I pray your Easter Sunday was a magnificent one. Today we have an email from Candace who lives in Long Beach, California, who asks: “Pastor John, what does the Bible say, or what are your thoughts, about the practice of using the Bible to swear truthfulness in a court of law? Why is this done? Should it be? And what about those who lie? Is this act, using a Bible, make the lie more punishable in God’s eyes?”
To be honest right up front, I think Christians should resist taking such oaths in that traditional way. And by “that traditional way” I mean — and this is part of my answer to her question about the meaning of it — taking a sacred object and swearing to tell the truth by that sacred object, like a Bible or your mother’s name or your father’s grave or the name of God or Christ. Like, “I swear by my father’s grave I won’t lie to you.” Something like that.
In this traditional way of taking an oath about calling some sacred object to mind, the idea is that your commitment to truth may be weak and would be strengthened by the desire not to desecrate the sacred object you have sworn by. Do you see that? In other words, the assumption is that you come into this courtroom or some situation and you are not really committed to tell the truth, so maybe we could up your commitment to tell the truth if we could get you to associate your telling of the truth or your lying with the desecration of some sacred object like your mother’s name or dad’s grave or the name of God or the Bible.
So that is why I think the Bible was traditionally used in court because it was, once upon a time, a universally held treasure of holiness in the culture that no one but the most hardened person would want to desecrate by swearing by it and then lying through his teeth right after he had put his hand on the Bible that he is now desecrating.
And the reason I want to discourage Christians from taking that kind of oath is because here is what Jesus said in Matthew 5:33–37:
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.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
And then James picks it up, “Above all, my brothers,” — which is quite a statement — “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath. Let your yes be ‘yes’ and your no be ‘no,’ so that you may not fall under condemnation” (James 5:12).
Now as soon as those verses are quoted like that, usually it is pointed out from the other side: Well, wait a minute, God himself took an oath in Hebrews 6:13–18. And angels take oaths (Revelation 10:5–7). And Paul at least five times heightened his seriousness in telling this truth by saying he was speaking in the presence of God or Christ (see, for example, Romans 9:1–2).
Now my response to that is to say: Yes, that is important to take into consideration, but none of those examples, as far as I can tell, diminishes the seriousness or applicability of Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:33–37 or James’s words in James 5:12. The burden of Jesus is that his people be so utterly and deeply and simply committed to tell the truth that they don’t need buttresses to hold up their words, like the fear of desecrating a sacred object or whatever. In fact, Jesus says that if you add to “yes” or “no,” it is likely that this is coming from evil.
So very practically, here is what I have thought I would do. I have never been a witness in a courtroom, not yet, but here is what I thought I would do if I ever was deposed by lawyers or sworn in, as they say, in a courtroom as a witness. So they present me with a Bible, maybe. “Hold out your hand.” I don’t know how the different courts are doing it these days. If they presented me with a Bible and asked me to put my hand on it and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I would say something like this:
“Your honor, my commitment to the truth and to the Lord of the truth, Jesus Christ, leads me to believe that it would dishonor both my commitment to the Lord and the Lord himself if I needed to put my hand on this sacred book to guarantee my truthfulness. I am totally committed to the truth and to the Lord of the truth. So I ask that I be permitted to act without such an oath, but I do promise in reliance on the help of the Lord Jesus to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” And I think that courts would honor that promise. I think they would allow you to say it your way. And it is an occasion for testimony, and I would use it if the Lord gave me grace.
So the point of that little action right there in the courtroom is to magnify Jesus as the Lord of truth and to highlight my commitment to be a person of the truth without any need for threats that my dishonesty would bring worse consequences because I put my hand on the Bible.