The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.
Last week’s post, which concerned Matthew 23:16-19, discussed the first part of the second woe — judgement — that Jesus pronounced on the scribes and the Pharisees.
If you haven’t yet read it, those verses explain the context of today’s passage.
Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees spiritually ‘blind guides’ and ‘blind fools’ for encouraging a twisted means of swearing oaths, indicating promises the faithful made at the temple which were to be kept. Their ungodly system maintained that oaths made with gifts, sacrifices and gold were more binding than those made by the altar or by the temple. This is because they wanted people to put more money in the temple coffers — with which they lined their pockets.
Last week’s verses ended with this question from Jesus:
19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?
He provides the answer in today’s reading.
Essentially, any and all types of oath made in the temple were binding because they were made in the name of the Lord.
First, swearing by the altar is swearing by the Almighty, to whose honour the Jews created it (verse 20). An oath made by the altar cannot be disregarded or non-binding merely because the altar is an object. That was the excuse the scribes and Pharisees told the faithful to use as a get-out clause. In reality, it was all the more binding because whatever was offered on it was given to God. Therefore, someone making an oath in that manner was actually invoking God’s witness to it. Matthew Henry explains:
Secondly, oaths made by the temple were equally binding (verse 21). The temple was God’s house as it was dedicated to His service and He dwelt therein. Therefore, swearing an oath there was doing so in His name.
Thirdly, there were the oaths made by heaven (verse 22). Jesus said that these were the most sinful (Matthew 5:34-35):
But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
(I’ll get to verse 35 shortly.)
Making an oath by heaven is swearing by the throne of God in His kingdom. It is the most direct type of oath made in His name.
That said, God expects anyone who makes these types of oaths to fulfil them. Otherwise, as Henry tells us:
he resents the affront done to him in the form of the oath, so he will certainly revenge the greater affront done to him by the violation of it.
Christ will not countenance the evasion of a solemn oath, though ever so plausible.
Therefore, we can better understand Matthew 5:35, which forbids any type of oath because God created earth, and Jerusalem is His holy city (Psalm 48:2).
John MacArthur explains that swearing by anything is swearing by the Almighty:
I mean, everything you touch eventually is going back to God, right? You swear by anything that represents God, a gift, an altar, the gold of the temple, the temple, the heaven of heavens, the throne of God and you’re going to touch the God who fills it all.
In other words, have you forgotten that God is everywhere, as creator of all and Lord of all?
But, if you’re going to make an oath, you’d better keep it, because you made it in God’s name. This is why people only make one in a court of law and it is taken so seriously that to violate that oath is criminal.
As for the Pharisees and scribes telling people certain types of oaths were more binding that others, MacArthur says that Jesus was telling them:
They subverted the truth. They developed reasoning that undermined truth.
He warns that false teachers in our churches do much the same thing in different ways:
False spiritual leaders don’t tell the truth folks, but they parade [piety]. Try to cover up for their lying pretense. We need to be careful of that. They subvert whole houses. They by their great covetousness, says Peter, use feigned words to make merchandise out of you. They lie. They say they need money when they don’t need money. They say God told them something, when He never told them anything. They say Jesus led them into something, when He never led them into anything. They lie. Beware of those liars who are false spiritual leaders.
We have seen that happen with televangelists and faith healers who then get involved in terrible scandals. They dupe people, especially for money.
Cults and sects are also common hunting grounds for false teachers in search of naive believers.
This is yet another reason why it is so important to know and understand the Holy Bible.
Regularly praying for discernment is a great thing. The Holy Spirit is always there to help us.
This brings to mind Jesus’s counsel to the Apostles when He sent them out on their trial ministry (Matthew 10:16):
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Be nice, be good but be careful.
Next time: Matthew 23:23-24