Since we rarely make vows and oaths today, there doesn’t seem to be much to learn from Matthew 5:33-37. However, Jesus is speaking to a deeper issue than telling the truth or meaning what we say. He’s dealing with violating the 3rd commandment (taking the Lord’s name in vain).
Matthew 5:17-20 is the introduction to the second major section of this sermon. Jesus wants his disciples to avoid the kind of law keeping that the Pharisees practice: holding to the letter of the law while avoiding its genuine demands. He gives examples to explain how our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.
33“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” – Matthew 5:33-37
In Matthew 5:33, Jesus combines language from several Old Testament passages.
- The first phrase (“you shall not make false vows”) comes most directly from Leviticus 19:12: “You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the LORD.“
- The second phrase (“you shall fulfill your vows to the Lord”) is more literally ‘you shall pay back your vows to the Lord.’
- This language seems most directly related to Psalm 50:14: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving And pay your vows to the Most High; (NASB).”
- OR this phrase could be loosely tied to Numbers 30:2: “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (NASB);
- OR Deuteronomy 23:21-23: “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you. However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you. You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, what you have promised. (NASB)“
- OR Ecclesiastes 5:4-5: “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.“
To understand this passage, we need to understand:
- the practice of vows described in the Old Testament;
- how the Pharisees misused these passages; and
- what Jesus wants us to take away from his words.
Vows in the Old Testament
The Old Testament describes 3 types of vows. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul makes the same kind of vows. Since Paul accurately understood the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think Jesus intends to forbid all vows.
First, I can vow directly to God that I will make a of temple offering should He help me in my distress or in grateful response for something God has done. Examples:
- Genesis 28:18-22: Jacob asks God for protection on his journey. Jacob promises to perform various acts of religious devotion if God keeps him safe.
- Psalm 66:13-15: The Psalmist makes offerings in the temple as the payment of vows he made when he was in distress.
- The Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:1-21) was taken voluntarily by those who wanted to consecrate themselves to the Lord, typically in thanksgiving for something God had done.
- Paul: Acts 18:18; Acts 21:22-24.
Second, I can vow that my testimony is true. I am not lying as God is my witness. Examples:
- 1Samuel 20:3: David vows truly as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, Saul is trying to kill me.
- Paul: Galatians 1:20; 2Corinthians 1:23;
Third, one person can make a vow to another about how he/she will act in the future, calling on God to witness and judge between them. Examples:
- 1Samuel 19:6: Saul vows to Jonathan as the Lord lives David will not be put to death. (Saul breaks this vow.)
- 1Sameul 20:12: Jonathan “swears to his own hurt” asking God to do him harm should he break his promise to David.
- 1Samuel 24:20-22: Saul makes David vow not to cut off Saul’s offspring.
- Genesis 24:1-4: Abraham makes his servant swear by the Lord that he will find Isaac a wife from among his relatives.
- Genesis 22:15-18: God swears by Himself that He will keep His promise to Abraham.
- Hebrews 6:14-18 explains that people swear by God because they need to swear by something greater than themselves. God swears by Himself because there is no one greater.
Vows among the Pharisees
16“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it”. – Matthew 23:16-22
- Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for the way they handle promissory vows.
- When one person makes a promise about his future actions, but then breaks his word, the scribes ruled that if he only swore by the temple, not the gold of the temple, he’s still blameless under the law. Similarly, if he swore by the altar, he’s blameless under the law. But if he swore by the offering on that altar than he is guilty of law-breaking, etc.
- An entire book of the Mishnah (teachings of the Pharisees) is devoted to this topic of what is and is not binding when you swear by it.
What’s the point?
- Like the other examples we’ve seen, Jesus is primarily concerned with how we deal with God. The way we treat other people is important in this context, because the way we treat other people reflects what we think God requires of us.
- All Jesus’ examples in this section involve 3 people: you listeners; the person you treated badly; and God.
- In a vow, I appeal to someone greater than myself (to God to judge me) because you don’t find me trustworthy.
- If I’m seeking my selfish gain, I might trick you and only swear by heaven (not the Lord’s name) in order to convince you to trust me. Then I will have a loophole so I can break my word.
- This is a classic violation of the 3rd commandment.
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” – Exodus 20:7
- To take God’s name in vain is to use God’s name in a way that sounds like we mean it, but in fact we don’t.
- I am using the name of God to accomplish my own selfish and worldly purposes; I don’t really care what God thinks.
You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. – Leviticus 19:12
- When you break your vow sworn before God, you profane His name. You are treating God who is holy and above all as if He were something common, ordinary, and not to be reckoned with.
- Leviticus 19:12 and Exodus 20:7 refer to the same idea: using God’s name in a way that suggests you take Him seriously when in fact you are worldly and unbelieving.
- The Pharisees were ignoring that fundamental truth.
Jesus is charging the Pharisees with taking the name of the Lord in vain, even though they didn’t actually say the name of the Lord. Their goals are worldly and selfish. They want to convince someone else to do something for them. They trivialize the very serious act of making a vow by using religious sounding vows to accomplish their own worldly purposes.
You’ve heard that your forefathers were told not to make false vows and to fulfill vows to the Lord. But I say to you don’t be like the Pharisees who swear by heaven or earth or Jerusalem as if they are promising before God to keep the vow, but then break it. They pretend to take God seriously, but in fact they are selfish and worldly. It’s better not to make any vow at all than to make a vow you intend to break. God sees your heart and knows your intentions regardless of whether you swear by the temple or by His name. Instead, only make promises you intend to keep, making a promise you intend to break is evil.