BIBLE DIGEST - Number 60                                                                                  August 1996


by Allon Maxwell

’’Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ’Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear 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. Simply let your ’Yes' be ’Yes,' and your ’No,' ’No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. ( Matthew 5:33-37 NIV)


There are many situations in our society where the swearing of an oath can be requested to guarantee the truth of what is said, or to commit the swearer to a course of action which cannot be rescinded.

Oaths of absolute blind allegiance to the State are required of those who join the military forces. 

Oaths of commitment to uphold the Constitution and its laws are required of those who enter Parliament.

Judges, Police, members of the legal profession, occupants of many Public Offices, and members of some private organisations (eg Masonic Lodges) all swear oaths of some kind as a condition of entry to their position.

And of course we all know about that court room scene where witnesses are required to swear an oath to tell the truth.

In our land, oaths are considered so important that there are some circumstances where refusal to swear an oath, or the breaking of an oath, can attract a prison sentence.


The Law of Moses implicitly assumes that when an oath is sworn, it should be sworn only to God. For Jews this reflected the serious nature of the oath. God was to be called as witness to the performance of the oath. And it was clearly stated that to break the oath in any way, would incur the wrath of God. (Exodus 20:7 & Deut 5:11)


In the time of Jesus the oath had become a complicated business.

It was of course well understood by the Jews that to break an oath to God was simply not done. 

The consequences of breaking an oath, even unwittingly, were just too fearful to be contemplated.

So they developed a system of "lesser oaths", not made to God.

If such a lesser oath was broken, they thought that it would not be such a serious matter, and they would not incur the same wrath as that resulting from breaking an oath to God Himself.

Instead of swearing "by God", they would swear by "heaven", or by "the earth", or by "Jerusalem", or by "their head"! This system of course, made a mockery of the whole reason for requiring oaths.

The making of an oath to God , had been designed to ensure that fear of retribution from God would ensure the reliability of the oath. Now men were making oaths which removed that fear of judgement. And of course they therefore brought the whole credibility of the oath into question. Just how reliable could such an oath be? How could a man trust an oath which was made in a way which deliberately left room for perjury without fear of penalty from God?

Of course, it then came down to the reputation of the man making the oath. Was his reputation for honesty such that he could he be trusted after all? Or did his reputation indicate caution about anything and everything he said!


Jesus took the question completely out of the realm of whether an oath of any kind, could be trusted. (whether to God or not).

In any case, he said, the lesser oaths they had invented did NOT remove them from God's interest in the oath! 

To swear by "heaven" or "Jerusalem" was exactly the same as swearing by the One who lived there!!

The very need for any oath assumes that truth can not be guaranteed without it, and that lies can be told, expected and tolerated if there is no oath! 

Such a system ignores the fact that lies are equally as offensive to God, with or without an oath!

For Jesus the mere assumption that a disciple of his might tell a lie if not bound by an oath is an evil in its own right.

And, Jesus says, that evil has its origin in the evil one. (who is the father of lies!) (John 8:44)

Sons of God tell the truth without an oath! they tell the truth because :-

- They are commanded by God to tell the truth.

- They believe it is right to tell the truth.

- They want to tell the truth (even to their own hurt Psalm 15:4)

- It is as much a part of their reborn nature as it is of God's nature.

If a man is an honest man, no lies will be told and an oath is completely unnecessary.

For all of these reasons Jesus COMMANDED His disciples NOT TO SWEAR OATHS AT ALL!

The Christian must make no concession at all to the proposition that he can only be guaranteed to tell the truth when bound by oath!

He is to stand by his reputation as a son of God. He means exactly what he says ...... "yes" when he says "yes" ...... and "no" when he says "no".


James repeats the words of Jesus. (the brother of Jesus)

"Above all, my brothers, do not swear - not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your ’’Yes” be yes, and your ’’No,” no, or you will be condemned." (James 5:12 NIV)


In Australia, in many situations, (but not all) it is not required to swear an oath. The law makes provision for those who for reasons of conscience, do not wish to swear an oath to God. Instead they are permitted to make an "affirmation", which is a simple declaration that they will tell the truth. However in the eyes of the law such affirmations are as legally binding as any oath ...... and breaches of an affirmation are subject to the same penalty as for breaches of an oath.

And of course, for the Christian who takes advantage of this concession, his affirmation is more binding before God, than the oaths sworn by others. 

The Christian is bound by what he is as a child of God.

Even if there is a suggestion that he might be less reliable if he is not under oath, the Christian obeys Jesus regardless of the consequences.

In those cases where there might be a judicial penalty incurred for refusal to swear an oath (eg refusal to make an oath of allegiance for induction into the military) the Christian obeys Jesus commits his cause to God, and carries his cross!


We must not allow any Old Testament "Case History" to negate the words of Jesus to his disciples. 

A Christian is bound by what Jesus says ....... not by what Moses says. 

There is a reference (in Acts 18:18) which is often quoted by some who want to set aside the words of Jesus, to make it obligatory for Christians to swear oaths. That obligation is even built into the creeds of some Churches! 

However, whatever the nature of Paul's "vow", it must not be used to justify disobedience on our part , to the very plain words of Jesus :-

"I tell you, Do not swear at all."