Summary: What did Jesus mean when he said that the law would not pass away?
The biggest cop out for spiritual failure and the most common excuse for deliberate sinfulness are these words "I’m not under law but under grace!" and with those seven words we seek to absolve ourselves of any spiritual responsibility we might have for our behaviour. And when we are confronted about our actions we get all huffy and tell people to mind their own business. Actually it’s more like “Don’t judge me, you know what the bible says about judging.”
So is that reality? Does grace give us an eternal get out of jail free card? Does grace really trump the law? Somehow we have gotten the notion that Jesus stamped the Old Testament with big red letters that say “Null and Void”. We have drawn the faulty conclusion that the old testament no longer matters, that it really doesn’t apply to us, it just a collection of historical books. Well except for maybe the 10 Commandments and most people are now working on an abbreviated version of them, they’ve kind of narrowed it down to “thou shalt not kill.”
And yet as Jesus taught that morning on the shore of Galilee, right after he told the disciples that they were to be salt and light in a lost and dying world he makes this remarkable statement. Matthew 5:17 “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the Law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. But did he really mean it? Can those words really be coming from the mouth of Christ? The same Christ that Paul wrote about in the book of Romans where he said Romans 10:4 (NIV) Christ is the end of the law.
Think about it, Jesus was executed for breaking the religious law, he didn’t follow the prescribed hand washing instructions, he healed the sick on the Sabbath, picked grain to eat on the holy day and claimed he was God. And yet here is the same Jesus speaking with reverence about the law of Moses. In the next verse Jesus tells us Matthew 5:18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. Now the New King James Version is a little more poetic when it says Matthew 5:18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. It’s not as clear as the newer versions but it’s prettier. So what are jots and tittles? Glad you asked. The Jot was the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet also known as an Iota. You ever wonder when you say “That doesn’t make one Iota of a difference” what an iota was? An Iota looks like an apostrophe, here is a picture of an Iota.
The tittle on the other hand was like a serif, you know the squiggley bit on a letter that makes it different then another letter. Let me illustrate, this is an “O” this is a “Q” and the bit at the bottom is a tittle. And everybody goes “Ahhhhhh”.
And so Christ was saying that not even something as small and insignificant as these two marks would be removed from the law by him.
Now there are those who say that sounds so unlike Christ that Jesus could not have possibly said it. Maybe Matthew simply invented this saying himself and attributed it to Jesus. Well if he did then Luke must have as well because he said in Luke 16:17 But that doesn’t mean that the law has lost its force. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the smallest point of God’s law to be overturned. Or in the New King James Luke 16:17 And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail.
It’s a Matter of God’s Law
Well in order to understand what Jesus was saying it would help if we knew what Jesus was saying. So what was the “Law”? 1) The Ten Commandments 2) The first five books of the Old Testament, what is often referred to a the Pentateuch or five scrolls. 3) The Law and the Prophets, was referring to what we now call the Old Testament. And that is what Jesus said would not pass away. But there was also a fourth meaning of the “Law” and that was the Oral Law or Scribal Law.
And it was this last one that Christ and Paul attacked. In the Old Testament there are very few rules and regulations and many great principles. Well to the Rabbis that wasn’t enough, they would say that if it wasn’t there explicitly then it was there implicitly. And so the Rabbis said that out of the law it must be possible to deduce a rule for everything.