Chapter 4: The Weightier Matters of the Law
In Matthew 23:23, Jesus Christ listed what he called the “weightier matters of the law.” What was He talking about?
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”
Here, Jesus Christ confirms that all of God’s laws, including tithing, need to be kept. But He also emphasizes that there are weightier matters within that law. As Christ said, applying the spiritual principles of judgment, mercy and faith are vitally important!
These “weightier matters” are crucial in the administration of the spirit! These matters are what God’s ministers need to be concerned about most of all! We must understand, apply and teach the spirit—or spiritual intent—of God’s law.
We also must understand that to be a part of the administration of the spirit, God’s ministers must be filled with the love of God. God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) and God’s law is love (1 John 5:3). Indeed, God’s love is what underpins all the law—including these weightier matters. With that in mind, you could even say that love is the weightiest matter of the law (Luke 11:42).
Jesus Christ had some strong correction for those people who commanded the meticulous keeping of their interpretation of the letter of the law over the obvious spiritual intent of the law. In the verses following Matthew 23:23, Christ said they were like blind guides who lead people astray. He called them hypocrites who, while looking good and appearing righteous on the outside, were really like a whited sepulchre—an elaborately crafted tomb filled with dead men’s bones and uncleanness. In verses 33 and 35, Christ called them serpents and a generation of vipers, and said it was their kind of thinking that was responsible for killing the righteous from Abel to Zacharias! He warned them, “[H]ow can ye escape the damnation of hell?”
This is some of the strongest condemnation in the Bible! But notice the love behind these strong words of correction.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (verse 37). Christ was eager to forgive! Christ loves people, and He wants to cover them with his love as a hen covers her chicks. This is how we need to think and act as well.
Let’s deepen our understanding of these “weightier matters of the law”—judgment, mercy, faith and love.
In administering God’s government, many judgments must be made. This truly is a weighty matter of the law! Pastor General Gerald Flurry has stated that when making these judgments, ministers need wisdom, patience, finesse, boldness—and that love must inspire and motivate all their judgments. It must inspire and motivate how we speak to and deal with people. Every minister of God should pray for more of God’s love every single day.
Wisdom is a vital key required in making proper judgments. It is imperative that we get down on our knees daily to pray in detail for wisdom on how to solve problems. Such wisdom can come only from the mind of God. Put it to the test and see how many answers come while praying. With serious problems, fasting may be required.
Oftentimes, people like a list of do’s and don’ts for every possible situation. Providing such a list is not possible! Nowhere in God’s Word is there a list of every potential infraction of His law. God’s ministers cannot legislate every possible infraction of the law, because the law is spiritual (Romans 7:14), and God wants His people to understand the spiritual intent of the law (John 4:24). Both ministry and lay members should regularly pray to grow in wisdom so that we are able to apply the principles of the law. This magnifies the law and helps to ensure proper judgment.
Another vital key for proper judgment is God’s government. God’s government is hierarchical in form; you can read about it in Exodus 18. Judgments needed to be made for and concerning the people of Israel. Moses was simply unable to handle all this on his own. Positions under Moses were established, and duties were delegated accordingly. More serious matters were brought up the line to help ensure proper judgments were made. This is the same structure established for the New Testament Church—the administration of the spirit. When questions arise about how to proceed with a particular situation, the minister can take the matter up the line of authority to the regional director; if necessary, the regional director may take the matter all the way up to God’s apostle.
Following this biblical governance structure keeps God in the judgments being made. This is essential because God admonishes us in 2 Chronicles 19:6, “Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the Lord, who is with you in the judgment.” We are not judging for man but for God, and He must be with us in the judgment. Only He has perfect judgment in every situation. He knows exactly what to do. God wants us to learn to exercise righteous judgment like He does.
There are weightier matters of God’s law, and proper judgment (or justice) in applying the totality of God’s law is one of them.
“Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).
Concerning the phrase “Father of mercies,” Barnes Notes says, “This is a Hebrew mode of expression, where a noun performs the place of an adjective and the phrase is synonymous nearly with ‘merciful Father.’ The expression has, however, somewhat more energy and spirit than the simple phrase ‘merciful Father.’ The Hebrews used the word father often to denote the author or source of anything; and the idea in phraseology like this is, that mercy proceeds from God, that he is the source of it, and that it is His nature to impart mercy and compassion …” (emphasis added throughout).
God has lived for eternity, and His law is simply an expression of His perfect way of life. Mercy is a weightier matter of the law since God is the Father of mercies!
God even rules from a throne of mercy. The representation of God’s heavenly throne was called the mercy seat (e.g., Numbers 7:89). In the tabernacle, in the most holy place, was the ark of the covenant: a chest that housed Aaron’s rod, the Ten Commandments and a golden pot of manna. On top of the ark was the mercy seat. The law was enclosed with mercy!
What is God most concerned about? “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6-7). Is God going to be pleased with physical works alone? Will we receive God’s approval solely because of great tithes and offerings, for example?
Verse 8 answers: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” This is one of the major aspects of character that God wants from us: to love mercy! There is nothing physical about that. We need to pursue and cultivate a merciful mind. We must come to have a merciful mind that loves to see people forgiven. That is a weightier matter of the law!
Consider the parable of the debtor. In Matthew 18:21, Peter asked Jesus Christ how often a person needed to forgive a brother who sins against him. He wanted to know if there was a limit. Seven times? Christ replied, 70 times seven! Christ then gave a parable about a king who called his servants to pay the debts they owed him. When one debtor couldn’t pay the 10,000 talents he owed, the king commanded that the debtor’s family and all that he owned be sold to pay as much of the debt as possible. The stunned man fell to the ground at the king’s feet and begged for mercy, promising to pay if the king had patience with him.
The king was “moved with compassion” and released him—completely forgiving the debt (verse 27).
But look what happened next. Consider what this man who just had his debts forgiven did. This same servant went and tracked down a fellow servant who owed him a tiny amount of money. Instead of showing this man the same mercy that the king had exhibited, the evil servant threw this man into debtors’ prison until the debt was paid (verse 28-30).
When the king heard what had happened, he was very angry. He took the evil servant who would not show the same mercy that had been extended to him and threw him in jail. Then Jesus Christ said: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (verse 35).
Why was the king in this parable so angry about what the evil servant had done? Why was Christ so strong in his warning? According to the letter of the law, the one who lent the money had the legal right to throw that debtor in jail, and so he did. The point is that God has forgiven us greatly; therefore, we must likewise have the same merciful, forgiving attitude toward others!
While God is, indeed, very merciful, do not mistake His mercy for tolerance of sin.
Remember this powerful summary of the name of God recorded in Exodus 34:6-7: “The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.”
Yes, God is full of mercy, graciousness, forgiveness, and is very longsuffering. But there are serious consequences for sin, and very often those consequences have a lasting impact for decades and into future generations. So be thankful for God’s mercy and strive, with His help, to develop this same aspect of His character within yourself—but as stated before, never mistake God’s mercy for tolerance of sin.
Why is faith a weightier matter of the law? What is the relationship between faith and the law?
“Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31; New King James Version). The word establish means “to cause or make to stand, to make firm, fix, uphold or to keep intact.” Rather than doing away with the law, faith upholds God’s law.
In other words, it requires the faith of Christ to be able to properly keep the spiritual law of God. It means that we trust God to make obedience possible.
Some people might point to verse 28, where the Apostle Paul said that we are justified by faith, apart from the deeds of the law. Yet Paul also said that the doers of the law are justified (Romans 2:13).
Do these scriptures contradict each other? What exactly did Paul mean?
“Rather than contradict, these scriptures complement each other,” the Herbert W. Armstrong College Bible Correspondence Course says. “It is not by the deeds of the law—the actions themselves apart from faith—that we are justified (made righteous before God); that’s only possible through the faith of Christ in us. Yet all who have His faith and exercise it to make obedience possible—the doers of the law acting in faith—which makes it a living faith—are the ones who are justified by that faith!” (Lesson 13).
Simply put: The doers of the law who produce works inspired by faith are the ones who are justified. Righteous works follow faith; otherwise it is a dead faith (James 2:14-26).
It is Christ’s faith dwelling in us that trusts God to give us the love of the Holy Spirit to fulfill God’s law, enabling us to be righteous. If we were able of ourselves to supply the faith that brings about God’s love, then we would earn our own salvation by our works! But in fact, that kind of righteousness is as filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6).
It was precisely this wrongheaded approach to law-keeping that Paul condemned. There were those who rejected Christ and the righteousness that comes by the faith of Christ. They attempted by their own righteousness to keep the law as the means of being justified—made righteous before God. This self-righteousness is what Paul condemned. Paul wrote in Romans 10 that there were those who had zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. In verses 3-4, he stated: “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” The word “end” means aim, outcome or goal. The goal of keeping the law is to become like Christ!
We cannot become a born son of God without faith! Consider all of this within the context of what is recorded in Romans 14:23: “[W]hatsoever is not of faith is sin.”
Faith is indeed a weightier matter of the law! Anything not of faith is sin! This verse appears in the context of a vegetarian who sincerely believes that eating meat is a sin—yet when he is told it’s not a sin or sees other brethren eat meat, if he elects to eat it anyway while he still thinks it’s a sin, then it is a sin for him!
The Principles of Healthful Living booklet states: “We must follow what God has revealed to us to be right according to the Word of God. This does not mean that our consciences always tell us what is right—not at all. We have to continually study to learn what is right and wrong. But God thinks more highly of a vegetarian who might sincerely and conscientiously deny himself the clean meats because he does not know the full truth than He does a person who would do the right thing according to the letter, but who really believes in his heart that he is doing wrong.”
What God sanctions to be lawful may not be lawful for every individual—if the individual cannot act in faith!
Can we begin to understand why the weightier matters of the law cannot be legislated in the letter only? God is building character in us, and character-building requires that we exercise judgment, mercy and faith so we learn to think as God thinks! This requires God’s Spirit—His mind—to be actively at work in us, joined with our human spirit. That is why we have weightier matters of the law: because the law expresses how God thinks and lives!
Now let’s look at what we might call the weightiest of all the matters of the law.
Luke 11:42 is the parallel passage to Matthew 23:23, quoted earlier: “But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”
Romans 13:10 says that love fulfills the law. In other words, the whole law, God’s way of life, is summed up in that one word, love—because God is love.
Mr. Armstrong defined the spiritual law of God as “a general principle which, in its spirit, covers every act. God expects for us today to apply the principle to every act. … In the Bible, God does not write down every specific detail of the principle or spirit of His law! He expects us, with His Holy Spirit, to apply the principle to every circumstance, act or question” (Good News, March 1979).
The trouble is, almost no one knows what love really is.
Notice how Mr. Armstrong defined it: “‘Love is an ‘unselfish outgoing concern’ for the good and welfare of the one loved. Love is primarily on the giving, serving, sharing side of the fence—not on the getting, taking, factional, striving side. It is not selfish. …
“Love is unselfish. It is not an emotion, though it may be expressed with an emotional content. True love combines the rational aspect of outgoing concern—desire to help, serve, give or share—along with sincere concerned affectionate feeling” (The Missing Dimension in Sex).
God’s love (from the Greek word agape) is not an emotion. This kind of love comes from outside of us—from God Himself. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” God has to give it. Emotion comes from within. God’s love is from without.
Notice what Christ said when one of the Pharisees challenged Him on what the greatest commandment in the law is: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5).
The First Commandment is the most important. Every other point of the law flows from that one. Keeping God at the center of everything we do is the essence of this commandment. A list of do’s and don’ts may help us understand, in part, how to keep this foremost commandment—but a list could never fully express the spirit of that all-encompassing law.
Even getting excited about the Bible’s prophecies is not as important as getting to know the God behind those prophecies!
Matthew 22:39-40 continue: “And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Loving God includes loving His Family—God’s Spirit-begotten saints—more than we love ourselves. Our neighbors, whom we love as ourselves, are those in this world who have yet to be called and converted.
The Apostle John wrote: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him” (1 John 5:1).
“That is one of the most beautiful scriptures in the Bible,” wrote Gerald Flurry in the July-August 2004 Royal Vision. “You are to have the same love toward those who are begotten as you do toward God, the one who begat. You are to have the same love, because they are now members of God’s Family; they are begotten of the Father. That could never apply to our neighbor.
“Of course, we place the Father and our Husband, Christ, at the head of this family of love. Nobody could ever replace them. But when someone enters the God Family, the Father wants them to receive the same love He receives. He wants you to love that new member with all your heart, soul, strength and mind—more than you love yourself. That is what makes a family work!
“Paul tells us in Philippians 2:3 to ‘let each esteem other better than themselves.’ That is talking about those in the Family of God. We can love those in the world as ourselves, but we must love God’s Family more. What better way to unify God’s Family than to grow more deeply in this kind of love?”
As it is written, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The Greek word for charity is agape—which is the very love of God! This love is what must fill us if we are going to be able to understand, teach, live by and administer the weightier matters of the law!