Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:19 “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least
commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in
the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the
same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Based on His own permanent, written Word, Christ determines the varying levels of honor we experience within His kingdom. He deals with us according to how we deal with His Word. Note Christ’s mercy. Sin does lower one’s rank, diminish one’s standing, in the kingdom; disobedience does lessen our blessing and usefulness. Nevertheless, transgression does not exclude from the kingdom. Jesus knew His kingdom would consist of “sinful men aiming after holiness” (Maclaren).
King Jesus dispenses to us honor and dignity in His kingdom, based on the way we “do and teach” His commands. We must do as we teach, or we pull down with one hand what we build up with the other. We must teach as we do, or we are guilty of secrecy like that of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus under the cover of night (JN 3:2). Some Christians have the spiritual gift of teaching, and excel at it, but all Christians are expected to be teaching others somehow somewhere.
As viewed through their being fulfilled by Jesus, we are to “do and teach” all the Old Testament laws, even down to the “least commandments.” The Jews made an obsessive habit of classifying commands as greater or lesser. They reckoned the least Old Testament command to be that of the bird’s nest (DT 22:6-7). Jesus Himself spoke of “weightier matters of the law” (MT 23:23) and gave as the two greatest commandments to love the Lord our God and our neighbors (see MT 22:36-40).
Obviously, some commandments when broken yield more serious consequences than others, but no law is unimportant. We should not “think any thing small, on which the heavenly Legislator has been pleased to issue a command. For what sacrilege is it to treat contemptuously any thing which has proceeded from his sacred mouth?” (Calvin). Our task is not to judge the laws of God; they judge us.
Do not try to make subtle distinctions in sins, calling some venial, but others mortal. Seek to obey every law. Keep conscience tender to all God’s commands. Ultimately, we do not know how serious a consequence will come from breaking any law. To call any sin little is like referring to a little poison, a little cancer, a little leak in a boat. Even the least sin hides God’s smile, as a cloud (LM 3:44).
To undermine godliness at any level is serious. A little oversight ignores God’s authority as much as a big one. The matter appears small, but the presumption is huge. In fact, when careless in little things, we essentially say we are willing to risk offending God over something trivial. Small flaws are dangerous because we often deem them unimportant. More Christians lose their chances of promotion in the kingdom due to many little sins than due to few big ones, though those guilty of the latter get more publicity. Many can trace their spiritual stagnation or demise back to a decision of yesteryear, when one made a pact to retain some small sin.
Matt. 5:20a “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed
the righteousness of the scribes. . .”
Verse 19 says sin does not expel from the kingdom; verse 20 addresses an evil so grave that it keeps one from entering the kingdom. There is something worse than breaking a particular law. One can totally misunderstand the big picture, the overriding concept of how to be personally right with God. The error seen in verse 19 is sad, the error in verse 20 is fatal, resulting in everlasting damnation.
Many consider verse 20 the key verse of the Sermon on the Mount, for it precisely delineates the high standard Jesus requires of us. As previously noted, since people can twist written words into whatever they want them to mean, the printed page needs to be fleshed out in a living example. Jesus did this by fulfilling the written Word. His listeners were thus right in still looking to Scripture as their rule, but they were wrong in looking to the scribes and Pharisees as their examples.
Many have erred grievously by straying from the written Word in order to follow a living example. The Israelites often disobeyed the written laws of God and followed an evil king into sin. In the Dark Ages people strayed from the Book and followed foolish leaders on the disastrous Crusades. Many in our day wander from the Bible to follow after a wrong preacher or guru. Pick your heroes carefully, for they determine where you are headed. Yield absolute allegiance to one Book, the Bible, and one Hero, Jesus. Even the great Apostle said, “Be ye followers of me,” but gave a qualification, “even as I also am of Christ” (1 C 11:1). He warned us not to follow him or even “an angel from heaven” (GL 1:8) if they strayed from truth.
Jesus’ listeners, having chosen the wrong examples to follow, probably gasped at His words in verse 20. The scribes and Pharisees were Israel’s heroes. The Jews said, if only two go to Heaven, one will be a scribe, the other a Pharisee.
The story of the scribes is sad, a tale of good men gone bad. Their beginning was pure and noble. Five centuries before Christ, the Jews returned home from Babylon. During their exile, the law had sustained them. Grateful, they decided to set aside scribes, writers, to safeguard the scrolls so that Israel would have them for any possible future calamities. Without printing presses and copy machines, the scribes made accurate and numerous copies of the Old Testament to assure it would be preserved and passed on intact from generation to generation. Every Christian and Jew in the world is forever in debt to the scribes for their meticulous transmission of the Old Testament to us. These honored guardians of the Old Testament scrolls spent so much time with the law that they eventually became its authorized explainers. They interpreted it and instructed others in it. They eventually amassed profound influence. The people deemed them lawyers, experts in law, and called them doctors, teachers, rabbis. By Jesus’ day their numbers had grown to where they were omnipresent in Jewish life, in their supreme court, the Sanhedrin, in the temple, seated “on the platform” at synagogues, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Galilee.
Somewhere along the way something went sour in the scribes. They rejected John the Baptist, and when the God of their own beloved Scriptures walked among them, they did not recognize Him, and sought to accuse Him, to embarrass Him, to trip Him with trick questions. Their rabid fascination for the minutiae of God’s law blinded them from seeing the very presence of God Himself in their midst.
How easily we can become oblivious of God. For the rich, money can be an obsession which drowns out the sensed presence of God. For the workaholic, it is his job. For the one offended long ago by a church leader, that hypocrite becomes the obstacle. For the professional religionist, keeping the machinery oiled and greased can take the place of vital faith. For the regular church-goer, the building can be so impressive, the music so wonderful, and the sermon so interesting, that they become ends in themselves, rather than means by which we experience God.
A scribe studied his written word pedantically, mechanically, and resolved to obey. A Christian has a different, better expression of righteousness. We study the written word conscious of Jesus at hand, and resolve to obey as He walks beside us.