In my position as an auditor, I am required to get 80 hours of continuing professional education every two years. One of my favorite types of classes or workshops to attend are ones related to interviewing. I am always on the lookout for fraud and get positively giddy at the prospect of catching someone lying in an interview. Honestly, anyone can pick up on clues that people are lying if they know what to look for. Some people instinctively know the signs of someone who’s trying to pull the proverbial wool over their eyes. One big clue is something that I call a modifier. For instance, if someone prefaces their statement with “Honestly…” or “To tell you the truth…” there is a pretty good possibility that they may be lying. Of course, we know that lying is a sin and is a sin not only against those we tell an untruth to but ultimately against God. Just like we see today, people who lived while Jesus walked this earth also tried to perpetrate falsehoods for whatever reason. The sad part is they tried to use God’s word to their advantage while they sinned.
Jesus said, I Matthew 5:33, Jesus quoted what people had been taught about oaths-“You shall not make false vows but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord”. This doesn’t come from just one verse or passage in the Old Testament but probably had its root in Lev. 19:12 and Deu. 23:23. Since the law of God as revealed through Moses is a revelation of God’s character, God called His followers to be honest and act with integrity. God doesn’t lie so it makes perfect sense for Him to call us to live and speak in a truthful manner.
However, in the day in which Jesus lived, the religious leaders wanted to find ways to lie and get away with it. They would literally look for any loophole they could if it served their purposes and tell half truths in an attempt to deceive other people or make themselves look better than they were. Therefore, they would be careful to avoid swearing by the name of God. However, to try to prop up their statements and make them seem more truthful than they were they would swear by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or even their own head which was basically the same thing as swearing by their own life. These oaths were supposed to lend a measure of credulity to their statements and encourage people to believe them.
Jesus soundly rebukes the practice here in 34-36. Heaven, He says, is “the throne of God”. Earth is the “footstool for His feet”. He tells the crowd that Jerusalem is “the city of the Great King”. In all three instances, God is sovereign over the thing being sworn by in the oath. Jesus’ point is that instead of serving the purpose of avoiding an oath to God the oathmaker was still swearing by God since everything he swore by was God’s anyway.
Further, He says we should not swear by our head because we “cannot make one hair white or black”. Now, I would love to have hair to make white or black (God only made a few perfect heads, though—don’t hate me because I’m beautiful). However, while we can’t literally change our hair color naturally, I believe Jesus may have metaphorically meant that we have no control over our life. Jesus could lay his life down (John 10:17-18). No other person that ever walked this earth could do that. When Jesus died on the cross it was because He willed it. We cannot will ourselves to die. In other words, again, the person swearing an oath was swearing by something that was God’s in order to make themselves look more honest.
Jesus gives the ultimate motivation for a person to lie. Of course, the simple answer would be to conceal a truth but Jesus says the motivation is really deeper than that. He says we should let our “statement be ‘Yes, yes’ or “No, no’, anything beyond that is of evil”. John 8:44 tells us that Satan was a liar and murderer from the beginning and that he is the father of lies. Know this for certain—if someone is motivated to lie that motivation was given by Satan. Ultimately, the root cause of the sin of lying is giving in to the temptation to try to get out of trouble by concealing the truth and that temptation is given to us by the devil.
Rather than trying to prop up our statements with some sort of profane oath where we’re trying to tell enough of the truth that our conscience won’t bother us, we should just tell the truth. It’s easier to remember and God is honored when His children live consistent with the truths revealed in the Bible.