“They are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (Romans 10:2)
(Matthew 23:24 – “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”).
A gnat is a pesky little thing. Anyone who’s ever found themselves swatting at one can relate to just how quickly a small thing can become a big distraction. Jesus once rebuked the teachers of the law and the Pharisees for their obsession with gnats. He basically accused them of gnat-pick’n, nit-picking. The definition of nit-picking is, “fussing over trifling matters.” According to the law, a gnat was an unclean insect and the Pharisees even went so far as to strain their water, picking out the gnats, to avoid accidentally swallowing one. I’d say that fits the definition of nit-picking pretty well. As amusing as this might seem however, we might want to hold off on our snickering because there’s still plenty of gnat-straining going on in some churches today. The Pharisees had classified over 600 laws in addition to God’s laws. Some churches have accumulated quite a number of them today as well. There are numerous religions and denominations today and virtually all of them come with their own gnat strainers!
In Matthew 23:25-29, Jesus addressed gnat-straining. He rebuked the Pharisees for nit-picking the little things, the insignificant things, yet failing to address what he considered “the weightier matters of the law.” Their traditions and man-made rules had become as important to them as God’s law itself. They were meticulous about observing ceremonial routines but were lacking when it came to inner purity. They cared more about looking holy than being holy. Jesus rebuked them for their hypocrisy. I have a feeling he would rebuke us today for ours as well. Jesus called the Pharisees, “Blind guides,” who, “strained out a gnat but swallowed a camel.” A camel is a hard thing to swallow! So is our own hypocrisy. A camel is a very large animal. You would have to be blind to miss it, yet we can be so distracted by those pesky little gnats that we do. We can be just as guilty of concentrating on following ceremonial church rules, while being disobedient in our behavior, as the Pharisees were. Jesus called this, “washing the outside of the cup, while leaving the inside unclean.” The Pharisees were extremely diligent about keeping up the outside condition of the temple for others to see, but failed to see the condition of their own hearts. Jesus compared them to, “whitewashed tombs that looked beautiful on the outside, but on the inside were full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” That’s pretty harsh, but Jesus didn’t mince words when he rebuked. A tomb cannot contain life. No matter how whitewashed it is on the outside, it will always contain death on the inside. We would be wise to consider the church we join ourselves to. It’s better to remain outside a whitewashed tomb and alive, than to be inside one and dead!
Another camel Jesus accused the Pharisees of swallowing had to do with their tithing. They faithfully tithed their tenth in everything, “mint, dill and cummin,” yet Jesus rebuked them for having “neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.” He said to them, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” The things we neglect to do is just as important to Jesus as doing the things we ought to do. Although they religiously tithed their ten percent, they didn’t bother to help those right in front of them who were in need. That’s a camel we all need to make sure we’re not swallowing! They were proud of their religious observances and works, but Jesus accused them of doing everything “for men to see.” They “loved the place of honor and the most important seats in the synagogues,” yet Jesus encouraged “taking the lowest seat,” rather than seeking a place of prestige. He said when giving, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. (Matt. 23:3). My interpretation: Don’t give with one hand, and wave about it with the other. Nothing is a stench in God’s nostrils so much as religious pride. The proverb, “Let another man’s lips praise you and not your own,” is a good rule of thumb when the temptation of exaltation comes along. And if other men do praise you, make sure they’re not using you as a tool of coercion by which to manipulate others. Proverbs 16:1 cautions, “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord.” Not everyone’s motives are as sincere as they might appear to be. Jesus instructs, “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” (Matt.23:2). They traded the reward of heaven for the praise of man. It was not a good trade on their part. It won’t be on ours either.
You can know if you’re straining out a gnat if you’re more concerned with outward rules and regulations than you are with inner renewal. In speaking of the Jewish people of his day, Paul said, “They are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (Romans 10:2). They were sincere in wanting to honor God in their ceremonial observances and customs, but they lacked a true understanding of God’s grace. Their faith was work-based. Paul addressed work-based righteousness in the church, saying, “Are you so foolish? After beginning in the Spirit are you now trying to obtain your goal by human effort?” (Gal. 3:3). He rebuked them for turning back to following rules and regulations in order to be acceptable in God’s sight, saying, “But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” Enslaved. That’s exactly what man-made rules do. They, “tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders” to carry. Paul puts an end to all this gnat-pick’n, nit-picking nonsense in affirming, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4). Being in right-standing with a denomination’s rules is not the same thing as being in right-standing with God, and being in right-standing with a denomination is of little consequence if you’re not standing by His grace. Strain all the gnats you want, make all the rules you desire, righteousness (right-standing with God) cannot be obtained through the keeping of the law or following man-made rules. Period. End of discussion. The NIV Life Application Study Bible commentary does a good job of putting gnat-pick’n, nit-picking in perspective, I think. It suggests, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty, in everything else, love.” Some things in the church are essential, some are not. We need to distinguish between the two according to God’s word, while making sure love is the foundation of all we do. We have to stop being obsessed with straining those pesky little gnats, before we choke ourselves to death swallowing those camels!
GNATS & CAMELS
I once had a pesky gnat fly right into my face
and so I made it my aim to put him in his place
For he could not just fly around doing whatever he wanted to do
flying in my face was breaking all the rules
And so I started swatting at him every time he would come around
until at last my persistence finally wore him down
Having no fight left in him to bother me anymore
filled with pride deep inside I showed him to the door
I was so excited over this battle I had won
and to know that all other gnats to my rule must now succumb
Sure it was a small little thing but it was to me a big aggravation
to which I felt deserving of my utmost concentration
So it was with great surprise to see that camel looming there
and know that to avoid swallowing him I didn’t have a prayer
For with my mouth still wide open from fussing at that bothersome gnat
I ran right into that camel and he took advantage of that
It was a hard thing to swallow but I learned a lesson that day
Be careful you don’t swallow a camel
trying to shoo a gnat away!
(“Blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:24)