"The Sermon on the Mount" - Part 1
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. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5: 19-20)
Contempt For The Word Of God
The Lord Jesus had explained His own relationship to the law and the prophets in verses 17-18. The word He uses here, "Whosoever," now introduces a general and very serious appeal.
The meaning of this verse is not easy to grasp. What are the "least commandments"? Does the Lord here differentiate between the moral law (the ten commandments) and the ceremonial law, or does he refer to the iota (A.V.-jot) and the tittle of the law (v. 18)? And lastly, does He teach here that the law of Sinai is still valid for the Christian? Before we try to find answers to these questions we have to remember that the Lord Jesus here speaks to His own people and had not yet been rejected by them. When He said in verse 17 that He was not come to make void the law or the prophets but to fulfil, this must have consequences for His audience and the Jewish nation. But while the Lord Jesus said of Himself that He had come to fulfil the law and the prophets, He now speaks of practising the commandments.
Among the Jews there were teachers of the law who considered their own traditions more important than the commandments of God. He later said to them, the scribes and Pharisees, "Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition" (Matt. 15: 6). Just as He adds there: "Every plant which My heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up" (v. 13), He says to the Jews here that everyone who thinks he can do away with any of the law, which then was still valid, would be called the least in His kingdom. Comparing the two Scriptures we see that He speaks of mere professors who outwardly take a place in the kingdom of the heavens but have not really "entered in" (v. 20). At His appearing in glory these will be removed from His kingdom through judgment (Matt. 13: 41). As long as the law was valid according to God's will, i.e. until Christ's death (cf. Rom. 10: 4; Gal. 3: 24; Eph. 2: 15; Col. 2: 14), it had to be observed by the Jews, as Deuteronomy 27: 26 says: "Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them."
The scribes, who counted altogether 613 commandments in the Old Testament, distinguished between what in their opinion were important and less important laws. The Lord also points out a difference when He calls the commandment to love God the great and first commandment, although He immediately puts the commandment to love one's neighbour on the same level (Matt. 22: 36-40). In Matthew 23: 23 He accuses the scribes and Pharisees of leaving the more important matters of the law aside-judgment and mercy and faith-while putting great emphasis on applying the law of the tithes to such little things as garden herbs.
The scribes and Pharisees thus, on the one hand set their human traditions above the laws of God, and on the other insisted on outward observance of the smallest details of the law. But the Lord distinguishes between the mere outward observance of the law and the attitude of the heart towards the commandments of God, which is far more important. It is the ordinances which commanded love towards God and one's neighbour which especially show that it is impossible for natural man to lead a life that is pleasing to God and that not the law but faith is the only way to God.
We who are not under law but under grace and the leading of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 6: 14; Gal. 5: 18) can receive spiritual exhortations from the Old Testament laws of God. "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning" (Rom. 15: 4). But it is also possible that the Lord, when speaking here about "commandments," was not thinking of the Sinaitic law but of His own new commandments which He was just about to announce in the "sermon on the mount." Later, in Matthew 28: 20, He told His disciples to teach what He had commanded them. Here in Matthew 5: 19-20 He no longer speaks of the "law," as in verses 17-18, but of "these... commandments." They might still have seemed "least" to His audience, yet they were the guidelines for the behaviour of the disciples of Christ in the kingdom of the heavens. This explanation is supported by the words of the Lord in Matthew 24: 35: "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away." The law may pass away with the end of the present creation (v. 18) but the words of the Lord shall never pass away.
The end of verse 19 again shows the contrast with the scribes and Pharisees. The Lord later says of them: "All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not" (Matt. 23: 3). In Matthew 5: 19 He links His promise to the agreement between actions and doctrine.
"For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5: 20). Since the time of the Babylonian captivity a large collection of interpretations and ordinances has been added by the Talmud, in addition to the law. In the New Testament these are called "the tradition of the elders." The scribes were those best acquainted with the law and these human ordinances, whereas the Pharisees were their strictest observers. In Matthew 23 the Lord Jesus utters a sevenfold "woe" over these men and their behaviour which was marked by egoism and emphasising outward appearance (Matt. 23: 5-7, 25-28. Verse 14 is omitted in the J.N.D. Trans.). They might appear pious and righteous before men but before God their attitude could not stand.
This is why the Lord says here: "except your righteousness shall exceed..." Obviously He does not mean the righteousness of God which is imputed to those believing on Him. The Lord Jesus, in the "sermon on the mount," does not preach the gospel to the lost, but speaks to His disciples. "Your righteousness" therefore is the practical righteousness shown in the lives of those who have been justified by faith in Him and who follow Him by doing God's will (Matt. 7: 21). This is practical righteousness and the only one that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.
For the real, born again believer, to enter into the kingdom of the heavens means to be united with the Lord as a true disciple and to be owned by Him as such. The New Testament speaks at least 14 times of entering into the kingdom.1 Some of these Scriptures clearly indicate that this is something in the future, while others are not clear as to the time. But all of them show that entering into the kingdom is reserved for the true disciples of Jesus. Unrighteous persons shall not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6: 9).
1 Matt. 5: 20; Matt. 7: 21; Matt. 18: 3; Matt. 19: 23; Matt. 21: 31; Matt. 23: 13; Mark 9: 47; Mark 10: 23, 24; Luke 16: 16; Luke 18: 24; John 3: 5; Acts 14: 22; 2 Peter 1: 11.
A mere religious profession and the doing of certain "good works," even if they leave a deep impression on other people, are not sufficient to be able to stand before God. But he who feels sincere sorrow for his sins and repents, who believes that the Lord Jesus has suffered for him and his sins the righteous punishment of God on the cross of Calvary, who then leads a new life in faith, following the Lord and being obedient to the Scriptures, he will be one of the righteous that shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of the Father (Matt. 13: 43).
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