What does Matthew 5:33 mean?
ESV: “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’
NIV: Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.'
NASB: Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘ YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE Lord.’
CSB: "Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord.
NLT: You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’
KJV: Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:
Jesus continues to give one example after another, comparing what His hearers have been taught by Israel's religious leaders to God's true intent for the hearts of His people. His pattern is not to reject the words of the religious leaders, but to show how their interpretations fall short (Matthew 5:20). The full meaning comes as Jesus follows each statement by saying, "I say…" So far, He has given a deeper understanding of anger (Matthew 5:21–22), adultery (Matthew 5:27–28), and divorce (Matthew 5:31–32).
Now Jesus turns to the issue of swearing an oath. This is not about bad language. Nor is it a reference to serious, formal promises, such as those seen in wedding vows or a courtroom. Rather, Jesus is speaking of the use of God's name as a token to seal a promise. He's also speaking of the practice of adding some qualifier to our words to declare honesty—such as "cross my heart," or "I swear on my mother".
Numbers 30:2 describes it like this, "If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth." Under that understanding, someone might say, "I swear to the Lord that I will pay you back this money." Among Israelites, this have been considered contractually binding. It was also seen as dangerous: breaking an oath to the Lord was understood to bring severe consequences.
In practice, however, this concept became yet another loophole subject to abuse. In some cases, oath-breakers might argue that if God had meant the oath to be kept, He would have ensured it, therefore the oath was never binding. Swearing by other things and places would have provided even more wiggle room to the oath-taker. Obviously, this creates a broad opportunity for premeditated deceit. Israel's religious leaders may have made the problem worse by debating which oaths were binding and which were not.
Jesus sets a different, more challenging standard for His disciples in the following verse.
Matthew 5:33–37 continues a theme Jesus has been expanding in the Sermon on the Mount. The difference between righteousness and sin is not just a matter of following rules. It starts in the human heart. Here, Jesus attacks another way in which hypocrites would twist and abuse religious teachings. When Jesus speaks against swearing oaths, he's not referring to serious, formal commitments like marriage or a courtroom witness. He's condemning those who use the language of oaths to disguise dishonest intentions.
The Sermon on the Mount contains some of Jesus' most challenging teaching. It begins with the unlikely blessings of the Beatitudes. Jesus' disciples must do good works in order to be a powerful influence: as the salt of the earth and light of the world. The superficial righteousness of the Pharisees is not good enough to earn heaven. Sins of the heart, such as angry insults and intentional lust, are worthy of hell just as much as adultery and murder. Easy divorce and deceptive oaths are forbidden. Believers should not seek revenge. Instead, God intends us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. In short, we should strive to be perfect, as God is perfect.
Matthew 5 follows Matthew's description of the enormous crowds that were following Jesus (Matthew 4:25). One day, Jesus sits down on a hill to teach them, in an address we now call the Sermon on the Mount. He describes as blessed those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are persecuted. Christ also explains how God's standards of righteousness go far beyond behaviors and speech; they also include our thoughts and attitudes. Meeting God's standards means perfection. Chapter 6 continues this sermon, with more examples of Jesus clarifying God's intent for godly living.
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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