Summary: We need to learn to discern between the greater and lesser commands of the Bible.
GNATS AND CAMELS AND BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
Let’s start off with a thought question. Think about this:
Agree or Disagree: Some parts of the Bible are more important than others.
Be careful. I’m not asking this question:
Agree or Disagree: Some parts of the Bible are unimportant.
At first, we might react negatively to the first statement. But I think that happens because we confuse the first question with the second one. No human being has the right to say that part of the Bible is unimportant. It may not be interesting to us, it may not be relevant to topics we are discussing, but we cannot say that it’s not important.
Yet, it’s important to see that not every passage of scripture is as important as every other passage. For example, look at these two passages:
Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Genesis 11:12 When Arphaxad had lived 35 years, he became the father of Shelah.
I think that it’s obvious that a passage that tells us about the identity of our Creator is more important than a passage that contains a genealogy.
OK, here’s another one:
Agree or Disagree: Some commandments in the Bible are more important than others.
Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
This one is easy because Jesus said that some matters of the law were more important than others. So it’s obvious that some commandments are more important than others. We mustn’t forget that the other commandments are important, for Jesus says you should have done the one without neglecting the other. But we should focus on the camels not on the gnats.
So our task, as children of God who want to do what God wants, our task is to learn to determine what things are more important than others.
Some might say that this is easy, that we follow the commands in the New Testament, not those in the Old Testament. I don’t fully agree with that statement, because I know that the Bible of the early church was the Old Testament and that when Paul tells Timothy that all scripture is inspired and is useful for teaching, he’s talking directly about the Old Testament, the scriptures that Timothy had known from his youth. However, we do have to admit that the direct teaching for the church is contained in the New Testament, so when I look for commands to be obeyed, I look first to the New Testament. But even then, we have to learn to distinguish the camels from the gnats. Take this command, for instance:
II Tim. 4:13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.
Does anyone here think that we need to make a trip to Troas to get Paul’s belongings? Of course not. That’s an easy one. But they’re not all that easy. How do we know what are the weightier matters, how do we know which are the commandments that are most important?
One thing that helps me is to look at the frequency with which the Bible talks about something. The New Testament contains the teaching of the apostles. It shows us what they talked about when they taught the young Christians in the early church. That’s one reason that I have no problem in taking a strong stand on baptism. Do you realize that almost every writer in the New Testament makes a direct reference to baptism? Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul all make direct references to baptism. It’s not a side issue; it’s something that the Bible talks about consistently. It’s a camel.
In the same way, I’m not too worried about the subject of women having to wear veils in church. It’s only mentioned in one passage, in I Corinthians, and seems to be addressing a specific situation in the Corinthian church. Within the totality of the New Testament teaching, it’s a gnat. It’s certainly no camel.
There’s also another way to find some of the truly important topics. And this way is much easier. We can find some of the things that are of first importance because the Bible itself tells us they are more important! Just as Jesus said that justice, mercy and faithfulness are the more important matters of the law, in the same way the Bible identifies other things that are important for us. Let’s look at two areas:
(1) Most important commandments. This is an obviously important area. What are the most important commands for us? Let’s let Jesus tell us.