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SM #16: The Law of Love (Real Righteousness, Part 3)

Updated: May 4

Therefore anyone who loosens one of the least of these commands and teaches this to others will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:19)

SUMMARY: Read this and skip the rest (if you want)

  • A key question in our passage is whether the "commands" mentioned refer backward to the Old Testament laws or forward to the teachings of Jesus he is about to deliver. Probably the latter, but if the former, then Jesus is speaking of the Old Testament laws as he interprets them.

  • Learning and growing within the Jesus movement was always intended to be a relational activity. A minority of people were literate, and even fewer people actually had access to the Scriptures.

  • The majority of Christians throughout the history of the Church have been not readers but listeners, discussers, and members of loving communities of friends who taught and encouraged one another.

  • While every generation needs those who read and study the Bible to help keep us on track, we all have an important role to play in each other's and our own spiritual growth.

  • Ultimately, every biblical teaching hangs on the Law of Love.

CORE (The heart of the message):

Spiritual growth – that is, becoming great in the kingdom of the heavens – happens when we follow all of Jesus’ teaching. Disciples of Jesus should be eager to learn and live the way of love that only Jesus can show us.

This is the third in a four-part unpacking of Matthew 5:17-20.

CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):

Our verse for this study is one quarter of a complete thought. All four verses of Jesus’ thesis presentation hang together and give each other proper context.

[17] Do not think that I have come to cast down the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to cast them down but to fill them up. [18] For Amen I tell you, until the heavens and the earth pass away, not the smallest letter or even a part of a letter will pass away from the Law until everything comes into being. [19]Therefore anyone who loosens one of the least of these commands and teaches this to others will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. [20] For I tell you that unless your righteousness goes above and beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of the heavens. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:17-20)

Gabriel announces to Mary the Word becoming flesh. Mary has put down the scroll and looks up to God directly.

Since medieval times (especially from the 1300s onward), it has become a common tradition to depict the Annunciation (the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in Luke 1:26-38) with a book or scroll somewhere in view. The visual tradition makes a beautiful point: the same Spirit that inspired the Word of God to be conveyed through Scripture is now inspiring the Word of God to become flesh within Mary (John 1:14). And that same Spirit will help us all go beyond just learning a book to having the real person of Jesus formed in us (Galatians 4:19).

My dear children—I am again undergoing birth pains until Christ is formed in you! ~ The apostle Paul (Galatians 4:19)

CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):

Therefore. A connecting word. Reminding us that all four verses of Jesus’ thesis statement hang together.

Loosens. This word (Greek, luó) is straightforward – it means to untie or release, like in both Matthew 16 and 18 where Jesus says that whatever we “loose” on earth will be “loosed” in heaven, and also in Matthew 21 where Jesus instructs his disciples to go “untie” a donkey. The word’s meaning is simple, but what Jesus means by untying “these commands” is a bit more mysterious. (See below.)

Practices. This is the word for doing or making and is used by Jesus throughout his teaching. The commands Jesus is talking about here (“these commands”) are meant to be done, to be followed. They are for us to make something out of (like building our lives based on the rock of his teaching).

And teaches. Jesus is talking about people who loosen or practice these commands and who teach others to do as they do. Doing and teaching are linked for Jesus. We are always doing both because we are always learning and practicing what we are learning in community. At least, that’s the vision of Jesus. Jesus never thinks of individual believers trying to follow him on their own. Don’t be that guy. (See our Small Church page if you want help getting connected.)

These commands. What commands? Is Jesus referring backwards to the Old Testament Law he has just been talking about? Or forward to the teaching he is about to offer in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount and beyond? Jesus often speaks of his “commands” (not the Bible in general but his commands specifically) as normative for his disciples to follow (Matthew 28:20; John 14:15; 15:10; also see 1 John 2:3; 3:24). And Jesus ends his Sermon on the Mount by saying it is HIS teaching that will help us build our lives on a firm foundation if we act on what we learn (Matthew 7:24-29). So “these commands” might mean “my commands, my teaching, that I am about to give you” or it could mean “the Old Testament Torah as I am about to interpret it for you”. The good news for us is, either understanding can lead us to the same place – paying attention to the teaching of Jesus so we can understand how to read our own Bibles while following Jesus.

Least / Great in the kingdom. There are ranks in the kingdom of God? Yes, and no. Jesus later says that whoever takes on the lowly position of a child will be “greatest” in the kingdom of the heavens (Matthew 18:1-4). And elsewhere he says that whoever is “least” in the kingdom of the heavens is still “greater” than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11). Remember, Jesus’ references to “the kingdom of the heavens” is not so much about a celestial heaven after we die, but our way of living in the Jesus Nation here and now. By saying that Pharisees are not in the Kingdom of the Heavens, Jesus is not talking about eternal salvation or condemnation, but about who is or is not living in line with the will and way of King Jesus now. We can boldly join in the clarity of Christ and say that judgemental legalists are not in the kingdom, without judging anyone's salvation. Talking about the least and the greatest is probably a teaching tool of Jesus to motivate us be our best selves, while still knowing that we are included in the kingdom by pure grace. Great/Least language is likely about spiritual maturity and immaturity, about making wise verses foolish decisions, about investing in spiritual gold rather than straw (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15). To be great in God’s kingdom is about growing in grace (2 Peter 3:18). And growing up into spiritual maturity should always be our goal (Ephesians 4:11-16; 2 Thessalonians 1:3).

CONFESSION (Personal reflection):

I confess that I have often felt like I was on the outside looking in when it comes to faith.

Growing up in the Church it seemed like everyone else knew what was going on in a way that I did not. My more expressive Pentecostal friends seemed to have an experience of the Spirit that eluded me. So I turned to a more academic approach to my faith - reading, studying, and theological puzzle-solving became my religious love language. (In some ways I'm sure I threw some of the Spirit out with the bathwater, but that's a topic for another post.)

Turning to books, study Bibles, and higher education didn't solve the problem of feeling like an outsider. I struggled (and still do) with reading, which feels like a core skill in a Holy Book based faith like Christianity. Later learning my struggles had a name - dyslexia - helped a little, but then I wondered why God would slow down my discipleship potential with this curse.

I’m coming to see my dyslexia as both a hurdle and a gift, a curse and a blessing. It forces me to read slowly and pay close attention, so I take notes as I go and absorb all I can. Reading slower also means I that I need to choose what I read carefully. And my disability (too strong a word, probably, but it will do for now) forces me to read and reread sentences and paragraphs again and again, which itself can lead to deeper contemplation.

It was not always easy for me to see any good in my necessarily slow reading pace. Reading was work, and frustrating work at that. So I felt like I was clearly at a disadvantage trying to get to know God within a book-oriented faith that expected regular reading from ancient and overwhelming texts with Shakespearian language (as it was for me growing up). This was a religion for readers, or so I thought, which sometimes left me feeling like a second-class Christian. I’m glad that, rather than give up, I leaned in.

I still don’t like reading – but I love learning, and my love of learning has won out over my dislike for reading.

Still, I am encouraged to know that God didn’t create a religion for readers, rich folk, and academics. The early Church grew in their knowledge of Jesus while having limited access to written scrolls of the Old Testament (kept at local synagogues), and only a few precious copies of the New Testament letters, and eventually the Gospels. The Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, writes:

For the first fifteen hundred years, until the invention of the printing press, the written message was unavailable to more than ninety-five percent of the Christian population, most of whom could not read or write. But once the written word was easily available, we fell in love with texts. ~ Richard Rohr (What Do We Do with the Bible?)

Before the printing press, all copies of the Bible had to be hand-copied by professional scribes. Just creating one copy of the entire Bible is estimated to have taken a scribe anywhere from one to four years of full-time work. This means owning your own copy of the whole Bible meant you would need to be wealthy enough to afford to pay the equivalent of over a year’s salary to a professional scribe, if not much more. That meant personally reading the Bible would be the privilege of only the rich, the academics, and/or the religious professionals. Hmmm. That doesn’t sound like the methodology of the God we meet in the Bible itself, who speaks to and through both the rich and the poor, the educated and the underprivileged alike.

Obviously, throughout history the written text has NOT been God’s primary way of conveying God’s Word to the hearts of God’s people. That sounds too risky to say publicly – but too late, I just said it. Gods Word must come to God’s people in more ways than God’s writings. God has always preferred to speak through Spirit-inspired people, even more than Spirit-inspired texts, making relationship and community absolutely inseparable from learning and discipleship.

Loving community is not just what we learn from God; loving community is how we learn from God.

Most early Christ-followers had to learn from the Bible – Old Testament and developing New Testament – not by reading but by listening well to others who read and taught from the sacred writings. If you wanted to learn, you needed to gather, to fellowship, to listen, to discuss, and to practice the lessons as you went along. The idea of Christians sitting by themselves at home to have their own private Bible study or personal devotions would have seemed ridiculous to the majority of Christ-followers throughout history.

Learning was necessarily relational, worked out in practice as a community. So the first generations of Jewish believers in Jesus continued to gather at the Jerusalem Temple or attend local synagogue services to learn the Old Testament from the Pharisees (as Jesus taught them to do in Matthew 23:1-3). And all believers gathered together to hear and discuss copies of letters that were circulating from Paul or Peter or James or John. They told and retold each other the stories of Jesus that had won their hearts to faith in the first place, later written down in the four first-century gospels.

The majority of early Christians were not readers; they were listeners, discussers, and members of loving communities of friends who invested their energies into embodying the stories and values they learned from fellow disciples of Jesus. This is God’s vision for God’s Word in this world.

What a gift to us reading this study today that literacy rates are so high and we all have access to our own copy of the Scriptures. Amazing. But there are downsides to the ubiquitous availability of printed Scripture:

Downside #1...

Being primarily learning-by-book-study people rather than learning-though-relationship people can contribute to our modern epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. As numerous longitudinal studies confirm, the most important ingredient for maximum human flourishing is connection to community. Writing about what leads to enduring human happiness, the researchers of one such study write:

“Contrary to what many people think, it’s not career achievement, or exercise, or a healthy diet. Instead, one thing continuously demonstrates its broad and enduring importance: Good relationships. ... People who are more connected to family, to friends, and to community, are happier and physically healthier than people who are less well connected."

Downside #2...

Having the stories and teachings of Jesus in print can give us a sense of their permanence. They aren't going away. We know that we have them handy when we need them. So we don't need to learn them, to really internalize them, with any sense of urgency. We have outsourced our collective memory. By contrast, the earliest church needed to learn, discuss, embody, and pass on the truths of Jesus or else they would eventually disappear. Leaning into, learning, and living out the Way of Jesus was a matter of spiritual survival. It was more obvious that the community, not a book, was the ultimate repository of God's Good News.

I am writing in order that you may know how one must conduct oneself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. ~ The apostle Paul (1 Timothy 3:15)

If you struggle with reading, please know that God doesn’t favour the faith of strong readers. We don’t have to be good readers to be good disciples, that is, students or followers or apprentices of Jesus. But we do have to be committed to learning and living the way of Jesus within Christ-following community.

If you’re not much of a reader, I hope you don’t feel like a second-class Christian. God has other routes to learning for you. Try investing your energies in the forms of learning that are most effective for you, which may include audio Bible apps, Bible movies, and group reading, listening, and discussion.

And, if you can, keep reading your own Bible, even just a little, as good support to your learning process. Jesus said that “to whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48) and we who live this side of the printing press have been given a lot in the form of our own copies of the Bible. Remember that being a poor reader can be a kind of gift to slow us down and help us contemplate what is most important.

COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application):

Jesus is telling us to uphold all of “these commands”. As discussed above, he may be referring to the Old Testament commands as he will teach us to interpret them in the rest of Matthew 5 (see our next and final study in this four-part series for more on this), or he may be referring to his own commands given to his disciples, coming in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount and beyond. Either way, we build our lives on the way of Jesus, which is the way of love.

Later in Matthew’s Gospel, when asked about the one greatest Old Testament command, Jesus will link two together and say:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. ~ JESUS (Matthew 22:36-40)

In other places, Jesus and the New Testament writers claim that the first command can be assumed if we focus fully on the second command (see Matthew 7:12; John 13:34-35; Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8). According to the spirituality of Jesus, our love for God should be primarily expressed through our active love for people. The Jesus faith is a horizontal faith.

Notice that in Matthew 22 Jesus says everything written in the whole Bible “hangs” on the commands to love God and our neighbour as ourself. We are more used to images that start from the bottom up, like saying everything in the Bible is based upon or founded upon the command to love. Jesus speaks this way at the end of the Sermon on the Mount when he talks about building our lives on the solid rock of his teaching. But in Matthew 22, Jesus starts his imagery from heaven and moves downward. Everything is hanging on love.

Picture a wind chime or a baby’s mobile, with every command hanging down from the central value of love. Everything we read in the Bible is suspended on love. If we try to apply any bit of Scripture apart from love, our interpretations will come crashing to the ground.

When talking about the Law and the Prophets hanging on love, Jesus is specifically referencing the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. But it would make sense that moving forward this same principle would include the New Testament teaching of Jesus and his apostles, sometimes called the “Law of Christ”.

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. ~ The apostle Paul (Galatians 6:1-2)

So, we could say there are three kinds of law – the Old Covenant Law of Moses, the New Covenant Law of Christ, and the transcendent, eternal Law of Love that inspires and animates the other two:

  • LAW OF LOVE: Eternal and transcendent. Above and beyond all history, culture, and covenants. The essence of God and of humankind, made in God’s image. How God lived with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and how we will live together for eternity. Our home, our source, and our destination. Moves the conscience of all humans and resonates with us intuitively when experienced, portrayed, or discussed. (Matthew 7:12; 22:36-40; John 13:34-35; Romans 2:14-15; James 2:8; 1 John 4:8, 16 + Genesis 1:26-27)

  • LAW OF MOSES: Old Covenant morality embedded within a specific culture and context for a limited time, space, and race; now obsolete. (613 Commands; Romans 6:14; 7:7; 10:4; Hebrews 8:13)

  • LAW OF CHRIST: New Covenant morality established within a specific culture and context yet currently active, applicable, and inclusive for all people everywhere. (Matthew 28:18-20; John 14:15; 1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2; 2 John 6)

Love is the only eternal and transcendent truth. Love is the essence of the Almighty, long before earth or the ideas of law and covenant even existed, and love will be how we live together in our eternal future. Everything else is temporary, situational, immanent, and embedded within a specific historical context. Since we are made in the image of the God who is love (Genesis 1:26-27), love is the law written upon every human heart (Romans 2:14-15). Non-believers don’t intuitively know the law of Moses or the law of Christ (turning the other cheek is far from intuitive). But they do know that love is right and good and are intuitively wired to learn more about this way of living as well as emotionally moved when sacrificial love is portrayed or experienced.

This is how we love God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome. ~ The apostle John (1 John 5:3)

So we might say: "the New is in the Old concealed, and the Old is in the New revealed". And this overlap exists because both the Old and New testaments come from the God who is love.

Through Moses, God taught Israel how to love, given their developmental level (Paul’s argument in Galatians 3) and historical context. Through Jesus, God teaches us how to love now that we have the Holy Spirit and the example of Christ. We wash the feet of our friends, turn the other cheek to our enemies, and do good to those who hate us. Yes, the New Testament commands of Christ, like the Old Testament commands of Moses, are a time-bound, situational, and interim ethic. (We won’t need to turn the other cheek or love our enemies or forgive the sin of our sisters and brothers seventy times seven, or pray for God’s kingdom to come once we are in heaven, for instance.) But for now, the commands of Christ are our way of experiencing and expressing the timeless and transcendent truth of LOVE.

Interestingly, today in some Christian circles, if you were to say something like “I think being a Christian is just all about love” you might get reactions that range from “You wishy-washy liberal” to “Obviously you don’t care about God’s holiness” to “That kind of mushy-gushy thinking is what’s wrong with the Church today”. But you would be in the good company of Jesus, who said the same thing.

Life is love, period. Everything else is commentary.

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” ~ Augustine of Hippo (On Christian Doctrine)

CONCLUSION (One last thought):

As disciples of Jesus, we want to learn, live, and teach others to follow every command of Christ. We aren’t meant to do this alone, but in small gatherings of spiritual friends. Hopefully we all have a good church community to experience the loving way of Jesus within. Otherwise, see our Small Church page if you want to get connected.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is kind and my burden is light. ~ JESUS (Matthew 11:28-30)

CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):

2 Corinthians 3; Galatians 3:7-4:7; also see Matthew 7:12; 22:36-40; 28:18-20; John 13:34-35; 14:15; Romans 2:14-15; 6:14; 7:7; 10:4; 1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 8:13; James 2:8; 1 John 4:8, 16 + Genesis 1:26-27; 2 John 6

CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. In your own words, how would you respond to a new believer who asked: “How should I read the Bible?”

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?

Nice hair Mary.

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1 Comment

Hi I found this really helpful especially this phrase

Loving community is not just what we learn from God; loving community is how we learn from God.

I am appreciating a loving community that is quite dispersed but still connected by the Holy Spirit and I sense not only am I being drawn close to God i have a growing hunger to know God more. Loving this part of my journey with and to Jesus.

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