Ninth Lesson (Matthew 5:33–37): Christ’s Interpretation of the Third Commandment

The third commandment forbids the misuse of the name of God. “Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain.”

The teachers of Jesus’ day taught the people that it was a grievous sin to use the name of God in an unworthy manner. They had a deep respect for the names of God. To swear falsely, to call upon the name of God as a witness to the truth of the statement made. and then lie—is one of the most heinous sins imaginable. We can certainly agree with this teaching. They were warning the people against a sin which is all too common. Many people will agree that murder and theft arc sins but the dishonoring of the name of God does not seem to trouble them. The holiness and majesty of God’s name must be emphasized in every generation.

The scribes taught the people that the vows they had made before God were to be kept strictly. No one may make a vow or swear all oath to God lightly. The promises we have made to our God are to be kept. He will hold man to his word.

This emphasis by the teachers of the Jews is one we can appreciate. Yet, Jesus introduces his discussion of this commandment in the same way as the previous one. Your teachers have taught you thus, but I teach you so. At first blush this seems strange. It becomes even more strange when we hear him say that they are not to swear at all. This statement of our Lord has caused some to take the position that they will never take an oath. Yet, there are numerous instances in the Bible where an oath is taken with divine approval. Abraham took an oath. We read the same thing about Jacob and Joseph. Paul placed himself under oath several times although the form is not the usual one. Jesus often used the term “verily,” which also partakes of the nature of an oath. When he stood before the high-priest he was placed under oath. God himself swears by himself. When Jesus says, “But I say unto you, Swear not at all”, he certainly does not mean to say that the oath is always wrong.

The statement of Jesus must be understood in the light of the practice of his day. He mentions the evils of that practice in the following verses. The scribes of his day taught that it was not right to swear falsely by the name of God. One should be very careful on that score. However, to swear by something else is safe. Do not swear by God’s name but, instead, swear by heaven or by earth or by Jerusalem or by your own head. If you have sworn by one of these you will not violate the third commandment. Again we arc faced with a purely literal interpretation of the law. Jesus gives an entirely different interpretation. The law is essentially spiritual and must he interpreted spiritually. Whether you swear by God’s name or by one of the other things mentioned makes no essential difference. If you swear by he.wen, that is God’s throne; if by the earth, that is God’s footstool; if by Jerusalem, that is his city. The swearing by one’s own head is of a different nature but is also entirely out of place. Swearing by one’s own head means to swear by one’s life. I will forfeit my life if the statement I make is not true. But if you cannot even control the color of your hair, how can you then govern the things of your life?

Why should a person swear by the things mentioned by Jesus? Isn’t it clear to everyone that all such swearing would be to no avail? Why then teach men that some swearing is permissible? The reason for this is not far to seek. With the corning of sin into this world the truth was changed into a lie. Men no longer speak the truth. The only way a court of law seeks to assure itself that the witnesses brought before it arc speaking the truth is to place them under oath. Even in conversation among men one cannot be certain that the other is speaking the truth. If I cannot believe my fellowman, what assurance do I have that he believes me? I will therefore swear to the words which I speak. The Jew used the oath commonly in everyday speech. However, he did not dare use the name of God in such instances but rather swore by various things as those mentioned by Jesus.

Not only does Jesus forbid the common practice of that day whereby they violated the third commandment; he also gave them positive teaching in regard to this matter. The need which they feel of using an oath is an indictment of themselves. Why do people doubt their word? Is it not because they have given sufficient reason to believe that they are not trustworthy? Jesus now tells them, “Let your speech be yea, yea: Nay, nay.” When you speak, others should be able to depend on the truth of what you have said. When you say Yea, mean it! When you say Nay, mean it! If you will speak the truth there will be no need of bolstering every word with an oath. There is room for the oath, but it is a holy thing and must not become common. When justice depends on the truth spoken, the law may require the oath. In everyday speech your reputation for honesty and dependability should be sufficient. So must the citizens of the kingdom of heaven conduct themselves. They must love the truth and speak the truth. Their God is the God of truth. He cannot lie—they may not lie.

Jesus concludes his treatment of this commandment by saying that “whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one.” So important is it that you speak the truth that whatever is said to bolster it is of the evil one. The oath as it was commonly used among the Jews of Jesus’ day was not a gift of God. It was the work of the evil one. When the oath is used properly it honors God as the only One who is able to establish the truth among men. When it is used improperly it does not honor him at all but shows how men have become accustomed to following the father of lies.

The teaching of our Savior in regard to this commandment is of a very practical nature and speaks to the people of every age. The oath is to be used only when necessity requires it—we would almost say, only in emergencies. His people are to love the truth and they should become known as those who are dependable.

Questions For Discussion

1. Are the vows we make at baptism or upon profession of faith, of the nature of oaths?

2. Some believe, on the basis of the words of Jesus, that all oaths are wrong. To what other errors does this misinterpretation lead?

3. Is all profanity, even when God’s name is not actually used, a violation of the third commandment? If so, why?

4. Is it right for our courts to require an oath of a witness when some of our citizens do not believe in a God?

5. How can we fight against profanity?

6. Why is the Christian whose word cannot be depended on doing just as much damage to the cause of Christ as when he commits some other public sin?