This passage is another demonstration of the problem with the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees. As we have noticed throughout the study, the failure of the Pharisees was more than a failure to practice what they preached. The problem is that they were trying to practice the wrong preaching. On the surface, they would quote Scripture to try to give authority to their teaching. But their exegesis was actually a perversion of Scripture. Sometimes it was more subtle as in the teaching on murder, and sometimes it was quite blatant where they could break the commandment to honor one’s parents through the trickery of saying they were exempted by God by what was basically an oath to dedicate the service properly rendered to one’s parents to God. Of course, the God they were really refereeing this service to was themselves.
Jesus begins this section as He has the previous ones with “It has been said”. What follows are quotes from the Old Testament, the Scripture which Jesus upholds every jot and tittle of. The bible does indeed teach that one must not make false oaths to the Lord. Anyone who made an oath in the name of Yahweh was culpable if they did. When an oath was made to the Lord in the old Testament, all due diligence was to be made to fulfill the oath to the letter. The emphasis of these verses is that the oaths that were made were to be sincere.
The Pharisees and Scribes were terrified of the name of Yahweh. In fact, they completely avoided even saying the name. Whenever the divine YHVH appeared in the text of Scripture, they would substitute “the Name” for it or LORD (Adonai). They were even unwilling to use the word “God” much and replaced it with “heaven”. They knew rightly that the Name of the LORD was holy and not to be profaned.
When coupled with the obligations of making an oath, the idea of swearing an oath to Yahweh was unthinkable. If one failed to keep the oath, they were doubly guilty before the Judge who would condemn them for it on the Last Day. So when they made an oath, they would substitute the Temple, the gold of the Temple, heaven, earth, or even their own head for the name of Yahweh.
Because the name of Yahweh was not invoked, this also tended to downgrade the seriousness of the oath. Then they started to discuss among themselves which oaths were binding. Some thought, for example, that swearing by the Temple was a binding oath, but swearing by the gold of the Temple was not. These tricksters showed their true hearts and reveals the wickedness of their oaths. Some oaths were made by this subterfuge the equivalent of our making an oath with crossed fingers behind our back. For example, no oath made to a Gentile was binding.
Jesus confronts the teaching and practice of the Scribes and Pharisees by telling His disciples not to make oaths at all. Basically what He is saying here is that all oaths that are made are really made to the LORD. It does not matter what one substitutes for God. If one used heaven, Jesus reminds us that heaven is where God’s throne is. So swearing by heaven is to swear by God’s throne which in turn is to swear by God Himself. If one swears by the earth or “the Land (of Israel)” then one is swearing by the footstool of the throne, which is to swear by God himself. The city of Jerusalem is His city as well.
This leaves the last possibility of swearing by one’s own good name, or as it says here in Greek, by one’s own head. Surely this is not swearing by God and is OK. There are two problems to this. First of all, man is the creation of God in His Image. So even this is indirectly swearing by God. Secondly, as Jesus points out man is powerless to make on white hair black. Of course the wise guy might say that they did not have Grecian formula back in Jesus’ day. But now we can make white hairs black. This of course is to completely miss the point Jesus is making. White hair is the sign of impending death. Man is mortal and is going to die. Because of man’s mortality and limitations, he or she cannot be fully trusted to be able to fulfill one’s oaths, even if they are sincerely made. Add the fact that man is a desperate sinner with an evil and deceitful heart, oaths in a sense become the tool of Satan to trip us up.
So Jesus say then not to make any oaths at all because all oaths directly or indirectly sign God’s name to the oaths of fallible and wayward men. This should make us think carefully about making oaths ourselves. As we have noted in this study on the Sermon on the Mount, the sermon is not addressed to either the first century Jews or to the people of some future millennial kingdom, When the “blessed are those” becomes the “blessed are you” it becomes personally addressed to us as if we were following Jesus that day and came to Him on that mount. Because this sermon is recorded in Scripture, what Jesus says here is addressed to those who consider themselves to be Jesus’ disciples. This sermon ends by separating these disciples into two groups, the wise and true disciples who hear Jesus’ words and puts them into practice and the foolish and false one’s who hear them but do not practice them. In a way the Pharisees and Scribes were the fools of fools and serve as a warning to us as well.
I would think that in light of this that the Christian should be wary of making any oaths at all. Swearing does not improve one’s character. One is only as good as their word, as they say. Swearing on a stack of Bibles is really a form of deceit. It is an admission of a lack of one’s personal character which requires external authority to buttress. All oaths are ultimately made to God. So Jesus is right when He says to make our “yes” yes and out “no” no.
One can only think of the oath of the Emperor made to John Hus the reformer of safe conduct to and from Constance to make an account for his teaching to the Council that was being held by the Roman Catholic Church to establish which of the three popes actually was the Pope. The Emperor made this promise from his authority as emperor. But the Pharisees of his day said that he did not have to keep it as no oath made to a heretic was binding. So he was arrested kept under vile imprisonment, tried, and burnt at the stake. So much for oaths! Certainly it was of the evil one. That safe conduct was no better than the man behind it. But it was still signing God’s name to the evil work of man. When we consider that when the Pharisees accused Jesus of doing His works by the power of Beelzebub, in other words, ascribing to Satan the works of the Holy Spirit, Jesus warned them of the unpardonable sin. Is it any more pardonable to ascribe the evil works of Satan to God?
What the true disciple of Jesus Christ needs to learn here is like elsewhere in the sermon of our total inability to meet the righteous requirements of God. It is far more important than the teaching whether the Christian should make oaths or not. We must fly to the cross of Jesus for grace.
The entire Old Testament, every jot and tittle of it clearly demonstrates our need to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Even the so-called “ceremonial law” and its rituals clearly demonstrate this. If one looked at all of the rituals, sacrifices, and washings for ceremonial uncleanness, one would have to spend his or her entire life involved in fulfilling the obligations of the ceremonial law. One would find himself/herself perpetually washing their clothes and being unclean until sunset. When the weightier aspects of the Law are considered and the transgression and sins, one would have to be constantly sacrificing for them. Then Jesus adds to this in the Sermon on the Mount the thoughts and intents of the heart.
If we sought righteousness in this matter, we would be constantly engaged in acts of confession and satisfaction. One can only see the miserable life of the monk, Martin Luther. Here was a man in constant anguish. He would no sooner confess his sin to another monk and receive the work that he was to do to satisfy the offense than he felt the need to repent of his repentance. His life was one of constant flagellation, sleeping naked in the snow, and cleaning the stone floors of the monastery with a toothbrush. He even when at Rome ascended the steps to the Lateran on his bare knees. But even lacerated knees brought no satisfaction. It is only when God opened Luther’s eyes to the free grace and faith available through Jesus Christ that he finally came to rest.
Now when we look at our miserable failings of the righteousness of God, we too despair. We desperately want to make it right with God. We swear that we will do better, but we miserably fail to keep our oath, or as we like to call them now, resolutions. If we fall into this trap that the way to righteousness is to swear to be a better Pharisee, then we are doomed to Luther’s dark misery in the monastery. But when we say no to our own righteousness and yes to the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ, then we have peace with God. Justification as well as sanctification is the free gift of God available by faith. And even this faith is God’s gift. If you lack faith, then ask God for this gift. Ask God that you might believe the good news of Jesus Christ. If you are tormented by your false oaths and find that whatever you try, you cannot have peace with God, then ask God for the faith to believe that all that is necessary is the work and righteousness of Christ. He has once and for all performed everything necessary to reconcile us to God. No more work is necessary. Just believe that the oath has been fulfilled in the cross of Christ and proved by His resurrection on the third day and ascension to the seat of the right hand of God on the 40th is sufficient.
When the choice is to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and have to give account for one’s false oaths and other acts of sin or to come clothes in the finished work of Christ, which one do you hope in?