Let Your Yes Be Yes And No Be No



‘Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath 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. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.’ Matthew 5:33-37

After finishing His thoughts on the subject of divorce and remarriage, our Lord stressed the importance of being people of our word. Jesus begins these comments by referencing Leviticus 19:12 and Deuteronomy 23:21-23.

In this passage, to ‘swear’ is to utter an oath, it is to appeal to a higher being or thing in order to attest to the truthfulness of our words. Under the Old Law, making oaths was acceptable, though swearing falsely was never viewed favourably.

Over the centuries, the Jewish people had developed the idea that an oath wasn’t binding unless the name of God appeared in it. They would therefore use various oaths to suit their purpose of adding weight to their statements or promises, but they wouldn’t feel obligated to keep such an oath if they had not explicitly sworn to God, Exodus 20:7.

The Jews had other strange rules regarding which oaths were binding and which ones weren’t, Matthew 23:16-22.

When Jesus said in ‘do not swear at all’, His meaning was this: do not swear at all in the manner I am about to illustrate. Do not make oaths that you don’t intend to keep, Numbers 30:2.

Do not think that we can word a promise in a special way and in so doing make it void or meaningless. A false oath is always false, whether it is explicitly made in the name of Deity or not.

To swear by ‘heaven’ or ‘the earth’ or by ‘Jerusalem’, in an effort to make an oath that didn’t have to be kept was wrong since all of the statements ultimately refer back to God anyway.

Heaven is ‘God’s throne’, Isaiah 66:1-2, the earth is ‘His footstool’, Acts 7:49, and Jerusalem is ‘the city of the great King’, Psalm 48:2.

It didn’t really matter if God’s Name was explicitly mentioned! A person’s word was to be their bond! Those who thought they could speak oaths in a certain way and not be required to fulfil them were only fooling themselves, much like some today who make an agreement but later deny the validity of such because they had their ‘fingers crossed’, or some other such childish nonsense.

Jesus’ example in Matthew 5:36 is distinct from the previous illustrations He has offered. ‘And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.’

We can indeed change our hair colour today, but this isn’t our Lord’s point. He seems to be declaring that it isn’t wise to swear by our own life since we have no inherent control over such, James 5:12.

Jesus’ concluding point is a powerful one. Instead of making oaths, we would be better off simply living in such a way that whatever we state will be accepted as the truth.

Our character and life should confirm the truthfulness of our words so that no oath is necessary. A righteous person should be content making a sincere affirmation or denial of any statement, and others should be satisfied to take such a statement at face value.

Many who study this passage naturally reflect upon certain oaths that are commonly made today, and they wonder, is it wrong to affirm a judicial oath, for example, or exchange marital vows? I believe the answer is ‘no’. Allow me to explain why.

It is common in wedding ceremonies for couples to pledge their love and faithfulness to each other, but these vows simply explain the extent of the ‘yes, I will be your husband or wife’ affirmation. Marriage vows are promises that don’t require us to swear or make an oath upon a higher being or thing.

In a judicial setting, however, there are times when one is required to swear or make an oath. Although such should not be necessary for a Christian, it appears that complying with such isn’t wrong. Jesus, Himself answered under oath before the Sanhedrin, Matthew 26:63-64.

Were His words any more truthful under oath? Of course not, but Jesus didn’t resist the authority of the high priest in this regard. Thus, it would be difficult to conclude that we should resist the authority of our government in judicial proceedings.

Paul also made oaths on certain occasions. They seem to centre around the notion that God was a witness to the truthfulness of the apostle’s statements, Romans 1:9 / 2 Corinthians 1:23. Therefore, it would seem to be acceptable for one to use such language today for emphasis.

The examples of Jesus and Paul strongly indicate that the words of the Lord in Matthew 5:33-37 should not be interpreted in an absolute sense. The thrust of the teaching is to correct the abuses of oaths common among men, Matthew 23:16-22, not to forbid every type of oath.

Ultimately, God wants us to be a person of our word. Our word should be our bond. We shouldn’t feel a need to voluntarily make an oath. We shouldn’t feel a need to say, ‘I promise’. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ought to be sufficient, James 5:12.

When we affirm that we will do something, do it! Stick by our word regardless of the cost to ourselves, Psalm 15:4. The only exception to this would be if our words would end up forcing us to commit sin. In that case, we should break our word and seek forgiveness for making such a foolish promise, to begin with.

Furthermore, when we don’t want to do something, or simply cannot then declare such. Don’t say ‘maybe’  when we know the answer is ‘no’.

Don’t say ‘yes’ when we don’t mean it. When we give our word, regardless of the situation, people are listening and watch to see if we mean what we say.

It is difficult to trust a person when their words don’t harmonise with their actions. It is better to say nothing than to lie, Matthew 12:36-37, but the best course of action by far is to speak the truth plainly and be a man or woman of our word.