Being called least versus great in the Kingdom of Heaven – Matt. 5.17-20
Have you ever read through the OT and came across some crazy, random rules or laws? Examples from Leviticus 19. Ever wonder if we still need to fully obey such laws? I get questions all the time, especially the one about the tattoos. We'll come back to this later...
In this passage, Jesus is talking about being called least in the kingdom versus being called great in the Kingdom. Of course we all would like to hopefully work toward becoming known as great in the kingdom of heaven so what are some of the things we should work towards to make this happen?
In the context of this passage, Jesus is about to set out to definitively interpret God’s Word. But before he begins, he wants everyone to know that he holds God’s word in the highest regard.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets…
When he says this, it was another way of saying, I have not come to “set aside” or “repeal” the Hebrew Bible (or OT). Saying “The Law and Prophets” was another way of referring to the whole of the OT.
Up until this point (and from this point going forward in his story) Jesus was accused of neglecting God’s Word, or specifically the Laws of the OT. He came under attack from the groups mentioned in verse 20 of this passage: the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.
The Pharisees - Recognized as the supreme authority in religion the written Hebrew Scriptures (all of them) and the oral tradition (or what is referred to in this text as the tradition of the elders). They were strict adherents to the Law, not only the Torah but the expositions and traditions of the Law. More of a tendency to regard outward formalism as more important than inward disposition of the heart (at least according to the gospels and Acts).
The Teachers of the Law (or Scribes) - Their key role was a more careful theoretical development of the Law – the scribes counted a total of 613 commandments in the OT. They were made in general terms and needed to be made explicit and particular. For example: walking through a grain field had to be examined. When the wheat was ankle high not knee high it was not considered threshing. But if the wheat was knee high, kernels might be knocked loose and it would be considered threshing. If a cotton wadding which was worn in one’s ear fell out it could not be replaced for this would be considered lifting a burden. The scribes wanted to make sure they knew what constituted a law and not a law. These accumulations were what came to be known as the tradition of the elders. This oral tradition was transmitted orally until about 200 AD.
Why so zealous for the Law? Understandable? The greatest lesson learned during the exile was that they had neglected the Law of God to worship idols. So the Jews were committed to studying and obeying the Law completely. Idolatry was ended. Prophecy stopped, but scribes, the experts in copying, preserving and teaching the law, became the religious leaders.
These are the guys who constantly question Jesus’ zeal for the Law. Jesus does stuff on the Sabbath that they don’t think he should do (like heal people). He eats with people they would never eat with (like tax collectors and sinners). He touches people that make them unclean (like lepers and dead people). Jesus is about to give the people his interpretation of God’s word and wants everybody to know how much respect he has for God’s word. But he is going to show them how to properly understand God’s word. God’s word needs to be read in light of him. You cannot properly understand God’s word (and that includes the laws of the OT) without knowing Jesus.
The gospel story of Jesus also resolves or brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures (thus, the events of Jesus story occurred “according to the Scriptures”. The Story of Jesus Christ only makes sense as it follows and completes the Story of Israel. The gospel is the resolution and fulfillment of Israel’s Story and promises. The good news of this gospel is that Israel’s Story has now reached its resolution in Jesus Christ.
Jesus does not come to abolish the word of God. This means that he does not mean to set it aside or repeal it. It still is valid and binding on the believer. He goes on to say that not the smallest letter or least stroke of a pen will disappear until everything is accomplished. (Jot and tittle, what does that mean?) What he does say is that he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. What he means by that is that he has come to bring Scripture to its intended goal.
Fulfillment of Scripture is Matthew’s theme through his gospel.
In chapter 1, Matthew connects Jesus to David, the line of the everlasting king.
1.22 – Jesus’ birth by a virgin is seen as fulfilling Scripture (Isaiah 7.14).
2.3-4 – Jesus’ being born in Bethlehem fulfills Scripture (Micah 5.2, 4).
2.15 – Jesus’ escape from Herod to Egypt (Jesus identifies with Israel who also spent years in Egypt).
2.17 – Herod’s destruction of the infants was seen as fulfilling Scripture (Jer. 31.15)
3.2 – John the Baptist’s ministry was seen as fulfilling Scripture (Isaiah 40.3)
4.1-11 – Jesus time of temptation in the wilderness was seen as a way of identifying with Israel’s time in the wilderness after being set free from slavery in Egypt. The people were tested in the wilderness and failed. However, Jesus represents faithful Israel as he does not give into the devil’s temptation in the desert.
4.14-16 – His early ministry in Galilee was seen fulfilling Scripture as well (Isaiah 9.1-2).
Jesus is affirming his undying respect for the OT, and he wants us to know that all of the OT remains normative and relevant for followers of Jesus. But…it needs to be understood in how it has been fulfilled in Christ. All OT texts need to be viewed in light of Jesus’ life and ministry.
What we are going to see is that at some points, Jesus brings many OT events and laws to their fulfillment (like the sacrificial system). The sacrificial system is no longer binding, but not because Jesus set it aside, but because he fulfilled the original intent of the sacrificial system. He became the perfect sacrifice to remove our guilt and sin from before God and through him we can have an unbroken, guilt free relationship with God.
At some points, the OT Scriptures remain quite valid, like love for God and love for our neighbor.
But how do we deal with some of the verses that just don’t seem so relevant to us today like the ones I mentioned? Jesus says that if we set aside one of the least of the commands of the Bible, we’ll be least in the kingdom.
When we look at how Jesus interprets Scripture in the following verses after our passage, we see that he begins with one of the Ten Commandments or a command from the Law and then interprets it. He starts with, “you have heard it said…”, then he says “but I say to you…” In none of the following verses does Jesus contradict the Law, but what he does is present the true meaning of the command. Do not commit adultery…but I say don’t look at a woman lustfully. Jesus gets beyond the mere outward form of the command; he penetrates directly to the heart.
So, far from destroying or setting aside the law (even in the cases where it looks like he is breaking the law like in the incidents we mentioned before), Jesus’ teachings penetrate to the divinely intended meaning of the Law. Because the Law and Prophets pointed to him and he is their goal, he is able now to reveal their true meaning and bring them to fulfillment.
Knowing this, let’s go back to some of those obscure laws I mentioned earlier. When we look beyond the mere literal meaning of the laws, we should look at the original intention of God for these laws.
Why not wear clothing of mixed material? This was a symbol of purity and wholeness. They were entering into a land where the people were dishonoring God and were worshiping false gods and their lifestyles were exceedingly wicked. A law like this was showing them to be concerned with wholeness and purity. It was, in a way, a reminder to not intermix with these people or intermarry with them. And a way of impressing this on the people’s minds was to call them to wholeness in every area of their lives, like their crops, their clothes, their animals…
They were not to cut their hair because often shaving their hair, and especially their beards were pagan mourning rites. The beard was a symbol of manhood and pride within Israel. Again, it was a symbol to be different from the people God was expelling from the land before them.
Tattoo marks were often brands for devotees of pagan gods. Don’t be like them. Be set apart. Show yourself to be worshiping a different, holy God.
When we look at the intended meaning of these laws, we can better understand them and apply them to our lives. God is calling us to be different. To be set apart. How do we distinguish ourselves from the non-believers that we are surrounded with? In our day, it is not necessarily in the way we dress, or having or not having tattoos, or with the food we eat. We distinguish ourselves from the non-believers around us by following Jesus.
So, who is least in the Kingdom? If you set aside the Scripture (and more importantly) it’s intended meaning by God, you will be least in the Kingdom. Jesus is affirming the validity of the OT, but if we continue reading, he helps us understand the intention behind the commands of the OT (and really the whole Bible). We need to read the commands of the Bible in light of Jesus being the king and being the ultimate fulfillment of God’s word.
To be great in the Kingdom is to understand this as well and to teach this to others. To be great in the Kingdom we need to teach the full word of God (especially in light of Jesus’ way of looking at it) and obey his word.
Our righteousness needs to surpass the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. What does that mean? The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees spent so much time wrapped up in a detailed study of the minutiae of the law. The Pharisees were the sect who attempted to fulfill the requirement of the Torah through an elaborate system that was based on ancient teachers who tried to explain its demands. They were more interested in how they could follow the Law (or find ways to make it convenient to follow the letter of the law) than they were in loving God and loving their neighbor. And when it comes right down to it that was the ultimate intention of all of the laws, to teach us how to properly worship God and serve our neighbors. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees kept the focus on the law and not God.
The righteousness that Jesus speaks of does not come through this great preoccupation with the trivial points of the Law that outdoes the Pharisees. Jesus is going to show a new and higher kind of righteousness that comes from understanding that he is the king and that he is the one who can authoritatively interpret God’s word. And Jesus is not going to just interpret the Word for us and tell us how to live, he is going to model it. His life will be a display of his understanding of God’s word. And our righteousness is God’s gift. It comes when we repent, and we are born of the Spirit. The Spirit’s presence enables us to properly follow Jesus. Following Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit is the way to righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were seeking to justify themselves through their obedience to the law, not through a relationship with God.
When do we do these things? Can we become like the Pharisees in regard to the commands that we thing make us right with God? Whenever we put rules and commandments above following Jesus as ways to obtain favor with God, then we are pursuing the righteousness of the Pharisees and Scribes. I don’t know what that looks like for you. In my circle, I gain some sort of righteousness if I abstain from drinking alcohol. It could be that you are relying on the fact that you don’t drink for a type of righteousness. It could be the fact that you don’t cuss or that you abstain from premarital sex. That is what gives you your right standing with God. For some of us it is involvement in Christian events like Bible studies and church attendance. It is like God owes you because you are serving him in these ways. All of these things I’ve mentioned can be helpful to you in your walk. But you should abstain from drinking only because you feel it makes you more like Jesus. You should avoid premarital sex because that is what is best for the kingdom of God. You should study your Bible and attend church as a way of getting to know the commands of Jesus and to corporately worship and fellowship with your brothers and sister in Christ. Those things don’t gain you points with God. They should be shaping you as a follower of Christ. Your righteousness comes as a free gift when you repent, commit to Jesus and receive his Spirit. His Spirit enables you to follow him, which is the command he gives us if we want to be a disciple of his (Luke 9.24).