Gnats and Camels

Question

What does Matt. 23:24 mean?

Answer

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

Matthew 23:24 is a rather funny proverb that makes a very serious point concerning hypocrisy. It evokes some laughter to help us understand and remember the evils of hypocrisy.

Old Testament law forbade eating certain types of flying insects (cf. Lev. 11:20-23). Gnats fell under this specific law. Because water, wine and vinegar may have contained gnats, Pharisees would strain these liquids through cloth before drinking them to avoid accidentally swallowing a gnat and therefore violate the law.

In this verse Jesus is contrasting the above careful practice with swallowing a camel — something much larger than a mere gnat! And this centers on swallowing it in a single gulp. Wow! Talk about a Big Gulp!

Jesus’ hyperbolic point was that Pharisees took great pains to avoid offense in smaller things (barely noticeable gnat-like sins) while tolerating much greater sins such as adultery, murder, lying (obvious camel-size sins). As Jesus states, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23), meaning that they were liable for every aspect of the law – both small and great. As are we!

This puts us all in a very precarious position, doesn’t it. Naturally speaking, we may have kept some of the law, but there is no way we have kept it all. Some of us have violated the law in small ways, others in big ways, and yet others in both ways. However, we are mandated to keep the entire law in every way in every hour of every day. As James says, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (Jas. 2:10). Catch that? Guilty of all of it! So, we are in really bad shape

But Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17-18), and he redeems his people from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13). In what we call "the great exchange," Jesus imputes his righteousness to believers and he takes all their unrighteousness — including every violation of the law — and nails it to his cross. Those offenses are forgiven and the believer is at peace with God (Rom. 5:1-2). Only in Christ is there salvation.

We should be concerned with being a Christian in every aspect of life (the home, our jobs, hobbies, politics, speech, social media, etc.). We shouldn’t sin in either small or great matters. Sometimes we mess up and it requires a public apology, and other times it requires us to go to another individual in private. Whatever it takes, do not be a hypocrite!

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).