Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 23:17 (Holman) Blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the
sanctuary that sanctified the gold?
The leaders said swearing by the highly valued gold of the sanctuary was more binding than swearing by the sanctuary itself. This sounds silly to us, but “Holy gold” was not a minor matter in Israel. The people took pride in the gold plates that covered their temple. When the Roman General Titus captured Jerusalem, he wanted to scrape off all this gold. To keep it from being melted, he ordered his soldiers not to burn the temple, but in their rage against the people in Jerusalem, they torched it anyway. This caused the gold to melt and fill in crevices. To get all the gold, Titus ordered the temple be torn down stone by stone, exactly as Jesus had predicted it would happen (Matthew 24:2).
To understand the Pharisees’ twisted rationale in saying it was more binding to swear by temple-gold than by the temple itself, we need to know promisors had to bring their gold to give at the temple to take an oath over. These oaths profited the religious leaders. The Pharisees’ selfishness made them ingenious in getting a person to bring them money to pad their pockets.
The leaders justified this practice by saying since this action required sacrifice, it would be more binding, and have more clout with God, than just swearing by the sanctuary. This was absurd. To expose their foolishness, Jesus stated the obvious. The temple made the gold sacred, not vice versa. The temple had inherent holiness; gold given there had but derived holiness.
Love for money drove the leaders to lying. They were “blind fools”; covetousness had put out their eyes. Love for money still blinds many.
Matt. 23:18-22 Also, “Whoever takes an oath by the altar, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gift that is on it is bound by his oath.” Blind people! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore the one who takes an oath by the altar takes an oath by it and by everything on it. The one who takes an oath by the sanctuary takes an oath by it and by Him who dwells in it. And the one who takes an oath by heaven takes an oath by God’s throne and by Him who sits on it.
The temple was where God dwelt. Everything in it was sacred because it was connected with Him. Thus, to swear by the altar and anything on it was to swear by God, as was swearing by the sanctuary. Also, to swear by Heaven is to swear by the Creator who indwells it.
If we do take an oath, swearing by anything is to swear by God. All oaths in some way relate to God. He alone can enforce them. An oath, by definition, is an appeal to God’s justice and omniscience. Inanimate things cannot be witnesses to oaths. Jesus said our bare word is to be as binding as any oath we might take, or in modern parlance, as any contract we sign.
Matt. 23:23a Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a
tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected the more
important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.
YHWH told Israel “to set aside a tenth of all the produce grown” in their fields (DT 14:22, see also LV 27:30). The Pharisees, scrupulous to the minutest details, tithed even on herbs they grew in little patches in their kitchen gardens. Mint, dill, and cumin were seasonings used to flavor food.
As we study this verse, note Jesus did not denounce the Pharisees’ strictness in tithing. Jesus did not condemn their attention to smaller details.
In fact, Jesus commended them for it. Being persnickety in small matters is fine if the heart is okay. Their sin was; they let lower requirements substitute for higher, more important, things they also needed to be doing.
“The more important matters” were justice, mercy, and faith. This echoes Micah 6:8, “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” I was ordained in April 1970. A deacon at our church laid hands on me, and said twice, “Remember Micah 6:8”. I knew Alvin Daniels’ voice, and I never forgot his admonition.
Justice entailed treating others fairly, with honor and respect, not hurting people. The Pharisees devoured widows’ houses. Also, rather than doing right by people, the Pharisees had created ways to justify breaking oaths. They intentionally lied to innocent victims.
Mercy, which refers to relieving the misery in others, entails things like kindness and tenderness. These were notions foreign to the Pharisees.
The world generally tells us the best way to be fulfilled is to concern ourselves as little as possible with the miseries of others. Thus, most people are too obsessed with their own feelings to be concerned with the feelings of anyone else. But Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the merciful” (MT 5:7a).
We are to “bleed in other men’s wounds” (Trapp), and let our tears run down their cheeks with their tears. A Christ-follower must choose—and it is a conscious choice—to feel pain others feel. We have to decide to ache, cry, and hurt with others. This was a choice the Pharisees chose to disregard.
Faith entailed being faithful to God, loyal to Him through a lifetime. It’s what Eugene Peterson called, “A long obedience in the same direction”.
Perseverance is ever the mark of God’s people. Continuance proves faithfulness. Saints endure to the end. Sticking to it is the only valid test for security in the faith. The ones being saved are the ones staying true to their profession. The readers of Hebrews had to learn, assurance of salvation can never be known by looking back in time. The test is what is happening now.
Justice, mercy, and faith directly arise from self-determined inner dispositions. The Pharisees remind us, neglecting our inner self is dangerous.
Christian living must not highlight only what we are outwardly doing at a given moment. Our inner self always matters.
When the emphasis is inward, everything we think and do is made better. Outward things are not as weighty as inward things because inward things, if handled right, will produce the right outward things. It’s “two for one”, if you will.
The Pharisees’ failure was traced to the fact they “neglected the more important matters”. Sins of commission are almost always preceded by sins of neglect, of omission. What we do wrong outwardly can usually be traced to something we formerly did wrong inwardly. The earliest cause of outer sin is almost always something vital we left out somewhere in our pursuit of holiness. We did not pray, call a friend, or leave before temptation won.
I fear we underestimate the danger of sins of neglect. Archbishop Usher’s dying words were, “Lord, forgive my sins; especially my sins of omission.” To figure out our outward sins, trace them to our omissions.
Learn to dissect outward sins. Learn their component parts. They are complicated things. Trace their genealogy. One sin grows out of another, out of a prior sin-seed. If you dig long enough, you will probably find neglect somewhere as a culprit: what we could have done, but did not do; what we might have said, but did not say. What we should have prayed, but did not.
A good illustration of this is seen in people’s refusal to become Christ-followers. Why are so many people lost, wandering far from God?
Outward reasons serve as mitigating circumstances, but the ultimate cause is inward, neglect, omission. People do not go to Heaven for doing good deeds; they do not go to Hell for doing bad things. Jesus handled the sin problem at the cross; He died for the sins of the world. The issue is whether or not a person has repented of sin and yielded their life to Christ. Neglecting to receive Jesus is people’s ultimate failure, the condemning sin.