This is part 3 of an examination of Matthew 5:17-20 in light of arguments from the Hebrew Roots movement and those who promote Torah observance for all Christians. For Part 1, click here. For part 2, here.
Moving on to the next verse, Jesus makes this statement:
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.
Here, we have Jesus’ first mention of commandments, specifically “these commandments”. I’ll talk about that more in a moment. Also we must ask what Jesus means by “annuls” here. Really, as we will see, this is one of the simplest verses in this section to understand, especially coming on the heels of the previous two verses.
First, let’s look at the Greek again, for “annuls”. The Greek word here is luo, which you might recognize as part of the word, kataluo, that we saw in verse 17, which gets translated there as “abolish”, or “destroy”. And here, luo carries similar meaning. So, what Jesus is referring to here, like in verse 17, is that, as He did not come to oppose the law to its destruction, neither should anyone else do so. Jesus still cares very much about obedience to God, and is making that clear. Indeed, the passage we are examining is how Jesus opens his discourse on the law where He points out that there is an aspect to the moral requirements of the law that goes deeper than mere outward conformity to the written code.
From this verse, it is clear that, while Jesus is talking about His own fulfillment of all of the Scriptures—the “Law and Prophets”—He does have something important to discuss regarding obedience to the laws. The question arises when we see Jesus refer to “these commandments”. What is He referring to? We notice He has changed terminology from “the law” to “these commandments”. Interpreters vary in what they think He is referring to, whether it is the law of Moses or something else.
Many take Him to be referring to His own commandments that He is about to discuss in the sermon on the mount. There are several reasons to think this is the case. First, and most importantly, the entire discourse on the law in this sermon is showing contrasts between what people had heard before and what Jesus is saying now: “But I say to you…”. He sometimes gives indication that His contrast is between true righteousness and the silly traditions that had built up around the law, but this is by no means always the case. In His contrasts regarding murder, adultery, and eye for eye, Jesus makes no reference to anything outside the law in the contrast. Indeed, reading this section tells us one reason Jesus might have talked about not thinking He came to abolish the law. He spends a fair amount of time challenging the perceptions of His hearers concerning the law, enough that it may sound to some like He was issuing challenges to the law.
What Jesus is certainly upholding is His own doctrine. His own commandments are being issued here, and it is likely that they are what He is referring to in this passage. It is also notable that He changes His language from “the law” to “these commandments”, which is different in two ways. We’ve discussed how “law” was used to refer to three things, the actual laws, the 5 books of Moses, and the Scriptures. Switching to “commandments” makes it clear Jesus is going to discuss moral standards now, so there is no confusion on that. Also, He switches from “the” to “these”. Linguistically, this could go either way. It is not out of the question to refer to a previously referenced group of laws by using “these”. We speak this way often. However, it is also linguistically allowed for Jesus to be shifting from an already established set of rules, “the law”, to a new set of considerations, “these” commandments. Also, consider how much less ambiguous it would have been for Jesus, after discussing the law, to then talk about breaking one of the least of “the commandments”. Had He not switched His article, Jesus would have quite clearly been speaking of the same law He was referring to before. As it is, His language allows for the other evidence to show He is speaking of His own sermon.
The Law of Christ
This verse allows for an important aside concerning the debate about the Torah and what is typically argued by those who promote Torah observance. It is incredibly common to hear them argue as if everyone who disagrees with them is promoting lawlessness, moral relativism, disobedience of God. This is an example of burning a straw man. There certainly do exist such people who hate God’s moral standard, even among those who call themselves Christians. This is a false, heretical doctrine that does not reflect the truth of Scripture. It is the view that most of Paul’s “may it never be” statements are aimed at.
Consider the verse in question, though. Jesus makes clear that it is no small thing to break even one of the “least of these commandments”. Jesus is not against commandments. In fact, the general point of the following section of the sermon on the mount is to point out that we cannot hope to please God by external obedience to the law. We must be perfect from the inside out. Jesus is bringing the law up to its highest, strictest expression, concluding by saying, “Therefore you be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is the final lesson of the law that leads us to fall upon Christ as our Savior and Lord. This comes about by a new birth, and is marked by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, by whom we are even able to obey God truly.
So the argument is not between the lawful and the lawless. Rather, it is between those who advocate obedience to the Law of Moses, given with the Old Covenant, and those who believe in obeying the Law of Christ, given with the New Covenant.
Unfortunately, because of this bad argument from the Hebrew Roots side, there is a corresponding bad argument back from the other side. It is often said by those who reject Torah observance, that it is wrong to impose law on those who are saved by grace through faith. In other words, they accept, implicitly, the dichotomy of lawful versus lawless. This comes out most often by pointing out that Torah observance makes a person legalistic. On the surface, this is just true by definition. However, does not following Jesus’ commands amount to an equivalent situation? Hebrew Roots Christians, by any name, almost always advocate salvation by grace through faith alone. They do not promote works-righteousness, at least overtly. And if other Christians promote obedience to Jesus, the only difference is which law is being promoted, not whether we should be obedient, so I find that the “obedience to the law versus faith in Christ” argument to be missing the mark.
The Real Issue of Jesus Commandments
It is important to realize something that will help greatly in this debate. The real issue with which laws you obey comes down to which covenant you are trying to keep. The law of Moses was given by God, but is referred to as “types and shadows”, not the real thing. The moral portions of the law are upheld in the New Covenant, and even intensified. Also, the New Covenant is not without its own ceremonial and civil portions. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were instituted to remember the work of Christ. Also, to just name a couple places, Matthew 18 and the pastoral epistles are given as just a couple of the “civil” portions for church governance, such as it is when the church will not be a physical nation, as Israel was. The real issue, as everyone generally agrees, is the Gospel of Jesus. Faith in Him is what saves, but that salvation is a spiritual resurrection and a person’s life will never be the same. What should we do now that we are saved? Obey Christ, as He tells us here in Matthew 5:19.