James 5.12 | Oaths and Vows
January 3, 2010 Series: James | Retro-Faith
Topic: New Testament Passage: James 5:12–5:12
January 3, 2010
So now we’ve come to the 12th verse of James 5. This entire sermon will be on this one verse which throughout history has been the subject of several different interpretations. Like any passage in the scriptures that may be difficult to understand, it was not intended to have multiple interpretations, but only one correct one. That is what we’re up against when we study the bible, doing our best to have the correct understanding of what the writer of the scripture intended when he wrote what he did.
12But above all, my brothers,(A) do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your "yes" be yes and your "no" be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation
James finishes his instructions on having patience in suffering in the preceding verses that Sam preached on last week with something he considers to be very important. This we know by his use of the phrase “But above all”. Theologians have struggled with the placement of this verse in this chapter; some claiming that it’s a final thought on patience in suffering, while others consider it to be a sort of introduction to the final part of his epistle which has to do with prayer, confession of sin, and the efforts to win straying brothers. I don’t know for certain which way James meant it to be; only that it is clearly possible to regard this verse as a hinge. It the final word on endurance as well as the first word in the conclusion.
Also, by addressing it to his “brothers” he is showing that he includes himself as one who needs to be under the same instruction. Perhaps this is because this was actually taught first by his Lord and half brother Jesus himself. If we look at the companion verse in Matt. 5:34 we can see that it’s very similar. In fact, some of it’s almost word for word.
33"Again(BH) you have heard that it was said to those of old,(BI) 'You shall not swear falsely, but(BJ) shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' 34But I say to you,(BK) Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for(BL) it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is(BM) the city of the great King. 36And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No';(BN) anything more than this comes from evil.[f]
The fact that it’s not word for word is testament to the fact that he was probably quoting by memory from what he had heard Jesus teach on the Mount of Olives since at the time he wrote this epistle there probably was no written form of the gospels yet.
do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath What is an oath?
During a time when written contracts did not exist, an oath was simply a binding agreement between people. To take an oath was simply to attest that what one said was true, call God to witness to that, and to invoke his punishment if one’s word was violated. Invoking God to bear witness to an oath and to call on his punishment if the oath was violated was serious business.
In our modern world we don’t swear oaths in the same way they did in biblical times. Nowadays we sign written contracts, covenants, etc. In fact, here atDamascusRoadChurchwe ask people who desire to join our mission to sign a membership covenant. That’s because people today don’t tell the truth any more than they did in Jesus’ day. Wouldn’t it be great if we were the type of people all the time when our word and maybe a handshake were all it took to ensure that our word would stand?
The prevailing misinterpretation of this verse and its companion verse in Matt. 5:34 is that as Christians we are not to swear an oath to tell the truth when we are in a court of law or if were being sworn into office. This view was modeled in the sixteenth century by the Dutch Anabaptist leader Menno Simons who refused to take an oath in court. About a hundred years later George Fox, who was the founder of the Religious Society of Friends now more commonly known as the Quakers or Friends, went so far as choosing to go to prison rather than placing his hand on a bible and swearing to tell the truth. In fact, he is reported to have said the following,
"You have given me a book here to kiss and to swear on, and this book which you have given me to kiss says, "Kiss the Son," and the Son says in this book "Swear not at all." Now I say as the book says, and yet you imprison me; how chance you do not imprison the book for saying so?"
So, what are we to make of this verse? Is it wrong for us to do what both Menno Simons and George Fox refused to do? And if you don’t think George Fox is a big deal, just go to georgefox.edu. To answer that question we need to take a closer look at both the cultural context in which James makes this command and the biblical practice of swearing oaths that we see throughout the entire bible.
Cultural context. During the time of Christ lying was a very common practice, much as it is during our time. The Pharisees and teachers of the law had refined the practice of lying to such an extent that the swearing of oaths was used more often than not as a way for them to avoid having to tell the truth. They were familiar with the third commandment which said you shall not take the name of the Lord God in vain because the Lord will not hold guiltless those who take His name in vain. Therefore all oaths using the Lords name were considered to binding oaths whereas oaths sworn by heaven or earth or some other created thing were considered non binding. In light of this men had devised all sorts of ways they could swear oaths that they knew they didn’t really mean to keep believing falsely that so long as they did not invoke the divine name they would not incur the wrath of God. In Matt. 23 Jesus warns them about their abuse of oath swearing and calls them out as liars:
16"Woe to(AC) you,(AD) blind guides, who say,(AE) 'If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.'
17You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or(AF) the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18And you say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by(AG) the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.' 19You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or(AH) the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by(AI) him who dwells in it. 22And whoever swears by(AJ) heaven swears by(AK) the throne of God and by(AL) him who sits upon it.
Basically, what Jesus is here saying is that no matter what we are invoking when we swear, we are in fact invoking God because He is everywhere and is the creator of all things. Therefore there is no such thing as a non binding oath.
The Pharisees had taken the swearing of oaths and turned it into something they were never intended for, that is, the telling of lies.
2. Biblical Oaths. The fact is the bible does not forbid the use of oaths. Knowing that men are liars God allowed the use of oaths to help men to keep their promises.
2(A) If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or(B) swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word.(C) He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Num. 30:2)
21(A) "If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. (Deut. 23:21)
12(A) You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so(B) profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:12)
Now let’s take a look in the scriptures at some example of oaths that were sworn. The very first recorded instance of and oath is in Gen. 21. It involved Abraham and the Philistine ruler Abimilech.
22At that time(S) Abimilech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham,(T) "God is with you in all that you do. 23Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but(U) as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned." 24And Abraham said, "I will swear." (22-24)
The second is right after it and deals with the same Philistine ruler and a well that his army had seized from Abraham.
25When Abraham reproved Abimilech about a well of water that Abimilech’s servants (V) had seized, 26Abimelech said, "I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today." 27So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimilech, and the two men (W) made a covenant. 28Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. 29And Abimilech said to Abraham, "What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?" 30He said, "These seven ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this[c] may be a witness for me that I dug this well." 31Therefore(X) that place was called Beersheba,[d] because there both of them swore an oath. 32So they made a covenant atBeersheba. (Gen. 21:25-31)
There are examples of oaths all over the bible, too many for us to go over. God himself is said to have taken oaths. Luke 1:73 mentions the oath God took with Abraham our father. Acts 2:30 reminds us of the oath that God took with David that He would set one of his descendants on the throne. Paul also took vows when on at least three different occasions he calls God as his witness (Rom.1:9, 2Cor. 1:23, 1Thes. 2:10). Even Christ, when he was placed under oath by the high priest responded in effect, by taking an oath himself:
63(A) But Jesus remained silent.(B) And the high priest said to him,(C) "I adjure you by(D) the living God,(E) tell us if you are(F) the Christ,(G) the Son of God." 64Jesus said to him, (H) "You have said so. But I tell you, from now on(I) you will see the Son of Man(J) seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." (Matt. 26: 63-64)
So in light of the biblical evidence James’ prohibition on the taking of oaths is not meant to be a blanket prohibition of all oaths. Oaths in the name of God are still permitted on serious occasions. Even though the family of God should be so truthful as to never have to verify our words with oaths or vows, there are those rare situations where we are standing before a legal officer who doesn’t know us, who ask that we swear to give honest testimony.
So we can see then that what James is really getting at by the second part of this verse where he says: but let your "yes" be yes and your "no" be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. It seems that the practice of oath taking had come into the church with the Jewish people that been saved. Basically, what James is telling them and us is that as followers of Christ we ought to be people of our word. When we say yes we should mean yes, and when we say no we should mean no.
We would be complete fools if we said that James was only speaking to the church back then and not to us today. The problem of lying and dishonesty is still rampant in our world today and dare I say creeps into the church as well. Consider our lying world as we know it today: children lie to their parents, parents lie to their children; students lie to their teachers, teachers lie to their students; husbands lie to their wives, wives lie to their husbands; the government lies to the people, the people lie to the government; politicians lie to get elected and then lie after their put into office; scientists lie, and members of the media lie on a regular basis. Sometimes it seems that our whole society is based on a framework of lies.
So James, like Jesus did, calls us to be people of our word. Having been transformed by the Spirit of God, new creations of Jesus Christ, we should walk with integrity, known as citizens who say what they mean and mean what they say. We should not need to use superfluous oaths to back up our word, and neither should we ever engage in the same type of chicanery that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day used to avoid telling the truth. You know what I’m talking about; crossing your fingers behind your back when you tell a lie, or reciting oaths like “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye”. Speaking truth in all situations will cause believers to shine in world that is dark with lies. As Paul says in Eph. 4:25, “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor.”
Let’s take a look now at the last phrase of this verse; so that you may not fall under condemnation. By this James is not referring to the chastening of believers. According to some of the commentaries I read, the Greek word for condemnation, krisis, is used throughout the New Testament to mean God’s final judgment of sinners to Hell. James is certainly not teaching that we will never err with our tongues, (3:2) but that those whose life is characterized by dishonesty, those who continue to blaspheme God through their lying oaths will suffer eternal damnation. Thus, this is another test of a living faith. Those whose life shows a pattern of lying show that they have an unregenerate heart. And according to Rev. 21:8 liars will be thrown into the lake of fire.
Finally, I want to speak in terms of honesty and the commitments that we make during the course of our lives. As I previously mentioned, we live in a culture where promises made are often broken without so much as a second thought. As a result of that many of us are afraid to actually make commitments because we either don’t think we can live up to them or we are afraid we won’t be able to keep them.
Take a look at marriage in our world today. We hear that about half of all marriages end up in divorce so many will choose to just shack up and live together instead of committing to each other in marriage. Even people living in Christian community choose to disobey God in this way. Consider also the many Christians who choose not to commit to a local church, instead hopping from church to church looking for a church to suit their lifestyles and expecting churches to meet their superficial needs. These are the so called “church daters” who enjoy the social benefits of church but who don’t want the responsibilities that come with real commitment. In his book “Stop Dating the Church: Fall In Love with the Family of God”, Joshua Harris writes that “church daters tend to be me-centered, independent, and critical… we can’t use the excuse that the church has messed up too many times or that we’re disillusioned.”
Believe me; we see lots of new faces every week here atDamascus Road, and only a small portion ever stays and gets committed to the mission. Some only come once, and others come become regular attendees for months or even years without ever committing themselves to the church. So even though Christ gave his life for the church many still find it hard to serve her even an hour or two a week.
If you are here visiting us for the first time, don’t take this as a personal indictment. You are warmly welcome here. Maybe you’ve been visiting churches and have yet to find one that you like. But do you have a good idea what you are looking for? If your search criteria are personal preferences, then you’re apt to be looking for a long while and even then you may have a difficult time finding one that suits you perfectly. But if you have a biblical understanding of what a church should look like, then your search will become easier. So the next time you go to a church where the sermon series is entitled “Seven easy steps to a beautiful new you”, or “God’s secret desire for you to be wealthy”, you’ll know that something else has taken the place of the gospel of Christ.
Our passion here is to preach the word of God verse by verse and to lift up the name of Jesus in everything that we do, recognizing that we are sinners who are loved far more than we deserve, sinners who have been forgiven a mountain of sin, sinners who desire nothing more than to proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ took on the wrath of God that was meant for you and me because of our many and grievous sins. He did this by living a perfect life that you and I could never live and then offering himself as a perfect sacrifice on the cross. It was here that he suffered excruciating torment and death. It was here that he appeased the wrath of God that was meant for the sin of mankind. It was here that Christ purchased the redemption of his Church.
It is now that God is calling all men everywhere to repent. If you’ve never put your faith in Christ and what he did for you on the cross, God is now calling YOU to repent. To repent simply means to make a u turn on the road of life; to stop sinning; to stop living for you solely and to start living for the glory God. This doesn’t guarantee that your life will be easier; (just look at the lives of the twelve disciples) it does, however, guarantee eternal life and will help to bring meaning into this life which can so often have hardships and struggles. It can also help to bring you joy and peace in the midst of the struggles of life. Don’t wait to cry out to God for mercy. Do it today.
If you are a believer, and say that you’ve committed your life to Christ, how are you doing? Have you been living out the promise that you made to Jesus on the day that He saved you, that you would give Him your life and serve Him the rest of your days? Or have you put it off as something you’ll get to later, as you got your own life to live right now? Did you really mean it then, or did you make that promise with your fingers crossed?
Now to you who have committed to membership here atDamascusRoadChurch, do you remember the covenant that you signed when you became a member? My intention is not to put any of you on the spot, especially since some of you just signed the covenant a month or so ago. Rather, it is just to remind you that in signing that covenant you promised certain things. So let your yes be yes.
Sometimes we can be very zealous to commit to certain things when we know there is a real need without first thinking about whether or not we will surely be able to carry it out. Someone needs help on Saturday to move some furniture from one place to another. You say you can help. On Saturday morning you realize that something else was already scheduled or because you worked hard all week you decide that you would really rather spend the morning with your wife or your kids. So you call the person and say you can’t make it. It’s better not to make a commitment than to break a commitment.
As we close and before we participate in communion, take a moment to ponder your own life. Are you a person who means it when you say yes, or no? Do the people who know you best trust your word and the commitments you’ve made? Or have your friends learned to distrust you and what you say because you’ve made it a habit to lie when the truth just wasn’t convenient for you anymore? If you’re a liar and you know it and your face would surely show it, don’t stomp your feet or clap your hands. Humble yourself before the Lord and confess your sins to Him and make a vow to follow the teaching of James in this passage and so far as you’ve wronged people by your untruthful ways you will repair and repay. Then, come and commune with the God who loves you in spite of your sin and desires fellowship with you.