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MATTHEW v. 19.
* WHOSOEVER. THEREFORE SHALL BREAK ONE OF THESE
LEAST COMMANDMENTS, AND SHALL TEACH MEN SO,
My brethren, every time I have resumed the consideration of this sermon, my mind has received additional conviction that Christianity is “ a doctrine according to godliness.” It seems evident that the divine and supreme Head of the Church would have this great truth clearly stated, and firmly established, at the commencement of his ministry; hence he directs a large portion of this discourse to the removal of false principles, and the introduction of right ones in their place. And this is a good model for every minister of the word to follow. We must be careful in our zeal against self-righteousness, that we run not into the equally dangerous extreme of opening the door of carelessness and impiety. It will, indeed, be a mistaken conclusion, if, because we are redeemed from the curse of the law, we consider ourselves discharged from all obligation to practise its divine morality. St. Paul, after having most clearly demonstrated and confirmed the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith in the mediation of Christ, asks, with
an air of confidence befitting certainty, " Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid : yea, we establish the law.” *
There is an obvious connection between this passage and the preceding. It is, in fact, the inference which our Lord draws from the doctrine which he has this moment laid open. Having shown the moral law to be of lasting force, as the rule of our behaviour and dealing towards others, he deduces this solemn and instructive proposition; “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” My intention on the present occasion is,
TO ENQUIRE INTO THE MEANING OF THE SEVERAL PARTS OF THIS TEXT, -AND THEN, IN CONCLUSION, TO OFFER SOME PRACTICAL REFLECTIONS OF IMPORTANCE TO OURSELVES.
May the Divine Spirit instruct us in the illustration, and follow with his special blessing our consideration of this subject.
I. I PROPOSE TO ENQUIRB INTO THE MEANING OF TIE VARIOUS TERMS WHICH THE TEXT CONTAINS.
The passage has been thus paraphrased. " Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so-teach men that their obligation is dissolved, shall be called, or, according to the idiom of the original language, shall be the least in the kingdom of heaven; that is, since the moral precepts of the law are eternal and immutable, whosoever weakens their obligation shall never enter into heaven: but whosoever shall do and
Rom. ii. 31.
teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven :-or thus, whosoever shall carefully practise the moral precepts of the unchanging and eternal law himself, and inculcate their universal obligation upon others, shall be graciously rewarded.”* The whole verse is a solemn command to all the disciples of Christ, both by their lips and their lives, to enforce the strict observance of the moral precepts of the word of God, in their fullest extent, on the attention of men. The severest penalty is annexed to the violation of this duty-and the most animating and sustaining promise to its discharge.
“Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments.” Do you ask, what commandments are referred to? I reply, to those which are contained in the same law, of which the preceding lecture treats. They are the plain and positive injunctions of the law of righteousness and truth, both towards God and man. They include the duty of honesty, justice, kindness and mercy, towards all the human family. And as it regards the least of these commandments, we understand the expression to show, that this inflexible law will not yield to the smallest violation with impunity. Men may conclude some sins to be venial, because they are not so aggravating as others, but the supreme legislator will not " hold them guiltless" in the commission of the least iniquity. It is, indeed, granted, that there is a difference in crime as it regards equity, although there may be none, or but very little, with respect to morality, In the latter view of the subject, the man who plunders his neighbour to a small amount, violates the same principle as the robber to a large amount. Both are transgressors of one common and divine rule, and they act from the same corrupt motives. But there is a difference in the former
* Dr. Macknight's Harmony, in loco.
case; as it would not be a righteous law that should award the same degree of punishment to the smaller as to the larger offender. On this principle, many of the threatenings in the sacred writings become perfectly intelligible. We see by it, that while both the guilty inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of Chorazin, and Bethsaida, deserve the penalties denounced upon them, yet that the “more tolerable” doom of the two former is according to equity. The same, likewise, applies to the transgressions under the dispensation of Moses and of Christ. The awful subject is amply stated by an apostle; “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment, and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses' law died without mercy, under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”* Such is the plain state of the case with regard to the proportion of punishment according to the offence. It is not, however, improbable, that the phrase “ least commandments” refers to the “jot and tittle” mentioned in the preceding verse, for the purpose of showing us, that not a particle of the divine law shall ever be abolished or set aside under the gospel.
But it is added, “ and teach men so." Now, doubtless, there is an allusion here to the conduct of the Scribes and
• Heb. X. 26.-31.
Pharisees. These persons were the two leading sects among the Jews, and were the official expounders and transcribers of the law of God. They were, however, so grossly blind and wicked, as to exempt themselves from all obligation to observe many of the moral precepts; and they taught others to do the same. They shamefully amused the people with trifles, while they kept back, either through ignorance or wickedness, the most practical and vital truths, which they ought to have enforced on every occasion. Hence these dreadful denunciations from the lips of Him, who was tenderness itself; “ Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint, and anise, and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith : these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone, Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” And again, “Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” And, according to the errors of their lives, so were the errors of their doctrines. The following verses of this chapter, from the twenty-first, are express and solemn cautions against the perverted sense which these teachers gave of the obligation of their hearers to observe the law. They endeavoured, by every artifice and mystical interpretation, to set aside its spiritual and holy design; and, in a word, by teaching the doctrine of retaliation, with other things, which we shall have to consider in some subsequent lectures, they virtually taught men to dissolve it.
It is, however, affirmed, “ that they shall be called the
* Matt. xxiii. 23--28.