A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5: 33-37. A Christian’s righteousness: honesty in speech.

Two questions may arise in our minds at this point. First, if swearing is forbidden, why has God himself used oaths in Scripture? Why, for example, did he say to Abraham: ‘By myself I have sworn…I will indeed bless you…’? (Gn.22:16; cf. Heb.6:13-18). To this I think we must answer that the purpose of the divine oaths was not to increase his credibility (since ‘God is not man that he should lie’; Nu.23:19), but to elicit and confirm our faith. The fault which made God condescend to this human level lay not in any untrustworthiness of his but in our unbelief.

Secondly, if swearing is forbidden, is the prohibition absolute? For example, should Christians, in order to be consistent in their obedience, decline to swear an affidavit for any purpose before a Commissioner of Oaths and to give evidence on oath in a court of law? The Anabaptists took this line in the sixteenth century and most Quakers still do today. While admiring their desire not to compromise, one can still perhaps question whether their interpretation is not excessively literalistic. After all, Jesus, himself, Matthew later records, did not refuse to reply when the high priest put him on oath, saying; ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ He confessed that he was , and that later they would see him enthroned at God’s right hand. (Mt. 26:63,64). What Jesus emphasised in his teaching was that honest men do not need to resort to oaths; it was not that they should refuse to take an oath if required by some other external authority to do so.

The modern application is not far to seek, for the teaching of Jesus is timeless. Swearing (i.e. oath-taking) is really a pathetic confession of our own dishonesty. Why do we find it necessary to introduce our promises by some tremendous formula, ‘I swear by the archangel Gabriel and all the host of heaven’ or ‘I swear by the Holy Bible’? The only reason is that we know our simple word is not likely to be trusted. So we try to induce people to believe us by adding a solemn oath. Interestingly, the Essenes (a Jewish sect contemporary with Jesus) had high standards in this matter. Josephus wrote of them: ‘They are eminent for fidelity and are the ministers of peace. Whatsoever they say also is firmer than an oath. But swearing is avoided by them, and they esteem it worse than perjury, for they say that he who cannot be believed without (swearing by) God, is already condemned.’ As A.M.Hunter puts it, ‘Oaths arise because men are so often liars.’ The same is true of all forms of exaggeration, hyperbole and the use of superlatives. We are not content to say we had an enjoyable time; we have to describe it as ‘fantastic’ or ‘fabulous’ or even ‘fantabulous” or some other invention. But the more we resort to such expressions, the more we devalue human language and human promises. Christians should say what they mean and mean what they say. Our unadorned word should be enough, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And when a monosyllable will do, why waste our breath by adding to it?

Tomorrow: Matthew 5:38-48. A Christians righteousness: non-retaliation and active love.


The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.