This passage is one of those many passages that has varying explanations depending on one’s view of the Law of Moses and the New Testament.
Matthew 5:19-20 (ESV)
19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
See we looked at Matthew 5:17-18 already and there Jesus is talking about the Law and the Prophets not passing away until all is fulfilled or accomplished. But notice the subject matter has changed in Matthew 5:19. Now Jesus is talking about commandments.
- Why the change?
- What is He referring to when He says commandments?
- What is the “Least of these commandments”?
- But doesn’t Paul teach not to follow some of the Law of Moses?
- Do other books in the NT contradict this statement from Jesus if they teach not to observe the Law, or portions of the Law?
See how we can confuse ourselves? The confusion is ours not the Lord’s because He is not the author of confusion. (1 Corinthians 14:33)
For several weeks now I have been working on a comparison and contrast between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ. That has been a very interesting study. But the general gist is that the Law of Moses was given on Mount Sinai and the Law of Christ was given on the Mount. One interesting detail I found was that in Exodus 19:4-5 God points out how He has physically blessed Israel and then warns them to obey His Voice and His Covenant.
Exodus 19:4-5 (ESV)
4 You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.
5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine;
Then look at the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins by telling the people about their blessings if they are part of the Kingdom in Heaven, the Beatitudes. Then He tells the people He is not destroying the Law and the Prophets but fulfilling them. Next Jesus tells the people that if they break the least of these commandments or teach others to break them then they will be least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus proceeds to give His commandments concerning righteousness (Matthew 5:20), murder (Matthew 5:21-22), Adultery (Matthew 5:27-28), Marriage (Matthew 5:31-32), etc. Jesus is changing what the Jews knew of the Law of Moses by raising the stakes and giving His Law, The Law of Christ. By the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has raised the stakes so much that one must be more righteous than a Pharisee to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
But see Jesus surely can’t be referring to the full Law of Moses when He is speaking in this passage because then we have Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, teaching that circumcision is not any longer the physical circumcision but it is the circumcision of the heart. Teaching that there is no longer any sacrifices and that food should not be an issue. Surely no true believer thinks Paul is “least in the kingdom of Heaven”?
In Matthew 5:20 Jesus tells the people they must be more righteous than the Pharisees if they want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Can you imagine how the people felt when they heard they must be more righteous than the Pharisees, the “perfect” Law of Moses abiders? But then Jesus goes on to explain exactly what He means which is above and beyond the Law of Moses. By then they are astonished because how can any man fulfill the Law that Jesus laws down. No hate, no lust, and love your enemies seemed to be impossible demands to be placed on them.
Jesus sums up the Sermon on the Mount by saying that everyone “who hears these words of Mine and does them” will be like a wise man. Notice the phrase “these words of Mine”!
Matthew 7:24 (ESV) “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
Jesus gave His Law as one who had authority. He was giving direct instruction. Not once did Jesus have to revert to saying “God says …”.
Matthew 7:28-29 (ESV)
28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,
29 for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
When my children give instruction to a sibling and that sibling doesn’t obey them often they must revert to say “Moma said to ______ .” Their authority is delegated from me. That don’t have the same authority as I do. But I never have to say “Moma said …”. Although very rarely I have appealed to their Dad’s authority and said “Dad said …”. Jesus spoke upon His own authority while Moses and the prophets spoke under the authority of God not upon their own authority.
Can you see why the crowds were astonished?