In Matthew 5:19-20, we read this: 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. 20. 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.
How are we to understand Matt 5:19?
Let’s read Matt 5:19 by itself, without taking verse 20 into consideration. We can quickly conclude it is possible to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without obeying the law and never having taught one other person to obey the law. But this gives us a problem in verse 20 because here Jesus says our obedience to the law has to surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law if we are going to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus can not contradict Himself; He can not say it is possible to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without obeying the law in verse 19 and then say it is impossible to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without obeying the law in verse 20.
Is there an error in the translation of verse 19?
The Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew before it was translated into Greek. The Hebrew version of verse 19 is based on 28 manuscripts found in different libraries around the world, and it reads like this: But whoever transgresses one command of these commandments that I teach, I will utterly destroy. Son of foolishness he shall be called in the kingdom of heaven; and the one who upholds and teaches, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
This understanding of verse 19 is consistent with verse 20, if you transgress one of these commandments, Jesus teaches you will be destroyed and not able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But if you uphold and teach others to obey them, you will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This understanding of verse 19 is also consistent with John 3, where Jesus, in 3:36, says only those who obey His teachings will have eternal life. And it is consistent with Matt 7:21-23, where Jesus says He will reject those who reject His teachings. It is also consistent with Paul’s teachings in Romans 2, where he says we first have to obey the teachings of Christ before we can atone for our sins by the Blood of Christ.
What are the teachings of Jesus? In Matt 23:2-4, 6:25-34, 5, Jesus teaches us to obey the law of Moses. Does this mean we have to obey the law to be saved?
No, it does not mean we have to obey the law to be saved because salvation has always been and will always be a gift. But what it does mean is that we have to live by the law to remain saved.
When Israel was saved from Egypt, they had not earned their salvation. Their salvation from Egypt was a gift; the only thing they had to do was accept it by walking out of Egypt. The end goal of their salvation was not the deliverance from Egypt; the end goal was the entrance to the promised land of Israel. Of all the millions of people who were saved out of Egypt, only 2 (Joshua and Caleb) entered the promised land of Israel.
Your salvation is a gift, and the only thing you have to do is accept it by accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior. The end goal of your salvation is not accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior; it is your eternity in heaven when you die. In Matt 7:21-23, many Christians have just died; they have lives confessing Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Some of them have even done great and mighty miracles in the name of Jesus. But even so, we read how Jesus says, “Depart from Me, for I never knew you, your workers of lawlessness!”
After the exodus from Egypt, Yehovah takes Israel to Mount Sinai and gives them the law of Moses. He then asks them: Do you accept Me as your God by accepting this law and choosing to obey it? The entire congregation of Israel says yes, we accept you as our God, and we promise to obey your law. Only Joshua and Caleb were faithful to their promise; the rest of the congregation of Israel quickly went back on their word and started disobeying.
When Jesus saved you, it was a gift. After your salvation, you were given a Bible. In the Bible, you will find the will of God for your life. Prov 13:12 says the will of God for your life is to obey the law of Moses. Deut 28:1-14, Isaiah 56, says anyone who follows the law of Moses has accepted Yehovah as their God. Yehovah promises to be their God, care for them, protect them, provide for them, and deliver them into the promised land of the New Jerusalem (the Kingdom of Heaven). Jesus came to teach us how to live by the law of Moses (Matt 6:25-34, 23:2-4), and He said the law is still in effect (Matt 5:17). So, according to Jesus, if you want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven when you die, you have to do what Joshua and Caleb did: show your love for Yehovah, who saved you by obeying the law of Moses.
You can not earn your salvation, but if you are saved, you are under obligation to obey the law to remain saved. This is why Jesus says in Matt 5:19 that anyone who does not follow the law will be destroyed by Him and never see the Kingdom of God.