Sermon on the Mount: Least and Great In the Kingdom

By Keith Sharp

The scribes and Pharisees were evidently convinced that Jesus was bent on loosening the demands of the law of God (cf. Matt. 9:9-17; 12:1-14; 15:1-2; Jn. 5:1-18). The new “free men in Christ” unity cult makes the very same tragic mistake today. W. Carl Ketcherside exults:

“Now I am freed from the law …. I am free to serve God in a new way, not under a new law, but in a new way! . . . He has set no bounds except those of love for Him In his infinite mercy, and for my fellow men in their infinite need” (Mission Messenger, Vol. XXXIII,.No. 1, p. 22).

But the Lord’s real attitude toward God’s law stands in stark contrast to such false charges:

“Whomsoever 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” (Matt. 5:19).

What, according to the Master, are His disciples’ responsibilities to divine law? In order to answer this question, we must understand the language Jesus used in Matthew 5:19.

What did He mean by “one of these least commandments”? The rabbis had traditionally divided the Old Testament law into 613 commandments-248 positive and 365 negative. Lengthy debates were held as to which were lighter (less important) and which were heavier. There were two things wrong with this: they made these distinctions in order to disregard some laws (cf. Matt. 23:16-24) and they had no divine authority for their divisions (cf. Deut. 29:29). Jesus Himself, while refusing to recognize the traditional distinctions of the scribes, did teach that some laws of God were of greater import than others (Matt. 22:34-40; 23:23; Mk. 12:28-34). We all realize, as a common and simple principle of justice, that some laws are weightier than others.

But Jesus did not and does not allow such distinctions to be made in order to disregard even the slightest of God’s laws. If I choose to obey God in 99 commands and rebel at one, I am “guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10-11). The same Lord gave all the commandments. Disobedience to one or 100 is equally rebellion against His rule.

The term rendered “break” denotes “to loose” or “free from restraints” (cf. Mk. 1:7; Lk. 13:15; 19:30; Jn. 11:44). Jesus demanded such strict observance of even “one of these least commandments” that the man who would lightly esteem the authority and importance of any one of them, whether in practice or teaching, would be “least in the kingdom of heaven.” The reference to “least” and “great” was simply speech that was, although literally true, adapted to the Jewish manner of thinking of the kingdom (cf. Matt. 18:1; 20:20-21).

Now that we have studied the meaning of the Master’s language in Matthew 5:19, what is the application to us? Notice that Christ was speaking of those who would be “in the kingdom of heaven.” The attitude the Lord demanded toward divine law was intended to be a lesson for Christians, the citizens of God’s kingdom. Does this mean Christians should keep the Old Testament? No, we have seen in past studies that the law of Moses has been abolished.

Obedience and disobedience are habitual. The child who respects and obeys his parents at home will also respect and obey school authorities, civil rulers and God. The child who is allowed to rebel at home will surely do the same in later years. Those people who respected God and kept His law under the Old Testament would do the same under the New. For this cause, John the Baptist, who came to prepare the way for Christ, called the people to repent toward Moses’ law (Lk. 3:1-14). Because of this, Jesus chided the Jews, “had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me” (Jn. 5:45-47).

Christians are under law, the law of Christ (Rom. 3:27; 7:22, 25; 8:2,7; 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2; Heb. 7:12; 8:10; 10:16; Jas. 1:25; 2:8-12; 4:11-12). That man who, whether in practice or by teaching, lightly regards the necessity of observing faithfully even the smallest of the Lord’s commands is, in the Master’s sight, “the lest in the kingdom of heaven.” That disciple who zealously keeps and faithfully teaches all the commands, even to the smallest, is “great in the kingdom of heaven.” Are you “the least” or “great in the kingdom of heaven”?

Truth Magazine XXI: 47, p.738
December 1, 1977