What does Matthew 5:19 mean?
ESV: Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
NIV: Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
NASB: Therefore, whoever nullifies one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
CSB: 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.
NLT: So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
KJV: 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.
NKJV: Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Verse Commentary:
Verses 19 and 20 of this passage pose challenges for various traditions and interpretations. Jesus has declared that He has come to complete the purpose of the Old Testament, not to discard it (Matthew 5:17–18). The law will not pass away until all is accomplished; until heaven and earth pass away.

Now Jesus specifies further that His listeners are forbidden to ignore the commands of the law and the Prophets, either in their teaching or their own choices. Those who relax the commandments in the law will be called least in heaven's kingdom. Those who keep and teach them still will be called greatest in the kingdom. To fully understand this statement, it must be carefully read in context with the rest of Scripture.

Critically, Jesus does not say that one must keep the commandments in order to attain heaven. Part of this discourse is explaining that human effort will never be good enough (Matthew 5:20). And Jesus is clear that salvation comes by faith, not by good behavior (John 17:3). Careful reading shows that Jesus is speaking of both persons—those who do and those who do not obey the law of Moses—are in the kingdom of heaven. The point here is about one's rewards or status in that kingdom.

Likewise, application of Jesus' teaching throughout the New Testament is that believers in Jesus are not required to follow the law of Moses in order to be welcomed into the family of God through faith in Christ. As Paul will write to believers in Jesus in Romans 7:4–6:
"You also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code."
Why, then, would Jesus make such a strong declaration about not setting aside the laws of the Old Testament? Some scholars suggest Jesus was emphasizing that the law remained fully in effect at that moment, so obedience to God in every aspect of Jewish life and practice still mattered. His death for sin and His defeat of death through resurrection had not yet taken place, and such scholars suggest the conversation would change after the resurrection.

Others teach a more likely explanation, which is that a full, complete understanding of the law cannot be undone or discarded. In a broad sense, Christians are never meant to embrace antinomianism, which the attitude that no rules apply, at all. The teachings of Christ, for example, are never posed as options for true believers (John 14:15). The law of Moses had a specific purpose, and a specific audience: that does not change. Once all things are completed, those commandments are not "abolished," they are "fulfilled" (Hebrews 9:10–11; 10:1–4). Jesus' intent is not to throw away any part of God's commandments, only to understand them as they are meant to be understood.
Verse Context:
Matthew 5:17–20 sets up an important point about the nature of sin. To do so, Jesus first declares that heaven's standard of righteousness is beyond human ability. His purpose is not to discard the law of Moses, but to accomplish the purpose for which the law was given. A cornerstone of Jesus' teaching is that man cannot earn salvation, since we cannot hope to be good enough. This passage sets the stage for this idea, through exaggeration. In order to earn the kingdom of heaven, a person must be even more righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees—that culture's ultimate standard for ''good behavior.'' In later passages, Christ will expand on how sin involves not only what we do, physically, but our thoughts and motivations.
Chapter Summary:
The Sermon on the Mount contains some of Jesus' most challenging teaching. It begins with the unlikely blessings of the Beatitudes. Jesus' disciples must do good works in order to be a powerful influence: as the salt of the earth and light of the world. The superficial righteousness of the Pharisees is not good enough to earn heaven. Sins of the heart, such as angry insults and intentional lust, are worthy of hell just as much as adultery and murder. Easy divorce and deceptive oaths are forbidden. Believers should not seek revenge. Instead, God intends us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. In short, we should strive to be perfect, as God is perfect.
Chapter Context:
Matthew 5 follows Matthew's description of the enormous crowds that were following Jesus (Matthew 4:25). One day, Jesus sits down on a hill to teach them, in an address we now call the Sermon on the Mount. He describes as blessed those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are persecuted. Christ also explains how God's standards of righteousness go far beyond behaviors and speech; they also include our thoughts and attitudes. Meeting God's standards means perfection. Chapter 6 continues this sermon, with more examples of Jesus clarifying God's intent for godly living.
Book Summary:
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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