What God says is important. What He says is not to be trivialized in any way.
When we trivialize what God says, we trivialize ourselves, not Him. His word will always be true. It can be no other way.
Jesus demands that we understand that. It is important.
God is God. His word is always true. We can count on it.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. Christian Standard Bible. (2020). (Mt 5:19–20). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
The word Therefore introduces the deduction which Jesus now draws for his disciples from the enduring validity of the law and his own attitude with respect to it. It reveals a vital connection between the law of God and the kingdom of God. Because he has come not to abolish but to fulfil, and because nothing will pass from the law until all has been fulfilled, therefore greatness in the kingdom of God will be measured by conformity to it.
Is personal obedience enough? Disciples must also teach to others the permanently binding nature of the law’s commandments. It is true that not all the commandments are equally important. Yet even one of the least of these commandments, precisely because it is a commandment of God the King, is vital. To relax it—that is, to loosen its hold on our conscience and its authority in our life—is an offence to God whose law it is.
To disregard a least command in the law (in either obedience or instruction) is to demote oneself into a least subject in the kingdom; greatness in the kingdom belongs to those who are faithful in doing and teaching the whole moral law. ‘The peerage of the Messiah’s kingdom’, wrote Spurgeon, ‘is ordered according to obedience.’
Jesus now goes further still. Not only is greatness in the kingdom determined by a righteousness which conforms to the law, but entry into the kingdom is impossible unless our righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, for God’s kingdom is a kingdom of righteousness. But surely, someone will protest, the scribes and Pharisees were famous for their righteousness?
- Was not obedience to God’s law the overriding passion of their lives? Did they not calculate that the law contains 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, and did they not aspire to keeping them all?
- How then can a disciple of Jesus righteousness actually surpass Pharisaic righteousness, and how can this superior righteousness be made a condition of entering God’s kingdom?
- Does this not teach a doctrine of salvation by good works and so contradict the first Beatitude which says the kingdom belongs to ‘the poor in spirit’ who have nothing, not even righteousness, to plead?
Our Master’s statement must certainly have astonished his first hearers as it astonishes us today. But the answer to these questions is not far to seek. Our righteousness far surpasses Pharisaic righteousness in kind rather than in degree. It is not so much, shall we say, that disciples succeed in keeping some 240 commandments when the best Pharisees may only have scored 230.
Our righteousness is greater than Pharisaic righteousness because it is deeper. It is a righteousness of the heart. Pharisees were content with an external and formal obedience, a rigid conformity to the letter of the law; Jesus teaches us that God’s demands are far more radical than this. The righteousness which is pleasing to him is an inward righteousness of mind and motive. For ‘the LORD looks at the heart’.
It was a new heart-righteousness which the prophets foresaw as one of the blessings of the messianic age. ‘I will put my law in their minds and I will write it on their hearts,’ God promised through Jeremiah (31:33).
How would he do it? He told Ezekiel: ‘I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws’ (36:27).
So God’s two promises to put his law within us and to put his Spirit within us coincide. We must not imagine (as some do) that when we have the Spirit we can dispense with the law, for what the Spirit does in our hearts is, precisely, to write God’s law there.
This is why entry into God’s kingdom is impossible without a righteousness greater (i.e. deeper) than that of the Pharisees. It is because such a righteousness is evidence of the new birth, and no-one enters the kingdom without being born again.