What about Jesus and vows? Christ certainly makes many promises/vows in Scripture, and to cover all of them would be the subject of a much longer post. I want to focus on just one of them for a moment, and then we’ll look at Jesus’ caution against our making of vows. In Matthew 26, as the disciples are celebrating what will prove to be Jesus’ Last Supper with them, Christ institutes the observance of Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. There are the familiar words–“Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-8). But then comes what is essentially a vow from Jesus. “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29). Christ thus displays His determination to completely fulfill the mission God has given Him, even though it will mean His death. Embedded in the pledge as well is a promise reminiscent of that in John 14:1-3 and John 16:22, assuring the disciples that will be reunited with Jesus. Finally, Matthew 26:29 touches upon the much larger, cosmic scope of Jesus’ mission. His death and then Resurrection will mark a definitive epoch in ushering in the Kingdom of God, one that will be completed upon His Second Coming. It is a beautiful pledge, made in the indivisible sense of unity that Christ had with the Father and His will. However earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has some cautionary words for His followers relating to the subject of vows and promises. Matthew 5:33-37 specifically addresses oaths. The Jewish belief of the day was that oaths not sworn in God’s name were not fully binding. Thus they would often swear by lesser, or generic terms such as “heaven”, or even the city of Jerusalem. Christ spoke out against such practices as unworthy of His followers, who should be people of integrity at all times. “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37). In one sense this passage could strictly be dealing with the matter of oaths and condemning the search for any “loopholes” that might make less accountable for being fully forthright and honest. But I also think that in verse 37 particularly, (“let your yes be yes, and your no, no”), Jesus is cautioning against the use of grandiose vows or promises in general. The remark about changing the color of our hair is a gentle reminder of how little power we actually have in this world. Thus to go about boasting of the great things we have pledged to do is an invitation for arrogance and pride to enter into our hearts. We later hear a similar message in James 4:13-16—“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”
More often than not, we appear foolish when we make extravagant vows or promises—whether in our spiritual lives or not. God is not so much impressed with our momentary dreams of greatness as with our daily and painstaking efforts to grow in righteousness and abound in His grace. This is not to say that vows or promises are never a good idea. We always should have clear goals and intentions for our walk with the Lord, and ever be striving to discover how we can become more effective servants in the Kingdom. But with any of these intentions or pledges we must also be careful to follow the example of Jacob, Joshua, Hannah, and ultimately Christ in making these promises anchored to God’s will for our lives. We must be cautious about dreams or goals which may extend us too far beyond the work that God has us occupied with at the present moment, because the simple fact of the matter is that we don’t know how much time is left. It’s fine and necessary to cast some vision into the future, but there are also plenty of tasks that God has given us this day to accomplish, in the spirit of Matthew 6:34. Thus given the fragile, and unpredictable nature of life this fallen world, perhaps one of the best vows we could make would be to echo the words of the prophet Micah—“to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” At the start of my last post I mentioned that many of the staff and students of our campus ministry, Christian Challenge, had made a vow of sorts at the beginning of this year. It takes the form of a spiritual resolution to try and read our Bibles daily. That might not sound very fancy, but our goal is to walk humbly with God by staying rooted to the truths and promises found in His Word. Some days we might not get that quality Quiet Time we’re seeking, and occasionally perhaps we will get too busy and not be able to read our Bibles at all that day. But our purpose and intention as a ministry is to be people who are saturated in the eternal Truth of the Holy Bible. Our ministry’s motto is “changing the world through God-honoring relationships.” And what better way to consistently strengthen one’s relationship with God than to go to one of the sources where we are always likely to hear His voice—the Scriptures! Vows and promises may indeed prompt us to growth in our spiritual lives. But the daily challenge of faithful living as followers of Christ, as well as the grace of Jesus that surrounds us means that we needn’t focus so much on pledging or promising to God—but rather we can rest and live in the blessed assurance of the pledges and promises He has given us!