Blinded by Materialism

by Spiros Zodhiates

Dr. Zodhiates continues a 6-part series on the eight "woes" which Jesus pronounced in Matthew 23:13-36 upon the scribes and Pharisees of His day. These had turned the worship of God into a legalistic religion of men-and their spiritual descendents are still among us. See also Mark (12:38-40), and Luke (20:47).

The fourth woe (v. 16) is a condemnation of a materialism that values sacred things by their worldly constituents-here the Temple of God in terms of its gold content.

To understand the Lord's reasoning on this subject, we must assume that the Temple current in His day was at least similar in construction to the First (Solomon's) Temple, which contained a great deal of gold (see 2 Chron. 4:22; 1 Kgs. 7:50; 2 Kgs. 18:16, etc.).

Spiros ZodhiatesOf course we can assume the presence of gold "in the Temple" in the form of converted tithes and offerings, but when Jesus says gold "of the Temple" (toú naoú), He is probably referring not only to removable articles like censers but also permanent gold inlays in parts of the Temple like the doors.

This woe, then, is aimed at the higher valuation the Pharisees gave to the gold content of the Temple. To assume that the gold content is higher in spiritual value because it is higher in worldly value than other materials is false. Jesus does not break down the Temple into material components which sanctify one another proportionately to their worldly values. Instead, He defines the true Temple as the presence of God, which sanctifies each and every material. The Pharisees were missing the point, blinded as they were by the relatively higher worldly value of gold.

In a strong accusation in verse 17, the Lord calls them "fools" (moroí [3474], stupid and irresponsible persons; the English word ‘moron' derives from this Greek noun), as well as "blind leaders"-a depictive oxymoron. As the Lord tells us elsewhere, "They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch" (Matt. 15:14 a.t.). This gives us further insight into those whom the Pharisees "shut out of the kingdom": the (equally) blind. "…for which is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifies the gold?" (a.t.).

The Lord then quotes the objectionable teaching in verse 18: "Whosoever, if [an, the ‘if' of reality] he swears by the temple, it is nothing [oudén the absolute ‘not'] but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is indebted" (a.t.).

The Lord denies that the Temple is definable by any of its materials. Gold, therefore, cannot sanctify wood and concrete, and the whole building cannot sanctify any of its parts. The Temple ultimately is the dwelling place of the living God, but He does not dwell in temples made by human hands (Acts 7:48; 17:24); He dwells, rather, in the "souls [He has] made" (Is. 57:16):

"For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones" (Is. 57:15).

Indeed, from the time the Shekinah Glory departed from the Temple under Babylonian rule (Ezek. 9), nothing was being sanctified with the presence of God at all. The Glory did not return to the temples built under Zerubbabel and Herod. Ironically, the Glory was now standing unrecognized before the Pharisees in the "temple that was His body" (John 2:21), pronouncing woes: "And we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

In the New Covenant, the Spirit of God creates a new Temple out of believing hearts: "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" (1 Cor. 3:16, cf. 6:16).

The Lord continues to cite the offensive teaching in verses 18 and 19: "And whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for which is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifies the gift?"

The argument is the same. The Pharisees had inverted values, here substituting the physical materials of the table in the Temple for the true altar of God. Although the Hebrew word for "altar" meant, more broadly, "the place of slaughter or sacrifice," they were blinded to God's predestined place: Golgotha and the cross.

In the New Covenant, it is the cross of Christ-the true altar-that sanctifies gifts. Just as the true Temple is His body, so the true altar is His cross.

The Lord's advice on swearing was quite clear: "But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is His footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" (Matt. 5:34-37).

That advice is reiterated in verses 20-22: "Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by Him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by Him that sitteth thereon."

The Lord's point here is that by divine decree the altar is inseparably connected with God's plan of redemption (sacrifice), the Temple with God's presence, and heaven with God's rule (throne). To swear by God's wisdom (specifically, here, His sacred plan of redemption through sacrifice, represented by the altar) or by God's holy presence (His dwelling place, represented by the Temple) or by God's power (His throne, represented by heaven) is inevitably to swear by God Himself. The altar, the Temple, and heaven are, in a valid sense, sacraments of the divine plan, presence, and rule.

From Dr. Zodhiates' exegetical New Testament commentary on the book of Matthew