“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. 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.
“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Matthew 5:17–20 NLT)
Jesus seems to be of two different minds in this passage. First he states that even the least of the laws of Moses must be followed in order to be considered great in the Kingdom of Heaven, yet he goes on to say that the teachers of the law and Pharisees – who were renowned for following the letter of the law as strictly as possible – will not be part of the Kingdom of Heaven. It seems a contradiction, but it is not.
One of the biggest differences between the law as Jesus describes it and the way the Pharisees practiced it is motive. The religious leaders attempted to follow the law down to the smallest letter in order to gain power and influence over others. By emphasizing how fully they followed the law, and by condemning those who did not, they were able to exert their moral authority over the rest of the Jews in their everyday lives. In contrast, Jesus’s motive for following the law – and, ultimately, in fulfilling the law and prophets – and the motive he sought to instill in his followers was that of love. In Matthew 22:34–40, when Jesus is asked which commandment is the greatest, he answers with the greatest and second greatest: love God and love your neighbor. Jesus says all the law and prophets are contained within these two commands.
Love, therefore, is the ultimate edict. May we seek to allow it to reign in our hearts for all our days.