Picture a man for a moment. He has a great job and has put
his wife in a nice house. He and his wife drive new cars. They
wear designer clothes, always fashionable. You are impressed
because he always speaks to his wife with terms of endearment:
dear, sweetheart, love of my life. Of course, you were shocked one
day when his wife called while he was out golfing with you and he
responded to her, “Love of my life, you know that nothing is
more important to me than my golf game, you can call the plumber
yourself and don’t bother me again for the next two hours.
Goodbye. I love you, sweetheart.” He watched Gary Smalley’s
videos on marriage and learned that his wife needs at least five
non-sexual touches each day. He shoots for six just in case he
miscounts. He received one of those chain e-mails that talked
about a couple who left little love notes for each other all over
the place. Every day he dutifully hides a note for his wife to
find. You happened to be there when she found the one that said,
“See how much I love you? By the way, if you don’t take my
suit to the dry cleaner today, you’ll be sorry.” He read
Chapman’s book on the five love languages and knows his wife is
an “acts of service” person. So, he dutifully does the dishes
at least three times per week. He takes the trash out without
being asked. He does a load of laundry every morning before going
to work, that is, when he comes home from work instead of staying
there overnight, which he has been doing more and more frequently.
He always buys her nice gifts for special days and even picks up
some memento on days that have no special meaning. He especially
buys her gifts after he has slapped her during one of their
fights. He has promised to never leave the house without saying,
“I love you.” He never does. He even says, “I love you,”
when he is storming out because they’ve had a fight and has
accused her of being an idiot, stupid, a worthless mother, a pain
in the neck. He may be rolling his eyes, speaking sarcastically
and mumbling, but he says it. He especially makes sure to say,
“I love you,” on the way out the door when he’s heading over
to his mistress’s house to have an afternoon tryst.
Do you see a problem with this husband? He’s definitely
getting some of the details right. In fact, during their one trip
to meet with the marriage counselor all he could talk about was
how he gets those details right and she just doesn’t appreciate
what he does for her even when he doesn’t really like her. But
that’s the problem isn’t it. God hasn’t asked him to get a
list of details right; He has asked him to love his wife (Ephesians
5:25) and live with her in an understanding way (I
Peter 3:7). He’s missing the boat.
We easily see how messed up this is in a marriage
relationship. However, do we ever have this same kind of problem
when it comes to our relationship with God? Do we ever fixate on
how we are observing minor details while letting the major
principles go to the wayside? “Surely not,” we think,
“Nobody would do that because it would be too obvious.” Yet,
Jesus knew folks who did that. He clearly thought it was enough of
a danger to warn everyone for all time against it because He
included His rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees on the matter in Matthew
23:23-24. Just as the husband we have talked about needs
to seriously take a look at the big picture of his marriage and
his role within it, we need to take a look at our relationship
with God, making sure that we don’t strain out gnats while we
Of course, we should strain out gnats.
Before we delve into what Jesus did teach here, we need to
recognize what Jesus did not teach. Jesus did not teach the
Pharisees to swallow gnats while straining out camels. In Matthew
23:23, Jesus said they should have emphasized the
weightier matters of the law, while not neglecting the minor
details as well.
Jesus demonstrates that all of God’s word is important.
In the Law of Moses tithing was usually about livestock and the
14:22-23). But one statement is made in Leviticus
27:30 that teaches tithing the seeds of the land. The
scribes and Pharisees apparently used that verse as a
demonstration of real righteousness. They didn’t simply tithe
their herds and produce, they tithed down to their kitchen spices.
Someone might say, “Oh come on, scribes and Pharisees, don’t
worry at all about those details. Just focus on the bigger
picture.” But Jesus didn’t say that. He said they should have
done the weightier things while also getting the details right.
All of God’s word is important. The sum of God’s word
is truth (Psalm
119:160). According to Leviticus
11:20-25, gnats were unclean. They should be strained out.
Even small things can defile.
Straining out camels is more important than straining out
According to Leviticus
11:4, camels were also unclean. Jesus used a word picture
Jews could truly appreciate. They would envision someone drinking
through a cloth to strain out gnats lest they be defiled, while
sharpening their knives to dig into a camel.
The point behind Jesus’ picture shocks me. Tithing was a
matter of God’s Law. However, Jesus says very clearly tithing
was not as important in God’s Law as justice, mercy, and
faithfulness. I get that all of God’s word is important. I
expect Jesus to say that. But Jesus also says not all of God’s
word is equally important. There are weightier matters, which
means there are also lighter matters.
This was not new. Jesus’ statement should not have been
all that shocking to these teachers of the Old Law. In Hosea
6:6, God said He desired mercy and not sacrifice. Of
course God wanted sacrifice. He proscribed it in the Law. But more
importantly, He wanted mercy. In Micah
6:6-8, God said He didn’t desire sacrifices and gifts
(would tithing be included in this?) but wanted justice, kindness,
and walking humbly with God. These three things almost perfectly
mirror Jesus’ statement of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. In Psalm
15, God spoke of who would dwell on His holy hill. He
didn’t mention tithing or dietary laws. Instead, he mentioned
those who practice justice: that is, they did not slander, do evil
to their neighbor, or take a bribe against the innocent. He
mentioned those who practice mercy: that is, they did not put
their money out at interest. He mentioned those who were faithful:
that is, they swore to their own hurt, but did not change. Jesus
was not describing some logical conclusion the Jews should have
come to through deep study of the Law, but was referring to very
Consider some weightier matters for us as Christians:
When it comes to proclaiming the gospel, what must carry
more weight? Paul answers that in I
Corinthians 15:1-11, explaining we must preach the death,
burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ “as of first
importance.” In I
Corinthians 2:2, he said he determined to know nothing
among the Corinthians but “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Is
this the only thing Paul preached to them? Of course not. In this
letter, he talked about unity, miraculous gifts, baptism,
congregational discipline, foods offered to idols. But what was
the anchor? What received the primary importance? What was the
foundation? The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. That
must be the weightiest part of our preaching lest we think the
weightiest part of Christianity is our own strength and work.
When it comes to God’s commandments, what must carry the
most weight? Jesus answered that very clearly for us in Matthew
22:36-40. When asked what the greatest commandment was,
Jesus didn’t bat an eye. He didn’t say, “Greatest
commandment, what are you talking about? They’re all equal.”
He said, “Love God with your all and love your neighbor as
yourself.” Notice what Paul said about this in I
Timothy 1:5, “The aim of our charge is love that issues
from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (ESV).
Love is the aim of our charge, the goal of our instruction, the
point behind what we teach. It is the weightier matter of our
teaching. Just as loving our wives is the fundamental weighty
teaching for husbands and not simply making sure to give her eight
hugs every day, loving God and our fellow man is more weighty than
the discussion about outward expressions of that love.
When it comes to our response to God, what must carry the
more weight? Jesus demonstrated the answer to this in Mark
7:1-23. The Pharisees and scribes had questioned Jesus
about why His disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate.
Jesus rebuked these men for hypocrisy and claimed they honored him
with their lips, but not with their heart. Then He called the
people to him and drove the point home. Those external things
didn’t matter nearly as much as the heart. What was weightier?
The response of the heart not the mouth.
There are weightier matters. We need to give primary
importance and emphasis to straining out the camels or straining
out the gnats won’t do us any good, which leads to our next
Straining out gnats won’t make up for swallowing camels.
23, Jesus demonstrated how the Pharisees and scribes
They neglected justice. Matthew
23:14 said they devoured widows houses. A major aspect of
justice in the Old Testament was helping widows (cf. Deuteronomy
They neglected mercy. Matthew
23:4 said they laid heavy burdens on people that they were
not even willing to lift themselves. That is not mercy; that is
They neglected faithfulness. Matthew
23:16-19 said they developed elaborate formulas by which
they didn’t actually have to be faithful to their word.
However, they were meticulous in their tithing. What a
burden it must have been to pull out a jar of cumin and count
through the grains, removing one out of every ten for the Lord.
Surely only the super righteous would go through such burdensome
activity. Yet, Jesus is very plain, straining those gnats didn’t
make up for swallowing the camels. These men were heading for a
titanic disaster. While their spiritual ship was sinking, they
were busy arranging the deck chairs. Jesus is saying, “Who
cares? Who cares if you tithed spices? You weren’t My servants.
The things that mattered most to Me didn’t matter to you.”
Can we do this same kind of thing? I’ve heard of those
who would argue tooth and toenail about attending all the
assemblies of a congregation, but the rest of the week they were
involved in unethical business practices. I’ve known preachers
who could really shell the corn about the need for modest apparel,
but they were committing fornication. I’ve heard men debate the
finer details of the work of the church, but do so while
completely ignoring the Christian character of brotherly love,
kindness, and compassion.
One place I fear this can easily happen is when we so
emphasize God’s pattern for the local church that it appears we
almost de-emphasize the individual’s work. I think I’ve done
that when I have preached against the social gospel. I’m always
happy to point out there is no authority for the local church to
be involved in social welfare. I’ve heard and preached great
lessons explaining why the church’s job is not coat closets and
soup kitchens, orphan’s homes and schools. I fear, for me, that
has sometimes become simply a matter of pattern, a technical
decision based on the three point plan for establishing authority.
But what is the weighty matter here? According to Titus
2:14, Jesus died to separate Christians out to be zealous
for good deeds. In our sermons, we drive home that Galatians
6:10 is for individuals, not congregations. We may get the
pattern for the local church absolutely right when it comes to the
social gospel and avoiding unauthorized congregational activity,
but if we aren’t doing what God set us apart for as individuals,
then we’ll be straining out the gnats while swallowing the
camels. Keeping the gnats clear won’t make up for the fact that
we swallowed those camels.
I knew of a preacher about 10 years ago who was among the
most stalwart of maintaining the pattern for issues of worship,
work, organization of the local church. He could debate with the
best of them on issues of modesty, dancing, mixed swimming. He
could write scathing articles about what a church could and could
not do. All of this came crashing down when his wife found a
credit card bill wracked up with charges for strip clubs and
prostitution. After the light was shed on this and he had
repented, my friend Max Dawson met with him. The brother described
his two selves. He had his day self and his night self. The day
self knew how to dot the Is and cross the Ts. The night self was
full of immorality. He confessed that he had convinced himself
that since his day self was so righteous, it made up for his night
4:20-24 says Jesus died to change us on the inside. He
didn’t die to make sure we accomplished some external forms
properly. Getting those external forms right wouldn’t make up
for not changing internally. In fact, since he didn’t change
internally, it finally destroyed him externally as well. Sadly,
the brother fell again later and completely left the Lord and His
church. Why? Because since he still hadn’t change internally, he
finally gave up on the externals.
Christians can and do strain out gnats while swallowing
camels, but getting some of the Ts crossed will not make up for
ignoring the weightier matters.
Straining out gnats is tempting because it is easily
Though it was a great burden to do something like pluck one
grain of cumin or one leaf of mint for every ten, it was actually
easier to emphasize that than the weightier matters. Why? Because
gnats such as tithing are easily measured while camels such as
justice, mercy, and faithfulness are not. The Pharisees and
scribes could very easily tell when they’d given enough. All
they had to do was be able to count to ten. But when had they
practiced enough justice? Enough mercy? Enough faithfulness?
How do we measure the appropriate response of the heart to
God? How do we measure the right amount of love for God or others?
It is too easy to turn those kinds of discussions into, “I know
I love God more because I attend more assemblies, I give more, I
read the Bible more, I can articulate the right doctrines with the
right words.” It is so easy to rely on these outward forms and
rituals to make us think we are right with God. It is easy to
strain out gnats because that is so measurable. Straining out
camels is hard, because the things that matter most to God are not
as easily quantifiable.
We naturally want to quantify and systemize things because
it makes us feel better. We know there are five steps to
salvation. We delineate three works of the church. We teach three
ways to establish biblical authority. We quantify five acts of
worship. Why do we so naturally tend to these systemizations?
Because they make things easy. They provide us a simple place to
camp out doctrinally. Sadly, many camp out around these
systemizations without actually doing the study that produced
them. They then camp out on the man made constructs without
knowing the big picture Bible principles that produced them. Take
the five acts of worship, for instance. Where does the Bible say
there are five acts of worship? It doesn’t. What does the Bible
say? The Bible provides the weighty matter of worshipping God in
spirit and truth (John
4:24). Why are we so attracted to “five acts of
worship?” Because it is easily quantified. It is so much easier
to know when we have done one of the five acts than to know when
we’ve worshipped God in spirit and truth. Sadly, because of our
“five acts” construct (which I’m personally not even sure is
completely accurate), some people strain out the gnats of checking
off those five acts without ever worshipping in spirit and truth.
I can’t help but think of churches I’ve heard of having
major knock down drag-out fights complete with name-calling,
backbiting, gossip, and slander over how to handle the
announcements because that is not one of the five acts of worship.
They are arguing to defend a simplified construct while allowing
God’s plea for unity, love, kindness, self-sacrifice, and
compassion to go by the wayside. It is easy to quantify “five
acts;” it is not so easy to quantify loving the brother or
sister with whom you disagree.
Consider two biblical examples that demonstrate this
12:1-8, the Pharisees rebuked Jesus because his disciples
plucked the heads of grain on the Sabbath. To the Pharisees, that
seemed like a clear violation of the Law. After all, if the farmer
plucked his field on the Sabbath, they would stone him, and they
would have been right under the Old Covenant law. Jesus didn’t
do what I want Him to. I want him to quantify. How many grains
could they pluck before it became a violation of the Sabbath Law?
He simply described a principle: The Sabbath was made for man, not
man for the Sabbath. Now how do we measure that? How do we
quantifiably know when we’ve accurately followed that principle?
I’m not sure we do. I think it simply drives us to draw closer
to God as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
10:25-37, when Jesus taught that the greatest laws were
loving God and loving our neighbor, the lawyer wanted further
explanation. “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus didn’t do what
a lawyer wanted to hear. The lawyer wanted something quantifiable.
“My neighbor is anyone from my home town” or “anyone who
lives within a mile of my dwelling” or “anyone who is a
Jew.” Instead, Jesus told a story that leaves us with numerous
questions even today. He told the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
When have we done what that parable teaches properly and enough? I
can’t preach on that parable without someone asking me if they
have to stop and help every person they see with a flat tire on
the road or pick up every hitchhiker because that is so dangerous.
I don’t know the answer to those questions. I only know the
weighty principle that we are to love our neighbors.
What I learn from this is that it will always be tempting
to strain out gnats no matter how burdensome because that is so
easily quantifiable. It will always be easy to swallow camels
because they are so hard to quantify. That is why we must always
be on our guard to maintain the proper emphasis.
If we strain the camels properly, we’ll stain the proper
gnats (but it doesn’t work the other way around).
When we get the weightier matters right, the lighter
matters follow. In Matthew
23:23-24, if the Pharisees and scribes placed the proper
emphasis on faithfulness, wouldn’t the matter of tithing
faithfully have followed? According to Matthew
22:36-40, love was not the greatest commandment because it
was better than the rest of the commandments and needed to be
followed while the others could be ignored, but because when we
get love right, the rest of the commandments follow. In Mark
7:14-23, working on the heart instead of the externals was
weightier because when we respond from the heart correctly,
we’ll improve in the right actions.
The reverse is not true. We can strain out gnats all day
long but still swallow camels just as the Pharisees did. I tend to
think if I emphasize the details, we’ll get the big picture
right. But it doesn’t work that way. Rather, when we emphasize
God’s weighty principles, we’ll start getting the details that
matter right. It may take time to grow there, but it will happen.
As hard as it is for me to grasp it, I have to accept what Jesus
teaches. When we give proper emphasis to the weightier matters,
lighter matters will follow. For instance, we can focus on “five
acts of worship” all day long and never worship in spirit and
truth, but if we focus on spirit and truth, we’ll get the
Let’s make sure we are putting the proper emphasis on the
proper issues at the proper times. Only that way will we actually
preach the whole counsel of God properly.
to God in the church by Christ Jesus
Church of Christ