“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone. Ye blind guides, that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)
Thus Jesus condemns the Pharisees and other seemingly religious persons of Jerusalem in the first century CE. There is much that we can learn from Jesus’ condemnation of the religious establishment of His day, and we ought to look at this example and then look at ourselves and see if we perhaps have neglected some portions of God’s will.
The text proves to us the following:
1. Jesus is not condemning the Pharisees et al for tithing spices. The charge is usually given by those who have loosed where God has not loosed that those who endeavor to follow God’s Word are “legalistic Pharisees,” people who obsess over the little thing and do not “let the Spirit guide them.” Their reasoning for their charge is completely flawed; Jesus is by no means condemning the Pharisees for tithing the mint, anise, and cummin, for these things “[they] ought to have done.” Had they been just and merciful and faithful in some ways and yet did not tithe their mint,.anise, and cummin, Jesus would have condemned them for not fulfilling their obligations to God in regards to the tithe. The Pharisees et al were fully compliant in tithing the spices, and there is no condemnation from Jesus for having done so.
2. Jesus does condemn them for neglecting the “weightier matters of the law.” The sin of the Pharisees et al is not in strictly following the tithing laws but is in not being just, merciful, or lawful. These Pharisees were more concerned about being faithful in relatively minor commandments that require little true sacrifice and demonstration of spirituality than being truly faithful to the precepts of God by assisting their fellow man. They should have done both things, not one to the exclusion of the other.
3. Jesus recognizes a distinction in the value of various laws. Jesus upholds that the tithing of spices was a requirement, but He distinguishes these things as being less weighty than being just, merciful, and faithful. Jesus recognizes that while all laws are to be obeyed and that man ought to be just as faithful in small matters as in great ones, there are certain parts of the law that have more weight and significance than others.
Now that we have analyzed the text and have understood what Jesus is teaching, let us now look to ourselves and our spiritual lives and teachings and see if we are properly emphasizing the important issues to God.
Before we do this I would first like to emphasize that I am not advocating neglecting what are considered less weighty commands or that I am trying to minimize some of our responsibilities as Christians. We are to do, as Jesus says, both the more and less weighty commands, yet I fear that in many instances we have missed the forest because of the trees. I fear that we are not emphasizing the things God emphasizes, but perhaps are straining gnats while swallowing camels. Let us now look to ourselves and see if in some matters we emphasize the comparatively less weighty matters while neglecting the weightier provisions of the Gospel.
Assembly Attendance and Christian Living. Many churches stress the need for attendance at every assembly and constantly charge their members to be faithful in attendance, yet little will be spoken of living the Christian life throughout the week. I will certainly affirm that the Christian has a responsibility to assemble with the saints whenever possible, as commanded in Hebrews 10:25 and Hebrews 3:12-13, so that all may be encouraged in their Christian life. But is the purpose of coming together to constantly charge those who have come together to keep coming together alone? In the New Testament, when Paul and others speak to the churches, do they spend their time talking more about the need for coming together or the need to live morally and according to the Gospel of Christ? Are we preaching so that we have pew warmers only or are we trying to preach so that people will shine for Christ all the time, in services and outside also? We must certainly teach and preach the need to assemble with the saints, but we must not neglect to take care of the weightier matters of constant obedience and faithfulness to God.
Initial Obedience and Continual Obedience. Preaching is constantly done about the initial steps of obedience, belief, confession, repentance, and baptism, and yet sometimes do we preach on these topics to the exclusion of the need for continual obedience after baptism? I fear that the standard “plan of salvation” that is taught is woefully lacking in the final step, for the Bible does not teach that the plan of salvation is “hearing, believing, confessing, repentance, and being baptized” alone, but to hear, to believe, to confess, to repent, to be baptized, and to endure to the end. Performing the first five steps and not the sixth will not save you unless God takes you immediately after you are baptized. And yet what do we preach to those of the household of faith? The five steps they have already taken or the sixth that they should be constantly taking? Preaching the first five steps is absolutely necessary when we preach to those who do not believe or have not yet obeyed, yet it ought to be highly instructive to us to see how the Apostles preached on baptism and salvation. We see that preaching in the book of Acts is full of references to the need for believing, confessing, repenting, being baptized, and to be faithful, yet in the letters that Paul and others write to those already in the faith, confession, repentance, and baptism are mentioned only to instruct brethren about their salvation: Paul shows that baptism is a death like Christ’s to explain why we ought not sin (Romans 6:3-7); he stresses how baptism places us into Christ (Galatians 3:27); and he explains how baptism is our burial and resurrection into Christ (Colossians 2:12). Such teachings are not about the necessity of baptism or any such thing, but speak to those who have already been baptized so that they understand fully the action they have performed. On the other hand, Paul and the other New Testament letter authors spend the vast majority of their time instructing the brethren regarding various doctrines and encouragement and exhortation to be faithful to Christ and to obey His Gospel continually. There ought to be no need to preach about the need for baptism to those who have already been baptized, and there is plenty of need to constantly encourage brethren to remain faithful. Again, we need to make sure that brethren understand the importance of the actions they performed that will lead to their future salvation but we must not neglect the weightier need to encourage brethren to remain faithful to confirm their salvation.
Consistency in Fellowship. Brethren in what are deemed “non-institutional” congregations of churches of Christ generally will not support the work of churches which give to non-saints and/or institutions out of the Lord’s treasury or will not have fellowship with those who use instrumental music in worship services and many other false doctrines, yet many brethren will refuse to remove the most significant leaven in the church today, those who teach error regarding God’s designs for marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and those who act accordingly. With many brethren there is no question regarding the error of those who give to institutions or non-saints from the Lord’s treasury, those who use instrumental music, those who build fellowship halls, etc., but yet will either declare that there can be differences regarding teachings on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, or worse, will simply not do anything to combat those who will teach and act improperly regarding these doctrines. Again, I am by no means attempting to assert that we are acting improperly regarding those who have accepted liberal doctrines regarding the work of the church or instruments in worship, but we most certainly are straining a gnat and swallowing a camel when we make sure to not have fellowship with such persons and yet will tolerate– directly or because of inaction– those who will lead many to condemnation for adultery because of false teachings on God’s design for marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
Perhaps you can think and find other instances where we perhaps over-emphasize minor things and under-emphasize major things; I have given but a few examples of issues where we perhaps need to re-focus and make sure we see both the forest and the trees. I am sure that there will be many who will not agree with many of the things I have said here, and I will be more than willing to discuss these issues; contact me through this website and we can try together to reach a better understanding of what God wants from us. Whether you agree or disagree, let us constantly strive to be the balanced Christian that God desires for us to be, not straining gnats while swallowing camels, not found being faithful only in little and not also in much, but representing accurately the will of God in our lives and being shining lights for God in this sin-saturated world.