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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – We Will Be Judged by Our Response to God's Word (5:19)
We Will Be Judged by Our Response to God's Word (5:19)

Jesus here provides a graphic example of the law's authority. Jewish teachers typically depicted various persons as "greatest" before God; the emphasis was not on numerical precision but on praising worthy people (for example, m. 'Abot 2:8). When Jesus speaks of the least of these commandments, he also reflects Jewish legal language. Jewish teachers regularly distinguished "light" and "heavy" commandments (as in Sipra VDDeho. parasha 1.34.1.3; compare Mt 23:23) and in fact determined which commandments were the "least" and "greatest." Noting that both the "greatest" commandment about honoring parents (Ex 20:12; Deut 5:16) and the "least" commandment about the bird's nest (Deut 22:6-7) included the same promise, "Do this and you will live," later rabbis decided that "live" meant "in the world to come" and concluded that God would reward equally for obedience of any commandment. One who kept the law regulating the bird's nest merited eternal life, whereas one who broke it merited damnation (see, for example, Urbach 1979:1:350; Keener 1991a:116). In the same way, those who merely honored the highest standards of their religion would fall short of entering the kingdom at all (Mt 5:20).

Other sages used such language to grab attention and emphasize the importance of the law. But like Jesus, they did not want anyone to miss the point: God has not given us the right to pick and choose among his commandments. As some teachers put it, one should be as "careful with regard to a light commandment as you would be with a heavy one, since you do not know the allotment of the reward" (m. 'Abot 2:1). The sages were not suggesting that they never broke commandments (see Moore 1971:1:467-68), but rather believed that one who cast off any commandment or principle of the law was discarding the authority of the law as a whole (m. Horayot 1:3; Keener 1991a:115-17).

Jesus concurs: God does not allow us the right to say, "I will obey his teaching about murder but not his teaching about adultery or fornication"; or, "I will obey his teaching about theft but not about divorce." To refuse his right to rule any of our ethics or behavior is to deny his lordship.

In this passage Jesus also warns that teachers who undermine students' faith in any portion of the Bible are in trouble with God. This text addresses not only obedience to the commandments but also how one teaches others (and teaches others to do the same; compare Jas 3:1). I have occasionally taught alongside colleagues who actively sought to undermine students' faith in the name of "critical thinking"; sometimes they succeeded. Critical thinking is important, but it functions best with the firm foundation of the fear of God (Prov 1:7).

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