost its meaning. Jesus rejected this hypocrisy and called His followers to a higher standard.
No Oaths Required?
Jesus rebuked the Rabbis’ teaching and called His followers to the standard of absolute truth. The message from Jesus is clear: “Let your ‘yes’ mean yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.” In other words, everything we say and do should be done with honesty and integrity. We must tell the truth and we must be trustworthy. Notice that it is not enough to say you are trustworthy, you must demonstrate that you are trustworthy. Does this mean that we may never make an oath under any circumstance? There are some Christian groups who take Jesus’ statement to be a complete prohibition on oaths. Most Christians, however, see a more nuanced view. Because we live in a sinful world that is accustomed to deceit, we may need to prove our trustworthiness with an oath. This is acceptable. Remember, Jesus condemned the oaths of the Pharisees that was a cover for hypocrisy. Many Christians believe that Jesus is not forbidding the use of oaths that demonstrate trustworthiness and build trust. In other words, are you making an oath to prove your honesty or are you making an oath to hide your hypocrisy.
The Gospel is At Stake
Our honesty is important because we are witnesses for Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8). If Christians are unreliable, our witness is tarnished and we shame the glorious name of Christ. If you cannot be trusted to keep your word, you cannot be trusted to spread the Word. Are you reliable and trustworthy? Do you make promises you cannot keep or do not intend to keep? If you are not able to keep your promise, how do you respond? Do you ask for forgiveness or do you simply excuse it? Jesus calls His disciples to be honest and trustworthy and to be so reliable that our ‘yes’ means ‘yes’. Let us commit to being truthful for our own sake and for the sake of the gospel.