Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: (Matthew 5:33)
Christ's verse here breaks the two commandments down into plain speech. To forswear one's self means to tell a lie against another individual. In a society that was ruled by Law and Order (dun dun), speaking the truth in courts and councils was paramount for society to not falter. The remedy for such issue in Christ's time was to have everyone give their word on the Name of the LORD, both in open court and in their regularly dealings. This precedent was originally prescribed in Moses' time:
If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth. (Numbers 30:2)
If you are going to promise to God, you better back it up
That chapter actually goes much deeper into the precept as well so go read it here. For this lesson, though, we'll focus in on this verse as it is the one Christ references. In this verse we see that men are allowed to make oaths to God, but they are are strongly reminded that by doing so they are required to fulfill that oath. In an ideal world, this would work. However, as we've seen in this series so far, the time of Christ was not an ideal world. People from all segments of society misused this honor system to their advantage. Land was stolen by wealthier people based on vows they gave with God's backing. People were imprisoned and others executed because of false accusations. Reputations were ruined because people vowed by God that others were living lives that were unseemly when they were actually people of good character. You don't even have to go to the history books to find examples of this. They are all over the gospels and the Book of Acts.
More than just our name on the line
Christ addresses these two commandments now because, just as they ran other people's names and lives through the mud, they were also defaming the Name of God and that carried a serious weight to it. God will not hold us guiltless if we use His Name immorally and for ill-gotten gains. Even when the intention is noble, if we promise something and invoke our faith and or God, we better be able to follow through. If we don't, it's not just our reputation that is ruined. It's the opportunity to witness to that person that is ruined. It's that person's perception of Jesus that is potentially ruined.
Here's an example to illustrate:
I go to a friend and ask for a loan. I promise to pay it back at the end of the month. However, I have no way of guaranteeing I can repay it. Still, I give my word as a Christian and even quote some scriptures to show how faithful I really am to my word. The deadline comes and goes and there is no repayment. My friend, who has never been to my church, now has a negative view of me and the faith I represent.
We don't want to put God in the midst of something that can't be guaranteed.* That is why we must choose wisely when and where to invoke His Name and for what purpose we should use it. There is great power that comes with the Name of Jesus. However, if we use it callously, it will come to mean nothing to those with whom we interact.
We'll see in the coming days what we shouldn't swear by and why. Until then, God Bless and keep searching.
*invoking Christ in our prayers over people and speaking faith into people's lives is not the same as making a promise and attaching Christ to it. When we pray for others, we should always boldly invoke the name of Jesus believing that He can heal and deliver in any situation.
Chris Farris is the author of The Way, a manual detailing how to implement the Beatitudes into your life. He review events and other media and offers other insights into writing and working for the Kingdom of God.