19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19–20 ESV)
The examination of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount continues with today’s text. Upon Jesus’ declaration that He came to fulfill Old Testament Scripture and not abolish it, He then transitioned to a warning to anyone who would consider doing the opposite; abolishing the Old Testament instead of obeying it.
The word least (ἐλάχιστος; elachistos) means the trivial or the insignificant. It refers to the unimportant. Jesus stated that anyone who would disobey or abolish the least significant of the Old Testament commandments would by comparison be called least in the kingdom of heaven. This warning included those who would teach others to do likewise. This was a statement directed to the Jewish religious leaders; the Pharisees. Contrastingly, anyone who would obey the Old Testament, and teach others to do the same, would be called great (μέγας; megas) or important in the kingdom of heaven.
“These commandments refers to all the commands in the OT (although many will be applied differently once their purpose has been “fulfilled” in Christ; v. 17). The rabbis recognized a distinction between “light” commandments (such as tithing garden produce) and “weighty” commandments (such as those concerning idolatry, murder, etc.). Jesus demands a commitment to both the least and the greatest commandments yet condemns those who confuse the two (cf. 23:23–24). The entire OT is the expression of God’s will but is now to be taught according to Jesus’ interpretation of its intent and meaning,” explains one commentator.
Jesus then concluded that unless an individual’s righteousness was greater than the scribes and Pharisees, there was no hope to even enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was calling His disciples, then and now, to a different quality of righteousness. This was a righteousness not centered on just outward conformity to the Law of God, but also rooted to inner purity; an inner obedience of the soul.
“They (the scribes and Pharisees) took pride in outward conformity to many extra-biblical regulations but still had impure hearts (see 23:5, 23, 27–28). But kingdom righteousness works from the inside out because it first produces changed hearts and new motivations (Rom. 6:17; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 5:22–23; Phil. 2:12; Heb. 8:10), so that the actual conduct of Jesus’ followers does in fact “[exceed] the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.”
“Jesus did not criticize the Pharisees for their strict observance of the Law but rather for their emphasis on outward conformity to it without a proper inner attitude,” states Dr. R.C. Sproul.
What about you? Is your righteousness simply an outward conformity to God’s Word when people are observing you in public? Or is it also a heartfelt and inner obedience to God even when you are alone? May the Holy Spirit reveal to each of us an honest evaluation.
Soli deo Gloria!