“But above all…”
Whenever the Bible says above all, it’s a good idea to listen up because obviously, that’s a way God stresses the importance of what he’s about to say.
We find this phrase often through the Bible, and when we find it, we discover a number of different commands coming next.
James 5:12 may be one of the most unique.
He says, “But above all my brothers, do not swear…”
Now, when we typically use this word ‘swear’ we are talking about cursing, taking the Lord’s name in vain, or using profanities. And although the Bible does speak against that, that’s not what James is referring to here.
He’s not saying do not curse.
You know that first of all just by reading his explanation of swearing in the rest of this verse, “by heaven or by earth, or with any other oath…”
That word oath is key.
The Greek word that James uses here for swear does not describe profanity or vulgarities, but instead a solemn vow. He’s talking about an oath in which you call upon heaven or earth, or something or someone else as a witness to the veracity of what you are about to say.
Now that’s not the most common practice in our day, though occasionally you’ll hear someone say something like, “I swear in the name of God…” or “Do you swear…” or even “I swear on my great grandmother’s grave…” Probably a simpler way of saying the same thing would be, “I promise I’m telling you the truth…”
You swear like that to emphasize the truth of what you are saying.
And. James here is saying we must not do that. And he says it is very important that you do not do that.
“Above all do not swear.”
The question is why? That seems like a strange thing to forbid.
Well this is a situation where we have to be very careful that we are reading the Bible in its historical context. Some throughout history have read James’ command here “Do not swear…” and have mistakenly concluded that it is wrong for Christians to make any type of vow. That’s why you have certain groups of people; in particular the Quakers and the Friends, who refuse to swear to tell the truth in court or make any kind of public oath like that.
But that’s a problem, because if you carefully study Scripture you’ll find that all swearing is not evil.
For one, God Himself swears. Moses says in Numbers 11:12 that God swore to bring Israel into the Promised Land. But it’s not just Moses who said that, God agrees and says in Numbers 14:23 that he swore to bring Israel into the Promised Land. In Psalm 110:4 David says very simply, “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind…” In Luke 1:73 Zacharias says that God has remembered “the oath which he swore to Abraham our father…”And Hebrews 6:13 explains that oath, saying “For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself.” Now we know without a doubt, God can not do anything sinful, therefore swearing an oath must not be intrinsically evil.
But that’s God, you say. Well take a look at the perfect man, Jesus Christ. As we’re going to see, Jesus says in Matthew 5:37, “But I say to you make no oath at all …” yet we read in Matthew 26:63,64 that Caiphas said to Jesus, “I charge you under oath by the living God: tell us if you are the Christ the Son of God…” and Jesus didn’t say, no – no I will not speak under oath. Instead he simply went on to say, “Yet it is as you say…” Therefore in Matthew 5, Jesus must forbidding something different than what he went on to do in Matthew 26.
Third, God actually gives certain instructions to His people on the taking of oaths. In Numbers 30:2, Moses explains to the people of God “If a man takes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” If all oath taking was evil, wouldn’t God have commanded His people not to take oaths at all rather than teaching them exactly the kind of oaths He desired. In fact we see in Exodus 22:10-11 that there was a time when God required His people to take an oath. “If a man gives his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep for him, and it dies or is hurt or is driven away while no one is looking, an oath before the Lord shall be made by the two them that he has not laid hands on his neighbor’s property…” The truth is we find godly men throughout Scripture making and keeping their oaths. (Abraham, Jacob, David, and Paul…) “We even read of an angel in Revelation 10:5-7 who with uplifted hand, swore an oath to God.”
So when we read James 5:12, “Do not swear…” in the context of the teaching of the rest of Scripture we see that James must not be forbidding all vows, but instead a certain kind of oath-making.
And really you can see that just by looking at the rest of this verse.
This is one of those places where you need to be very sure you read Scripture very carefully. James makes a contrast here between what he means by swearing, what he is forbidding; and what they should do instead. Look at verse 12. He says, “But above all my brothers, do not swear either by heaven or by earth, or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no…”
So to know what James means is forbidding you need to know what he is commanding. He’s commanding us to let our yes be yes and our no be no.
What’s it mean to let your yes be yes and your no be no? To say what you mean and mean what you say. To be consistently truthful.
The person who swears is not letting his yes be yes and his no be no. He’s not being consistently truthful. He doesn’t always say what he means and he doesn’t always mean what he says.
He manipulates the truth.
And, this is where it gets a little bit interesting.
Apparently in James’ day, particularly in the Jewish culture, it was a very common thing to make an oath when you didn’t really intend to keep it. You wanted to look very sincere and honest so you would swear that you were telling the truth, the problem is, that vow didn’t really mean anything. It was all for show.
I want you to see something. Jesus gives us some background to James’ command back in Matthew 5:33-37. His statement is so similar that many think James is actually quoting Jesus here, though he doesn’t specifically say so. In Matthew 5, Jesus is confronting the sham religiosity of the spiritual leaders of his day; comparing their statements and standards with God’s Word in order to show that their righteousness falls far short of the real thing.
Look at what Jesus says, “Again you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, fo ryou cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement, be Yes, yes or No, no; and anything beyond these is evil…”
In the Old Testament God gave certain commands and the Pharisees took those commands and twisted them into something else so they could look like they were obeying God’s commands when they really weren’t.
For example, they would say the Bible says, “Do not commit adultery,” so that means we can lust. As long as we don’t commit the physical act of adultery than we are not sinning. Or the Bible says, “Do not murder,” therefore it’s not a big deal if we get angry. As long we don’t actually murder someone we are not sinning.
In reality, the Pharisees were legalists. They claimed to hold to the letter of the law, when they really didn’t, because they denied the very spirit of the law. They wanted to appear righteous without really being righteous. So they were constantly looking for ways around what God’s Word actually said, by adding their own little traditions and caveats to God’s commands, and in the end they paid more attention to what they said than what God said.
And that’s what they were doing with the taking of oaths. The Pharisees were in once sense very strict about the making of vows, and in another sense they were very loose about it. They were very clever. They would so redefine the law of God so that they could do whatever it was they wanted to do, and still say that they weren’t breaking God’s law.
And the way they did this here with oaths was by teaching that only vows to the Lord were binding. You could make all sorts of other oaths and break them at will.
“These religious men in Jesus’ day knew that if they swore an oath invoking the name of the Lord then they were bound by it, so in order to avoid that they would swear by heaven or by earth or by Jerusalem or by my head. They could say words like that and then not be so careful about the truth.”
As one writer explains, “…they drew a distinction between various oaths saying that some were binding while others were not. If you took an oath by the temple that was not binding, but if you took an oath by the gold of the temple that was binding. If you took an oath by the altar you need not keep it. But if you took an oath by the gift on the altar, then it was absolutely binding.”
And you can see how exact they got about this if you turn over to Matthew 23:16-22 where Jesus says “Woe to you blind guides who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated. You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold. You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering. Therefore he who swears swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.”
But, I guess the point is, do you see what these men were doing?
They were looking for ways, they were actually making up ways, to weasel out of keeping their word.
And that’s the issue James is addressing.
He’s speaking about the person who has all sorts of fancy ways of looking like he’s serious about telling the truth, of fooling people into thinking that he’s really a sincere person, when really he’s not serious about what he is saying at all. He’s talking about the person who makes rash promises and doesn’t keep them, about the person who sounds so good, who is a smooth talker, but whose actions do not measure up to his words, about the person who may have good intentions, who makes a commitment, but when it starts to get difficult, when keeping that commitment would require a sacrifice on his part, looks for a way to weasel out.
Now we have to be careful here.
Because I know, we could easily think this is not relevant to us. After all, very few of us swear by the temple or swear by our heads in order to fool people into thinking we are serious about the truth when we are not. We might not go about weaseling out of the truth the exact same way the Pharisees and religious people of James’ day did.
But even though we may not be tempted to make the same kind of vows they did, we are tempted to look for ways to weasel out of the truth just like they did. And James is warning us that as believers we must not be flippant about speaking the truth.
It’s very important we do not play word games in order to get out of actually having to keep our word.