What Are the Least Commandments in Matthew 5:19?

A. Let’s look at the context surrounding what Jesus said about “these least commandments”:

Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill. For most certainly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not even one smallest letter or one tiny pen stroke shall in any way pass away from the law, until all things are accomplished. Whoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever shall do and teach them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20

On one side of the statement, Jesus says He has come to fulfill the law. He also gave two “untils.” He said that until heaven and earth pass away, nothing would pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Since He said He had come to fulfill the law, His coming to fulfill the law was one of the “all things” that had to be accomplished. Heaven and earth have not passed away, but on the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He accomplished all that He came to do. Thus, He has fulfilled the law.

On the other side of the statement, Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. He then gave the “but I tell you” new commands (see “If we are no longer under the law, why did Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, raise the standard of the law?” for more information).

Not “Break” but “Loosen”

Something too many commentators ignore is that the Greek word many English translations render as “break” in Matthew 5:19 should really be translated as “loosen.” The word is luō. It is the same word translated as “loose” in Matthew 18:18, for loosening the burial sheets of Lazarus in John 11:44, for untying the donkey in Mark 11:2 and elsewhere, and even for releasing Satan from his prison in Revelation 20:7. In Matthew 5:17, the word for “destroy” is kataluō, where it literally means “to loosen down.” Matthew 5:19 is the only place in both the New Testament and in the English translation of the Greek Septuagint Old Testament where luō is translated “break.” Perhaps many translators translated luō here as “break” because they assumed that is what Jesus meant. But “loosen” make perfect sense.

As we see in the other verses where it is used, luō means the opposite of bind or tie. Jesus is not speaking of someone who respects these least commandments but slips and breaks one. He is talking about someone who believes and teaches that it is perfectly okay to violate these least commandments. This person basically thinks that because we are under grace, we should do whatever we want. Paul warns against this: “For you, brothers, were called for freedom. Only don’t use your freedom for gain to the flesh, but through love be servants to one another” (Galatians 5:13). And, Peter writes, “For this is the will of God, that by well-doing you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God” (1 Peter 2:15-16).

If this person who teaches this libertine doctrine was saved, then, since all who are saved are under grace, this person will be in the kingdom of God. But he or she will be least. So, we should certainly want to know what are these least commandments.

Not the Old Testament Commandments

So, if Jesus came to fulfill the law, why would He warn against loosening the least commandment and teaching others to do so? When Jesus fulfilled the law, He ended it (see, “In what way did Jesus fulfill the law?”). This fact should immediately warn us that Jesus, in speaking of “these least commandments” is not talking about the commandments of the Old Testament law that He was about to fulfill and end.

Another point to consider is that the Old Testament law had its own punishments, but none of them have anything to do with being least in the kingdom. That is, if an Old Testament Jew had taught that it was perfectly okay to violate the commandments, that person would likely have been stoned to death as a false prophet. In fact, what is really striking about what Jesus says here is that those who break the commandments and even teach others to do so are still in the kingdom! They are least, but they are still there. There is no provision for such grace under the Old Covenant.

Jesus Is Referring to What He Is About to Say

Jesus cannot be referring to Old Testament commands. He must be referring to what He says in the verses that follow that He introduces each time with the words, “But I tell you.” Each of these is an example of how much higher God’s true standards of righteousness are than the mere typological shadows that made up the Old Testament commands. It is these “but I tell you” examples of God’s true standards of righteousness that Jesus refers to in Matthew 5:19 as “these least commandments.” Jesus calls them “least” (elachistos—”shortest,” the “very smallest”) because He is giving only a few, small examples of God’s righteous standards.

All of these commandments can be summed up in one word—love. But it is impossible for even born again Christians to always show perfect love. It is impossible for us to never ever hate our brother without a cause, to never ever lust after someone, to never ever want to return evil for evil, to never ever hate our enemies, and so forth. How, then, can we meet these standards?

There Is Only One Way

The only way our righteousness can exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees is to trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior and have His perfect righteousness imputed to us.

So we see from these Scriptures that Jesus fulfilled the law for us, and that God’s standards of righteousness are not just an outward obedience to the Old Testament commands but an inner obedience that is far beyond what we can fulfill ourselves. Jesus was obedient even to the point of death (Philippians 2:8), and His obedience is imputed to us: “For as through the one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one, many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). We can be saved only by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ and God’s imputing His righteousness to us.

The fact that God considers Jesus’ righteousness as the righteousness of all believers explains why Christians who trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior but who misunderstand Scripture and loosen, and even teach against, some of Jesus’ commandments are still in the kingdom, and will still be saved.

It’s wrong to teach against God’s righteous standards because they are ways to express His perfect love. Love is what should distinguish us as Christians. Thus, loosening God’s standards of righteousness, the standards of His perfect love, is a serious mistake. But, for someone who is in Jesus Christ, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1). The salvation of those who trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior doesn’t depend upon their obedience but upon Christ’s death for their disobedience and God’s counting Jesus’ obedience as their own.

Paul writes of how even someone who errs in some beliefs and teachings will still be saved if his foundation is Jesus Christ.

For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or stubble; each man’s work will be revealed. For the Day will declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself will test what sort of work each man’s work is. If any man’s work remains which he built on it, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, but as through fire.

1 Corinthians 3:11-15

If that person proclaims Jesus Christ as Savior but teaches wrong doctrine—such as loosening God’s standards—on top of that foundation, his teaching will be revealed as wrong. He will suffer loss, but he will still be saved.

Preserving a proper understanding of God’s righteous standards is important for at least four reasons. First, it helps us to begin to grasp God’s pure holiness. Second, it causes us to see how impossible it is for us to achieve God’s standards of righteousness by our works. Third, it focuses our eyes in humility on Jesus Christ, who has paid the penalty for our unrighteousness and whose perfect righteousness God now credits to us. Fourth, since God’s righteous standards express His perfect love, loosening those standards is the same as lowering the standards of true love. I’m not saying that we’ll ever in this life perfectly and consistently express true love, but it’s good to not forget the goal while also knowing that God graciously overlooks our failures.

Finding the Balance

When I speak of balance in our salvation, I don’t mean a balance between law and grace. There is no balance between law and grace. Our salvation is one hundred percent by grace. The balance is between freedom and love.

Jesus Christ has certainly given us freedom from the law: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:2), and, “Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and don’t be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).

But we must be careful not to use our freedom to live selfishly and without regard to others: “For you, brothers, were called for freedom. Only don’t use your freedom for gain to the flesh, but through love be servants to one another” (Galatians 5:13). We must be careful that, when exercising our freedom, we don’t cause someone who doesn’t yet understand that freedom to stumble: “But be careful that by no means does this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9), and, “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Colossians 4:5-6).

Turning from grace and freedom to the law inevitably leads to moralism, judgmentalism, and condemnation of others. But a freedom that leads to a selfish disregard of others, becoming easily angered, retaliating when abused, turning from those in need (even if they are enemies), and so forth is also unloving. As we saw in Galatians 5:13 quoted above, the balance is to use our freedom to serve others in love, and to, “Walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance” (Ephesians 5:2).

The “Least Commandments” Can Be Summed Up in Love

As we have seen, the “least commandments” Jesus speaks of in Matthew 5:19 cannot be the Old Testament commands. Jesus fulfilled and ended the Old Testament law. By His death on the Cross, Jesus has saved all who trust in Him as their Savior. He’s paid the penalty for the sins of all believers. We have His righteousness imputed to us, and God has put us under the New Covenant.

The commandments Jesus speaks of in Matthew 5:19 are small (“least”) examples of God’s standard of righteousness. They can be summed up in one word—love. Unlike the Old Testament laws, these commands have no condemnation associated with them. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1). Even if we misunderstand our liberty and loosen these New Covenant commands that give us examples of how to love, or we ignorantly teach against them, we are still in the kingdom of heaven because God saves us by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

So, when Jesus said, “Whoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven,” He was not talking about the Old Testament law, of which Hebrews says, “A man who disregards Moses’ law dies without compassion on the word of two or three witnesses” (Hebrews 10:28). Since Jesus said that those who break and even teach against these commands will still be in the kingdom of heaven, He must have been speaking of the non-condemning standards of God’s righteousness of the New Covenant, which is a covenant of grace under which there is no condemnation. Our freedom gives us the grace to reflect God’s righteousness through loving others without the fear of punishment for the times we fall short.

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:2

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