Jesus and the Law: Matthew 5:19

The previous two daily notes treated Jesus’ saying in Matthew 5:17, as a supplement to my article on the Antitheses (Matt 5:21-47) [part of the series on “Jesus and the Law”]. This note will look briefly at the saying in verse 19, while a following note will examine the saying in verse 48 which concludes the Antitheses (and chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount). By way of review, here are the four sayings in Matt 5:17-20:

Verse 17—”Do not regard (as proper), (that) ‘I have come to loose down [i.e. dissolve] the Law or the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]’; I did not come to loose down but to fill (up).”

Verse 18—”For, amen, I say to you: ‘until the heaven and the earth should go along [i.e. pass away], one yod or a single horn will not go along from the Law, until all things should come to be’.”

Verse 19—”Therefore if (there is one) who [i.e. whoever] should loose (a single) one of these littlest things upon (you to) complete and should teach men thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the kingdom of the heavens; but (one) who should do and teach (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the kingdom of the heavens.”

Verse 20—”For I say/relate to you that if your justice/righteousness should not be over (and above much) more than (that) of the Writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees, no, you will not go into the Kingdom of the heavens.”

I have also discussed these verses together in an earlier note.

Matthew 5:19

o^$ e)a\n ou@n lu/sh| mi/an tw=n e)ntolw=n tou/twn e)laxi/stwn kai\ dida/ch| ou%tw$ tou\$ a)nqrw/pou$, e)la/xisto$ klhqh/setai e)n th=| basilei/a| tw=n ou)ranw=n: o^$ d’ a*n poih/sh| kai\ dida/ch|, ou!to$ me/ga$ klhqh/setai e)n th=| basilei/a| tw=n ou)ranw=n
“Therefore if (there is one) who [i.e. whoever] should loose (a single) one of these littlest things upon (you to) complete and should teach men thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the kingdom of the heavens; but (one) who should do and teach (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the kingdom of the heavens.”
[in more conventional translation:]
“Therefore, whoever looses (a single) one of these littlest commandments and teaches men (to do) thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the Kingdom of Heaven; but (the one) who does and teaches (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the Kingdom of Heaven”

The noun e)ntolh/ (entol¢¡) is literally “something (placed) upon (one) to complete”—i.e., “charge, injunction”, or, more commonly, “command[ment]”. The verb lu/w is a simple form related to the compound katalu/w in verse 17. The first generally means “loose[n]”, while the second is more intensive and forceful, “loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy]”. In verse 17, the sense is “to destroy or abolish the authority of the Law” (and Prophets). Here the sense is rather “to remove or lessen the requirement of a commandment”. The main interpretive question in the verse regards the nature of the commandments; there are three possibilities:

    1. They are the commands and regulations of the (written) Torah
    2. They are the Torah commands, as interpreted by Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere)
    3. They are Jesus’ own commands (in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere)

The immediate context of verse 17 and 18 would suggest the first view—that he is referring to the written Torah. It must be kept in mind, however, that the Sermon on the Mount likely represents a collection of Jesus’ teaching—the sayings themselves were not necessarily all uttered on the same occasion (and in the same order) as we have them preserved in the Gospel. More to the point, it is difficult to find another (similar) saying in the Gospels which indicates that the written Law remains fully binding for Jesus’ followers; what few sayings are preserved relating directly to the Law could be taken to suggest the opposite; in any case, the evidence is ambiguous. If Jesus had made such an apparently decisive statement regarding the Jewish Law, one might expect even greater controversy and opposition toward Paul’s teaching that Gentiles should be accepted as Christian believers without requiring specific observance/performance of the Law.

For these reasons (and others), many commentators hold that Jesus’ own commands are what is meant here. Certainly Jesus’ teaching, from the very beginning, would have had an authoritative character and quality, and regarded as such by his devoted followers. Jesus gives many commands and precepts throughout the Gospels, but, as far as I am aware, in the early Church no clear attempt was made to collect them into a definitive corpus—perhaps the closest we have is in the Sermon on the Mount itself (and the Lukan parallel ‘Sermon on the Plain’). The early Christian usage of the phrase and concept of the “command[s] of Christ” will be discussed in some detail at a later point in the series on “The Law and the New Testament”. Where the idea of the commandments required for a Christian is spelled out most clearly (as in the “Two Ways” section of the Didache chs. 1-6), it goes little beyond the Sermon on the Mount, adding to it specifically the dual “Great Commandment” and the Ten Commandments themselves (in a manner similar to that summarized by Jesus in Mk 10:18-19 par). See the Epistle of James (esp. 2:8-13) for a similar epitome and exposition of early Christian “commandments” in the New Testament itself.

If Jesus is referring to his own commands, which ones precisely? And how would this relate to the distinction of the “least/littlest” of these commandments? This particular distinction perhaps makes more sense in relation to the written Torah, and could be seen as an argument in favor of view #1 above. There are several possibilities:

(a) Jesus is distinguishing between his own commandments—if so, this has been largely lost to us.
(b) He is distinguishing between greater and lesser commands in the Torah (perhaps similar to later Rabbinic teaching)
(c) He makes a distinction between the external/ceremonial detail and the broader concepts of righteousness/justice, mercy, love, etc. (see Matt 23:23-24).
(d) The force of the expression is rhetorical and not meant to be taken literally (and also facilitates the wordplay later in v. 19).

In my view, the last option most likely correct: “the least of these commandments” would be another way of saying “any of these commandments”. However, option (c) should not be entirely disregarded; the expression “least of these commandments” could be taken to mean “even the smallest detail of the commandments”.

View #2—that it is the Torah commands, as interpreted by Jesus that are meant—perhaps best fits the context of the Sermon on the Mount, and especially the Antitheses which follow in Matt 5:21-47. As previously discussed, in the Antitheses, Jesus deals with specific Torah regulations (and how they are customarily understood), providing his own (authoritative) instruction and interpretation for his followers. In many ways, the collection of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is truly formative for Christian instruction—the Scriptures (the Law and the Prophets), and especially the Torah, provide the baseline and foundation upon which Jesus builds. As mentioned in the previous discussion on verse 17, Jesus “fulfills” the Law by completing it—giving to it a new (and deeper) revelatory and religious-ethical dimension. In this sense, Jesus’ own commands cannot entirely be separated from the commands of the written Law, even if the Torah commands themselves come to apply less and less to the new Christian situation and spiritual ethic.

What of the juxtaposition between “least/littlest” and “great(est)” in the kingdom of Heaven in verse 19b—how should this be understood? It is possible that degrees of reward or position in Heaven for believers is meant; at the very least, Jesus seems to be drawing upon this idea. However, it seems quite strange that those who disregard (and teach others to disregard) the commandments (especially if Jesus’ own commandments are involved) would receive any place in the Kingdom. I prefer to consider the use of the terms “littlest” and “great” here as rhetorical—a colorful and dramatic way of contrasting the fates of the obedient and disobedient. The question of whether the disobedient followers are ultimately “saved” is interesting, but probably out of place here. In any event, Jesus clearly speaks against those who relax (or disregard) the commandments (and teach others to do so). It must be admitted that this is truly a difficult statement (for Christians) if Jesus is referring to the Torah regulations; however, let us consider for a moment how this may apply to the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-48 (as well as the religious instruction which follows in 6:1-18):

  • A person may fulfill and observe a command while being mistaken or ignorant regarding its true meaning and intent. This is partly what Jesus’ teaching addresses—pointing the way to the true precepts underlying the Torah regulations, along with the mind and character of the God who revealed them.
  • Similarly, Jesus emphasizes the heart and intention of the person, rather than the validity of the Law as such.
  • As I argued in the prior note, the practical result of following Jesus’ teachings will be that much of the Law effectively becomes obsolete. For example, by dealing properly with the root of anger and lust, the commands against murder and adultery are made irrelevant, and so forth. This is quite a different matter than flagrantly violating or transgressing the Law.
  • If one may summarize: going beyond what the Law requires (from an ethical standpoint), and emphasizing the inward dimension of it, does not result in “loosing” the commandment—far from it! In every meaningful sense, it reflects a more stringent standard of religious and ethical behavior.

There would come a time, of course in early Christianity when the validity of specific laws and ordinances—such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, the dietary regulations, and so forth—would have to be addressed; however, this goes beyond the scope and purpose of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It is perhaps better dealt with under the heading of New Testament Theology, along with the doctrine of progressive revelation. I will also be discussing these matters at the appropriate junctures in my series on “The Law and the New Testament”.

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