In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks much about the importance and value of the Law: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). The accomplishing of the Law was realized in Jesus Himself, who came to fulfill the Law (verse 17). In verse 19, Jesus says, “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.”
In other words, the Law is perfect and holy, and every command that God gave is equally important. The commandments are so important, Jesus said, that if someone sets aside what might be considered “one of the least” of them, then that person will be called “least in the kingdom of heaven.” Conversely, the one who teaches the whole Law—and obeys it—will be called “great” in the kingdom.
It is important to remember to whom Jesus was speaking in the Sermon on the Mount, namely, Jews in Israel who were still under the dispensation of the Law. At the time of Jesus’ address to the multitudes in Matthew 5, the Law was in full effect; the temple was standing, the sacrifices were being offered, and the veil was intact. When we make application of Jesus’ words to the church today, we need to distinguish between the moral laws that God gave and the ceremonial and civil laws. When Jesus cried, “It is finished!” from the cross, some laws, such as those regulating sacrifice and worship, were obviously fulfilled because Christ Jesus was the final and complete sacrifice. Other commands, such as the command not to murder or lie, are still as valid now as ever. In case there is any doubt, the moral laws are repeated in the New Testament epistles, whereas the other laws (concerning diet, observance of days, etc.) are not repeated for the church.
One day, Jesus will return to the earth to set up His kingdom (Daniel 2:44; Revelation 11:15). Jesus’ reference to the “least in the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 5:19 suggests that there will be different levels of honor in the kingdom. The criteria used for assigning honor seem to be based on the handling of God’s Word. Those who received God’s Word and fulfilled their responsibilities in God’s sight will be called “great,” but those who rejected parts of God’s Word and shirked their responsibilities will be called “least.” This corresponds to the believers’ appearance before the judgment seat of Christ one day, where we will be rewarded based on how faithfully we served Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). Some of us will “suffer loss” when our work “will be shown for what it is” and its quality does not pass the test (see 1 Corinthians 3:11–15).
Immediately after speaking of those who are least in the kingdom of heaven, the Lord Jesus indirectly condemns the Pharisees and religious teachers for their misconduct concerning the Law: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees, then, were examples of those who “set aside” some of the commandments, and they would suffer shame for it (see also Mark 7:1–13). Not only did their actions diminish some parts of the Law, but they had no true righteousness—because they rejected Christ.
In summary, Jesus taught that the Law is good (Matthew 5:18–19), and the righteousness of the Law is fulfilled in Himself (verse 17). His message was not contrary to the Law; rather, His words confirmed the Law and His works accomplished the Law. Those who lightly esteem God’s Word will themselves be lightly esteemed. Greatness in the kingdom of heaven will not be based on one’s gifts but upon how one handles the Word of God (see 2 Timothy 2:15).