The Least of the Commandments

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Least of the Commandments

By John David Brown

© 2010

His Own Authority

When Jesus began His public ministry, the people of His day were astounded by His teachings. He represented a radical departure from all that they had heard before. Jesus surprised His listeners, not only by what He taught but also by how He taught. "They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." (Mark 1:22) So what was so different about Jesusí teaching?

Rabbis of Jesusí day operated much as judges in courts do today. In Americaís legal system, cases are decided largely by precedent. The judge interprets the meaning and application of a law, not by his personal insight and jurisprudence alone, but based on the opinions handed down by other judges in previous cases. This is a legal principal known as stare decisis, meaning look to the decisions made before.

Jesus was plainly saying that He had greater authority than Abraham and the prophets because He existed before they did

To ignore precedent and rule strictly by personal interpretation would be considered arrogant and presumptuous. It is likely that such a ruling would not stand. Chances are, an appellate court would question the judgeís authority to ignore legal precedent and overturn his decision.

In a similar way, when rabbis of the first century A.D. taught from the scriptures ( the law, prophets, and the writings- sometimes collectively referred to as the law) they did not simply render their opinion. They would quote from the law, then appeal to the authority of a respected scholar to understand its meaning and application.

To teach from scripture without invoking rabbinical authority would have been considered an arrogance bordering on blasphemy. After all, they would think, "Are you wiser than Moses who gave the law? Are you wiser than all of the learned scholars before you? " they would ask.

But when Jesus taught, He did not refer to learned scholars and respected teachers. He publically taught on His own authority. He openly taught the law and its application with no appeal to religious scholarship, no invocation of rabbinical authority. This amazed His audience and incensed the religious experts, the scribes and Pharisees.

When He (Jesus) entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, "By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?" (Matthew 21:23) Jesus did not answer them directly at this time, but rather asked them where John the Baptist got his authority. They were afraid to answer His question because everyone accepted John as a prophet sent from God, and John testified that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

Indeed that is precisely the implication of the way Jesus taught. Only God Himself would be qualified to speak as the ultimate authority on the meaning of law. Jesus was not merely a "good teacher" as a rich young ruler once put it. He was, in fact, the very author of the scriptures; and therefore He had the authority to say what they meant. He later made that perfectly clear in another confrontation with the religious leaders recorded in the book of John.

At Jesusí teaching the Pharisees exclaimed, "Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, 'If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death.' "Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?"And Jesus boldly proclaimed, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM."

This statement was a bold, clear claim to divinity. Jesus was plainly saying that He had greater authority than Abraham and the prophets because He existed before they did. As the Word, co-equal with the Father, Jesus spoke the worlds into existence and hung them on nothing. He spoke the words of life which Adam and Eve transgressed to bring death to the human family. He created Abraham in His motherís womb and called him away from Ur to a divine city made by the hand of God. He spoke the words of life to Moses and wrote them on tablets of stone with His own finger.

When Jesus taught the meaning of the scripture, it was not conjecture. He did not peer into deep eternal truth, as the Apostle Paul once described it, through a glass darkly. He did not have to make educated guesses. He was the Word become flesh- the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It was Hisroyal law, and He was the absolute authority on its meaning and application.

Jesus on the Law

So what did Jesus teach about the law? In His first recorded sermon, popularly referred to as the sermon on the mount, Jesus turned the teaching of the Pharisees on its head. He began pronouncing blessings on the very kinds of people upon whom the Pharisees looked down. Jesus blessed those who were humble. The Pharisees, however, were very proud of their exhaustive knowledge of scripture and strict observance. Jesus blessed the merciful. Conversely, the Pharisees were harsh judges, placing heavy burdens on others without lifting a finger to help.

 

Then Jesus made an emphatic declaration concerning the law. "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 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; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:17-19)

 

Many in modern mainstream Christianity interpret this teaching to mean that Jesus fulfilled, or satisfied the law. He kept the law to the letter so we donít have to. When it says that the least stroke of a pen, just a part of a letter, will not pass away until all is accomplished, they reason that Jesus accomplished all, nailing the law to His cross. Now we, as Christians, are not under law but grace. We simply call on the name of Jesus, and we are saved forever; free from hell and guaranteed heaven.

 

No longer shackled by the law, many Christian teachers today do not concern themselves overmuch with the law. They follow the tradition assembling themselves together for worship on the venerable day of the sun, or Sunday, while completely ignoring Godís commandment to "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." (Exodus 20:8) After all, they reason, now that Jesus fulfilled the law, we are no longer obligated to obey it. Really, they surmise, under the new covenant, we just follow the spirit of the law and rest one day out of seven. But we donít have to be legalistic about which day we keep holy, or whether we really keep a day holy at all.

 

Is that what Jesus was teaching here? Does this passage say, essentially, that Jesus brought the law to an end by keeping it perfectly, so it wouldnít be a big deal if we mess it up? Even if we teach other people to break one little commandment, whatís the worst that will happen? Will we still be In the Kingdom of heaven, but with a slightly diminished reward or lower rank?

 

Whole Counsel of God

If the truth is our objective, it is crucial that we gather the whole counsel of God to understand what He says on a subject. The Bible says of Godís instruction that it is written "...precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little..."(Isaiah 28:13) That means that no scripture may be accurately understood in isolation. Rather, all other relevant scriptures must be harmonized with it, to gain an accurate understanding of Godís intent.

 

Letís take a look at some other scriptures concerning the law and see how they line up with mainstream teaching. Just a little later in the same sermon on the mount, Jesus spoke again about the law. He said, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me you who practice lawlessness.'" (Matt.7)

 

Notice that merely naming Jesus, and saying that he is your Lord does not guarantee salvation. In fact, Jesus says that even preaching in His name, casting out demons, and performing miracles will not secure admittance into the Kingdom of Heaven if you make a habit or practice of breaking His commandments. Perhaps the most surprising part of this pronouncement is that many, not few, will be condemned on the day of judgment for breaking Godís law. In fact, Jesus in the same sermon where He speaks about the law and fulfilling it, is clearly saying that He will reject those who continually reject His commands.

 

Later in the book of Matthew, Jesus again addresses keeping the law. Explaining how He will judge when He returns as King of Kings in the parable of the tares Jesus says, "The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire."(Matthew 13:41-42)

 

Here again we find that Jesusí message is absolutely consistent. Jesus says that when He pronounces judgment in His Kingdom, He will remove all of those who habitually and regularly transgress His commandments or practice lawlessness from His kingdom. They will not receive a low rank, nor a lesser reward, but rather will be cast into the lake of fire. Remember, the word lawlessness means to break Godís law, transgress His Commandments, ignore His instructions, or practice iniquity.

 

 

Jesus said in the gospel of John that keeping His commandments is demonstrates whether we love Him or not. "He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me." (John 14:21)

"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. He who does not love Me does not keep My words."(John 14:23-24).

 

In Godís view, habitually transgressing His instruction is not just indifference towards Him, it is hatred. This is completely consistent with what Jesus said to Israel when He gave His commandments to them. -"I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving-kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments." (Exodus 20:5-6) This is an exact parallel to what Jesus said in the gospel of John. Loving God equals obeying His commandments. Making a practice of disobeying them equals hating Him.

 

As it says in Hebrews, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Yesterday, Jesus said it was hate for Lucifer, a third of the angels, Adam and Eve, the people of Noahís day, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the nation of Israel to practice breaking His law. Today Jesus says that we Hate him when we practice breaking His Law. And tomorrow, when He returns to establish His Kingdom, His Judgment will be the same! No matter what many preachers teach today.

 

When John, Jesusí close friend and disciple, wrote his epistle from the Isle of Patmos, the church had so drifted from Jesusí teaching that Diotrophes, a prominent leader, would excommunicate any members who listened to Johnís teaching. He offered a litmus test to his readers to determine whether or not someone really knew and followed Jesus. "The one who says, "I have come to know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him..." (1 John 2:4)

 

These are very strong and unambiguous words. Could any honest person searching the scriptures conclude that Jesus was doing away with the law? Was He really teaching that breaking His commandments would get you into His kingdom with a low rank and a small reward?

 

Review the Context

In light of overwhelming testimony of scripture on law, letís review Jesusí statement in Matthew."Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. "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; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."

 

Not only did Jesus say that no commandment had been annulled, but that not even the smallest mark would not pass away until heaven and earth pass away

Doesnít this teaching confirm rather than diminish the role of Godís law and the importance of adhering to it? Here Jesus says DO NOT THINK THAT I CAME TO ABOLISH THE LAW; I DID NOT COME TO ABOLISH BUT TO FULFILL. Isnít it astounding that we can think that statement means that the law is abolished? This is a typical Jewish rhetorical device intended to add emphasis by way of contrast. It is called an antithetical parallel. Basically saying not this, but that.

Jesus said that He did not come to abolish, diminish, loosen, or invalidate the law. On the contrary, He came for the opposite purpose of fulfilling it, making it increase to overflowing, to heighten, strengthen, and magnify it.

 

Not only did Jesus say that no commandment had been annulled, but that not even the smallest mark would not pass away until heaven and earth pass away. In other words, as long as there is a sky above and ground beneath- the law is extant and in full effect, undiminished. I donít think anyone is making the argument that the earth and sky have disappeared.

 

What about the statement that whoever annuls the least of Gods commandments being called least in the Kingdom of Heaven? Is this statement blatantly contradicting Jesusí repeated pronouncement that the lawless and workers of iniquity will be cast out of the Kingdom and into the lake of fire? Not at all. The word rendered called in this statement means declared. This is a declaration or judgment. Notice that it does not say that the least will be in the Kingdom, but rather that in the Kingdom, lawbreakers will be declared least.

 

This is the same declaration made throughout scripture. Those who obey God, such as those heroes of faith mentioned in Hebrews eleven, are called great. That is a superlative, not a relative statement. They are not called better, but great. Likewise, those who practice breaking the law are called least, not lesser. Like Satan those who practice this rebellion will be pronounced least, and in harmony with the rest of scripture, will be cast into hell.

 

Notice the parallel comparisons from scripture. Least and greatest. Sheep and goats. Wheat and tares. Faithful and lawless. Believing and unbelieving. Holy and profane. Obedient and rebellious. Saved and lost. All of these are superlative, not comparative, and like life and death there are only two options.

 

Finally, we are told that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Here again the comparison is entering versus not entering. Not degrees of reward or rank. Clearly the Pharisees did not claim that the law was done away. Outwardly they very meticulously adhered to every letter of the law. However, which was in fact precisely Jesusí point, they needed to obey more, not less. There obedience was entirely external. Inwardly they were full of pride, envy, jealousy, greed, and murder.

 

Jesus wasnít saying that the law was done away, but that we must keep the spirit and the letter. We must, by the power of the holy spirit, allow the law to be written on our hearts. We must do more than refrain from killing our brother, we must forgive and love him. We must do more than refrain from having extramarital affairs, we must guard our hearts against lust. We must do more than rest on the Sabbath, we must worship in spirit and in truth

 

One day soon, Jesus will return in His glory. Let us be found faithful to Him. Let us return loving obedience to the One who gave up all glory, suffered immeasurably, and now lives to empower us to walk as He Himself walked. Let us not insult the spirit of grace by reasoning that He endorses and condones lawlessness."What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!" (Romans 6:15-16)


 

 

 

 

Points of Truth Ministries