Matthew 23:16-20

Mat 23:16 (KJB)
Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!

Previously Jesus had referred to these leaders as blind leaders of the blind and now once again He calls them “blind guides.” The Pharisees had developed another tradition that swearing by the temple would not be binding upon a person but if they swore by the gold of the temple, then their vow was binding. The leaders, which were greed driven, saw the gold as being more important than the temple where God was worshipped. Since gold was used as ornamentation in the temple, Jesus was pointing out to them that the temple and not the gold held the significant place. It was like the Pharisees were showing that God held second place to gold or other valuables. This was because they were greed driven and saw nothing but wealth. God was not central in their lives and their focus showed it plainly.

Mat 23:17 (KJB)
Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?

Jesus had previously called these leaders blind but now He adds the term “fools.” The term “fools” was used to describe one who was a sinner. They were so blinded by greed that they saw the gold greater than the temple. Then Jesus asks them a basic question, which is greater the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold. Let’s bring this question down to today. What is greater, the born again Christian or the one who sanctifies (makes them holy) the Christian, that is, the one who saved them? The Pharisees only saw the gold and did not see the big spiritual picture. It is like when we give to missions. Is our gift greater or is the one who receives that gift and places it where needed to reach souls for Christ greater? I am not talking about the mission agency but Christ who distributes the money where needed.

Mat 23:18 (KJB)
And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.

The Jews had also developed a similar tradition concerning the altar and a gift. The brazen altar would be in view here and it stood in the outer court, just outside the temple building. It was here that the sacrifices took place. It was considered to be very holy and the religious leaders had reasoned that anything placed on it was holy. They had once again placed the emphasis on the gift rather than on the altar which sanctified the gift.

Mat 23:19 (KJB)
Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?

Jesus asks a similar question. Is the altar or the gift on the altar greater? The answer is obvious that it is the altar which is greater because it sanctifies the gift. Once again the Pharisees did not see the holiness of God and the only source of holiness of both the temple and the altar.

Mat 23:20 (KJB)
Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.

When one swears by the altar, they must realize the extent to what they are making the oath. The swear by the altar and all things which were upon the altar. The ultimate reality was that the gold was part of the temple and the altar was part of the temple, so when someone made a vow by swearing by these things, they must realize that they were making that oath in the presence of God Himself. Whether they had the right perspective or the wrong one, the swearing was still done in the presence of God. When they did not fulfill their vow, they sinned against God, not the temple and not the gold.