Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.—Matt. 5:19a
People resent prohibitions and demands on their behavior. Even believers, out of ignorance, misunderstanding, or blatant disregard, sometimes want to water down God’s standards. But when anyone “annuls” (breaks, sets loose) any part of God’s Word, he or she is not following Christ’s example.
Jesus did acknowledge that not all of God’s commands are of equal importance. He told a pharisaical lawyer that one divine commandment is above all others and that another is second (Matt. 22:37–39). Thus all the other commandments fall somewhere below those two and vary in significance.
Our Lord’s point here in the sermon, however, is that we must not annul—by ignoring, modifying, or disobeying—even the smallest aspect of God’s law. Some commands might be greater than others, but none should be disregarded. Paul did not pick and choose what he would teach. He did emphasize some issues more than others, but he omitted nothing (Acts 20:27). And we certainly must not teach others to disregard or disobey any portion of the law. To do so shows that our disobedience is conscious and intentional.
Jesus does not restrict His warning to formal teachers. By example, every Christian teaches those around him to be more obedient or more disobedient. Our words of respect for God’s Word present a guide for others. To speak disparagingly of the Word or to ignore its requirements presents testimony to others of the law’s unimportance to us. This ought to be the furthest thing from our agenda.
On what subject matters do you find yourself most tempted to comment, “I know what the Bible says, but . . .”?
Christ and the Law—Part 3: The Pertinence of Scripture
Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (5:19)
In the last several decades the expression “do your own thing” has described a popular approach to behavior. Freedom has been equated with doing what you want. The philosophical corollary of that attitude is antinomianism, the rejection of law, regulations, and rules of every sort. Such was the attitude in ancient Israel during the time of the judges, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25).
Antinomianism is reflected in our own day in personal existentialism, the concept that teaches the fulfillment only of the present moment, regardless of standards or codes or consequences. Rejection of authority follows logically from personal existentialism: we want no one else making rules for us or holding us accountable for what we say or do. The inevitable consequence of that philosophy is breakdown of the home, of school, of church, of government, and of society in general. When no one wants to be accountable to anyone else, the only thing to survive is anarchy.
Even the church has not escaped such attitudes. Many congregations hesitate or even refuse to discipline members who are flagrantly immoral, dishonest, or heretical. For fear of offending, of losing financial support, of being thought old-fashioned or legalistic, or even for fear of stepping on someone else’s presumed rights, there is widespread failure to maintain God’s clear standards of righteousness in His own church. In the name of grace, love, forgiveness, and other “positive” biblical teachings and standards, sin is dismissed or excused.
Some Christians claim that, because God’s grace covers every offense a believer can ever commit, there is no need to bother about holy living. Some even argue that, because the sinful flesh is presently unredeemed in its corruption and is going to be done away with at glorification, it does not make any difference what that part of us does now. Our new divine, incorruptible nature is good and eternal, and that is all that counts. That idea is simply a rebirth of the Greek dualism that wreaked so much havoc in the early church, and that Paul dealt with in the Corinthian letters.
But even the sincere Christian cannot help wondering about the relation between law and grace. The New Testament plainly teaches that in some very important ways believers are freed from the law. But what, exactly, is our freedom in Christ? In Matthew 5:19 the Lord confronts that question and reaffirms what that freedom cannot mean.
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus had pointed out the law’s preeminence, because it was authored by God, affirmed by the prophets, and accomplished by the Messiah, the Christ. In verse 18 He showed its permanence, its lasting without the smallest change or reduction “until heaven and earth pass away.” Now in verse 19 He shows its pertinence. The Jews were still under the full requirements of the Old Testament law.
In verses 17 and 18 Jesus declared that He came to fulfill and not diminish or disobey the law, and in verse 19 He declares that citizens of His kingdom are also not to diminish or disobey it. In light of His own attitude about and response to the law, Jesus now teaches what the attitude and response of His followers should be.
The law is pertinent for those who believe in Christ because of its own character, because of the consequences of obeying or disobeying, and because its demands are clarified and enforced throughout the rest of the New Testament.
The Character of the Law
The then, or therefore, refers to what Jesus has just said about the law. The law is utterly pertinent to those who trust in God, because it is His Word and is exalted by the prophets and accomplished by the Messiah Himself. Because the Bible is not a collection of men’s religious ideas but God’s revelation of divine truth, its teachings are not speculations to be judged but truths to be believed; its commands are not suggestions to be considered but requirements to be followed.
Because Scripture is given by God for man, nothing could be more relevant to man than this revelation. Scripture is the standard of relevance by which all other relevance is measured.
The Consequences of Men’s Responses to the Law
The consequences of the law depend on a person’s response to it. Whoever responds to it positively will receive a positive result, but whoever responds to it negatively will receive a negative result.
The Negative Consequence
Jesus mentions the negative result first: Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
Luō (annuls) is a common word in the New Testament and can mean to break, set loose, release, dissolve, or even to melt. The idea here is that of annulling God’s law, or making it void, by loosing ourselves from its requirements and standards. Jesus used a compounded and stronger form of that term (kataluō) in verse 17 in asserting that He had not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets.”
Fallen human nature resents prohibitions and demands. Even Christians are tempted to modify and weaken God’s standards. Because of ignorance, misunderstanding, or outright disregard, believers find reasons to make God’s commands less demanding than they are. But when a Christian ceases to revere and obey God’s Word in even the slightest degree, to that degree He is being un-Christlike, because that is something Christ refused to do.
The Jews of Jesus’ day had divided the Old Testament laws into two categories. Two hundred forty-eight were positive commands, and three hundred sixty-five-one for each day of the year-were negative. The scribes and Pharisees would have long, heated debates about which laws in each category were the most important and which were the least.
Scripture itself makes clear that all of God’s commands are not of equal importance. When a lawyer among the Pharisees asked which commandment was the greatest, Jesus replied without hesitation: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment.” He then went on to say, “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Matt. 22:37–39). Jesus acknowledged that one commandment is supreme above all others and that another is second in importance. It follows that all the other commandments fall somewhere below those two and that, like them, they vary in importance.
In His series of woes Jesus gives another indication of the relative importance of God’s commands. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). The tithing of herbs was required; but being just, merciful, and faithful are much more spiritually important.
Jesus’ point here, however, is that it is not permissible to annul-by ignoring, modifying, or disobeying-even one of the least of these commandments. Some commands are greater than others, but none are to be disregarded.
Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that while he had ministered among them, he “did not shrink from declaring to [them] the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). The apostle did not pick and choose what he would teach and exhort. He stressed some things more than others, but he left nothing out.
The person who teaches others to disregard or disobey any part of God’s word is an even worse offender. He not only annuls the law himself but causes others to annul it. Besides that, his disobedience obviously is intentional. It is possible to break God’s commands by being ignorant of them or forgetting them. But to teach others to break them has to be conscious and intentional.
James cautions, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Every believer is accountable for himself, but those who teach are also accountable for those whom they teach. “The head is the eider and honorable man,” writes Isaiah, “and the prophet who teaches falsehood is the tail. For those who guide this people are leading them astray; and those who are guided by them are brought to confusion” (Isa. 9:15–16).
Jesus’ warning does not simply apply to official or formal teachers. Every person teaches. By our example we continually help those around us either to be more obedient or more disobedient. We also teach by what we say, When we speak lovingly and respectfully of God’s Word, we teach love and respect for it. When we speak disparagingly or slightingly of God’s Word, we teach disregard and disrespect for it. When we ignore its demands, we give loud testimony to its unimportance to us.
Just after Paul reminded the elders from Ephesus that he had been faithful in teaching them God’s full Word, he warned them, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock. … I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28–30).
The consequence of practicing or teaching disobedience of any of God’s Word is to be called least in the kingdom of heaven. I do not believe, as some commentators suggest, that called refers to what men say about us, but to what God says about us. Our reputation among other people, including other Christians, may or may not be adversely affected. Often other people do not know about our disobedience, and often when they know they do not care. But God always knows, and He always cares. It is only what we are called by God that is of any ultimate importance. It should be the concern of every believer who loves his Lord that He never have cause to call him the least.
Determining rank in the kingdom of heaven is entirely God’s prerogative (cf. Matt. 20:23), and Jesus declares that He will hold those in lowest esteem who hold His Word in lowest esteem. There is no impunity for those who disobey, discredit, or belittle God’s law.
That Jesus does not refer to loss of salvation is clear from the fact that, though offenders will be called least, they will still be in the kingdom of heaven. But blessing, reward, fruitfulness, joy, and usefulness will all be sacrificed to the extent that we are disobedient. “Watch yourselves,” John warns, “that you might not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward” (2 John 8). It is possible to lose in the second phase of our Christian lives what we built up in the first.
To disdain even the smallest part of God’s Word is to demonstrate disdain for all of it, because its parts are inseparable. James teaches that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). To ignore or reject the least of God’s law is therefore to cheapen all of it and to become the least in His kingdom. Such Christians receive their rank because of their ill treatment of Scripture, not, as some imagine, because they may have lesser gifts.
The Positive Consequence
The positive result is that whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Here again Jesus mentions the two aspects of doing and teaching. Kingdom citizens are to uphold every part of God’s law, both in their living and in their teaching.
Paul could tell the Thessalonians, “You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:10–12). Paul had been faithful to live and teach among them all of God’s Word, just as he had done at Ephesus and everywhere else he ministered.
God’s moral law is a reflection of God’s very character and is therefore changeless and eternal. The things it requires will not have to be commanded in heaven, but they will be manifested in heaven because they manifest God. While God’s people are still on earth, however, they do not naturally reflect the character of their heavenly Father, and His moral standards continue to be commanded and supernaturally produced (cf. Rom. 8:2–4).
“Prescribe and teach these things,” Paul tells Timothy, “[and] in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:11–12). Near the end of the same letter Paul tells Timothy to flee from all evil things and, as a man of God, to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (6:11–12).
Paul both kept and taught the full Word of God, and he is therefore among those who will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. No one who does not do the same will be in the ranks of God’s great saints.
Greatness is not determined by gifts, success, popularity, reputation, or size of ministry-but by a believer’s view of Scripture as revealed in his life and teaching.
Jesus’ promise is not simply to great teachers such as Paul-or Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, or Spurgeon. His promise applies to every believer who teaches others to obey God’s Word by faithfully, carefully, and lovingly living by and speaking of that Word. Every believer does not have the gift of teaching the deep doctrines of Scripture, but every believer is called and is able to teach the right attitude toward it.
The Clarification of the Law
We know from the thrust of the New Testament epistles that Jesus is speaking here of God’s permanent moral law. The Sermon on the Mount is just as valid for believers today as it was for those to whom Jesus preached it directly, because every principle and standard taught here is also taught in the epistles. The other writers make absolutely clear that believers’ obligation to obey God’s moral law not only did not cease at Christ’s coming but was reaffirmed by Christ and remains energized by the Holy Spirit for the entire church age.
There is indeed a paradox in regard to the law, and it is especially evident in Paul’s letters. On the one hand we are told of the law’s being fulfilled and done away with, and on the other that we are still obliged to obey it. Speaking of the Jews and Gentiles, Paul says that Christ “is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” (Eph. 2:14–15). When the church came into existence the “dividing wall” of civil, judicial law crumbled and disappeared.
In God’s eyes Israel was temporarily set aside as a nation at the cross, when she crucified her King and rejected His kingdom. In the world’s eyes Israel ceased to exist as a nation in a.d. 70, when all of Jerusalem, including the Temple, was razed to the ground by the Romans under Titus. (Her restoration nationally is but a preparation for her restoration spiritually, as Romans 9–11 teaches.)
The ceremonial law also came to an end. While Jesus was still hanging on the cross, “the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). The Temple worship and the sacrifices were no longer valid, even symbolically. That part of the law was finished, accomplished, and done away with by Christ.
There is even a sense in which God’s moral law is no longer binding on believers. Paul speaks of our not being under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14). But just before that he had said, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts” (v. 12), and immediately after verse 14 he says, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” (v. 15). Those in Christ are no longer under the ultimate penalty of the law, but are far from free of its requirement of righteousness.
To the Romans Paul said, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4), and to the Galatians he wrote, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Gal. 5:18). But he had just made it clear that Christians are not in the least free from God’s moral standards. “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (v. 17). The law that was once “our tutor to lead us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24) now leads us as “sons of God through Christ Jesus” to be clothed with Christ (vv. 26–27), and His clothing is the clothing of practical righteousness. If Christ’s own righteousness never diminished or disobeyed God’s moral law, how can His disciples be free to do so?
Paul harmonized the idea when he spoke of himself as being “without the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21). In Christ we are anything but lawless. Christ’s law is totally different from the Jewish judicial and ceremonial law and different from the Old Testament moral law, with its penalties and curses for disobedience. But it is not different in the slightest from the holy, righteous standards that the Old Testament law taught.
The Old Testament law is still a moral guide, as in revealing sin (Rom. 7:7). Even when it provokes sin (v. 8), it helps us see the wickedness of our own flesh and our helplessness apart from Christ. And even when we see the condemnation of the law (vv. 9–11), it should remind us that our Savior took that condemnation upon Himself on the cross (5:18; 8:1; 1 Pet. 2:24; etc.). Whenever a Christian looks at God’s moral law with humility, meekness, and a sincere desire for righteousness, the law will invariably point him to Christmas it was always intended to do. And for believers to live by it is for them to become like Christ. It could not possibly be otherwise, because it is God’s law, and it reflects God’s character. “So then,” Paul is careful to remind us, “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (v. 12).
Paul concludes Romans 7 by thanking “God through Jesus Christ our Lord” that even though his flesh served “the law of sin,” his mind served “the law of God” (7:25). The penalty of the law has been paid for us by Jesus Christ, but also in Him the righteousness of the law is “fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4; cf. Gal. 5:13–24).
19 The contrast between the least and the greatest in the kingdom probably supports gradation within kingdom ranks (as in 11:11, though the word for “least” is different there; cf. 18:1–4). It is probably not a Semitic way of referring to the exclusion-inclusion duality (contra Bonnard). The one who breaks “one of the least of these commandments” is not excluded from the kingdom—the linguistic usage is against this interpretation (see Meier, Law and History, 92–95)—but is very small or unimportant in the kingdom (taking elachistos [GK 1788] in the elative sense). The idea of gradations of privilege or dishonor in the kingdom occurs elsewhere in the Synoptic Gospels (20:20–28; cf. Lk 12:47–48). Distinctions are made not only according to the measure by which one keeps “the least of these commandments” but also according to the faithfulness with which one teaches them.
But what are “these commandments”? It is hard to justify restriction of these words to Jesus’ teachings (so Banks, Jesus and the Law, 221–23), even though the verb cognate to “commands” (entolōn, GK 1953) is used of Jesus’ teachings in 28:20 (entellomai); the noun in Matthew never refers to Jesus’ words, and the context argues against it. Restriction to the Ten Commandments (TDNT, 2:548) is alien to the concerns of the context. Nor can we say “these commandments” refers to the antitheses that follow, for in Matthew houtos (“this,” plural “these”) never points forward. It appears, then, that the expression must refer to the commandments of the OT Scriptures. The entire Law and the Prophets are not scrapped by Jesus’ coming but fulfilled. Therefore the commandments of these Scriptures—even the least of them (on distinctions in the law, see comments at 22:36; 23:23)—must be practiced. But the nature of the practicing has already been affected by vv. 17–18. The law pointed forward to Jesus—his activity and his teaching—so it is properly obeyed by conforming to his word. As it points to him, so he, in fulfilling it, establishes what continuity it has, the true direction to which it points and the way it is to be obeyed. Thus ranking in the kingdom turns on the degree of conformity to Jesus’ teaching as that teaching fulfills OT revelation. His teaching, toward which the OT pointed, must be obeyed.
 MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 104). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 267–273). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 178–179). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.