The Weightier Matters of the Law

    Series: Equipping the Saints
    August 6, 2023
    George Robertson

    Applying biblical wisdom to certain ethical issues can be challenging. In some cases, we can find ourselves feeling at odds between biblical truth and its practical application. We ask questions like, “How can I practice faithfulness to both God and my friend who has invited me to their same-sex wedding? How can I practice justice when God calls me to love my neighbor, but they are here illegally? How do we apply mercy to a woman who is pregnant but became so apart from her choice or will not have the means to care for the child?” As public debate over these issues and many others comes to the forefront in the public discourse, as Christians we need a guide for how to respond.

    The Apostle Peter characterized our identity as Christians in this position with two words: “elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1). As “elect,” Christians are part of God’s chosen people and live, ultimately, in his kingdom. As “exiles,” Christians currently live in a world that is not their permanent home. That is, the values of this world will never perfectly match the values of God’s kingdom until “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). In the meantime, we are called to faithfully follow king Jesus and seek the peace of the place in which we are living.

    This means that until Jesus returns, we will always be living in a kind of tension. That is, we will be striving to see God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven while, at the same time, realizing only Jesus will bring it in full in his timing. There are two main ways we can respond to this reality. On the one hand, we can isolate ourselves in disillusionment with the disfunction we observe and try to create a kind of micro-kingdom on earth. We pull away. On the other hand, we can adopt the prevailing values of the culture around us and essentially become indistinguishable from the kingdom of this world. We blend in. Neither option fully embraces the identity we have been given as elect exiles. Both are reductionistic.

    Pulling away is reductionistic because God intends to rule and reign over all creation, not just a small part. Moreover, he has called us to join him in that work. Blending in is reductionistic because by adopting the values of any human group or system, we become identified primarily with that group or system rather than with the kingdom of God. Because all people are broken by sin, no family, group, or system should perfectly represent Christians outside of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. More than that, each of us has been given the Holy Spirit and the freedom to exercise wisdom in matters of conscience and each of us is accountable to God. Our posture when it comes to ethical decisions, then, is to humbly ask the Spirit to guide us and resolve to act for God’s glory and the good of our neighbor.

    The Weightier Matters of the Law

    By encountering toxic false teaching about the relationship between God and the law among the religious leaders of his day, Jesus provided us a guide for how to think about ethical decisions for which the right decision may not be immediately clear. In fact, in one day he managed to expose the spiritual bankruptcy of both major Jewish sects of the time, the Sadducees and Pharisees. After comparing the prodigal celebration of the kingdom of God to a king’s wedding feast, both groups sought to impale him on the horns of invented ethical dilemmas (Matthew 22:1-40). The Sadducees invented a convoluted marriage scenario which Jesus dismissed with two sentences about the total fulfillment the resurrection will provide to each of God’s people. The Pharisees ventured two questions, which were both examples of an either-or fallacy. One was an attempt to force Jesus to say a disciple could not be a faithful citizen of both the kingdom of God and a political state. The second was much more serious—an effort to get Jesus to say one of God’s commandments was more important than any other.  

    Jesus’ answer to this question, “which is the greatest commandment” and his subsequent unpacking of the answer defines the central ethical construct of the Christian life. Applying that construct to every ethical decision is essential to living as the Father desires. Jesus said, “The greatest commandment is, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40). Loving God and neighbor are the primary considerations of any ethical choice. But Jesus further defined love in his denouncement of the Pharisees’ heartless legalism when he identified the “weightier matters of the law” as justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).  

    What Jesus calls “weightier matters of the law,” ethicist David Jones calls “primary forms of love,” a “threefold response mirroring the moral qualities exhibited in the Lord’s gracious initiative of salvation” demonstrated in his pledge of troth to his people in Hosea 2:19-20, “And I will betroth you to me forever, I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.”[1] The justice, mercy, and faithfulness of God to his beloved people will provoke the same loving response, “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God” (Hosea 12:6).  

    So if justice, mercy, and faithfulness form the foundation for ethical decision making, what does the Bible have to say about each of these. Let’s look at each one briefly.


    What is justice according to Scripture? According to the classicists, justice is defined as “rendering to every man his due [suum cuique].”[2] But long before Cicero (106-43 BC), Solomon said, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it” (Proverbs 3:27). Paul defined justice similarly while repeating Jesus’ summary of the law: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). The Hebrew word translated “justice” in the Old Testament and informing the Jewish authors’ thought in the New Testament is mishpat, which “in the term that is used to refer to God-given rules that embody proper relationships between persons and thus provides an index to the fundamental justice in biblical ethics.”[3]

    The question such a definition begs—render to each his or her due—is who determines what each person is due? As Christians, our conviction is that God created us in his image and has endowed us with rights defined by his word. Those rights are implied in the Ten Commandments, the foundation for all the ethical prescriptions of Scripture and a summary of what is inscribed on every human being’s conscience (Romans 1:8-19; 2:15).[4] Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff outlines those rights. In the first five commandments he finds “freedom rights” which may be summarized as the “freedom to follow one’s calling” (worship, speech, assembly, movement). In the last five, Wolterstorff sees “protection rights” (life, marriage, property, name); and sustenance rights (food, clothing, shelter, health care).[5]  

    As the Decalogue is applied in redemptive history, justice as applied to human rights takes on three forms: discerning, structural, and protective. Protective justice refers to “rights which persons, because of social weakness, are unable to defend themselves” (Exodus 23:6; Deuteronomy 24:17; 27:19).[6] God intends for his image bearers to be defended on one side by those who wisely discern between right and wrong and render just judgments for those being denied their God-given rights. On the other side, he intends for institutions (e.g. state, church, home, school, commercial organizations) to provide societal structures protecting the rights of his image bearers.  

    How does biblical justice manifest itself and testify to the love of the gospel? To act justly is for the image bearer to assume that he not only has inalienable human rights, so does everyone else. Not only is each one of us due freedom, protection, and sustenance, we must pursue the same for those around us. Furthermore, the weaker a member of society is—by age, physique, socio-economic status—the more protection they are owed. On the other hand, the more power one has physically, by influence or in society, the more responsibility she has to protect the vulnerable. Therefore, laws must be applied, and societal structures must be harnessed to ensure protection for the most vulnerable in all situations.


    Mercy is the second rule for loving well. The Hebrew word translated “mercy” in the Old Testament is hesed for which there is no adequate English translation. To convey the theological pregnancy of the word, we must stack onto “mercy” words like “grace,” “compassion,” or “covenant love.” The Greek equivalent in the New Testament, charis, is different from any other use in extra-biblical literature.[7] One of my Old Testament professors used to say, “Hesed is love set in concrete!”[8] However, one word not interchangeable with it is “justice.” These two words need each other but they are not the same. One scholar demonstrates mercy’s (hesed) distinction from justice (mishpat) with this summary:  

    Numerous instances in which (i) hesed denotes behavior that copes with an emergency for which custom and contract provide no norms; (ii) hesed is an expression of love and generosity which a person need not have been expected to do (hesed is not obligatory); hesed behavior is surprising, ingenious (the stories are told, and they are exciting, precisely because they are so unusual); (iv) the act of hesed is supremely meritorious, but the performer could not have been blamed for its omission; (v) hesed issues in covenant, rather than from covenant.[9] 

    The primary text showcasing the richness of hesed is Exodus 34:6-7 where God reveals the essence of his being (“glory”) to Moses’ demand for God to prove he is capable of leading the idolatrous Israelites into the Promised Land (Exodus 33:18). In this passage, hesed is coupled with words like “compassion,” and “truth.” When the whole passage is alluded to in Psalm 86:15, hesed is followed by “faithfulness.”  

    After reviewing all occurrences of hesed in the Old Testament, one scholar gives this brief but brilliant synopsis: “The implication is that hesed is one of the words descriptive of the love of God.”[10] In other words, hesed cannot be fully translated because the love of God is too great to comprehend. It is the way God has been pursuing sinners made in his image ever since our first parents fled him. Frederick Martin Lehman describes this love brilliantly in his famous hymn “The Love of God is Greater Far”:  

    The love of God is greater far  
    Than tongue or pen can ever tell. 
    It goes beyond the highest star 
    And reaches to the lowest hell. 
    The guilty pair, bowed down with care 
    God gave His Son to win. 
    His erring child He reconciled 
    And pardoned from his sin.[11] 

    Giving and receiving hesed is to love as Francis Andersen might say in “surprising [and] ingenious” ways.[12]


    The third “weightier matter” of the law is faithfulness. Not only does God reveal himself throughout Scripture as just and merciful, he is faithful in all he does. God’s faithfulness guarantees the grace of his covenant love. If anyone understood God’s faithfulness, it was Moses who observed God’s tenacious love for an erring people. In his parting words to the children of Israel, Moses reminded his people their God was the same “faithful God” (el-emunah) who revealed himself at the beginning of their journey to the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 7:6-10; 32:3-4). If hesed is God’s love “set in concrete,” emunah is God’s “hard-headed” love for us; that is, he is determined to love us, and he won’t be persuaded otherwise. God’s faithfulness makes God’s justice and mercy reliable, not capricious. In fact, his faithfulness renews his mercies “every morning” (Lamentations 3:21-23).  

    God’s faithful and unconditional maintenance of love for his children is described in Scripture as his “steadfast, sure love for David” (2 Samuel 7:28; Isaiah 55:3-4). That faithful love was proven infallibly through Jesus Christ, the “root and the descendant of David” (Revelation 22:16) in whom all “the promises of God find their Yes” (2 Corinthians 1:20). By bringing believers into “fellowship of his Son” Jesus Christ, God enables us to reproduce his faithfulness in our relationships (1 Corinthians 1:8-9). In our union with Christ, we become trustworthy people (benai emuna, cf. 2 Kings 12:15; 1 Corinthians 4:1-2). Because God is faithful, he not only forgives the sins of his children, but also enables them to escape temptation (1 John 1:9; 1 Corinthians 10:13).  

    Over the next several months, we’ll be developing resources to equip you to apply justice, mercy, and faithfulness to specific relevant issues. We may engage each of these issues  with the confidence that comes from the promise of Hebrews 13:20–21

    Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

    [1] David Clyde Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 78-79.

    [2] Cicero, De Officiis, trans. Walter Miller (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1903), 17.

    [3] Jones, Biblical Ethics, 83.

    [4] On this C.S. Lewis said, “The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or…ideologies…all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess,” Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 28.

    [5] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 82.

    [6] James Barr, “Ancient Biblical Laws and Modern Human Rights,” in Justice and the Holy: Essays in Honor of Walter Harrelson, ed. Douglas A. Knight and Peter J. Paris (Atlanta: Scholars, 1989), 26 in David Clyde Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 85.

    [7] C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (London: Hodder, 1935), 61-62 in Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 87.

    [8] Paul Gilchrist.

    [9] Francis I. Andersen, “Yahweh, The Kind and Sensitive God,” in God Who is Rich in Mercy, ed. Peter T. O’Brien and David G. Peterson (Homebush West NSW, Australia: Lancer-Anzea, 1986), 41-88. Quoted in Jones, Biblical Ethics, 88.

    [10] R. Laird Harris, et al. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 307.

    [11] “The Love of God is Greater Far,” Frederick Martin Lehman (1868-1953) (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing, 1951).

    [12] Francis Anderson, “Yahweh, the Kind and Sensitive God,” 44.

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