Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.Matthew 5:33-37
I’ve heard it said through the years that if you have to preface a statement with “I promise…” or “To be honest…”, odds are you aren’t. We use phrases like “I swear on a stack of Bibles” or “On my ancestor’s grave…”. It used to be that a person’s word was their bond, that you could take a person at their word without hesitation, because a person’s reputation rests upon their ability to keep their word without the necessity of extra persuasiveness. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case so much in the world today.
In Old Testament times, a covenant was often sealed with an oath and a sacrifice. The oath or pledge was a declaration of the responsibilities of both parties in the covenant. The sacrificial element of the covenant was representative of the punishment that would befall whoever would break the covenant. In today’s vernacular, this is similar to legal covenants in which there is a financial penalty imparted to the person that breaks the covenant.
To break a vow was the equivalent to breaking the commandment to not lie or bear false witness. To swear an oath by Heaven or by Earth is to suppose that Heaven or Earth are yours to sacrifice in the event of the breaking of the oath. In reality, Heaven is the throne of God and Earth is His footstool. While these are metaphors, the meaning to the listeners of the Sermon on the Mount and to Matthew’s audience is clear – you cannot offer up sacrifice that is acceptable that doesn’t belong to you – that would have no impact upon you directly if you break the covenant. Put simply, Jesus is telling us when you say you are going to do something, do it without the necessity of extra reassurances. Let your actions fulfill your words.
We can take this a step further when you consider the full contextual meaning of Exodus 20:7: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” In light of this context as the third of the commandments of God, this statement is in fact a declaration of the seriousness of the covenant that God was making with His people. God had just declared in verses 5-6 that He will not only visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Him, but He will show mercy and kindness to those who love Him and keep His commandments.
To seal this covenant as part of the tribe of Israel was to “take the name of the Lord your God.” To take His name in vain was an attempt to have all the benefits of the covenant (mercy) without the responsibilities of the covenant (obedience). The term “vain” is best described as “empty” or “meaningless”. This is the root word for “vanity” that is used throughout Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes to describe the emptiness and worthlessness of life under the sun, compared to the riches and glory of God Himself. The second part of Exodus 20:7 makes it clear that God will not withhold the covenant prescribed punishment from those who do not keep their word to the covenant – a covenant that demands repentance.
Now, let’s be very clear here. Eternal salvation is granted by the grace and favor of God Himself, not a result of our obedience itself. This is clearly explained by Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9 when he writes “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” But Paul doesn’t discount the value of obedience as he continues in verse 10 with “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
Our works of obedience are still important and are a demonstration of our repentance that is inspired by God’s grace. When we come to Christ and become a “fisher of men”, we make a public declaration of this covenant through the sacrament of baptism. If you have not truly surrendered your heart to the covenant relationship with God through Jesus, then your baptism was nothing more than you getting wet. Baptism does nothing mystical, it is simply a symbolic gesture of taking of the oath to follow Christ in your daily life.
If you say that you are a Christ follower, then let your life show it. Live the dictates of God’s Word. Learn the responsibilities of the covenant that you have sworn to uphold. You can trust God at His word because He has proven Himself true time and again throughout history. If you truly examine yourself, can you honestly say that God can take you at your word?