It would be easy enough to simply spiritualize Christ’s comments to the hypocrites in Matthew 23 because of two things. We have no Scriptural record that God ever indwelt the Second Temple, aka Herod’s Temple, which stood in the time of Christ’s earthly ministry until 70 CE. We know Christ referenced the temple elsewhere, but was referring to His body. But we might miss the full message.
We clearly know that God indwelt the tabernacle of Moses.
Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
We also clearly know that God indwelt the temple of Solomon.
So that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of the LORD.
1 Kings 8:11
But where does the Bible record that God ever dwelt in the Second Temple? Scripture does not record it, so it would be a mistake to argue or assume something from silence. In fact though, we know from tradition that after the destruction of Jerusalem that led to the Babylonian Captivity, the Holy of Holies was empty (see Josephus and Tacitus accounts); no ark, no mercy seat, no presence.
But what about Matthew 23:21; doesn’t this verse indicate God dwelt in the Second Temple?
And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.
Dwells is in the present tense, which may imply that he dwells there now at the time of Christ. Given there is no other indication of indwelling, how can this verse be explained?
There are two ways of looking at this. And each is true and symbiotically complements the other.
One way is to understand from other Gospel accounts that Christ was referring to the temple of Himself. God’s presence so to speak was in Christ (this is not to speak Christologically about the nature of Christ). The point is they simply failed to recognize Emmanuel; that is, God with us.
This was like when Christ referred to the temple of Himself and destroying it in three days, while His listeners mistook Him to refer to the physical temple.
Thus when Christ was speaking about “him who dwells in the temple”, He was referring to Himself, though in a spiritual way, not as referring to the nearby temple.
This second view recognizes that what was being said is what was being said. A hypocrite is someone who goes through the motions, was a pretender, a stage player or actor. Christ is telling the hypocrites exactly what they already knew. The hypocrites knew there was nothing in the Holy of Holies. They acted out on the Day of Atonement, but the Holy of Holies was empty. There was no Ark or mercy seat; no place to sprinkle the animal blood, but they did it anyway.
So, in Matthew 23 when the hypocrites were saying those who swear by the altar should instead swear by the gift or those who swear by the temple should swear by the gold, they were simply telling it like it was, but without saying the whole truth. The gold was more important to them. The gift was more important to them. Except of course it shouldn’t be that way!
Christ would have none of it. He wants people to know the truth. And then He really pours it on them. If you swear by the temple, He was forcing them to admit the error of their ways. You swear by heaven and God who dwells there, well if you swear by the temple, you swear by the One dwelling there, except there was no one there! Christ is calling them out.
Christ then seals the deal. You hypocrites strain a gnat and swallow a camel. You clean the outside, but on the inside you are dead. But how can this be solved; that’s what they should have asked! You hypocrites who play act are really whitewashed tombs of dead men’s bones; they are unclean. Behold, Christ says, your house is left desolate.
Like the verb tense in the one who dwells there, your desolation is also present tense, even though Christ’s resurrection was future, even though 70 CE was yet to come. Christ is telling the hypocrites exactly the way it is; the house is desolate; no one is there.
The depths of hypocrisy know no limits. Swear by the gold, not the temple, of course, because the temple is of no effect. Swear by the gift, not the altar. The hypocrites in charge, however, never informed the people of the truth. We got nothing. Look for Messiah. The signs all point to Jesus Christ. Here He is! Here is the Temple of the Living God. Instead, their house is left desolate. They failed to recognize the day of His visitation.
Mat. 23:13-15, 23, 25, etc
corresponding to the above, primarily denotes "one who answers;" then, "a stage-actor;" it was a custom for Greek and Roman actors to speak in large masks with mechanical devices for augmenting the force of the voice; hence the word became used metaphorically of "a dissembler, a hypocrite." It is found only in the Synoptists, and always used by the Lord, fifteen times in Matthew; elsewhere, Mar 7:6; Luk 6:42; 11:44 (in some mss.); 12:56; 13:15.
Outline of Biblical Usage:
one who answers, an interpreter
an actor, stage player
a dissembler, pretender, hypocrite