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Wednesday AM Bible Study Archives


"Do Not Swear"
James 5:12

Wednesday AM Bible Study
November 5, 2003

Our Savior has taught us that a man's mouth speaks from that which fills his heart " (Luke 6:45). And while few Christians would even think of using strong profanity and lewedly vulger words many, it seems, are unconcerned by the kind of thoughtless use of oaths and vows that treat the name of God with irreverence, and thus take the edge off their testimony before the world. We can tell that the Bible is a book from God, in that it takes very seriously what many of us naturally think of as unimportant and harmless.

As we come this morning to the instruction of Pastor James to the precious people intrusted to his spiritual care; we find that James, under the inspiration of the Holy Sprit, makes a very big deal about what comes out of our mouths. In his instructions to a group of suffering, persecuted first-century Christians on how to conduct themselves - and in addition to all that he has already said about the use of the tongue - he adds this admonition in verse 12.

A. Many have believed that this verse is forbidding all forms of formal oath-taking or swearing, such as in a court of law. An "oath", in such a case, is an appeal made to God - who alone can see into our hearts and can read our thoughts - regarding the truth of what we're saying about something, or the sincerity of our promises to do something. And on the surface, it seems as if James is saying that we should never do that.

B. But the more we look elsewhere in the Bible, the more we have a problem the idea that all such oaths of any sort are forbidden.

1. There are many examples in the Old Testament in which oaths in the Lord's name were commanded (Deut. 6:13) as a way of testifying that God is worshiped (Deut. 10:20; Hebrews 6:16).

2. God commanded that legal matters be settled by an oath (Exodus 22:10-11).

3. Oaths were commanded as testimony in court; and even the Savior Himself responded to a call issued with an oath (Matt. 26:63-64).

4. Oaths were used to affirm the truth of one's statements (1 Kings 17:1; 2 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 11:31; Gal. 1:20; Romans 9:1).

5. Oaths were used to bind someone to a duty (1 Tim. 5:21; 1 Tim. 6:13; 2 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 2:14).

6. Even angels swear by an oath (Rev. 10:5-6).

C. And so, if we take the whole of Scripture into account, we'd have to say that whatever James is forbidding in this verse, he is not forbidding the taking of all oaths "of any sort". To say that would be a contradiction to what is found elsewhere in the Scripture.


A. We've noted before that James often draws his instruction from the Sermon on The Mount; and that is also true in this case. Jesus' teaching on oath taking provide us with the best commentary on what James is forbidding (Matthew 5:33-37).
1. The people in Jesus' culture knew that the careless taking of oaths was a very evil and irreverent thing to do. It was tantamount to 'taking God's name in vain' (Leviticus 19:21).

2. And so, in order to promises before each other that they had no intention whatsoever of keeping (as people so often do today), they began swearing by oaths that were based on things related to the Lord in an indirect way. In doing this, they didn't feel so bound to keep to their oath. It was sort of a case of "oath-lite", if you will.

3. By doing this, they were essentially using the things of God as a means of disguising a lie; and were missing the whole point of God's command to not swear falsely, and thus profain the name of the Lord and taking it name in vain (Matt. 23:16-22).

B. So it isn't the matter of swearing by oaths altogether that James is concerned about, but rather the matter of swearing by oaths in a vain way.

1. A "vain oath" would be one in which we really don't mean what we say. James calls his readers to make sure that their "yes" really means "yes",and that their "no" really means "no". A vain oath would involve calling the things of God to witness, in order to make it sound like we're really binding ourselves to the truth or sincereity of something when we're not

2. A "vain oath" would also be one that uses the things of God in a thoughtless and irreverent way. James calls his readers to cease from swearing "by heaven or by earth or [literally] with any other oath of that kind." The Greek word James uses for "other" is a specific word that doesn't mean "another of any kind", but rather "another of that specific kind". He forbids them from saying such things as, "By heaven ...", or "By the earth ..." or "By Jerusalem ...", or even, "By my head ..." or any other such substitute for a serious, sincere, solemn calling upon the name of the Lord in the way that shows reverence. In otherwords, if you're not going to call upon the name of the Lord and mean it, then don't swear by an oath at all.

C. James says that this is a matter of grave importance. He says, "But above all, my brethren, do not swear ..."; and the phrase "above all" is one that is meant to communicate the superiority of the matter. As a top priority, they were to cease from this ungodly practice of swearing by vain oaths.


A. There's a relationship in these words to what preceeded them redgarding the trials of persecution. Early Church history is marked with stories of many Christians who bravely withstood these trials and willingly laid down their lives for their testimony to Christ. But there are also stories of some who failed the test.
1. It's not hard to imagine, in such cases, that many Christians would feel pressured, in a variety of situations, to bind themselves by "vain oaths" that they really didn't want to be bound to. Some would be tempted to deny with an oath that they were followers of Jesus in order to save their own lives, as Peter did (Matthew 26:72); while others might be tempted to bind themselves to promises they had no intention of keeping in order to simply look good before the church, as Ananias and Sapphira did (Acts 5:1-11).

2. James is warning them not to do this, but rather to let their "yes" be "yes", and their "no" be "no" - even in a time of distress and great pressure.

B. Why then does God forbid us from "vain oaths"?

1. There's the fact that swearing by vain oaths often involves a kind of language that is completely innappropriate for a follower of Jesus Christ

2. It involves irreverence toward God. When we swear to a vain oath, we are trying to 'use' God and the things of God in an ungodly way.

3. It presents a bad witness to others, in that they can see that we really don't revere the things of God.

4. It has the net effect of deminishing our own trustworthiness by the fact that our word isn't good enough, and that we feel we must butress our promises with an oath.

5. It violates the spirit of the third commandment. We are forbidden from anything that would involve taking either the name of the Lord in vain, or speaking of the things of the Lord in a vain and insincere manner; and are warned that God will not leave him unpunished who does so. This, I believe, is behind James' solemn warning not to bind oneself with vain oaths, "lest you fall into judgment" (Ecclesiastes 5:4-7).

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