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Laws regarding vows and swearing

Apr 18, 2012

By now it should be plain how often James cited the Gospel of Matthew in his epistle. He did so again in James 5:12,

(12) But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no; so that you may not fall under judgment.

This is a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount. Matt. 5:33-37 says,

(33) Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, "You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord." (34) But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, (35) or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. (36) Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. (37) But let your statement be, "Yes, yes" or "No, no"; and anything beyond these is of evil.

Jewish tradition and practice was something that both Jesus and James faced every day in Jerusalem. According to the Talmudic tract Shevuoth, there were four types of oaths:

1. A promissory oath, where someone might swear either to do something or NOT to do something.

2. A vain or rash oath, where someone might swear to do the impossible; or swear that an impossible event happened; or swear that he would abstain from doing what God had commanded.

3. An oath concerning something left in trust. If the property is lost or stolen while in his care, he was to take an oath that he did not steal, kill, or destroy it himself (Ex. 22:11; Lev. 6:1-7).

4. A testimonial oath before a judge or magistrate (Num. 5:21).

Lightfoot (1602-1675) tells us that most Jewish sects expressed caution in regard to vain oaths. But of some of these, he writes:

"Yet they concluded vain oaths in so narrow a circle, that a man might swear a hundred thousand times, and yet not come within the limits of the caution concerning vain swearing." [Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. II, p. 127]

He informs us further that they often swore by heaven or earth, saying, "If any adjure another by heaven or earth, he is not guilty."

Again, they often swore by the Temple. Lightfoot writes:

"Bava Ben Buta swore by the Temple in the end of the tractCherithuth, and Rabban Simeon Ben Gamaliel in the beginning; 'And so was the custom in Israel'. Note this, 'so was the custom'." [Vol. II, p. 128]

They also often swore by Jerusalem and even by their own heads, for men would require their neighbors to swear to the truth of a statement or promise, saying, "Swear to me by the life of thy head."

Jesus contradicted all of these traditions, telling the people, "Make no oath at all, either by heaven... or by the earth... or by Jerusalem." Lightfoot himself comments on this, saying,

"The sense of these words goes in the middle way, between the Jew, who allowed some place for an arbitrary oath; and the Anabaptist, who allows none for a necessary one." [Vol. II, p. 128, 129]

In other words, there are some Christians who took Jesus' words too far, forbidding all oaths--even those that were commanded in the law. Since Jesus said nothing to abrogate the law, but instead corrected men's misconceptions of it, it is apparent that Jesus did not forbid men to swear oaths when the law prescribed it. The Apostle Paul himself was led by the Spirit to make a vow (Acts 18:18).

Jesus forbade oaths in one's daily routine, for if a man had a reputation of keeping his word, no such swearing was necessary. And if a man were untrustworthy, no amount of swearing would hold him to his word if were profitable for him to violate his oath.

The law did not prescribe any particular judgment for breaking one's word or for lying, unless, of course, it caused measurable damage to someone else. However, the law might still prosecute a man with a beating according to Deut. 25:1-3. The seriousness of the case would determine the severity of the beating, as determined by the judges.

Neither did Jesus prescribe any particular judgment in His discourse, saying only that anything beyond a simple yes or no "is of evil." James interprets this to mean, "so that you may not fall under judgment." Most likely, James was speaking of direct divine judgment, rather than a beating at the command of earthly judges.

(13) Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray...

Did James suddenly start a new topic? It is more likely that this was a continuation of the previous topic. Is anyone among you suffering under divine judgment for arbitrary oaths? Let him pray for mercy and confess his sin, so that he might be healed.

This appears to lead James into his short discussion on prayer for healing. Sickness was often considered to be on account of divine judgment. There were many causes, of course, the greatest being the sin of Adam, compounded in subsequent generations. Most disease and weakness today has its roots in the past, whether in the physical or the spiritual realm.

Exodus 15:26 says,

(26) And He said, "If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer."

On the contrary, if we violate His law and refuse to take heed to His voice, Deut. 28:60 says,

(60) And He will bring back on you all the diseases of Egypt of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you. (61) Also every sickness and every plague which, not written in the book of this law, the Lord will bring on you until you are destroyed.

America is the most medicated nation in history, and one of the unhealthiest. Disease is treated and managed but not cured, giving us longer life but a poor quality of life. There is little doubt that we are suffering from the curse of the law, as God revealed in Deut. 28.

There is a collective judgment on the nation as well as individual judgment. It is not my purpose here to give a dissertation on the topic of divine healing, for many have done this already. The fact that Jesus took our diseases upon Himself at the cross is quite well known (Matt. 8:17). The appropriation of His provision for healing is something that many still wrestle with.

Why does God heal some instantly, and others over a longer period of time--or not at all? I do not have the answer to this, but I suspect it has to do with a collective judgment of God for national rejection of the law of God. We are not mere individuals in our relationship with God. We are also part of a national body of people, and as such, we are often affected by what others do.

James' solution is, "Let him pray." We must believe that there is a solution to every problem, and as James wrote in 1:5, "if any man lacks wisdom, let him ask of God." Jesus healed everyone who came to Him for healing, because He was not lacking in wisdom in dealing with every problem. I do not think that our problem is a lack of spiritual power or authority, for Jesus gave us the authority to do as He did (Matt. 10:8). We lack wisdom to implement that authority.

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Category: God's Law

Dr. Stephen Jones

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