The Weightier Matters of the Law

Matthew 23 shows a side of Jesus that many people refuse to recognize.  When it came to exposing error, our Lord did not beat around the bush, nor did he take the politically correct route.   If a preacher today were to fight false doctrine the way that Jesus did in this chapter, there is no doubt in my mind that he would be accused of being “too harsh.”  Ironically, someone would probably say that such a preacher did not portray the “Spirit of Christ.”

In this account, Jesus brings one scathing rebuke after another to the scribes and Pharisees.  Matthew 23:13-32 shows Jesus pronouncing a series of eight “woes” upon these religious leaders.  These “woes” expose their pride, hypocrisy and unscriptural teaching.  This article will be looking specifically at the rebuke found in verses 23-24.

Matt 23:23-24   “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.  Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”

What is Jesus condemning in these verses?  Is Christ condemning the scribes and Pharisees for their scrupulous observance of the Old Law?  Many seem to think so.  When I hear someone accusing a preacher of  “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel,” they are usually criticizing that preacher for teaching some specific doctrine that they just do not want to obey.  It seems that many people want to use these words of Jesus as a proof-text against “legalism,” or a strict adherence to the Word of God.  They misuse these verses to say that we don’t need to be overly concerned with following all of the little details of worship or Christian living.  Others say that there is no need to spend much time teaching and preaching on the specific details of the New Covenant.  A lot of folks put their own spin on these words of Christ and say, “Instead of focusing on all of the minor details of God’s Law, we just need to focus on the major doctrines of love, faith, justice, and mercy.

Let it be known that Christ does not support that way of looking at the scriptures.  When Jesus gave His great commission to the disciples, He said in Matthew 28:20, “Teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”  Disciples of Christ were expected to teach and obey all of Christ’s commands, and the same is true for us today.  James 2:10 says, “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.”  Clearly, we cannot pick and choose our way through God’s word.  Regardless if His will is expressed in general principles or specific commandments, God expects and deserves total obedience.

In Matthew 23:23-24, notice that Jesus did not tell the Scribes and Pharisees to only focus on the general principles of justice, mercy and faith.  He did not condemn them for being strict in their obedience to Leviticus 27:30, which commanded a tithe of the “seed of the land.”  In fact, Jesus encouraged them to continue to keep God’s tithing law to the strictest degree.  He said, “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”  In other words, Christ is saying, “Keep on obeying the minute details of God’s law, but do not fail to also observe the weightier matters of justice, faith, and mercy.”

In verse 24, when Jesus condemned them for “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel,” He was not rebuking them for straining gnats out of their drinks.  Since gnats were considered unclean (Leviticus 11:23), they were right to strain out gnats to prevent ingesting them.  Jesus was simply exposing their hypocrisy by giving the humorous picture of them straining out a small unclean animal like a gnat while at the same time gulping down a camel, which was a large unclean animal (Leviticus 11:4).

What was the problem with the Scribes and Pharisees?  Simply put, while they possessed commendable strictness regarding the details of the Law (like tithing herbs and straining out gnats), they were rebelling against some of the foundational principles of God’s Word (like justice, mercy, and faith).  Jesus wanted them to obey both the specific details and the “weightier matters” of the Law.

Why would Jesus identify some of God’s laws as “weightier matters?”  Our Lord explains this in Matthew 22:37-40.  In this context, a lawyer asked Him, “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?”  Christ responded by classifying loving God and loving our neighbor as the first and second great commandments.  Obviously, these two commandments are “weightier matters of the law.”  Jesus then explains their significance by saying, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”  In other words, our respect for these weightier matters compels us to obey all of the other commands of God.  The commands to “Love God,” “Love your neighbor” and the “weightier matters” mentioned in Matthew 23 are general foundational principles.  They cover more territory than a specific law of God.  Paul illustrates this concept in reference to loving our neighbor:

Romans 13:8-9 “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

As Paul says, if we sincerely respect the general principle of, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” then we’ll also obey the specific commandments that forbid adultery, murder, stealing, lying and covetousness.  If you murder your neighbor, steal his property or slander him, then you are proving that you do not respect God’s general principle that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Here is the main point to remember about the weightier matters of the law:  Jesus calls these general principles, “weightier matters,” not because we are to obey them to the exclusion of more detailed commands, but rather because they serve as the foundation for these detailed commands.  We are sadly mistaken if we think that we can honor the weightier matters of the law while rejecting God’s specific laws about how to be saved, how to worship and how to live.  The scriptures prove that our faithfulness to the weightier matters must be displayed through our faithfulness to God’s specific commandments.

It is an abuse of Matthew 23:23-24 to say that Jesus is apathetic about the specific commands of God.  This passage actually shows just the opposite.  It displays God’s desire that we follow and teach all of His will—the specific details and “the weightier matters of the law.”


Article by: Brandon Stephens