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How can the following verses be reconciled?

Matthew 5:18-20:

“Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. 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. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 23:1-3:

”Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice”

Matthew 12:1-4:

”At that time Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry, how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering, which neither he nor his companions but only the priests could lawfully eat?”

In chapter 5 Jesus is telling people to keep observing the Mosaic Law which obviously ended by the time he died and rose from the dead, and the same thing in chapter 23, but then in Matthew 12 before he died and rose he seems to be approving his disciples not observing it for no reason in particular. I find it hard to accept that “these least commandments” in verse 19 don’t refer to the Mosaic law. In fact the footnotes in the New American Bible agree with this. Especially considering that the teachings preceding this are the Beatitudes and the teachings about keeping your salt and not hiding your light. It is hard to see how these could be “least” commandments since they are so abstract, the much more intuitive interpretation is that they are aspects of the Mosaic law that people might not take seriously. Also in verse 17 he speaks of the “law and prophets.” The “therefore” in verse 19 shows that he is still talking about the law and the prophets, and then in verse 20 he talks about the scribes and the Pharisees, so I don’t see how “these least commandments” in verse 19 could refer to Jesus’ laws from the Sermon on the Mount given that it is right between unambiguous references to the Mosaic law. This is corroborated by Matthew 23:1-4. How can this be squared with the grain-picking controversy (Luke 6:1-5), the handwashing controversy (Mark 7), and when he says that all foods are clean (Mark 7:18-19)?

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  • I don't see what needs to be 'reconciled' here. Could you please add some clarity an detail in explanation ?
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 23 at 19:29
  • @NigelJ In chapter 5 he is telling people to keep observing the Mosaic Law which obviously ended by the time he died and rose from the dead, and the same thing in chapter 23, but then in Matthew 12 before he died and rose he seems to be approving his disciples not observing it for no reason in particular.
    – wmasse
    Commented Mar 23 at 20:39
  • Reading Matthew 12 through verse 8 may help. Commented Mar 23 at 21:58
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    Jesus makes a remark about the durability of law. Then he makes a remark about the commandments that he has just given. Matthew 5:18-20. These are two different things. I think you are missing that feature.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 24 at 0:49
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    "I don’t see how “these least commandments” in verse 19 could refer to Jesus’ laws from the Sermon on the Mount" — Did you mean "couldn't" rather than "could"? Commented Apr 5 at 18:48

4 Answers 4

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Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 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. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20 KJV

Jesus states the durability of law, that law shall not pass till heaven and earth pass and till all is fulfilled.

From other scriptures we know that this will happen when Christ returns and when there are new heavens and a new earth wherein all that was promised is fulfilled.

Then he comments on the situation where someone might break one of these least commandments. That is to say, the commandments that he has just outlined in the previous verses of his discourse upon the mount.

Such a person will not be excluded from the kingdom, but they will be regarded as the least.

But there will also be, in the kingdom, those who 'do and teach'.

Thus the one who broke the least of the commandments of Jesus and and did not teach them, remaining in the kingdom, will be instructed by those who 'do and teach' (again, 'them' is not in the original) : doing by example and teaching unto instruction.

What a kingdom this is !

But within that kingdom 'that' (the original does not contain the word 'righteousness') of the scribes and Pharisees must be exceeded. For 'that' of the scribes and Pharisees was hypocrisy. They did not 'do' but they rather demanded others to keep a law that could not save or heal or deliver.

They had no righteousness, only a position and a hypocritical posture.

It requires something more than 'that' to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

And there one will be instructed by those who - first - 'do' and then (and only then ) 'teach'.

This sets forth the 'status of the Mosaic Law' during the days when Christ was upon this earth.


The matter of David and the shewbread needs careful handling and requires a further question though I am sure it will already have been dealt with on SE-C or SE-BH.

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  • I put my response in the original question since it was too long.
    – wmasse
    Commented Mar 24 at 17:41
  • @wmasse Your edit noted but my answer remains the same.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 26 at 10:27
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Per Heb. 8:9 — “He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second . . .” — we know that the old law has passed. Fulfillment of the law, so often poorly misunderstood, has to do with the law’s purpose. Its ultimate conclusion is life and blessings, or death and curses (Deut. 30:19). The law is fulfilled when it reaches the finality of its purpose, for good or ill.

As Christ’s wife, being one flesh and one spirit (Eph. 5:30-32; 1 Cor. 6:17), we are one person. Ergo, we are the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-31). By his death under the law, all those who are part of the body also die with him, bringing the law, for those believers, to its concluding finality (Rom. 7:4).

The other half of your question is Mishnah-oriented.

Jesus makes a lot of arguments directly related to the logic of the sages. While the Talmud wasn’t committed to writing until several centuries later, the teachings existed in Jesus’ own time. The disciples didn’t break the law, per se. Relative to other examples of righteous behavior that was contrary to the strict letter of the law, he gave the example of David eating the shewbread, which wasn’t lawful for him to eat. But since man is more important than the letter of the law, God did not disapprove. Likewise, he notes how the priests profane the sabbath to fulfill their temple duties. His conclusion, in conjunction with other passages, is that the sabbath is made to serve man. Man was not made to serve the sabbath. That a man should eat is more important than that a man should do absolutely no labor, even as small as picking some grain to feed himself.

While there may appear to be a contradiction in message, there really isn’t. The priests themselves (who sit in Moses’ seat) made the arguments and established the logic by which he refuted their complaint. Please note that they didn’t argue the point. He silenced them by throwing their own logic back in their faces, and managed to maintain a position more righteous at the same time.

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These versus are reconciled by understanding them. In Math 5:18 Jesus says the law can never be destroyed it can only be fulfilled. Now Christ was the only human who was sinless and fulfilled all its requirements, so when a sinner is united to Him by faith, he is credited with fulfilling it himself and considered perfect. Now the law technically has no jurisdiction for him because the law was not made for the righteous. (1 Tim 1:9)

Second, when a believer is united with Christ and declared free from the law and righteous, no longer subject to its frightening threats and condemnation, yet being righteous grants reconciliation to God and receiving the Spirit. In other words a justified sinner is also thereby sanctified and made holy. Although this holiness is only in part it still exceeds all holiness of any religious person without faith. Every follower of Christ has a righteousness (an inner one, as opposed to the external legal one) that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisee. The external righteousness is perfect and the internal slowly growing. The righteousness of the Pharisee is nothing, so any righteousness exceeds that.

In Matthew 23:1-3, Jesus is simply saying that whatever the blind Pharisees teach (assuming it is true, for not all their laws are true to the Mosaic law) you should keep. There is nothing controversial about this it is just reiterating that our righteousness should exceed those hypocrites who blindly mouth some things that are true.

In Matthew 12:1-4, Jesus is rebuking the religious fools for judging his innocent disciples. Those fools considered eating corn in the field, 'work' that was forbidden by the Mosaic Law. Actually the Mosaic Law did not forbid this anywhere because plucking a few corn was not work.(Deut 23:25). Jesus could have said that is not work hypocrites and whitewashed tombs but instead he made an even stronger point. He is greater than the temple so even if it was work, it would not matter. Why can Priests work in the temple on the Sabbath? Why can they do all their activities? It is because they are serving the temple and so are excused from the ban on work. But Jesus is greater than the temple so his disciples would also be excused in service to him.

In addition even if Jesus was not greater than the temple, mercy and love do create some exceptions to the external law (to satisfy the spirit of the law). In the case of David he had a necessity to eat and therefore actually did break the law. The disciples we also in a state of necessity, they were not intentionally working for profit or some other motive.

So the main point is that his disciples were not breaking the law and therefore, their is no conflict. Even if they were breaking the law it would be a justifiable holy service to He that is symbolically represented by the temple and whose priest were allowed to have exemptions.

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Matthew 23:1-4 does not say to "follow the traditions of the elders as communicated by the Pharisees", it says, to "do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example", which means to learn the basic things, reading, theology etc., but do not become like them as they break the commandments for the sake of their traditions. He did not forbid learning from the mainstream religious authorities like University, seminary or Yeshiva, even though they may have a corrupt heretical theology.

The grain picking and eating for necessity on sabbath is easily explained by the situational weighing of the law. Man is greater than sabbath. Lying is acceptable for greater good such as survival, war, etc.

"One of the least of these commandments" must be taken as rhetorical, not in an absolute sense, and the aim of the teaching is to keep the greater core commandments, that is moral, not ritual. That is the purpose of all commands of the law was the spiritual or deeper goal, the command against making images serves the purpose against idolatry, and it's not strictly against making any image; the command of Sabbath keeping was to dedicate a day to God and be organized in the week and be thankful by keeping a day separate; the commands' goal is to honour God. The permanence of the law refers to the eternal moral aspect of the law, not the ceremonial ritual aspect which has been obsolete and annulled.

The reference about declaring all foods clean, in Mark 7:19, is a retrospective midrashic note by the author, as he thinks it's fitting to insert that interpretation there. Jesus did not say that all food are clean, as it's clearly too early to finish the law, that knowledge comes in Acts 10 events, some years after the resurrection.

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