Always Do the Higher Commandment First

            Herman Bavinck’s, Reformed Ethics: The Duties of the Christian Life, is essential reading for reformed pastors in this writer’s opinion. I have been reading through it recently and was much benefitted by the second chapter of this volume, “Collision and Classification of Duties.” The gist of the chapter is answering the question of what is our duty when two courses or commandments seem to clash. Of course, some people would deny that there can ever be such a collision of duties. Bavinck disagrees while maintaining that the cause of the collision is sin. As he writes:

However, in no way does this mean that the singular law of God is laying upon us, in two of its commandments, differing, mutually exclusive duties that would force us in every case to violate one duty or commandment, and thereby compel us to sin. That is impossible; this would conflict with the unity and holiness of the law and of God himself. No, if two commandments come to us, and one of them, the lesser one, is neglected in order to uphold the greater one, then the lesser yields to the greater, and then the lesser commandment ceases for that time to oblige us to follow it. At that time it is our duty, while doing the greater, not to heed the lesser. This is precisely a proof for the unity and harmony of the law; the lower commandment itself yields to the higher one. Jesus says this himself in Matthew 12:5 (NRSV): “Or have you never read in the law that on the sabbath day the priests of the temple breakthe sabbath and yet are guiltless?”[1]

            This Scriptural distinction between greater commandments and lesser commandments is practically denied by many people. The Pharisees to whom Jesus addressed His question in Matthew 12:5 were of that wrong opinion. They viewed Jesus with jaundiced eyes and were always watching His every movement to see if they could catch Him in some disobedience to the law. When He healed on the Sabbath day, they were incensed. When He and His disciples did not wash their hands before eating, they asked Him, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” (Matthew 15:2). In the case mentioned by Bavinck, the Pharisees had said to Jesus, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath” (Matthew 12:2). Technically, it certainly seemed that the Pharisees had the high moral ground on that issue. But, they did not. The verses just previous to Matthew 12:5 give us fuller details of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees. He first asks them: “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?” (Matthew 12:3, 4). William Hendriksen, perhaps the greatest commentator on the Scripture of the twentieth century, lays down several principles which flow from Jesus’ response:

a. Necessity knows no law… b. Every rule has its exception… c. Showing mercy is always right… d. The Sabbath was made for man, not vice versa… e. Sovereign ruler over all, including the sabbath, is the Son of man.[2]

            Of course, those principles are the headings for Henriksen’s comments that followed. Leaving the Sabbath issue aside for a moment, the first three of those rules are useful in almost every situation. The Pharisees did not agree that “necessity knows no law.” They did not agree that “every rule has its exception.” And, they were unmerciful by nature so they did not agree that “showing mercy is always right.” Thus, they were certain that Jesus and His disciples were wrong and were disregarding the sabbath. 

            I found out with joy on Friday that Pastor Steve Richardson in Tillsonburg, Ontario had received great leniency from the civil magistrate in his case before the court. Steve had refused to follow the Covid mandates of the Canadian government and continued to lead his congregation in worship despite the restriction to limit it to 10 people. He was ticketed by the police and threatened with up to 6 years imprisonment and $600,000 in fines. The possibility of spending time in jail weighed heavy on his heart, especially as the court date arrived. Yet, Steve gave a speech to the judge in which he affirmed his willingness to obey the civil magistrate, but that he also has a higher responsibility to obey God. As Peter said to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men.” Afterwards, the judge fined Steve $3,000 and court costs. Additionally, Steve will have to pay the attorney’s fees. Yet, that is a great victory in light of what might have been. Praise God for His grace. 

            These are all examples of the responsibility to distinguish between the greater commandments and the lesser commandments. There are times, as Bavinck stated, that lesser commandments must be yielded in order to uphold the greater commandment. Those are exceptions. Martyn Lloyd-Jones use to say, “The exceptions prove the rule.” Those exceptions do not destroy the rule, but support it. On the other hand, if the lesser rule or commandment is obeyed at the expense of the greater commandment, then legalism prevails and grace is destroyed. 

            When David and his men ate the shewbread, they were supporting the sustainment of life over a rule that was only temporary in nature. When Jesus and His disciples plucked ears of grain on the Sabbath, they were doing the same. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, He was showing that human life is worth more than the life of an ox that fell in the ditch. Here are some guidelines that Bavinck gives to help us resolve the collision of duties: 

Duties toward God take precedence over duties toward ourselves and the neighbor, family, country, government, and so forth. … The commandments of the first table come before those of the second table.[3]   

When duties of the same class conflict with each other (for example duties to myself or to my family), the weightiest duties take precedence. There are degrees among the virtues, among moral goods.[4]

The interests of the soul of one person take precedence over the material interests not only of myself but also of family, country, and humanity.[5]

If equal interests of myself, family, country and humanity conflict, then those belonging to the broadest sphere take precedence over those of the narrower sphere.[6]

Finally, if we are uncertain and in doubt about which of two duties must be performed, then we should do nothing.[7]

            Thus, in conclusion, Bavinck is saying that our duty is to serve God before men; to do the weightier matters first; to serve the spiritual interest of one person over the material interests of many people; to serve the broadest interests over the narrower interest; and, to do nothing when we are in doubt what our duty is. Oh, that we all would practice these things in our lives and in our churches.  

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL 32541

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[1] John Bolt, trans., Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics: The Duties of the Christian Life (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2021), 76. The emphasis in the Scripture quote was added by Bavinck. 

[2] William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 512-5. 

[3] Bolt, trans., Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, 84. 

[4] Ibid., 87. 

[5] Ibid., 88. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Ibid.

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