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! (Matthew 23:23-24).
In His rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus accused them of straining out gnats while swallowing camels, both of which were unlawful for consumption under the Law of Moses (Leviticus 11:4,23). Pious Jews were known to strain beverages before drinking lest they should unwittingly imbibe anything that may have fallen into the cup and drowned, as strangled animals were also considered an abomination (cf. Acts 15:20). While we might think this practice laughable, consider the position of the Jew who was resolved not to offend any point of God’s law. Jesus did not condemn the straining of gnats. What He did condemn was the practice of such piety for show coupled with the blatant neglect of other things that were clearly stated in God’s law.
Consider, for example, the conduct of the scribes and Pharisees in the plot against Jesus. When Judas cast the silver down in the temple, they reasoned that it could not lawfully be put into the treasury (Matthew 27:5-7), even though it was probably from the treasury that this blood money had been taken! When Jesus was taken to Pilate’s hall, the Jews “did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover” (John 18:28), and yet they readily accepted the guilt of innocent blood (Matthew 27:25). They could not suffer the bodies of the slain to remain on the cross overnight (John 19:31), for this would have been a violation of the law (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was not that they took such care to follow the minute matters of the law, but rather that they omitted “the weightier matters” (Matthew 23:23). With respect to the payment of tithes for herbs, Jesus said, “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” Are we ever guilty of straining gnats while swallowing camels?
To avoid profaning our worship, there are some gnats that should be strained. Because the Lord said nothing of mechanical instruments or choirs and because they are not essential to our worship, these man-made additions should be strained out; but while we strain out the gnats, we must be sure not to swallow any camels. If I am not “making melody in my heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19), I may as well make melody with the strings of unauthorized instruments. If I do not “pray with the understanding” (1 Corinthians 14:15), I may as well pray in the name of Mary. When I partake of the Lord’s Supper, if I do not properly discern His body (1 Corinthians 11:28), I am eating and drinking my own condemnation (vs. 29)!
We can strain gnats and swallow camels in matters of fellowship. To avoid brining reproach to the kingdom, it is sometimes necessary to withdraw fellowship from wayward brethren. This is not something we are permitted to do; it is something we are commanded to do (2 Thessalonians 3:6; 1 Corinthians 5:7). As we strive for purity, however, we must make sure that we do not overlook the prerequisites of discipline. If discipline is not done out of love (Hebrews 12:6), it is meaningless, and can even be detrimental (2 Corinthians 2:8). If we never extend fellowship, it is impossible for us to withdraw it! If I never show love for my brother, how can I hope to restore him? I am just as guilty as he is.
When we strain out the gnats in our attempt to follow the law of God more perfectly, let us make sure to be careful not to swallow camels at the same time!
Copyright © 2017 by Roby Ellis, in The Elizabethton Edifier, November 27, 2016.