"The Weightier Matters of the Law"

Matt. 23:23

In Matt. 23:23, Jesus, rebuking the Pharisees, says, "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."

Let us consider 3 questions that arise from this passage (there are certainly other lessons to be drawn, but we have limited time and ability).

What are justice, mercy, and faith?

Why are these the weightier matters of the law?

What are the weightier matters now?

I. Justice, Mercy, and Faith

Justice - Justice to others (men), whether as rulers or citizens. This has to do with dealing righteous judgment, and in giving to all their due, according to law and morals.

Mercy - Compassion and kindness (to men). Mercy is having compassion on the pitiful and needy, and rendering justice tempered with an accurate and Godly understanding of the circumstances. It is also forgiveness and tenderness toward those who are at fault.

Faith - Piety and confidence (to God); rendering to God that which is due Him. I believe that faith here is a righteous faith, and includes righteousness. It is the type of reliance on God that would permeate and shape every activity every day. David's faith as expressed in the psalms is an example of this. Just one example is all we have time for, but in Ps. 16:7-8, David writes, "I will bless the Lord Who has given me counsel; My heart also instructs me in the night seasons. I have set the Lord always before me; Because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved."

Notice that the first two of the three "weightier matters" (WM) concern behavior directed toward men, while the third is on behavior toward God. This parallels nicely with Jesus' answer in Matt. 22:37-40, when questioned as to the greatest commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God...," and the second, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Then, note the final comment on these two, in v.40: "On these two commandments hang all the law and the Prophets." The first deals with man's relation to God, and the second, man's relationship to man.

II. Why are these the "weightier matters"?

These principles comprise the foundation of the whole law of God. The point that Jesus wanted them to see was that the Law of Moses was not just a collection of specific commandments for them to follow, a sort of "spiritual cookbook" with which they could earn their way into heaven. It was a guide, a road map, to the kind of behavior that God expected from His children. However, the Pharisees, and indeed, most of the Jews, had missed out on the greatest portion of it, which was that God wanted their hearts, not just their physical service. They thought that if they went through all the forms of physical obedience, that they were fine, no matter what their character was.

The Jews were good about sacrificing, even long after they had ceased to serve God. In Is. 1:10-18, God tells them that He has no use for their sacrifices while their hands are full of wickedness. [Read] In a similar passage, Amos 5:21, God condemns their service to Him, saying, "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings." Why? Because they had neglected all the weightier matters, as He says in verse 12, "I know your manifold transgressions, and your mighty sins..." They might have said, "But Lord, what do you want?" He continues as though to answer the unspoken question, in verse 24: "But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Again, in Zech. 7:8-14, we can read how that God sent His people into captivity for their failure to have these traits. Is. 43:23-24 tells essentially the same story. In many places, God repeats this theme. He tells them, "Don't even try to sacrifice to Me if you are not trying to live like I've told you. I don't want it."

In the story of Saul and the Amalekites, Samuel told Saul, "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." (I Sam. 15:22). In Psalms 51, David's outpouring of grief at his sin with Bathsheba, he says in vv.16-17, "For you do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart--These, O God, You will not despise." And in Hosea 6:6, God says, "For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings."

But why would God not delight in sacrifice, when He commanded it? It is because the sacrifices are a concession that God makes for our sakes, not for His own. He does not desire the sacrifices from us, as though He needed them. They are the means that God gave us to allow men to escape His just punishment when we err. It is not His desire that we offer sacrifice. His desire for us is that we should emulate His character, which would remove the need for trespass offerings. Thus, any person who was sacrificing for sin was doing so to appease the wrath of God, Whom they had affronted, while a person who served Him was well-pleasing in His sight.

In Micah 6:7-8, God told them, in the plainest language of all, what He desires. Yet they did not understand, not even the Pharisees and Sadducees and rabbis who claimed to be teachers of the law.

In Matt. 23:16-19, Christ tells them that they have failed to show discernment in their oaths; they have missed the point. They had done the same thing with the keeping of the commandments. He quotes a proverb in v.24, and then wraps it up in vv. 25-26, by explaining that they are approaching "righteousness from the wrong side. "First cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also." They had spent all their time scrubbing and painting the outside of a filthy, despicable cup, thinking that God wouldn't look at the inside.

We know from the Old Testament that this is not the case, as they should have. When God sent Samuel to anoint a successor to King Saul, who had proved unfaithful, Samuel watched seven likely candidates pass before him before God told him to anoint the youngest son of Jesse, the boy David. But God explained to Samuel in I Sam. 16:7, saying, "For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."

III. What are the weightier matters now?

Looking at other passages that sum up the duty of man, it is obvious that what God expects from His children has not changed. In Eccl. 12:13, we find the whole duty of man summed up: "Fear God and keep His commandments." In the New Testament, there is more detail given about what our character should be. This reflects the change in God's covenant nation from a physical to a spiritual one. Gal. 5:22-25 lists the fruit of the Spirit, but there are many other passages that teach the same sort of thing.

The dual purpose of Christ's coming to earth was to provide perfection: the perfect sacrifice, to provide us a way of escape, and the perfect example, to show us how we should live. But His example was not in minute, everyday detail the way the Law of Moses was, but in character, giving us a full account of the character of God Himself.

There is no denying the connection between our physical acts of obedience or disobedience and our acceptability to God. In Matt. 7:15-20, Jesus teaches us that "by their fruits ye shall know them." In Matt. 12:33-35, He says that "The fruit shows what is in the heart." And in Jn. 14:23-24, Jesus tells us that "If any man loves Me, he will keep my commandments."

The New Testament gives us the clearest picture of all of how we should live. But it is not a new way to live that God decided upon just in time for the New Testament. God's character never changes, as we can read in Jas. 1:17. Neither, then, has God's desire for us changed, since what He has desired from the first is that we serve Him, and try to be as He is.

There is therefore no reason for us to recognize some sort of dichotomy between a law that is a list of commandments and a law that is a spiritual one. The new law does not free us from the responsibility to obey. It frees us from the otherwise inescapable consequences of our imperfections. This is one of the main themes of Paul's letter to the Romans. And yet, if we miss the point of God's requirements, as the Pharisees did, then we, too, will leave undone the "weightier matters" of the law.

Justice, mercy, and faith together make up the basic fundamental aspects of the character of a servant of God, as they always have. They are not "weightier" in the sense of coming first on some list of commandments to keep. They are weightier because all else depends on these. In I Jn.5:1-5, we can read that the person with the proper attitude and character will keep the other commandments. If our hearts are right with God, our lives will follow.


Additional note: Matt. 19:18-21 -- The rich young ruler -- why did Jesus require that of him? Because obeying the commandments ("All these things have I kept from my youth up. What lack I yet?") without first having the proper character is unacceptable to God.