The UK Bible Students Website
Christian Biblical Studies
By C. Corer
Scripture citations are to the New International Version-UK edition of 1984.
[D]o not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ʻYesʼ be ʻYesʼ, and your ʻNoʼ, ʻNoʼ; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
— Matt. 5: 34-37 —
WE LIVE IN an age of vulgar swearing, blasphemy and ribald humour. The barrier to the use of bad abrasive and dirty speech in books, films and television programmes was breached many years ago. But gutter language still has the power to shock and is a constant disappointment to those who appreciate a more civilised discourse based on good will. Motion pictures often include profanity (and associated violence) in the script in order to win an ‘adult’ rating, the better to market the film and attract a wider audience.
Swear words are by their nature angry and demeaning, full of venom and misanthropy. They alienate the hearer from the speaker, and degrade the quality and usefulness of any conversation. Both Old and New Testaments refer to the foul-mouthed persons of the period in unflattering terms. Psa. 10: 7 records that ʻhis mouth is full of curses and lies and threats; trouble and evil are under his tongue.ʼ This text is also applied by Paul to some in his day (Rom. 3: 13, 14). The principle alluded to here is that a cursing mouth is frequently a sign of a malicious or depraved mind. Jesus addresses this type of profane speech only indirectly. He says in Matt. 15: 11 ʻwhat goes into a man's mouth does not make him “unclean”, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him “unclean”ʼ – that is, defiles or pollutes him.
In the text at the head of our article Jesus advises us to let our yes be yes, our no, no. Keep it simple, straightforward and honest. In the immediate context He has in view the taking of oaths, a practice of long pedigree in Israel. In its modern form it appears, for example, in the swearing-in ceremony of a witness in a British court of law, about telling the truth, the whole truth, and so on. In a French court, the judge will advise the juror that he or she is to ʻswear and promise to examine with the most scrupulous attention the charges that will be laid against [the defendant] . . . according to your conscience and intimate conviction, with the impartiality and firmness that befits an honest and free person, and to keep the secret of the deliberations, even after you cease to be a jurorʼ.
Oaths of one sort or another are required of those who enter public office. In Britain, members of the Civil Service and the defence forces must take an oath to be true to the Crown. In the United States, school children are exhorted to recite the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’, undertaking to be loyal to the state and affirming their intention to defend it against threat. In Canada, new citizens over the age of fourteen are required to ‘swear (or affirm) . . . true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizenʼ.
On vows, Jesus warns us not to commit ourselves to any undertaking of which we are unsure or doubtful. Do not promise to do something which you have no intention of doing, especially in religious matters (Eccles. 5: 4): ʻWhen you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling itʼ.
Every statement of intent should be treated as a promise, and no promise should be made frivolously. We are all familiar with empty declarations, devoid of real purpose. To win office, many politicians make promises which they break once they have been elected and the realities and complexities of holding office strike home. In our own daily lives, many of us feel we must reinforce a simple ‘I will do’ with affirmations, such as ‘absolutely’, ‘trust me’, ‘over my dead body’, ʻon my mother's graveʼ, and so on. But Jesus tells us that the utterance of a godly man or woman ought to be trustworthy on its face, requiring no elaboration (James 5: 12). Of course, we have all become rather sceptical and no longer will rely on a simple assertion or a handshake.
A covenant is a promise, a contractual arrangement, of a more or less formal nature. The principle of the covenant is found in law and in the Scriptures. There are two main categories.
One is the conditional, or bi-lateral covenant – a contract made between two parties, each of whom agrees to keep certain stipulations of the agreement. Such contracts invariably include sanctions – penalties for failing to keep to the terms. A commonplace example of this type of contract is a lease or rental of a flat or house, in which continuance of residence is dependent upon making regular payments. In the biblical sphere, the Jewish Law Covenant is probably the best illustration of a conditional covenant. God would do such and such for Israel, if Israel would adhere to the terms of it. Should they fail to do so, condign punishment would follow. Israel did consent to the arrangement, thus binding itself (Ex. 24: 1-8).
The other is unconditional, or uni-lateral. By its nature, the unconditional contract is a pledge made by one party to another. The first party carries all the liabilities of fulfilment; the second party is the recipient of the benefits offered, and may not be required to do much or anything at all to receive the benefits. An example of this type is a simple bequest. An example of the unconditional contract in the biblical context is that in which God vows to bless Abraham and his offspring (Gen. 12: 1-3):
1 The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. 2 ‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’
Later, in Gen. 22: 16-18, God reaffirms His promise to Abraham, prefaced with an affirmation:
16 . . . I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that . . . 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me. [emphasis added]
Because there is no authority higher than God Himself, the Unfathomable and Self-Existent One, God swears on His own nature, thus rendering the promise immutable – incapable of alteration. In so doing, the Almighty stakes His reputation on the fulfilment of this promise, and in the process demonstrates His compliance with His own law of fidelity – a divine humility. This promise, often referred to as the Oath-Bound Covenant, is the basis on which the Gospel rests, as explained by the writer of the book of Hebrews (whom we assume is the Apostle Paul). In Chapter 6 we read (with emphases added):
13 When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no-one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, 14 saying, ʻI will surely bless you and give you many descendants.ʼ 15 And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. 16 Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. 17 Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. 18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.
The Apostle further elaborates on this argument in Gal. 3:
7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ʻAll nations will be blessed through you.ʼ 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
To define a covenant between God and His people as a ʻcontractʼ may seem cold and stiff, but in the outworking of the covenant there is nothing lifeless or loveless about it. Underpinned by good will and a glorious object in view, God's covenant relationship with His people Israel – and ultimately with the whole human family – is a cast-iron guarantee to a frail and suspicious humanity that God will be faithful, no matter what. The ultimate demonstration of God's faithfulness to all of us was His sending Jesus to die for everyone. In due time the covenant-promise made to Abraham will be fulfilled in the blessing and restoration of all humanity in God's kingdom on earth.
But in the meantime, those who follow God's will and ways today will be relatively few in number. These include all those – regardless of church affiliation – who approach God through Christ as their Saviour and King, repent for their sins, and take up the cross of Christ. In consecration each of us pledges to follow the Master through thick and thin. We agree to do the will of God without question.
It is generally true that personal relationships fall apart without a serious effort by both parties at sustaining them. This is especially true in Christian marriage, itself a covenant involving both conditional and unconditional aspects (with emphasis on the latter). The implicit power of the covenant – our conscientious awareness that we are obliged to keep our part of the agreement – stimulates us to honour our pledge.
This is even more the case when we become yoke-fellows with Christ. But such a sanctified commitment is not for the faint of heart, and should not be taken up without serious thought in advance (Luke 9: 62): ʻNo-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.ʼ Fortunately for us, this self-imposed pledge of consecration is not wholly dependent on our own ability to perform it perfectly. For the obvious implication in our being justified by faith in the first place is that we are not already perfect, but fallen sinners, and we will often (usually) fail to live up to our best intentions. But God promises that we will overcome if we trust Him and apply the teachings and principles of His Word to our lives, following the example of Christ, the Forerunner.
May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
— Heb. 13: 20, 21
October 2014. All natural author rights are asserted, except that you are free to reproduce this article without express permission. Please acknowledge the source.