Christians And The Law

By Linus Chua, adapted from message delivered on 10th Feb 2008 in PCC Morning Worship Service

“Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).

Before taking any examination, it’s always wise to try and find out what the examiner or the examination board is looking for in a candidate. Without knowing what is required of you, it’s unlikely that you’ll do well in the exam. And so for example, if you’re taking an English exam, you’ll want to be careful about things like spelling, punctuation, agreement, sentence structure and so on, and make sure that you nail them down as accurately as possible.

But if you’re taking a mathematics or science exam, then you probably won’t spend as much time checking your English and making sure you have word perfect statements etc. Instead, you’ll put in more time and effort on your calculations and solutions to the problem. Likewise, unless you’re taking an art or technical drawing exam, you won’t need to draw very straight lines or beautiful pictures or precise diagrams and charts.

When I was first learning about curve sketching in mathematics, I didn’t really understand the concept and so I would take out my ruler to draw the lines and accurately measure off all the points, and then use a curve rule to connect them nicely together. Some time afterwards, one of my classmates told me that there’s a difference between curve plotting and curve sketching. The first requires some accuracy whereas the second doesn’t, and it would be foolish to waste time plotting a curve when all that is required is just a quick sketch of it. And if a student did that during an exam, he would be in danger of running out of time and doing very badly. The opposite is also true. If the question requires a curve to be plotted, then you’ll need to do it carefully and accurately or your answer might be quite far off.

Have you ever wondered how God will judge His people in that great and final Day of Judgment before the eternal state begins? Now we know that all true Christians will not be condemned but will enter into His kingdom of glory on the basis of Christ’s work. Nevertheless, the Bible also speaks of a judgment that they will have to face. The question is this – what kind of “examination criteria” will God use to grade and assess His people? What will He be looking out for in them? What will be important in His sight and what will not matter to Him? The first step in doing well in this final assessment is to find out what God requires of us.

In this chapter, we want to look at a verse which teaches us something about the criterion or standard that God will use in determining our relative position in the kingdom of heaven. In other words, how well or how poorly you fair in the kingdom will depend on your relationship to this measuring standard.

The word “therefore” at the beginning of v. 19 connects this verse with the previous two and confirms our interpretation of them. In our last chapter, we mentioned a number of unsatisfactory interpretations of v. 17, especially of the word “fulfill”. For example, there are those who say that the word “fulfill” means to “put an end to” or “to finish” and thus Christ is teaching that the law has come to an end and is no longer valid or applicable today. But, as we saw, not only does such an interpretation contradict Christ’s teaching in v. 17-18, it also goes against what He says in v. 19. And so however you want to interpret the word “fulfill” in v. 17, be sure to check your interpretation with v. 19 for this verse is useful in helping us understand what has just been said; and even more importantly, it demonstrates the practical consequences of Christ’s words.

I’ll like us to consider this verse in two parts. Firstly, what is required of us as Christians in terms of our relationship to the law, and secondly, what is the result of our response to the law.

1. What is required?

Christ speaks of our responsibility towards the Law in both negative and positive terms. Negatively, He teaches us that we are neither to break the least of the commandments nor teach others to do so. Positively, He teaches us that we are to do or keep the commandments and teach others to do so as well.

Let’s look first at what we are not to do. We are not to break the commandments. The word “break” is the Greek word λυω, which has the basic meaning of setting loose or releasing. The idea here is that of annulling God’s law or making it void, by loosening or releasing or freeing ourselves from its requirements and standards. Christ uses a stronger form of this word in verse 17 when he said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law…” That word “destroy” is καταλυω and it means to abrogate or abolish. And so what Christ did not come to do, He likewise forbids us from doing. He did not come to annul or abolish the law and He does not want us to do so as well.

But how does a person annul or set himself loose from the law? Well he does so in a number of ways. Firstly, and most obviously, he does so by wilfully disregarding the law and refusing to practice or keep what it says. Outright disobedience is a breaking of God’s law because, in essence, it is saying that I am not bound to this requirement and thus I am free to do as I please and that includes the very opposite of what the law requires. God told Adam and Eve not to eat of the forbidden tree but under the influence of Satan, they decided to loosen themselves from this requirement and ate of that tree.

And since the fall, sinful men have a natural resentment for laws in general and especially for God’s laws. They hate to be told what to do or what not to do. Given a choice, fallen man wants to be absolutely free in determining for himself what he wants to do or does not want to do, and he hates being bound to any code or standard or law. And so the first way a person annuls the law is by personal and wilful disobedience. But this is by no means the only way of annulling or breaking the law.

Secondly, a person may do so by adding or subtracting from what the law requires or by twisting the law and giving it a wrong interpretation or application. This is one of the major problems that the scribes and the Pharisees had and we will say more about in subsequent studies. But let me just give us an example of this here. In v. 43 of this chapter, Christ said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy, But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.”

Now if you check the entire Old Testament, you will not find God telling the people to hate their enemies. This is simply a Pharisaical addition to the law and by adding this phrase “thou shalt hate thine enemies,” the Pharisees had essentially set themselves free from loving a certain group of people, namely, their enemies.

Thirdly, it is possible to annul the law by limiting it to certain areas of life and refusing to apply it to all other areas. What I mean is this: a person divides his life into many different spheres or areas, and then arbitrarily decides that God’s word and law only applies to this sphere or that sphere, but it does not apply to the rest. So for example, he might say that God’s law is very useful in his religious and devotional life but it cannot be used in other areas such as education, economics, science, arts, government, philosophy etc.

Such a dichotomizing and compartmentalizing of life, and a restricting of the Bible’s scope and application contradicts the Bible’s own witness to itself when it says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). And so a refusal to apply God’s law to all spheres of life is yet another way in which a person may set aside or break God’s law.

Fourthly, it is possible to break God’s law by disregarding its details. We mentioned this already but it might be good to emphasize it again. What do I mean by disregarding the details of the law? Well, for example, a person may say that all he needs to know and be concerned about are the two great commandments, namely, to love the LORD our God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, and that is it. He doesn’t need to bother himself with all the many details and minutiae of the law. Just love God and love man.

Now it’s true that everything that God requires of us to do may be summarized in the words, “love God above all and love others as ourselves,” and if we have done that, we have indeed fully discharged our duties. But now the question is this – what does it mean to love God above all and to love our neighbour as ourselves? The moment we ask this question, the moment we realize how much we need the details of the law.

A summary of the law does not cancel out the content of what it summarizes. You can’t simply say that I accept these two summary statements of the law and reject or ignore everything that it summarizes. If you do, you will be breaking God’s law. Why? Because you will inevitably be redefining what love is and giving it a meaning that is foreign to the Bible. So for example, you might say, I will not chastise my children because that is so harsh and unloving. Or you might say that the church should never discriminate against or exclude from its membership anyone who is a practicing homosexual because that would be so unloving and unkind. And so by rejecting or disregarding the details of the law, we will be breaking the law.

Now, the same is true of those who accept only the Ten Commandments and disregard the rest. There are some evangelicals who say that all we need are just the Ten Commandments and nothing else. Again it’s true that the Decalogue is an excellent summary of God’s law and we should all be very familiar with it. But the Ten Commandments cannot be properly understood and applied without the explanation given to them throughout the rest of the Bible.

Let me try to illustrate this. I once had a Christian friend who told me that she was very troubled in her conscience because of something she had done recently. She said, “The Bible says ‘thou shalt not kill’ and that means we should not take a life, right?” I said, “Yes, that’s right.” Then she said, “But a few weeks ago, I sent my pet dog to the vet to have it put down because I couldn’t care for it anymore. Am I guilty of murder?” You might laugh but she was really serious and troubled, and I had to assure her that she was not guilty. Putting an animal to sleep is not murder.

Let me give another example. My wife and I took a holiday to Western Australia some years ago and we visited the Fremantle Prison, which has been converted into a tourist attraction. During the tour, the guide, who was an ex-prison officer, brought us to the prison chapel and one of the things he asked us while we were there was, “what is the sixth commandment?” And I said, “Thou shalt not kill”. He said, “Right, but take a look at the writing of the Ten Commandments on the chapel wall. What does it say?” We looked up and saw the words, “Thou shalt not murder”. Now why did they deliberately change it from ‘kill’ to ‘murder’? The reason is that the State still carried out capital punishment in those days, and they didn’t want any of the prison inmates to misunderstand that the State was also breaking the sixth commandment by executing certain criminals.

Now the question is this – why is putting an animal to sleep or why is executing a capital criminal not considered a breaking of the sixth Commandment? Or how about killing an enemy in combat or killing an attacker in the process of self-defense? Are those considered a breaking of the sixth commandment? How is killing to be defined? What constitutes a violation of the sixth commandment and what does not?

Again, the only way to answer such questions is by looking at the rest of the Bible to see how it defines murder. We must allow the Bible to define its own terms, and must never impose our own ideas as to what it should mean. The same is true for all the other commandments. We must not take the commandments out of their biblical context.

And so here are at least four ways in which a person may break or annul the law, namely, by personal disobedience, by modifying and weakening the law, by limiting the validity of the law to only certain areas of life, and by disregarding the details of the law.

This last point regarding the details of the law is further strengthened by the phrase, “one of these least commandments.” Christ tells us not to break any one of the commandments, no not even the least of them. Now the question may be asked, “Which is the least of the commandments?” Some have tried to restrict the commandments here to just the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments, and so the least of these would naturally refer to the last one, namely, “Thou shalt not covet”. This is possible but I’m not altogether convinced.


Firstly, there is no reason to restrict the word ‘commandments’ to the Decalogue, especially in light of what Christ said in vv. 17-18 – that He came to confirm not just part of the law, but every single jot and tittle, i.e. the law in its exhaustive detail.

Secondly, we know that the rabbis during the time of Christ divided the law into 613 commandments, 248 of them were positive while 365 were negative, and they carried on lengthy debates about heavier and lighter commandments. As to which is the heaviest or greatest of the commandments, Christ, in Matthew 22:37-38, gives us the answer, “Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.” So we are not in doubt as to which is the greatest. But as for which is the least, some of the rabbis considered Deuteronomy 22:6, which has to do with not carrying off the mother-bird together with her young, to be the lightest or the least significant of them all. Now could Christ be referring to this when He spoke of the least commandment? It is possible although we can’t be very certain.

But this much we can be certain – that even the least of the commandments should not be taken lightly or broken. It is true that not all commandments are as important as the others. There is indeed a gradation or ranking in terms of the commandments. Remember how when Jesus was rebuking the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 23, He said that they were more concerned about paying tithes of their insignificant garden herbs than they were about the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith, when really they ought to have done these things without leaving the others undone.

So it’s clear that even Christ regarded some commandments to be of greater importance than others. Nevertheless, He insists that every commandment of God must be kept, and nothing must be annulled or cancelled, not even the least of them.

We are not to set ourselves loose or release ourselves from the least of the commandments. But neither are we to teach others to annul the commandments as well. It is bad enough for a person to break the commandments himself, but it is even worse if he teaches others to do the same. And so James writes in chapter 3 verse 1 of his epistle, “My brethren, be not many masters (teachers or instructors)…” Why? He goes on to say, “knowing that we (teachers) shall receive the greater condemnation (or judgment).” Every believer is accountable for himself but those who teach are also accountable for the ones whom they teach.

But the words of Christ in v. 19 do not just apply to official or formal teachers in the church. Every one of us is a teacher is some way or ways. Parents have the responsibility of teaching their children. Older siblings have the responsibility of teaching their younger ones by setting a good example for them to follow. And all of us have the responsibility of teaching and admonishing one another in the Church according to Colossians 3:16.

And so whether we realize it or not, all of us are teachers in some ways. When we speak lovingly and respectfully of God’s word and especially of God’s law, we teach love and reverence for it. But when we speak disparagingly or slightingly of the law, we teach disregard and disrespect for it. When we ignore or reject or lessen the law’s demands, we give loud testimony to its unimportance or irrelevance or inapplicability. How we live our lives and what our attitude towards God’s law is will inevitably be seen and observed by those around us, and this will in turn have an impact on them whether for the better or the worse.

So negatively, Christ instructs us not to annul or loosen even the least of His commandments and not to teach others to do so as well. But positively, He calls us to do or keep the commandments and to teach others to do likewise. And in order to do that, we must avoid consciously disobeying God’s commandments, modifying or lessening what they require, limiting their use to only certain restricted areas of our life, and disregarding its details. Instead, we must seek to know what the law says and seek to understand how it applies to us.


Have you ever wondered why God told Joshua, for example, to meditate on the law day and night (Joshua 1:8) and why the Psalmist teaches us to do the same thing (Psalm 1:2)? I can think of at least two reasons. Firstly, all of us are very forgetful and we need to be reminded of what the law says. But secondly, we need to give much thought to how the law applies to our various situations and stations in life.

One of the reasons why Christians today are unable to answer many of the difficult questions and problems in the area of ethics, be it personal or social or medical or environmental or governmental or economic or cultural, is not because the Bible is insufficient or that it is irrelevant to this present age. Rather, it is because Christians have lost touch with what is going on around us from a Christian perspective, and we have been out of practice in terms of properly applying God’s law. That is why we need to be constantly meditating on it; then only will we be able to practice and to teach others to practice even the least of the commandments.

2. What Will be the Result?

So we’ve considered what Christ requires of us. Let’s now consider what will be the result or consequence of our response to God’s commandments. Christ says, “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”


What Jesus is teaching here is that our position, our ranking, our status, our standing within the kingdom of God will be determined by our relationship to the law. Notice that it is not our entrance into the kingdom that is determined by our observance of the law. That would be legalism or the attempt to earn salvation and a place in God’s kingdom through the keeping of the law and good works. As evangelical Christians, we utterly reject that position. And if there is any one reading this who is not a Christian, you need to realize that there is no way you are ever going to get into the kingdom by obeying the law. The Bible tells us that a person can only be saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ and not by his own works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Entrance into the kingdom is not based on law keeping. Nevertheless, our standing within this kingdom is affected by how we live on this earth.

This verse teaches us that there is such a thing as degrees of reward and degrees of glory in heaven. Those who say that Christians will be entirely equal and without any difference whatsoever in the eternal state need to read this verse more carefully.

Now the determining of our rank and status in glory is entirely God’s prerogative and special privilege. He decides what is the standard and criterion to be used. And Christ, whom God has ordained Judge in that great day, tells us that He will hold those in lowest esteem who hold His law in lowest esteem. There is no impunity for those who disobey, discredit or belittle God’s law. On the other hand, He promises that those who uphold every part of His law, both in their living and teaching, will be held in highest esteem.

Greatness in God’s kingdom is not based on how gifted or talented or intelligent or skilful or wealthy or successful or popular we are in this world. No, greatness in His kingdom is determined by our faithfulness to His law and His word.

Professor John Murray says of this verse, “Here Jesus is reminding us of the same great truth which he declares elsewhere, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much, and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10). The criterion of our standing in the kingdom of God and of reward in the age to come is nothing else than meticulous observance of the commandments of God in the details of their prescription and the earnest inculcation of such observance on the part of others.”


Many Christians today think that a person who is concerned about obeying the details of God’s law is a legalist and that a person who is not concerned about such things is the practical man who is living in gospel freedom. But that is a mistaken idea for God will judge and reward His people according to how closely and carefully they have observed the details of His law. How we live today will have consequences not just on judgment day but for all eternity. Will we be the least in the kingdom or will we be great in the kingdom? Christ tells us that that depends on our relationship to the law in this lifetime.

Now I suspect there might be some who are thinking, “I’m not the ambitious sort of person and I don’t care if I’m the least in the kingdom as long as I am in it.” I’ll like to say three things in response. Firstly, we need to understand that Christians are not competing with one another for a higher rank or position in the kingdom so this is not a question of being ambitious or self-seeking or proud.

Secondly, we need to understand that when Christ speaks of someone being the least in the kingdom, He is not speaking of him in a complimentary or commendatory way. Instead, He is severely rebuking such a man, woman or child. It’s a shameful rather than honourable thing to be considered the least in the kingdom. In fact, a person who has no regard for God’s law at all is probably not even a true believer in the first place. Christians, of all people, should be the last in this world to despise and belittle God’s law. Christ did not come to destroy or abolish or loosen the law and He doesn’t want His people to do so either.

But thirdly, we must understand that the concept of greatness in the kingdom of God is closely tied to our chief end or purpose in life. To be greatest in the kingdom of God is to glorify God the most and thus to enjoy Him the most. And the opposite is true – to be the least in the kingdom of God is to glorify God the least and consequently to enjoy Him the least. None of us should ever desire or be satisfied with being among the least in the kingdom, not for our own sakes but for the sake of Christ’s honour and glory. And so we should all strive to be among those who are great by keeping His law because that is most pleasing and honouring to Him. Ultimately, we want to be great in God’s kingdom not for ourselves but because we want to glorify God and enjoy Him, which is our chief end.


We have considered what is required of us as followers of Christ in terms of our relationship to the law and what will be the result of our response to that law. Not breaking and not teaching others to break even the least of the commandments, but striving, by His grace, to keep them and to inculcate in others a right attitude towards them. That is what we need to do. Those who fail to do so will be called least in the kingdom of God whereas those who do so will be great in the kingdom.

In closing, I’ll leave us with three simple directions. Firstly, let us meditate often upon these words of our Saviour and pray that God will grant us a right attitude towards the law and strengthen our resolve to keep it. Secondly, let us take time to study God’s law as we find it both in the Old and New Testament, including all of its details. We must not be content with just the broad-stroke and broad-brush picture of the law and conveniently skip over the rest. Thirdly, let us consciously think about how the law can be applied in our lives and pray that God will grant us the wisdom, desire and ability to do so.  W