Straining out a Gnat and Swallowing a Camel

by Mike Ratliff

24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:24 ESV)

A huge trap that Christians can fall into is self-righteousness. It is a form of idolatry and that always causes spiritual blindness (Romans 1:24-25). Self-righteousness puts all effort towards godliness in the wrong place. It creates a form of piety that is all about outward appearances while putting little or no priority on matters of the heart. It is all about being concerned about appearances and what others think rather than being totally committed to abiding in Christ from within first. The self-righteous are consciously holy. However, that is not what we are called to be. Christians must be consciously repentant and unconsciously holy. The difference is huge for these are totally opposite.

The self-righteous view their sanctification from the viewpoint of what they do through works in order to be worthy. The humble Christian, on the other hand, views his or her sanctification as God’s work in them as they walk in repentance by His grace. Their works are simply acts of obedience while their worth is all wrapped up in who their Saviour is instead of what they have done.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24 ESV)

Those being rebuked by our Lord were so blind in their self-righteousness that most of them could not comprehend what He was saying. They only perceived that His message did not match their expectations so it could not be right. Our Lord called them hypocrites. This is the Greek word ὑποκριτής or hupokritēs. This is the word that the Greeks used for actors who performed on stage wearing a mask impersonating a character. Therefore, when our Lord called the scribes and Pharisees ὑποκριτής he was accusing them of pretending to be one thing when they were something else. These fellows went so far as to count out their mint, dill and cumin in order to precisely tithe from them. They were zealous for the forms and ceremonies of the Law, but neglected the weightier matters of it, which are justice and mercy and faithfulness.

The Greek word for “neglected” here is ἀφίημι or aphiēmi. This is the same word used in Matthew 27:50 describing our Lord voluntarily giving up His spirit, but it is also used to describe forsaking or leaving such as in Matthew 4:20 when Andrew and Peter “left” their nets to follow Jesus. It also means to omit or neglect as in these scribes and Pharisees not adhering to the weightier matters of the law while pursuing only the outer appearance of righteousness. The word picture our Lord gives us here is it as if they jettisoned walking in repentance for the much easier dedication to religiosity.

The gnat was the smallest unclean animal in Israel while the camel was the largest. Our Lord used hyperbole to make His point about the hypocrisy of these men. He compared their dedication to religiosity while they ἀφίημι the weightier matters of the Law to their insistence on straining their liquids through a cloth in order to make sure no gnats would make their drink unclean. It was their hypocrisy that compounded their guilt to the point that it was as if they made sure they drank no gnats, but in their spiritual blindness, they swallowed a camel.

What does this mean for us my brethren? The sins of the heart are fully known by God who searches there continually. Therefore, we must be conscientiously abstaining from them. This is living intentionally to seek inner cleanness before God above all. How do we do this? We obey Him in our helplessness. We recognize that we are incapable of doing good outside of His grace. Then we obey God in His power with our Lord’s Joy strengthening us. If we seek to walk before the face of God in our own strength and abilities then we will become self-righteous. This will cause us to lose the joy of the Lord and then we will soon find ourselves on a slippery slope of self-righteousness that is void of any ability to fulfill. Self-righteousness causes a form of spiritual blindness that keeps us focused on self while viciously putting down others who threaten our comfort zones.

Let us examine ourselves my brethren. Let us first clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside may also be clean.

Soli Deo Gloria!

5 thoughts on “Straining out a Gnat and Swallowing a Camel

  1. Reblogged this on A Common Life and commented:
    Very thought provoking. Goes along with a discussion my husband and I had recently, which was that there is no mystery or need for God to ‘speak to us’ about how to live. He’s spelled it all out in Scripture; we’re to live according to what is written. Too often we can think doing this or that makes us more holy, but we have to be so careful about our hearts deceiving us, which is why we ought to just do what He has said. There will be no new revelation and we don’t get personal revelation–He’s revealed all to us in His word already. Amen. ~Ann

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  2. When we obey God, how do we know what His will is? Do we do what is written in Scripture? If so, that is where we find the Law of God. If someone says we should keep the law they are accused of legalism. What is the difference?

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  3. Chava, your question is an attempt at setting up a false dichotomy. Christians are commanded to obey the teachings of our Lord Jesus and his Apostles. That is what is contained in the New Testament. Paul was very clear in the book of Galatians that Salvation is not obtained by keeping the Law, but the Law is our guide. It is good and pure. Obeying the 10 Commandments for instance is a good thing not legalism. Those who accuse us of legalism for saying that are antinomians and not to be listened to. On the other hand, those who demand that Christians must keep the entire Sinaiac Conventional Law which includes all the ceremonial laws and the keeping of all the Jewish feasts, etc. are the ones are are being legalistic. Keeping the moral law is not.

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