What Did Jesus Mean By “the Least of these Commandments” (Matthew 5:19)?

A second objection sometimes raised when I say that conformity to Jesus is the appropriate paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics), not conformity to the law (see my previous articles on the law here), is taken from Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount that “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” (Matthew 5:19). It is sometimes paired with Jesus declaration in John 14:15, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” And it is assumed that when Jesus refers to “these commandments” or “my commandments” he is talking about the Mosaic Law, or at least about the Ten Commandments.

But that is clearly not the case.

Take a look at the Sermon on the Mount again. Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, as is well known, by proclaiming the blessings of the kingdom of God and calling his disciples to be salt and light in the world. Then, knowing that his hearers will find his teachings radical and fresh, especially in comparison with the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law, he clarifies that he is not overturning the Law and the Prophets (i.e., the Old Testament) but fulfilling them. In other words, his hearers ought not to play the novelty of his words off against the Old Testament, as if the Law and the Prophets were the final and complete revelation of God. Rather, as the one who fulfills the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is the greater revelation, the one to whom true followers of the law must now listen. In short, if you claim to want to follow the Law and the Prophets, you must follow Jesus.

Consider Jesus’ words in this light:

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 is accomplished. 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. (Matthew 5:17-20)

Theonomists like Greg Bahnsen claimed that when Jesus spoke of “these commandments” he was referring to all the commandments of the Mosaic Law, and many of us have heard this claim so many times that, no matter how contrary to the rest of the New Testament it seems (think of Paul’s declaration in Ephesians 2:15 that in his work Christ was “abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances”), we have trouble reading the text any other way.

And yet, interpreted in context, it is clear that when Jesus refers to “these commandments” he is speaking of “these my commandments,” as in, “these commandments that you are hearing from me right now.”

Ask yourself, why does Jesus even find it necessary to clarify that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets? Because when his hearers hear his teaching, so different from that of the scribes and Pharisees (the teachers of the law), they will assume just that. After all, Jesus’ constant formula in the Sermon on the Mount is to quote the law or the rabbinic commentary on the law and then respond with an appeal to his own authority: “You have heard that it was said to those of old … But I say to you …” (5:21; 5:27; 5:31; 5:33; 5:38; 5:43).

Given Jesus’ repeated contrasts between his teaching and that of the law and of the teachers of the law, given Jesus’ call to his followers to embody a greater righteousness than that of the teachers of the law, it is necessary for Jesus to remind his followers that the law pointed forward to his greater righteousness all along. Neither the law nor the prophets were ever ends in themselves. Jesus is saying that if you really want to follow the Law and the Prophets, you need to follow him. In fact, later in Matthew’s gospel he will portray representatives of the law and the prophets (Moses and Elijah) meeting with Jesus in the Transfiguration, and what does the voice of the Father in heaven say? “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). It’s arguably the central theme of Matthew’s gospel.

If you are in any doubt about it, consider how the Sermon on the Mount ends. Jesus closes the sermon not with an exhortation about the importance of the Law of Moses, but with a parable about the importance of hearing Jesus’ words and doing them:

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. (Matthew 7:24-25)

Needless to say, the rock Jesus is talking about here is not the law but the teachings of Jesus. And his hearers understood that. As Matthew puts it, “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” (Matthew 7:28-29). The scribes, for obvious reasons, had to quote the law or the tradition of the law for everything that they taught. They had no authority in and of themselves. But Jesus not only invoked his own authority; he explicitly placed that authority above that of either the law or the tradition of the law. “You have heard that it was said to those of old … But I say to you …”

There is no doubt that Matthew intends us to view the Sermon on the Mount as the revelation of one who is greater than the law because he fulfills the law. This teaching, from this mountain, is far greater than the teaching that came from Mount Sinai in the wilderness. As Paul observes in Galatians, the law “was put in place through angels by an intermediary” (3:19), but the promise has come through faith in Christ. Or as the author to the Hebrews goes to such great lengths to explain, in past days God spoke to his people through prophets, through angels, and through Moses, but “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:2-3; Cf. Hebrews 1-3). That is the basis for the theme of Hebrews from start to finish: “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (10:1), but in Christ the true form has come.

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:17-18)


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 3, 2016, in Christian Life, Law, Sermon on the Mount and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What Did Jesus Mean By “the Least of these Commandments” (Matthew 5:19)?.

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