Jesus, during His earthly ministry, delineated God’s commandments, distinguishing between the “great commandment” and the “least commandments.” Since Jesus makes this distinction, it is obviously valid. However, we witness some who attempt to put all of God’s commandments on a single level while failing to grasp that such thinking is a man-made concept. Others put God’s commandments on the same level as man’s traditions, yet this threatens to nullify the authority of God’s words. Still others attempt to raise traditions to the same level as God’s commandments, but this wrongly gives weight to the authority of man’s words.
The teaching of Jesus guides us through these distinctions. First, let’s consider His instruction regarding what is “great,” what is “least,” and what our attitude should be toward each. Then, we can consider what Jesus said about traditions.
When someone asked Jesus, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22: 36-40). If words have meaning and language has integrity, then these two commandments are greater than all others. This does not imply that other commandments of God are unimportant; it simply implies other commandments are less important. The point of Jesus words is not to nullify lesser commandments, but to prioritize that which is more important. When the first and great commandment is held in its proper place, that very understanding helps us with a proper view toward all the rest.
Jesus also taught, “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). With the warning He gives over breaking them, Jesus clarifies that the least commandments are not unimportant. But clearly, the word least indicates that these are not on the same level as the greatest commandments. Still, this fact does not imply that the least commandments can be ignored for they are God’s words.
Finally, there is the issue of man’s traditions. Traditions can be valuable, but we must distinguish between traditions and God’s commandments—whether greater or lesser. Some who desire to emphasize the rightful place of the least commandments have made the error of putting man’s traditions on that same level, in the name of the least commandments. This adds to the Word of God and serves only to oppress people with extra-biblical burdens. While God’s commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3), man’s commandments are (Mark 7:6-9). The trouble begins when people interpret their own traditions as being part of the least commandments. The problem is compounded when people then apply Matthew 5:19 to drive their agenda instead of letting the Spirit persuade individuals in matters that are not on the level of God’s commandments.
John Van Gelderen