In Messianic Judaism, we often celebrate Yeshua’s firm pronouncement that he did not come to bring the Torah to an end.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” our Master said. “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). He adds that the Torah will remain for as long as heaven and earth.
But his next assertion may challenge our paradigm if we examine it closely:
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19 ESV)
To understand this teaching, it is critical that we keep in mind that “the kingdom of heaven” is not heaven itself. It is the Messianic Age, the time when God’s kingship will be openly revealed on earth. The prophets foretold that earth’s history would culminate in a time of the knowledge of God, of blessing, and the restoration of Israel under the leadership of the Messiah. It would begin with the arrival of Messiah and the resurrection of the dead. Yeshua taught that this state of being, the Messianic Era or the kingdom of heaven, was within reach.
But Yeshua’s vision for this kingdom has surprising implications if we take it at face value. It seems that there are “least” and “greatest” in this kingdom, implying some sort of ranking or hierarchy. And this ranking is based on the observance and teaching of the commandments.
Finding a parallel to this statement in the Tanach or other ancient Jewish literature will help us understand the meaning of this teaching. Many of the apocalyptic visions of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the redemption come from the esoteric book of Daniel. For example, the book of Daniel envisions the resurrection:
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:2)
The verse that follows may provide an insight into Yeshua’s picture of the kingdom:
And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:3)
Notice the two groups described in this verse: the wise, and those who turn many to righteousness.
Who are the wise? According to Rashi’s comment on this verse, the wise are those who occupied themselves with the Torah and commandments.
Malbim explains that those who keep the commandments are called wise “because they have purified their material self and disciplined the impulse of the evil inclination and the dust [of physicality].” In other words, a righteous person has used their intellect to overcome their animalistic urges.
What about “those who turn many to righteousness”? Malbim expounds that they “enlightened the eyes by teaching righteousness to many.”
Thus, the two groups in this verse parallel the two factors by which individuals are seemingly ranked in Yeshua’s statement: whoever does them, and whoever teaches others to do the same.
But what does it mean for the righteous to shine like the sky and stars? According to many ancient sources, this verse describes the status of the righteous in the Messianic Era.
The Midrash on Psalms interprets:
“Praise him, all you shining stars!” (Psalm 148:3). Who are these shining stars? They are the righteous. As it says, “those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:3). Therefore it says, “praise him, all you shining stars.” Based on this, you can learn that every one of [the righteous] has a star in heaven that shines in accordance with his deeds. Therefore it says, “Praise him, those whose stars shine.”
Sifrei, the ancient commentary on Deuteronomy, explains this concept with the opening line of Psalm 121:
Psalm 121:1 does not say "a song of the ascents," [shir ha-ma’alot] but "a song to the ascents" [shir la-ma’alot]: to the one who will assign ascents [i.e., levels] to the righteous in the future to come. Rebbi says: It does not say shir ha-ma’alot but shir la-ma’a lot, indicating thirty ascents, one above the other. Because there are so many levels, one higher than the other, I might think that there would be animosity, jealousy, and rivalry among [the righteous on each level]. To teach otherwise, it is written (Daniel 12:3) "and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever." Just as there is no animosity, jealousy, or rivalry among the stars, so, there will be no animosity, jealousy, or rivalry among the righteous. And just as with the stars, no two have the same magnitude of brightness, so it will be with the righteous.
Paul uses a strikingly similar metaphor to teach about the glory of those who have resurrected:
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:40-41)
This similarity implies that some version of the interpretation in these midrashim existed in the Apostolic Era.
We now can see that there is a concept in ancient Judaism of the righteous being ranked and honored in the kingdom of heaven, from least to greatest. We also see that Judaism teaches that there are two factors by which one’s merit is evaluated: by one’s observance of the commandments, and by teaching others to do so.
These interpretations are based on a verse in the apocalyptic book of Daniel. This information strongly suggests that Yeshua had this verse (and a contemporary version of these interpretations) in mind as he urged his followers to keep the commandment.