Open Matthew 5:33-37.
You know those “aha” moments where you finally catch on to what someone was talking about? Something they took for granted finally clicks into place for you. There’s one of those embedded in what Jesus said about avoiding oaths. Here’s a chance to see how he understood the kingdom.
He’s talking about oaths, and as a young Christian I took him very literally. I imagined being asked to take an oath in court. I would stand before the judge and say, “Your honour, I cannot make an oath on a book that prohibits me from making oaths.” Then I’d open the book and dramatically read Jesus’ words.
When I was finally called before the court (as a witness, you understand), I didn’t say that. By then I’d realized that Jesus was simply asking his people to live such genuine lives that we don’t need oaths before people will believe us. That doesn’t apply in a legal setting where people don’t know us.
Jesus wants to lead a community where people are real with each other, even if it costs us. If No means no and Yes means yes, oaths are superfluous. The very existence of oaths stands as testimony that humans go back on our word.
But the way Jesus frames this request gives a fascinating insight into how he understood the kingdom of God:
Matthew 5:34–36 (ESV)
34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
Jesus pictures the kingdom of God operating at several levels:
- Heaven is God’s realm, his residence. Heaven is God’s throne — the seat of power from which he governs everything. Unlike us, Jesus conceives of God primarily as a king.
- Earth was designed to be governed by heaven (i.e. by God). So if heaven is God’s throne (the seat of his government), then the earth is the lowest extremity under his government (i.e. the footstool of the throne). The trouble is that earth has rebelled against God’s reign. We feel disconnected from his wise government, under the influence of evil.
The story of the Bible is that our astounding heavenly sovereign stuck with the rebels and devised a plan to bring us back under his governance. At Sinai, he established a nation under his reign, entering a covenant that he would be their ruler and they would be his subjects. He asked them to build a tent where their king would live among them. Its holy space was cordoned off from the rebellious world. Within his tent, in the Most Holy Space, they placed the footstool of his throne. The ark of the covenant symbolized divine rule — the meeting place between the heavenly sovereign and his people on earth.
King David made Jerusalem the capital of the kingdom, and Solomon built a permanent house for the footstool of their divine monarch’s throne. So:
- Jerusalem became the seat of God’s government on earth. The Psalms celebrate Jerusalem as the administrative centre from which the Great King ruled not only Israel and Judah but all the nations of the earth. The prophets looked forward to the day when all the nations would give allegiance to Jerusalem’s king.
That’s the geography of the kingdom. God reigns in heaven. God reigns over the earth, but faces rebellion here. Jerusalem was the administrative centre of the nation God governed, and from there he would restore his government over the whole earth (all nations).
But Israel struggled with its role. It was meant to be under God’s management, but it had fallen to the surrounding empires. That’s why Jesus’ kingdom announcement was so electrifying. It would be the restoration of divine order in the universe: God’s heavenly throne would extend to the earth once again, and his people would be a new kind of Jerusalem, a new kind of city operating on earth as the administrative centre of restored divine government, established in Jesus, the Son of the Great King.
If you can catch on to how Jesus was restoring divine government, you wouldn’t dream of propping up a questionable promise by appealing to heaven, God’s throne. You wouldn’t make an oath by the earth, since that’s his footstool. You wouldn’t make an oath by the holy city, since that’s his administrative centre. You wouldn’t even make an oath by your own head, since you don’t own yourself. When everything is restored as it was intended at creation, you realize that you are not an independent entity: you belong to your king.
His kingship changes everything. He asks us to be trustworthy, like the king we represent.
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 195:
Avoiding oaths is thus inadequate; the issue is telling the truth because God witnesses every word one speaks. Human cultures developed oaths because people could not trust their neighbors without calling an avenging deity to witness; but those who recognize that God witnesses every word must speak and act from integrity of heart that transcends such formalities.
Blane Conklin, Oath Formulas in Biblical Hebrew (Eisenbrauns, 2011), 2:
An oath is more than a mere assertion or a mere promise. It also includes a statement of sincerity or earnestness: the person who swears the oath is committed to certain consequences or sanctions.
Augustine, De mendac. 18.37:
It is also written, “But I say unto you, Swear not at all.” But the Apostle himself has used oaths in his Epistles. … Howbeit, because to pronounce Paul guilty of violating the commandment, especially in Epistles written and sent forth for the spiritual life and salvation of the nations, were an impiety, we must understand that word which is set down, “At all,” to be set down for this purpose, that as much as in thee lies, thou affect not, love not, nor as though it were for a good thing, with any delight desire, an oath.
[next: Retribution versus justice]