19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 20 I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven
Like the previous two verses, v.19 warns the disciples against altering or setting aside any part of the law, however small. Although our translation uses “break,” the underlying Greek word is lyō which means “loose, untie or relax” (and is from the same root as abolish in v. 17) The word typically means to ‘set aside’ or ‘teach against’ a commandment, rather than to disobey it; ‘loose’ in 16:19; 18:18 is the same verb). To do such a thing would show disrespect for the Old Testament and Jesus implies that makes a poor Christian. “Least” is used chiefly for its rhetorical effect echoing the least commandment, though clearly within the kingdom of heaven there are those who are more or less consistent and effective in their discipleship; the thought is of quality of discipleship, not of ultimate rewards. The good disciple will obey and teach the commandments: he will go beyond lip-service, to be guided by them in his life and teaching. Does this mean literal observance of every regulation? Not if we may judge by vv. 21–48 and e.g. Jesus’ attitude to the laws of uncleanness. The question of interpretation and application remains open: it is the attitude of respect and obedience which is demanded, and to this no single commandment can be an exception.
Verse 20 dispels any suspicion of legalism which v. 19 might have raised. The scribes (professional students and teachers of the law) and Pharisees (members of a largely lay movement devoted to scrupulous observance both of the Old Testament law and of the still developing legal traditions), whose obedience to ‘the least of these commandments’ could not be faulted, do not thereby qualify for the kingdom of heaven (whereas the disciple who relaxes the commandments does belong to it, though as the ‘least’). What is required is a greater righteousness (see on 3:15; 5:6, 10), a relationship of love and obedience to God which is more than a literal observance of regulations. It is such a ‘righteousness’ which fulfils the law and the prophets (v. 17), and which will be illustrated in vv. 21–48 (in contrast with the legalism of the scribes) and in 6:1–18 (in contrast with the superficial ‘piety’ of the Pharisees).
An Interim Summary. R.T. France (1989, p.116) offers a paraphrase to make the point clear: “‘17I have not come to set aside the Old Testament, but to bring the fulfilment to which it pointed. 18For no part of it can ever be set aside, but all must be fulfilled (as it is now being fulfilled in my ministry and teaching). 19So a Christian who repudiates any part of the Old Testament is an inferior Christian; the consistent Christian will be guided by the Old Testament, and will teach others accordingly. 20But a truly Christian attitude is not the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees, but a deeper commitment to do the will of God, as vv. 21ff. will illustrate.”
Matthew 5:17-20 does not say that every Old Testament regulation is eternally valid. This view is not found anywhere in the New Testament, which consistently sees Jesus as introducing a new situation, for which the law prepared (Gal. 3:24), but which now fulfills it. The focus will be on Jesus and his teaching, and in this light the validity of any particular Old Testament rule must now be examined. Some will be found to have fulfilled their role and be no longer applicable (see especially Hebrews on the ritual laws, and Jesus’ teaching on uncleanness, Mark 7:19), others will be reinterpreted. Matthew 5:21ff. will be dealing with this reinterpretation, and vv. 17–20 can only truly be understood as an introduction to vv. 21ff. To assert, as these verses do, that every detail of the Old Testament is God-given and unalterable, is not to preempt the question of its proper application. If the law pointed forward to a new situation which has now arrived, that question of application arises with new urgency, and vv. 21ff. will go on to indicate some answers to it. Their answers will be the opposite of legalism (the literal and unchanging application of the law as regulations) but will reveal the deeper meaning of covenant.
- T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 118-30