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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:Learning How to Swear an Oath
Text:LD 37 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic: 3rd Commandment (God's name)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 24:1,2                                                                                            

Hy 1

Reading – Matthew 5:33-37; Matthew 23:1-22

Ps 15:1,2,3

Sermon – Lord’s Day 37

Ps 56:4,5

Hy 84:1,2

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved, the name of our God is very great! The Almighty God has ‘made a name for himself,’ and He’s done that by being faithful to his promises, showing his power, and having mercy on sinners for Jesus’s sake. So we can take God’s name on our lips with a sure confidence: confessing God’s name, calling on him in prayer, and praising him with our words and works.

Yet this is also true: because God’s name is so great, we should speak it with caution, with a measure of ‘fear and trembling.’ For every time that God’s name is spoken, He pays attention. If I can put it this way, God’s ‘ears perk up,’ for He wants to see how his name is being used. Will He be lifted up in our conversations and our worship? Or will we dishonour his name?

God alone “knows the heart” (Q&A 102). Which means that whenever we take his name on our lips, we’re inviting God’s scrutiny, his examination. Whenever we use his name, we’re asking the LORD to test the truth and sincerity of what we say.

And this is why God has also given us the oath. In God’s name, we can swear an oath, and we can make a vow—promising to do something in the sight and the strength of the Lord. It’s a solemn and serious thing, yet it’s another way that God can receives the honour. We consider this in Lord’s Day 37 about the third commandment,

Jesus teaches about swearing an oath in God’s Name:

  1. the power of the oath
  2. the abuse of the oath
  3. the spirit of the oath


1) the power of the oath: We read from the Sermon on the Mount. One of the highlights of these chapters is when Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (6:9). That’s the beautiful address of the Lord’s prayer, together with the first petition: asking for God’s glory to be shown, for his name be lifted up in all the earth. It’s a reminder too, how the first petition and the third commandment are so tightly coupled together.

They’re also joined closely in our reading from chapter 5. For there Jesus discusses God’s Name in relation to making an oath: “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord’” (5:33). Jesus follows this pattern of teaching for a good portion of the Sermon on the Mount. He first acknowledges what the Old Testament teaches on a topic, whether murder, or adultery, or divorce. Each time, his refrain goes like this: “You have heard that it was said…”

Here too, Jesus refers back to what the Scriptures say about oaths and the importance of keeping them. For instance, there was the law in Numbers 30:2, “When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” Everyone listening to Jesus knew that an oath was a serious thing, that it was something that had to be kept! No controversy there.

And the Catechism agrees. In the previous Lord’s Day, it told us that in the third commandment God forbids a number of things. One forbidden thing is “perjury” (Q&A 99). If you’ve ever watched a courtroom drama on TV, you’ll know that perjury is lying while under oath, deliberately giving false evidence in a court of law. Something else forbidden, the Catechism says, is “unnecessary oaths” (Q&A 99), making an oath without needing to.

So there’s no shortage of ways that oaths can be abused. And in light of all this potential for oath-abuse, should this still be something we do? It’s probably true that an oath isn’t something we think about very much. An oath is calling on God’s Name with a very special purpose. Because with an oath we pray that He who is righteous and holy, all-knowing and all-powerful—that this heavenly God will hear our words. And with an oath we are effectively saying: “May God hold me to my word! May God help me be faithful! And may God judge me if I fail to do what I have promised!”

Sounds pretty serious. So who would ever do this? Well, the Catechism points out that oaths were “rightly used by saints in the Old and New Testament” (Q&A 101). Think about how Abraham’s servant made an oath to his master. Eliezer promised in God’s Name that he would not seek a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanite peoples (Gen 24:2). Or there’s the example of how Paul puts himself under oath in 2 Corinthians 1:23, “I call God as my witness that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth.” Paul vowed before the LORD that his change of plans had only been for the Corinthians’ benefit.

There was power in these oaths. As we said, they obligated a person to be faithful and honest, no matter what. No matter how difficult the task promised, not matter how unbelievable the claim made, the speaker said what he meant, and meant what he said—100%. Because he had sworn it in the holy Name of God!

The way of making an oath has changed a little from Bible times. But the substance is still the same. We still call upon God, “who alone knows the heart, to bear witness to the truth, and to punish me if I swear falsely” (Q&A 102).

And today not only Christians, but also unbelievers, will swear oaths from time to time. Though our society rejects God’s authority in many ways, people still make oaths in his name. The Catechism says that these are done “to maintain and promote fidelity and truth” (Q&A 101). For example, in a court of law, people swear an oath like this: “I swear by Almighty God that I will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” When new officers join the police, they too, swear an oath of faithfulness. Same for those who join the armed forces.

We can be thankful that oaths are still used. There is much confusion and chaos in this sinful world. There’s much uncertainty, and part of it is because people sometimes feel they can’t even trust their fellow citizens or their government. Telling the truth and being faithful aren’t automatic. In such a society, an oath can help confirm the truthfulness of those who speak. It’s no guarantee, of course, but it does help.

So we can say that the oath is a gift of God to make our society more stable. It’s good to know that, generally, those who testify in court will speak in all honesty, that the truth is still important. It’s good to know that those in positions of power have sworn to take their position very seriously. An oath is a reminder that there’s Someone above, that there’s Someone to whom all people must be responsible.


2) the abuse of the oath: From Jesus’s point of view, the law about oaths was clear—just look at the Old Testament. Yet people had muddied the waters. So in his teaching, Jesus distills the essence of the third commandment. What is this commandment really all about? How to use God’s name properly?

In this connection, two bad practices had developed. The first abuse of the oath was making one where no oath was necessary or proper. It had become all too common for a person to introduce all kinds of statements with an oath. Someone might shout at his next-door neighbor, “By my very life, I wish you’d keep the noise down in the middle of the night!” Or a shopkeeper would say to his customer, “By the hairs of my head, these are the finest olive oil that money can buy.” For many, swearing an oath had just become a way of speaking.

And isn’t that still how some people use God’s Name? We all know how ordinary it has become to used God’s name when a person is really serious, really surprised, or really excited. Using God’s Name has simply become a way to emphasize your point.

There’s a warning here for us too. For also in the church, people can use God’s name in a thoughtless way. In a discussion at Bible Study or at school, we might speak about God with not much thought for his heavenly majesty. Or in prayer, we might speak to the LORD quite casually. We come to him to get what we want, then we leave his presence with hardly any recognition of his glory, hardly pausing to praise him.

Or think about our songs of worship in church. When we sing, we say God’s Name probably every other line. We sing about God’s heavenly glory, his mighty works on earth, his character, his promises. Yet isn’t it true that there are times when we hardly pay attention to the words we’re singing? God’s holy Name is on our lips, but we’re busy looking around. Or maybe we’re wondering why we have to sing so many verses, or we’re on autopilot and just mouthing the words. Do you agree that this is using God’s name rightly, still giving the LORD honour with our worship? I don’t think it is.

Coming back to oaths, one abuse was being thoughtless about them. A second abuse in Jesus’s time was being evasive or slippery with them. The teachers of the law had come up with two classes of oaths. There were those that were absolutely binding, and those not binding. Of course, as the law said, any oath made in God’s name was totally obligatory—you had to keep it. You simply wouldn’t dare to break an oath made in the holy name. Again, no controversy there.

But, the rabbis said, the situation changed as soon as you withheld God’s name from an oath. Then you weren’t bound by it absolutely. You could swear by heaven, you could swear by the earth, by Jerusalem, or by your head. And if you did, then you had some leeway to break your oath—if you really needed to!

The idea of these so-called oaths was that you could still make your claims more believable. You could say to your customer with some emphasis, “By the temple in Jerusalem, I guarantee that these sandals will last you at least three years.” The temple was important, of course, God’s dwelling-place. But if God’s actual name was used in your claim, then He was immediately a partner in the transaction—He’d hold you to it. So leaving God out and swearing by the temple gave you some wiggle-room.

Among the Pharisees, this evasion had become an art form. We see this in Matthew 23. The scribes and teachers even made distinctions between swearing by the temple, and swearing by the temple’s gold. They made a distinction between swearing by the altar, and swearing by the gift on the altar! And what was the result of all this abuse of the oath? The quality of truth had been changed! Truth was watered down. Among God’s people, there was one kind of truth for one situation, another kind of truth for another.

What’s more, the name of God had almost become a power that you could exploit. Putting ‘God’ into your conversation gave those words a new importance and emphasis. But leave God out, and those words are more flexible. They could be lies, half-truths, completely insincere.

Probably such abuses of God’s name aren’t that common among us. We still hear Christians say, “I swear that such-and-such is true,” but not very often. Or maybe someone will say, “I swear on a stack of Bibles!” But not often. All the same, there’s a warning for us. In our speaking, we should never diminish the quality of truth, depending on where we are or who we’re talking with, or what the benefit is for us.

For instance, we might like to replace a straight “yes” or a “no” with a “maybe” or a “perhaps” or a “we’ll see.” It’s true, there are times when we don’t know. But other times, we might use words that are vague in order to mislead. We don’t want to let on how we’re doing. We don’t want to admit that we’ve done wrong. So we fudge things a bit with our words.

Maybe you give vague and vanilla answers at a homevisit, just so your elders don’t get suspicious. Maybe a young person uses evasive language to his parents, to conceal what he was doing while they were away for the weekend. A wife might use shifty words to keep her husband at a distance.

Yet this is not God’s will for how we treat one another, or for how use our words. Always speaking half-truths will damage the trust between parents and children. Overly guarded answers can lead to tension between husband and wife. In the church, insincere answers can result in sins being covered up for years, never being dealt with—not until it’s almost too late.

The truth is a precious and powerful thing. And conversely, lies can be deadly. No wonder Jesus is so emphatic: “But I tell you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King” (Matt 5:34-35). See what He does: He brings these objects back to what they really are in the sight of God. Heaven, earth, Jerusalem—they’re all parts of God’s world. They’re things that belong to the LORD, part of the creation that God daily watches and governs. If you swear by them, you swear by God!

Jesus is saying, ‘You can’t keep God out of any transaction, even if that would be convenient for you. You can’t keep God out of any relationship because He is interested in them all. There’s not one kind of language for the church and homevisits, and another kind of language for the jobsite, and another for around the dinner table. There’s not one kind of honesty with the LORD, and another for the government, and everyone else. God doesn’t need to be invited into these different areas of your life—because He is everywhere. Whenever you open your mouth, whether you swear an oath or not, God isn’t far away. He’s very near.’

This what it says in Proverbs 15:21, “The eyes of the LORD are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.” We can rephrase that to say, ‘The ears of the LORD are everywhere, listening in on the wicked and the good.’ Every word that we say is spoken in God’s hearing. By any of your words, you show what you think about God’s Name!

When we start playing with the truth, we’re on dangerous ground. Christ said this: “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matt 5:37). Not meaning what you say comes from the evil one. Only sharing a portion of the truth to protect yourself, or to make someone else look bad, comes from the evil one. Satan began his work on earth long ago by lying. And deception is still his trademark. So we must not do things in Satan’s way, speaking out of a spirit of mistrust or dishonesty.

Thankfully, God’s Name is too glorious to be discredited by Satan. It’s too radiant to be stained by any of our abuse or lying. God has told us his name, so that we might speak it for his glory, and live for his praise in all that we do!


3) the spirit of the oath: Because He’s our faithful Teacher, Jesus doesn’t want simply to point out the various evils about oaths, and then leave us to muddle through. He shows the better way to live. Again: “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’ (Matt 5:37). What does that mean? Well, you and I might not take an oath very often. But God expects us to be truthful in all our speaking, as He is truthful. He expects us to be always faithful, as He is faithful.

For example, those here who are married once made solemn promises in the presence of God and his people. And the things that we said two years ago, or ten years ago, or even fifty years ago were more than nice-sounding words. Those were vows. And vows not simply to one another, but they were vows in the name of the Lord. We promised to love and to lead, to support and to sustain, to be faithful in good days and bad. If you said that, then God calls you to fulfill that: “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes.’”

Also the office bearers have made vows in God’s name. Brothers have vowed to be dedicated to work for the good of the people Jesus bought with his blood. We said, “I promise to faithfully discharge the duties of my office and to adorn the doctrine of God with a godly life.” That was our promise, so this must be our ongoing purpose.

Parents too, have made vows. We said on the day our child was presented for baptism, “I promise to instruct this child in God’s Word as soon as she is able to understand, and to have her instructed therein to the utmost of my power.” This is a promise made not to the minister, nor to your child, nor to the church—but a promise to God the Father, who entrusted one of his children to you. It’s a promise to nurture in your child a love for Jesus Christ. If you said that, be encouraged that God calls you to fulfill your vows: “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes.’”

At our profession of faith too, we made a vow in the name of God. What did we say? “I promise to steadfastly continue in this doctrine in life and death.” You promised that—so how are you fulfilling this vow? Are you actively continuing in the doctrine of God’s Word? Are you seeking to grow in your knowledge of God and his mighty works?

We said too, that “I desire to serve God according to his Word, to forsake the world, and to crucify my old nature.” Did you mean that? Did you mean that then, and do you still mean that now? Are you forsaking the world, as you promised? Are you striving to serve Christ and submit to him with your whole heart?

At our profession of faith, we said this, “I resolve to commit my whole life to the Lord’s service as a living member of his church.” Powerful words, and challenging. And words that can’t be ignored, for we said them in the sight of God! Thinking about that vow should cause us to reflect on how our life is dedicated to the Lord and his church. Are you a living and active member of this congregation, as you said that you would be? What does that look like for you, committing your life to the Lord and his people?

In short, the spirit of the oath means we must be faithful in all our conduct. Not just in marriage, or in the church, or in family life, but elsewhere too. If we’ve made a commitment in business, or in friendship, or in society, then God calls us to uphold it. He calls us to be faithful and dependable in all our conduct. Any people who know us should have no need to doubt what we say, because we hallow God’s name above all.

Staying faithful like this can be hard. Sometimes we want to give up on our commitments. We can wonder what is the point, especially when a task becomes too difficult, or when a relationship is so broken. Why should I keep going with this? And then our hearts can be strengthened by remembering the vow that we made. We say, ‘This is something that I have promised to do, in God’s name. So I will stay committed, I will stay true. I will do what is my duty to do.’ Because God is gracious and strong to help you. And He will bless you when you obey, as He always does.’

Knowing God’s name and using God’s name puts us constantly before God’s throne. The LORD keeps his every promise—may we do the same! God means his every word—may we mean it too! Such a life of faithfulness and truth will bring honour to God’s name, just as He so richly deserves.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2022, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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