Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount

March 8, 2016

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

Vows and Oaths

Following the same pattern as when He spoke about anger, lust, and divorce, Jesus went on to teach another aspect of how those in His kingdom should live. He said:

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. But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply Yes or No; anything more than this comes from evil.1

In these verses, Jesus is addressing two aspects of Old Testament teaching regarding oath taking: not swearing falsely, and performing vows made to God. While Jesus isn’t quoting directly from Scripture, He is summarizing what is stated in the following Old Testament verses:

You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.2

If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.3

If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.4

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High.5

Throughout the Old Testament there are numerous examples of people swearing oaths or taking vows, including Abraham,6 Jacob,7 Joseph,8 Joshua,9 David,10 and others.11 We also read of oaths that God made to Abraham, David, and others.

By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.12

So shall you be my people, and I will be your God, that I may confirm the oath that I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as at this day.13

The LORD swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne.14

Jewish literature differentiated between oaths and vows. A vow was a pledge someone made before God, stating that a specific item or act would be either forbidden or required of them. These were often made in times of distress, or as an expression of thanksgiving to God. Oaths were generally considered to be statements regarding truthfulness.

Authors Stassen and Gushee explain:

The Rabbis divided oaths into two kinds. Assertive oaths involved a person swearing that they have or have not done something, usually in a judicial context to substantiate or reject testimony. People confirmed their words by a sacred oath in order to communicate that their truthfulness could be counted on. Voluntary oaths, on the other hand, were broader, with a person swearing that they would or would not do something, which makes them quite similar to vows. Old Testament narratives frequently include oaths of this latter type, essentially solemn promises exchanged between people, or between a person and God. The seriousness of the promise was vouchsafed by the taking of an oath. Such oaths were seen as legally, morally and spiritually binding, and under no circumstances were they to be broken.15

As Scripture says:

If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.16

While Old Testament oaths were originally made in the name of God, over time the Jews started using circumlocutions—indirect ways of saying God’s name (Yahweh). They feared profaning His name and thus breaking the third commandment, which said: 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.17 Because of this concern, they would replace God’s name with terms like heaven, earth, Jerusalem, etc. Over time, a whole system built up around using these circumlocutions in oaths, which greatly diluted the value of oath taking. For example, one rabbi taught that if you swear by Jerusalem you are not bound by your vow; but if you swear toward Jerusalem, then you are bound by your vow.18 There were many such theories and teachings going around. Using such logic, it was possible for an individual to make an oath but then not keep it—and to justify this with the rationale that he never actually made it, as it didn’t count because of all these specific interpretations. You can see Jesus’ displeasure at this practice later in the Gospel of Matthew, when He said:

Woe to you, blind guides! You say, If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath. You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath. You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by Gods throne and by the one who sits on it.19

In addressing oaths, both in the Sermon on the Mount and then later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the deeper meaning of Scripture, and uses strong language in doing so. He starts with a statement about not taking any oath whatsoever and goes on to say that believers should not swear by heaven or earth or Jerusalem or one’s head, but that saying yes or no when giving your word should be sufficient, as you should speak the truth.

Jesus was addressing the current problems in His day of people swearing falsely, as well as not performing what they had sworn to perform. Both are a form of being untruthful. He was making the point that people are to speak the truth—by performing their oaths and not breaking them. He was also addressing the issue of people making oaths using words which gave the impression that they were swearing in God’s name, when in fact they weren’t. These oaths were cleverly worded in order to fool others into thinking that the person taking the oath was swearing to do what he said, when in fact he had no intention of fulfilling it.

Jesus made the point that if one swears “by the temple” or “by the altar” or by heaven or earth or Jerusalem, one is in fact swearing by God. Those using word games to make false oaths were still held to their pledge by God. Jesus’ reasoning was that heaven is the throne of God, earth is His footstool, Jerusalem is His city, the temple and the gold in it are His, as is the altar and everything on it, and for that matter our heads belong to God as well. God is everywhere and owns everything, so by swearing an oath, no matter what you swear by, you are making an oath before God.

Jesus was getting at the core of the issue—that those who are part of God’s kingdom should live in honesty and truthfulness. When we give our word, there’s no need to swear before God, because God is always present and witnesses every word we say and every promise we make. A believer’s “yes” should mean yes and their “no” should mean no. Later in the New Testament, Jesus’ brother James makes this point:

Above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.20

The very concept of having to take an oath or to swear that you are telling the truth implies that you might not tell the truth if you don’t take the oath, or that one only needs to tell the truth when they have sworn to do so. Jesus tells His disciples to speak the truth because they are inwardly pure in heart; not because it has been imposed on them externally by an oath.21

Keeping one’s word, being honest and truthful, is part of being a follower of Jesus. When He said, Let what you say be simply Yes or No, He’s teaching us to practice truth-telling and stating that truthfulness is a characteristic of those living under the reign of God.22

Stassen and Gushee give a good explanation for Jesus’ statement, anything more than this comes from evil (which is rendered as from the evil one in the translation the authors quote).23

Jesus closes this teaching with the stark explanation: anything more than this comes from the evil one. The resort to various vows and oaths invites a pattern of deceit and falsehood that is ultimately traceable to Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44), whose deceptive speech in the Garden began the human descent toward sin and death, initiating the pattern of untrustworthy speech that so characterized the human condition.24

Jesus’ command, do not take an oath at all, is taken literally by some Christians. The Mennonites and Hutterites, offshoots of Anabaptism, don’t take oaths. The Quakers, who are not descendants of the Anabaptists, also refuse to take oaths. Some individual Christians of other denominations also choose not to take oaths, based on Jesus’ sayings.

Other denominations consider Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount an exhortation on truth-telling rather than a ban on oath taking. They point out that when Jesus was on trial and refused to speak, the high priest put Him under oath, at which point Jesus responded. The word translated from Greek as adjure means to extract an oath or to force an oath. When put under oath, Jesus confirmed that He was the Son of God, and thus was charged with blasphemy.

The high priest stood up and said, Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you? But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus said to him, You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven. Then the high priest tore his robes and said, He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy.25

Those who believe oaths are permissible also point to the Old Testament, as mentioned earlier, and to the times the apostle Paul made oath statements,26 as well as oaths mentioned in the books of Hebrews27 and Revelation.28

In the context of its placement in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ statement against swearing oaths seems to be in the same genre as what comes before and after it. Just as with His statements on anger, lust, and divorce, Jesus’ strong statement on oaths should probably be taken as hyperbolic—with the understanding that He made such a definite point in order to drive home the underlying point regarding truthfulness in speech. It shouldn’t be necessary for those in the kingdom to take oaths, as they should be truthful when they speak.

Whether you believe that Jesus forbade oath taking or that He didn’t, the overall message of this passage remains clear—as followers of Jesus, we should speak the truth. In doing so, we emulate God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is spoken of as the God of truth29 and Jesus as the way, and the truth, and the life.30 The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, dwells within us.31 God delights in truth in the inward being,32 and we’re told that those who speak truth in their heart are those who dwell in His sanctuary and live on His holy hill.33 

As members of God’s kingdom, we have a commitment to the truth. As the apostle Paul wrote,Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth.34 The apostle Peter tells us, whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.35 We are called to live with integrity, to speak and act truthfully, and thereby reflect the God of truth.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

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Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Carson, D. A. Jesus Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

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Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

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1 Matthew 5:33–37.

2 Leviticus 19:12.

3 Numbers 30:2.

4 Deuteronomy 23:21–23.

5 Psalm 50:14.

6 Genesis 21:22–34.

7 Genesis 25:33, 28:20.

8 Genesis 50:5.

9 Joshua 6:26.

10 1 Samuel 20:17.

11 Hannah, 1 Samuel 1:11; Saul, 1 Samuel 14:24; Ezra, Ezra 10:5; Nehemiah, Nehemiah 13:25.

12 Genesis 22:16–18.

13 Jeremiah 11:4–5.

14 Psalm 132:11.

15 Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 373–74.

16 Numbers 30:2.

17 Exodus 20:7.

18 Carson, Jesus Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World, 50.

19 Matthew 23:16–22 NIV.

20 James 5:12.

21 Green and McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 578.

22 Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 377.

23 Matthew 5:37.

24 Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 377.

25 Matthew 26:62–65.

26 2 Corinthians 1:23, 11:31; Galatians 1:20; Philippians 1:8.

27 Hebrews 6:13–20.

28 Revelation 10:6.

29 Psalm 31:5; Isaiah 65:16.

30 John 14:6.

31 John 14:17, 15:26.

32 Psalm 51:6.

33 Psalm 15:1.

34 Ephesians 6:14.

35 1 Peter 3:10.