While still in the Temple, Jesus says “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore pay attention to what they tell you to do and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:2-3). The previously referenced Markan warning comes out with what comes next, as Jesus says “They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’… And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (23:5-7,9).
When considering the fact that Jesus is saying all of these things at the Temple, which is understood to be the place where heaven and earth join together---the place where the realm of the Creator God’s dwelling and the realm of man’s dwelling meet, intersect, and overlap, Jesus’ contrast between earth and heaven takes on an interesting dimension that will be revisited at a later point in this study. In addition, his talk of the calling of someone “father,” in juxtaposition to His sustained critique of the Temple authorities, while also going on to say “The greatest among you will be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (23:11-12), adds fuel to the critical, judging fire of His actions in the Temple and His words that follow that action. Indeed, Jesus goes on to stoke those flames, providing stark contrast to the humble servant mentality when He says “But woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You keep locking people out of the kingdom of heaven! For you neither enter nor permit those trying to enter to go in” (23:13).
When “kingdom of heaven” is placed on terra firma, rather than thinking of it as some place “out there,” while also tying in the conjoining thoughts of land and Temple, one rightly hears Jesus continuing His critique of the Temple authorities and their mis-use of the Creator God’s Temple. Shortly thereafter, Jesus makes explicit mention of the Temple and their mis-use of it, still echoing Jeremiah in style if not in substance when He says “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the Temple is bound by nothing. But whoever swears by the gold of the Temple is bound by the oath.’ Blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the Temple that makes the gold sacred?” (23:16-17) In a mocking report of the words of the Temple authorities, Jesus informs his audience of what they say and then comments on it, saying “’Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing. But if anyone swears by the gift on it he is bound by the oath.’ You are blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the Temple swears by it and the one who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and the one who sits on it” (23:18-22).
There is a fascinating and almost imperceptible movement that takes place from verses thirteen through twenty-two. It is only with the Temple firmly in view that one is able to pick up on that movement. In verse thirteen Jesus mentions the kingdom of heaven. In verse sixteen He mentions the Temple. In eighteen and nineteen, within the same movement of thought, He speaks of the altar. Beginning in the twentieth verse, Jesus goes on to draw conclusions. In verse twenty He again speaks of the altar. In verse twenty-one He mentions the Temple. In verse twenty-two He speaks of heaven and the throne of God.
Through this entire sequence, Jesus has moved out of and back into the Temple. As was said, this movement can only be seen if the Temple is kept in view, and it only comes together after hearing Him speak all the way to the end of the twenty-second verse. When Jesus mentions the kingdom of heaven, He speaks of the holy of holies and the place in which the Ark of the Covenant is supposed to be resting (though it was not there at that time)---where the Creator God would come down to sit, as if on His throne, to dwell with His people. By mentioning the Temple, He moves outside of the holy of holies to the holy place, for it is the holy place, which housed the holy of holies, that was thought of as the Temple proper. Jesus then mentions the altar, which was positioned outside of the holy place in the Temple court. In His conclusion He speaks of the altar that sits outside of the holy place, then the Temple (the holy place), and finally heaven and the throne of the Creator God, which is an unmistakable reference to the holy of holies and the throne-like lid of the Ark of the Covenant.