NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 16: Now comes the fourth warning to both the Pharisees and scribes from our Savior: “It will be bad for you teachers of the law and you Pharisees! You guide the people, but you are blind. You say, ‘If anyone uses the name of the Temple to make a vow, that means nothing. But anyone who uses the gold that is in the Temple to make a promise must keep that promise.’”
Here Jesus throws the words of His opponents back at them and introduces to the western reader a custom known only among the Jews at that time. In so doing, our Lord points out their inconsistency of interpretation by showing how some say that swearing by the Temple will demand that a vow be kept, but others say it’s not the Temple, but the gold in the Temple that makes the vow binding. The gold, meaning the money.
Using the holy Temple to swear on was done in order to make the most sacred of vows. In the Jewish Mishnah we read where using the Temple in a vow was being discussed regarding what happens to the wives of priests taken captive or coming under Gentile rule if they are suspected of cohabiting with the enemy, “Rabbi Zechariah ben Ha-Katzav who was a priest said; I swear by this Temple, her hand did not move out of my hand from the time that the heathens entered Jerusalem until they departed and she was not defiled.”1 And again, in the Talmud, we find, “It once happened that the price of a pair of birds in Jerusalem had risen to gold denarii. Thereupon, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel vowed, ‘By this Temple! I shall not go to rest this night before these can be obtained for silver denarii’.”2
Today we have similar validations such as, “I swear on the Bible,” or “I swear to God,” or “I swear on my Mother’s grave.” In Jewish literature, we find that Rabbi Johanan emphasized that when swearing by the Temple it was then an obligation for the person making the oath to carry it out even it proves to be inconvenient.3 So we can see that swearing by the Temple was a long-standing tradition, not something that Jesus made up.
However, as far as using the gold in the Temple to back up a promise was concerned, scholars say this is to be understood not of the gold that covered any part of the Temple; nor of the golden vessels in it; but of the gold, or money, or gifts which were offered for the service of the Temple which are called “Korban.” As Jewish scholars explain, the term “ḳorban” was frequently used in vows. By saying, “Let my property be to you a ḳorban”—that is, a gift or donation consecrated to God. When such a donation was identified as korban, it would prevent any other person from deriving any personal benefit from what he was donating.4 In Christianity, we can liken this to the tithe.
This, of course, led to such vows being greatly abused by religious leaders, as all inconsiderate vows did, and therefore, was much opposed by the sages.5 Jesus had such a vow in view when He accused the teachers of the Law and Pharisees: “If someone says to his father or mother, ‘I have promised as a korban’ (that is, as a gift to God) ‘what I might have used to help you,’ then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. In the same way, with your tradition which was handed down to you, you nullify the Word of God! And you do other things like this.”6
However, the charge of hypocrisy, or lip-service, raised by some against the Pharisees in connection with making such vows was not all bad. Pharisaic tradition did actually provide a remedy against rash vows by empowering any sage consulted to dissolve the vow in case it could be shown that it was not made with a full consideration of all its consequences. This very power, “to unbind that which is bound” by the Law being declared to be a privilege of the Rabbis, derived from the spirit of the Law while seemingly against the letter of the law.
So in this sense, when making a vow, the Pharisees taught, that whosoever swore by the gold treasury in the Temple in dedicating their korban, they could not go back on their word anymore than they could not pay their korban. This showed the covetous disposition of these men, who made nothing of oaths that were sworn by the Temple; but only those made as korban, or donations to it, as binding because to them the money was more important than a man’s word. And besides, by holding them to their promise sworn to such korban it produced more money for the Temple. So in a way, they were dissing the Temple while making the korban holy.
Verse 17: “You are blind fools! Can’t you see that the Temple is greater than the gold on it? It’s the Temple that makes the gold holy!”
So these four accusations involve the Pharisees’ Insincerity, Instigation, Instability, and Insecurity in their faith. They thought that because of their positions and superior knowledge they could get away with it by claiming to be practicing righteousness. But Jesus called it right by accusing them of being not only blind but blind fools. Today, this would be similar to someone preaching to their congregation on tithing and giving, and emphasize how such contributions to the church was the basis for bringing them more blessings so that they could then give even more, without realizing that it is the giving that is the blessing, not what you get in return. But Jesus will have more to say on this subject.
One early church bishop commented about the gold in the Temple: “Jesus is saying that the gold in the Temple…were considered by the Jews to be worthy of much more honor than the Temple. Therefore they were condemned by the Lord.… But the saying possesses a figurative meaning directed against them because they are not receiving the truth regarding Christ. Instead, they were judging Moses and the types given through him as more valuable than Christ.… They were rejecting the Christ who sanctifies Moses while simultaneously praising the law. Just as the law was praiseworthy, not because it possesses the types and the symbols but because it prefigures the true mystery of worship in Christ in the same way that gold is precious because of the one who sanctifies the temple, and heaven is beautiful because of the God who sanctifies it and dwells within it.”7
Verses 18-19: “And you say, ‘If anyone uses the altar to make a promise, that means nothing. But anyone who uses the gift on the altar to make a promise must keep that promise.’ You are blind! Can’t you see that the altar is greater than any gift on it? It’s the altar that makes the gift holy!”
One of the earliest theologians of the church gives us his commentary on this subject. He writes: “Those who work in the fields of the gospel seek the hidden meaning of these passages of Scripture. We are not simply confiscating the higher parts of Scripture but rather looking toward its whole sense. As regards swearing, it is intended as a binding action, seeking to confirm the word concerning which something is sworn.
Consider this analogy. Think of the altar as the heart and the temple as the whole of Scripture. The temple of God’s glory, spiritually understood, is the divinely inspired Scripture. The gold refers to the meanings it conveys. To swear is to witness to the Scriptures, as a validation and confirmation of the word we speak. Therefore we ought to profess the whole sense of Scripture as a confirmation of the sense which we invoke in all of our words.
Gold found outside the temple is not sanctified. Rather, that gold which is found in the temple is the measure of that which is outside it. Similarly, the meaning which is found outside of the Scriptures is not holy, but it is contained in the meaning of the Scriptures. Only that sense of Scripture is sanctified which can be seen from within the temple itself, that is, within the whole of Scripture. The temple, that is, the reading of the Scriptures, makes a great and venerable sense, just as consecrated gold is valuable. So we ought not to swear by our own intellects to confirm our beliefs as if we were creating witnesses that could judge according to the truth. But let us explore further the analogy of the temple, the gold, and the altar. The altar is the place where a vow is sanctified. The altar in this passage is the heart of a man. What happens in the heart happens deeply within a person. Vows and gifts placed on the altar are clearly those placed upon the human heart. When you begin to pray, you place the vow of your prayer upon your heart, as if you had placed something upon the altar, so that you might offer your prayer to God.
Suppose you are ready to place an offering of psalms upon your heart, so as to offer to God an offering of psalms, accompanying yourself with a harp. Or suppose you are ready to give alms. You make an offering of alms upon your heart, just as if you had placed something on the altar, as you would offer your alms to God. Suppose you have proposed to fast in order to make an offering of your fasting upon your heart as if you had placed something upon the altar.
In this way, the heart of a man makes vows in a holy and venerable way. It is from the heart, that is, the altar, that the vow is offered to God. Therefore it is not possible for the offering of a man to be more honorable than his heart from which the offering is sent up.”8
From all this discussion involving making vows by using God’s name, the Temple, the Altar, or some other sacred object to secure its validity, we can see why Jesus was so upset at those who did so under the guise of doing God’s will when, in fact, it was for their own benefit. The apostle John did not tell us: “For God so love the world that He put up His one and only Son as collateral so that those who wanted to could buy their salvation at a bargain price could do so.” No! It was a gift! Likewise, whatever we do in His name for others should also be a gift. God help us if preachers start charging for their prayers, sermons, advice, and counseling. Promising blessings from God while making themselves wealthy.
1 Mishnah, op. cit. Third Division: Nashim, Tractate Ketubot, Ch. 2:9
2 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Bathra, folio 166a
3 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nashim, Masekhet Kiddushin, folio 71a
4 See Mishnah, Third Division: Nashim, Tractate Nedarim, Ch. 1:4
5 See Ecclesiastes 5:1-5
6 Mark 7:11-13, Greek Septuagint Version, cf. Matthew 15:5-9
7 Theodore of Heraclea: Commentary fragment 115
8 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 18