The Meaning of Matthew 5:17-19 (Part 5)

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What Did Jesus Mean by “These Commandments”?

This entry is Part 5 concerning what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:17-19. My focus here specifically is on what Jesus meant by “these commandments” in Matthew 5:19. This verse reads:

Whoever then annuls 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.

Jesus makes two key points here. First, anyone who “annuls one of the least of these commandments” will be called “least in the kingdom of heaven.” Second, whoever “keeps and teaches” the “least of these commandments” will be called great in the kingdom. Since Jesus’ message involves one’s status in the kingdom of God, getting “these commandments” right is important.

The word for “annuls” comes from luō which often means “loose,” “set free,” “dissolve,” or “destroy.” In this context, “annuls” probably means to “to do away with.” If one does away with “the least of these commandments” they can expect a lower position in the kingdom.

The word for “keeps” is poieō. Of the 581 uses of poieō in the New Testament the dominant meaning is related to “does” or “doing.” There are also a variety of nuances of this term based on context. Since this term is paired against “annuls” the meaning here is probably that of “establishes” or “does”. Thus, the one who is great in the kingdom is one who “establishes” or “does” “these commandments.”

But what are “these commandments” Jesus refers to? The word for “commandments” is entolē, which can be translated as “command,” “commandment,” “order,” “instruction,” or “precept.” This term in 5:19 differs from Jesus’ two uses of nomos (“Law”) in Matthew 5:17-18. This shift from nomos to entolē may or may not be significant. Is Jesus using entolē as a synonym for nomos or is He using entolē to contrast His teachings with “the Law”? Context will determine which understanding is more accurate.

There are three options for understanding “these commandments” in Matthew 5:19. First, “these commandments” could refer specifically to the commands of the Mosaic Law. This view, which is held by many, is based on the belief that Jesus’ second use of “Law” in Matthew 5:18 refers specifically to the commands of the Mosaic Law. Thus, keeping “the least of these commandments” means keeping all of the Mosaic Law commands.

Second, another view is that “these commandments” refers to the Old Testament as a whole, including its principles and prophecies. If Jesus is referring back to verse 18, this view is possible. If “Law” in 5:18 referred to the Old Testament as a whole, then “keeping” and “teaching” “these commandments” could refer to keeping and teaching the instructions, principles, and predictions of the Old Testament.

One thing to note about Views 1 and 2 above is that they both assert that “these commandments” in 5:19 point back to the “Law” of 5:18. The third view discussed below is different in that it anticipates what Jesus will say starting in 5:21 through chapter 7.

A third view is that “these commandments” refers to Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5-7, particularly what He says from 5:21 through chapter 7 where many commands are given. The Sermon of Matthew 5-7 is full of commands from Jesus and perhaps that is what Jesus refers to. Particularly significant is Jesus’ statements at the end of the Sermon concerning “these words of Mine” and the “authority” He possesses:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. (Matt. 7:24)

Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. (Matt. 7:26)

When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matt. 7:28-29)

This third option asserts that “these commandments” of 5:19 is the same as “these words of Mine” in 7:24, 26, which encompass the entire sermon of Jesus. If this view is accurate, Jesus is not pointing back to the “Law or the Prophets” of 5:17-18 in 5:19, but He is emphasizing His own authoritative commands in Matthew 5-7, particularly beginning at 5:21. Starting with 5:21 Jesus offers many commands and instructions. Thus, “these commandments” in 5:19 could refer to Jesus’ New covenant instruction as the Messiah. This view is consistent with the idea that Jesus is not “explaining” Moses, but is offering His authoritative New covenant instruction for the new era in Him.

These three views can be summarized as follows with the arrows meaning “refers to”:

  • The Law (Mosaic Law)  ←  These commandments
  • The Law or the Prophets (Old Testament)  ← These commandments
  • These commandments  →  Jesus’ commandments in Matthew 5-7

So which of the three views mentioned above is most accurate? The first view concerning keeping Mosaic Law commandments is unlikely since Jesus’ use of “Law” in 5:18 is most likely shorthand for “the Law or the Prophets” mentioned in 5:17, which refers to the Old Testament as a whole, not just the Mosaic Law. Mosaic covenant instruction is too narrow in this context. Plus, with Jesus’ six “But I say to you” statements in 5:21-48, Jesus seems to be asserting His superior instruction as the Messiah. In addition, there are major theological problems with asserting that all commands of the Mosaic Law must be kept after Jesus’ first coming. If Jesus is referring specifically to the Mosaic Law, this seems to be an affirmation that all 613 commands of the Mosaic Law, including all the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law, must be kept by His followers. This idea seems to be refuted by much teaching in the New Testament (see 2 Cor. 3:6-11; Hebrews 8-10).

The best answer lies with either View 2 or View 3. Concerning View 2, the near context of “these commandments” in 5:19 with “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17-18 shows Jesus could be referring back to the Old Testament as a whole. This view is possible.

View 3 is also very possible. If one looks at the Sermon as a whole, Jesus is giving His authoritative instruction for His followers. He does not seem to be pointing back to Moses; instead, He is asserting His authority, which clearly is noted in Matthew 5:21-48 and 7:24, 26. So, “the least of these commandments” could point forward to what follows starting in 5:21 through chapter 7. If accurate, this understanding would be similar to Jesus’ statement in John 14:15: “If you love Me you will keep my commandments [entolē].”

If this third view is correct, then Jesus’ message in Matthew 5:17-19 is that He is the King and greater Moses (see Deut. 18:15-18) who is giving new instruction for His followers. But in contrast to the claim of His enemies, this new instruction is not contrary to what the Old Testament taught. A person cannot rightly claim that he is following the Hebrew scriptures while also rejecting Jesus and His teachings since Jesus and His words are in perfect harmony with the Law and the Prophets. Every single thing the Old Testament taught must come to pass, including the reality that the Messiah would bring a better New covenant (see Jeremiah 30-33).  

In the end, it is a close call between Views 2 and 3. I give preference to View 3 and its assertion that “these commandments” refers to Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5-7. I believe this because Jesus emphasizes His authority in 5:21-48 and the sermon ends with an emphasis on Jesus’ words (see Matt. 7:24, 26).

Michael Vlach bio


Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D. (Twitter: @mikevlach) is Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary where he has been teaching full time since 2006. Michael specializes in the areas of Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, Apologetics, and World Religions. Dr. Vlach was awarded the “Franz-Delitzsch Prize 2008” for his dissertation, “The Church as a Replacement of Israel: An Analysis of Supersessionism.” He blogs here.

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