In the last post of this series about the Sermon on the Mount we discussed the significance of a necessary change in the Law once “all has happened.” I also argued for a first century fulfillment of when all that happened. Now I want to focus our attention on Jesus’ statements about “the least of these commandments.” Matthew 5:17-20 records the following words of Jesus:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all has happened. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
People often assume that “the least of these commandments” referred to the commandments of “the Law.” Moreoever, the “Law” allegedly referred to the first “five books of Moses” (although nowhere within the Bible itself does it claim that Moses wrote all five books, or even that the final canonical form we currently have were altogether penned by his hand, thereby forming “the Law” as evangelicals understand it today, but I digress.) Although contemporary claims about “the least of these commandments” referring to the least of Gods commandments within the first five books of Moses is not entirely impossible, it is certainly not a crystal clear connection either.
Alternatively, the perspective I will be endorsing is that “the least of these commandments” was definitely a reference to the least of God’s commandments, but instead of those commands recorded in the first five books of Moses, Jesus was actually referring to his own words and teaching—that is to say, his own divine commandments to them, which would be considered trivial by many first century Israelites because of the “just-ness” endorsed by Pharisaical and scribal traditions.
I’m certainly not alone in this interpretation. The great St. Augustine also concurred, saying:
‘But whoever observes them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven,’ is to be understood in this sense, namely, not according to the measure of those least commandments, but in accordance with those which I [Jesus] am about to proclaim.
Pseudo-Chrysostom also shared the same train of thought:
Let us see what are the least of the commandments. Some people hold to one interpretation and others to another, but I think that the Lord clearly shows what they are when he pointedly says, ‘If someone relaxes one of the least of these commandments,” that is, ‘the ones that I am about to say.’
A handful of internal, contextual remarks suggest this to have been the intended meaning. First, neither the “Law” (Genesis—Deuteronomy) or the “Prophets” are merely a set of “commandments” to be obeyed. The Law contains commandments (almost all of which relate to the Tabernacle/Temple), but it mostly consists of stories about human experience & God’s interaction which ought to be trusted. Secondarily, within Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus never appeals to any commandment within Moses’ “Law” without also clarifying how He thinks that commandment ought to be interpreted ethically. Jesus says, “You have heard it said….But I say to you…”. Surely that was a tell-tale signal to his audience that his own words—independent of whatever traditions the people had learned about Moses’s Law—were to be received as authoritative commands. Otherwise Jesus would have simply quoted Moses’ Law and not commented or critiqued traditional interpretations at all!
Another factor worth noting is that every explicit reference to obedience within Matthew’s Gospel has to do with what Jesus teaches authoritatively, and not merely what “the Law” of Moses recorded. Take, for example, the way Matthew frames the entire Sermon on the Mount, beginning in 4:23ff, in preparation for Jesus to ascend the mountain and give the law, surrounded by crowds, as the new and greater Moses figure:
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
At the end of the Sermon, when Jesus descends the mountain surrounded by crowds (7:28-8:1), Matthew makes clear that Jesus’ words were authoritative:
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.
The overall literary purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to portray Jesus as the new and greater Moses, the new and greater Lawgiver of Israel. But these are not the only times within Matthew’s Gospel that we find Jesus’ words and overall message as authoritative. Later on, within this same sermon, Jesus makes it very clear as to whose commands the people ought to obey in order to live:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (7:24–29)
Echoing Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus mentions the authority of his own words the people of Israel in the first century:
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:32-34)
This really shouldn’t be a disputed fact. St. Augustine wasn’t alone in believing that Jesus was referring to his own words. And I’m not alone in believing that “the least of these commandments” were the least of Jesus’ commandments either. A whole litany of references from the Gospels should be conclusive enough:
Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like (Luke 6:47)For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:47)So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples (John 8:31)I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. (John 8:37)Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. (John 8:43)Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (John 8:51)The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ (John 8:52)If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. (John 12:47)The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. (John 12:48)Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:23)Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. (John 14:24)If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)Remember the word that I said to you: A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:20)
If we go back to Jesus’ statement about filling full the Law and the Prophets, and we walk through the entirety of Matthew’s Gospel with that promise in mind, it seems that the goal of fulfilling “the Law and the Prophets” was to crown Jesus as the only human being in the cosmos, having ascended above all principalities and powers in the cosmos, with authority over all things. Therefore obedience to the voice of the Lord Jesus was to be the sine qua non of entrance into his heavenly Kingdom, as well as the means toward fulfilling all that was lacking under the Old Covenant.
Also, in light of what has been said already in this series, and contrary to all false accusations which would be thrown against 1st century Christians by their anti-Christian Jewish communities, it needs to be emphasized for the sake of abundant clarity that Jesus did not abolish “the Law” or “the first five books of Moses,” or even old testament “biblical commands.” As we will see in upcoming posts in this series, Jesus clearly upheld the Law. He even gave clarity to the Law in ways which the scribes and Pharisees did not, because their focus seemed to always be upon the letter of the Law and not the character of God throughout the Scriptures.
Understanding the character of God throughout the Scriptures is crucial to understanding the authority of Jesus.
I realize that this might come across as a shock to many Christians today, but a thorough investigation of the Old Testament Scriptures teaches that throughout Israel’s history God actually did not behave rigorously (i.e. Pharisaically or “legalistically”) according to the letter of His own Law. Instead, we find God far more often to be extremely patient and long-suffering, kind and merciful, gracious and forgiving, and not always rendering swift and stern justice, as His own Law demands.
Now you might be wondering, how does is this relevant to Matthew 5:17-20 at all?
It’s relevant because we often end up confused about what “commands” Jesus does and does not require us to keep under the New Covenant. Some theories say that Jesus requires us to keep every jot and tittle of Moses’ Law, including the dietary laws. Other theories say that Jesus abolished the entirety of God’s commands to the people of Israel. But the reality is that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets! He came to fill them full—to reveal that patient, long-suffering, merciful, gracious, and perfectly just and appropriately wrathful God to Israel. Jesus came to put flesh and bones on the image of God Himself as revealed throughout the Scriptures. Christians often don’t see Jesus as wrathful or angry because we are not looking at the New Testament Scriptures in light of God’s Holy Law. And we often don’t see the God of the Old Testament as being patient, long-suffering, or merciful because we are not looking at the “Prophets” in light of God’s Law.
It is precisely because the foundational Law of God has been “filled full” in Jesus’ ministry, that Jesus and his apostles tell the Church to build the rest of God’s Temple upon them, by obedience to the Law of God, which is also the Law of Christ.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just-ness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled by you in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15)
This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?…For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law, that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (I Corinthians 9)
By obeying the voice of the Lord Jesus and teaching others to do the same, the “righteousness” (i.e. their just-ness) of Jesus’ disciples would exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Only those who trusted and obeyed Jesus would enter the Kingdom of Heaven that was about to come. Those who trusted and obeyed the scribes and Pharisees would be cut off.
Jesus did come to bring about necessary changes of the Law—especially in light of the Temple’s soon coming destruction—but he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. All of the necessary changes were centered on life under the old creation, in which the temple in Jerusalem were central and essential. If Jesus had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, the temple in Jerusalem could no longer remain central. The Temple of His Body had to become central.
The least of his commands had to be kept to definitively end the old covenant, and the least of his commandments still need to be kept in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.