By Samuel M. Frost, Th. M.
“”Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” – Jesus.
1.1 Several things can be readily seen from this text before we begin to offer an interpretation. “To fulfill” the Law or the Prophets, is the opposite of “to abolish”. Second, heaven and earth “disappearing” and the “disappearing” of the least stroke from the Law and the Prophets are coincident. Therefore, the fulfilling of the Law and the Prophets is a “disappearance.” The fulfilling will cause disappearance, but not abolishment (this would involve a contradiction). The Law and the Prophets remain until heaven and earth disappear, which, whenever and whatever that means, logically implies that they, too, will disappear along with the heavens and the earth. Also, whatever “fulfill” means, the Law and the Prophets will no longer stand in need of such, but will have been entirely exhausted as to their purpose or need of continued fulfillment.
1.2 The least stroke of the pen of the Law and the Prophets will, eventually, “disappear” (that is, because they are fulfilled). Heaven and earth will also “disappear.”
The final phrase, “all is accomplished” is coincident with the “disappearance” and the “fulfillment”.
Based off a strictly literary reading, adding no context or interpretation, but solely taking the syntax and logic of the grammatical construct, we can say that the disappearance, all is accomplished, and the fulfillment are when the Law and the Prophets and heaven and earth disappear, are accomplished, and fulfilled.
1.3 The heavens and the earth are not the Law and the Prophets. They are in relation to each other in that whatever the heavens and the earth are, they stand in relation to the Law and the Prophets in terms of the latter’s being fulfilled. That is, when the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled, then the heavens and the earth will disappear so that two things are seen as “disappearing”: A, the Law and the Prophets, and B, The heavens and the earth. Fulfilling the law and the prophets causes their disappearance and the disappearance of the heavens and the earth.
The least stroke of the pen of the Law and the Prophets remains until all things concerning them are “accomplished.” That means, not one word of them is ever abolished (destroyed), and neither is one word caused to “disappear” until “all things are accomplished” in them.
Not one word of the Law and the Prophets are caused to disappear until heaven and earth disappear, which will happen when all things contained in the Law and Prophets disappear. This will happen when all the words, the least strokes, of the Law and the Prophets are “fulfilled.” Thus A will happen which in turn causes B to happen. A is not the same thing as B, but both stand in an inseparable relationship of cause and effect.
2.1 The way the text is structured, a cause and effect relationship between A and B, is based on the content of the Law and the Prophets which stand in need of “fulfillment.” This brings us to consider the third syntactical relationship which further highlights the contingency.
3.1 The least stroke of the pen of the Law and the Prophets is in parallel with “all is accomplished.” “All” stands grammatically to “All” (down to the least stroke) presumably “written” in the Law and the Prophets (we can infer this from the fact that “pen” infers “words on a page” or “paper”, which comprises the Law and the Prophets). Further, we can also infer that the disappearance of the heavens and the earth is included in what the strokes of the pen of the Law and the Prophets say. That is, the Law and the Prophets contain within them the fact that the heavens and earth will disappear. If this were not the case, then heaven and earth disappearing has nothing to do with the disappearance of the least stroke. However, if the strokes of a pen contained within them the disappearance of the heaven and earth, then when one is fulfilled or accomplished, so is the other. When the strokes of the pen of the Law and the Prophets are caused to disappear then along with that are the heavens and the earth. They both stand and disappear together, one causing the other.
4.1 The Law and the Prophets are to be brought to their fullest end before they disappear, along with the heavens and the earth. Until this, the words of the Law and the Prophets remain.
4.2 “All is accomplished” means, by strict inference, not “all is accomplished” yet (at the time of Jesus speaking). However, contained in the Law and the Prophets are many “fulfilled” prophecies. That is, prophecies that have been announced before hand, then at a later time, “fulfilled”. Therefore, not all that is within the Law and the Prophets stands in need to be fulfilled. Also, by deduction, “all is accomplished” pertains to what still stands in need of being fulfilled. Another way of saying this, then, would be, “I have not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill what remains left to be fulfilled. Til heaven and earth disappear, not one jot or tittle of the Law and the Prophets will disappear.” That is, then, saying that since many prophecies have been already fulfilled, the jots and tittles of the entire contents of the Law and the Prophets will still remain – until every prophecy is fulfilled to its fullest, those prophecies which remain in need to be fulfilled, then every prophecy will still remain (will not disappear, in spite of the fact that many of them have been fulfilled). That is, even the fulfilled prophecies will not disappear until every single prophecy that remains unfulfilled is fulfilled, also. “All” stands in direct relation to “one” – “not one jot or tittle of the law and prophets will disappear until all, every jots and tittles be accomplished.”
4.3 I may speak analogously here and say, “the bottle of wine will not disappear until every last drop is drank.” Some of the wine has been drunk. But not all of it. Therefore, the whole bottle remains until every drop is drank. Jesus is stating the obvious. He is not going to do anything out of line with the Scriptures (the Law and the Prophets). Even what may appear to be in contradistinction with Moses, and even in setting aside Moses’ law, he is fulfilling what the Law (Moses) and the Prophets said. We may gather from this, then, that Jesus had a supreme regard for the Scriptures. They must be fulfilled. The passing of heaven and earth with the passing/disappearance of the Law and the Prophets means that the very fabric of the heavens and the earth depend on the Word of God. The Word of God upholds the heavens and the earth. Second, the emphasis should not be on anything else other than the admission that He was going to bring about their fulfillment. Jesus is, in effect, placing upon Himself the burden of fulfilling the Word of God – bringing it to its fullest meaning and expression in all of its purpose and intent. This is a radical claim, claimed by no other Prophet, not even Moses who looked ahead to one greater than even himself. Jesus, in fulfilling all that is left to be fulfilled is also announcing the disappearance of the heavens and the earth, and the disappearance of the Scriptures, for they will have served their purpose, and will have been so thoroughly exhausted that not one jot or tittle will be in need to stand. The jots and tittles of the Law and the Prophets will disappear. Heaven and earth will disappear. All will have been accomplished – every jot and tittle. Some prophecies have already been accomplished, yet heaven and earth, and the appearance of all the jots and tittles (in contrast to their disappearance) still remain. The Scriptures are still here, in full display. The jots and tittles are still here. We read them daily, even the fulfilled jots and tittles. This means that not every jot and tittle has been fulfilled, and, therefore, not ONE jot or tittle will disappear until every jot and tittle is fulfilled. The Scriptures, then, stand as a witness and testimony to themselves.
4.4 There are four words here that need addressed. “Destroy”, “Fulfill”, “Disappear” and “accomplished.” The first we may note is the opposite of the other three. Jesus’ mission is not at all an attempt of destroying the Law or the Prophets. Rather, he has come to “fulfill”, bring in their fullness. Fulfill and “accomplish”, then, are parallel terms. Destroy and “disappear” are antithetical terms, and there is no negative connotation to be derived from the disappearance of the Law and the Prophets, that is, the writings, for we infer this from the “least stroke of the pen” or “jot and tittle.” “Destroy” is the only negative term, and Jesus’ mission is not this. That is, when all is accomplished, the Law and the Prophets will “disappear”, “pass away”. The materiality of the written form will eventually pass away, as will the materiality of the heavens and the earth, for they will have served their purpose and that purpose will have been entirely accomplished; exhausted. In another place, the author uses the same expression: “The heaven and the earth shall disappear, but my words shall not disappear” (24.25). Jesus’ words are contrasted with what disappears. His word sustains all things, holds all things together, and with his words all things pertaining to the heavens and the earth and the Law and the Prophets will eventually disappear.
By a close examination of the words of Jesus they denote that his mission was not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, and by this phrase we mean the Hebrew Scriptures themselves. The form of the Scriptures is what is to be noticed here, inferred from the explicit mention of “jots and tittles” – written strokes of Hebrew letters on paper. The audience in Jesus’ time were focused on the scrolls found in their synagogues – the Law and the Prophets is an abbreviated phrase meaning to convey the entirety of the Hebrew corpus. Elsewhere, even the phrase, “the law” was an elliptical form to denote the entirety of the written word, the scrolls (or whatever form they had). It is interesting, perhaps, that grammatically, the opening phrase, “think not” or “do not think” may imply that many were thinking that he had come to do away with the Scriptures. It certainly lends itself to the idea that Jesus may have appeared to be doing just that. But, the author of Matthew uses a host of quotations and allusions to the Scriptures to show that Jesus was, indeed, fulfilling them, not destroying them. In this sense, it may seen that Jesus is pointing to the fact that He is the One to fulfill, and that he will not destroy the Scriptures. It also means that the Scriptures contain all that he will fulfill in terms of his mission and reign, from beginning to end. Jesus is not fulfilling something entirely foreign to the Scriptures or not mentioned in them, for if that were that case, Scriptures would not be able to attest and prove that he is accomplishing all things contained therein. The Church must know what he is doing at all times, and what he will do in terms of the revelation of the jots and tittles (the written word).
If, say, he did destroy them, what would that look like? It would have to mean that if, say, Scripture X said thus and thus was to happen, and Jesus came and did not fulfill it, but rather, set it aside so that it would not be fulfilled, ever, then he has in effect destroyed it. The function of prophecy is in its remaining until fulfilled state. That is, it is not complete, or full. If Jesus said that Scripture X will not be fulfilled, then he would have been destroying it – putting it out of commission – cutting off its life. However, when a Scripture is fulfilled, it has reached its purpose and is completed.
This has already been stated in that many prophecies have been fulfilled in the past in the Hebrew Scriptures, and there is no shortage of examples. Many of the prophecies, for example, contained in Isaiah have been fulfilled, directed as they were to the surrounding nations and to Israel and Jerusalem. The point I wish to make, which is often missed, is that Isaiah still remains. Isaiah, the text, the jots and tittles, have not disappeared even though many of his prophecies have, in fact, been accomplished. Many still, at least as the author of Matthew uses them, were fulfilled by John the Baptist, and Jesus’ birth, etc. Jesus was fulfilling them. There will be no more expectations concerning the birth of the Chosen One. That prophecy is fulfilled, accomplished. Yet, the written text of Isaiah has not disappeared. Neither has the Law, Genesis, or Job. The jots and the tittles, the written form of the text of the Hebrew Scriptures will not disappear, until all of the jots and tittles are fulfilled, accomplished. Then, they will disappear, pass away – which is a far more respectful word to use. When the Scriptures have reached their fullest measure, there will no longer be any more need for them. This is no way denigrates their authority or supreme importance, but rather upholds them in the highest expression that they must be entirely fulfilled before the heavens and the earth themselves pass away.
Having discussed the prophecies, we may now move on to the Law, which again is an all encompassing term, or may, more specifically, refer to the laws of Moses as found in the covenant God made with Israel through Moses. It is here, perhaps, that Jesus could have easily been interpreted by his actions that he was setting aside the covenant with Moses for the Nation and People of Israel (see Deuteronomy 5.1-ff). He certainly took a strong and antagonistic aim towards the Pharisees, the guardians of the Law. And, on the night he was betrayed, he announced at the Paschal Feast (Passover), the new covenant, cut in his own blood and body. This fact had extremely serious implications for the covenant made with Moses, the people of Israel as a whole and their destiny. This announcement, and the following way in which the death of Jesus was interpreted (again, appealing to the prophecies and their fulfillments), would indeed set aside the need for the sacrificial system of the covenant of Moses. Was this to be seen as destroying the law? Not at all. It is fulfilling the Law. The Law demanded blood on behalf of the penitent. The Law demanded a sacrifice for the broken hearted. The Law demands faith. It demands a High Priest, and Altar, Cherubim, the angelic hosts, the acceptance of the sacrifice and the forgiveness of sins. It demands a location, Jerusalem, and it equally demands a Temple. Without going into the wealth of the New Covenant Scriptures (commonly called the New Testament), this is how they saw the ministry of Jesus on earth and now ascended into heaven. Jesus could not be accused of destroying the Law of Moses, yet he most certainly announced and commanded that its form under the rubrics of how its practices were carried out under Moses’ covenant be set aside. Not set aside because there was no alternative, but precisely because there was an alternative in the fullness of what Jesus accomplished and who Jesus is. Jesus did not say, “you do not have to sacrifice animals any longer. I am setting aside that commandment, that jot and tittle.” Rather, “I am fulfilling that jot and tittle Moses commanded you, and giving you the fullness of what those jots and tittles pointed to. The jots and tittles of the Law will not disappear, they will remain for all to read until I have fulfilled even everything concerning the Law and the Prophets.” As we have already seen with prophecy, the fulfillment of multiple prophecies does not mean they disappear at that moment. They remain because there are other jots and tittles that equally need to be fulfilled that have not yet been fulfilled. Therefore, all the jots and tittles will remain – will not disappear – until all of them are accomplished. Heaven and earth will remain until this is accomplished.
Therefore, we need not marvel over the fact that the Mosaic Covenant has indeed been fulfilled in the implementing of the New Covenant through the blood of Jesus. Jesus was not saying that the Mosaic Covenant remains in force in every jot and tittle “until heaven and earth” pass. This has lead many believers down a wrong path, thinking that 1. The Laws of Moses, as they stand written (jots and tittles) remain in force until the heavens and the earth pass away. Since the heavens and the earth have not passed away, then the laws of Moses remain in force. This is simply not at all what Jesus is saying and would involve a glaring contradiction in the Apostles’ Gospel, for they hardly enforced the jots and tittles as they stood written upon their non-Jewish converts. In fact, they did just the opposite. Did heaven and earth pass?
This second question has brought about another error, more fanciful than the first. “Heaven and earth” do not mean what every ordinary man and woman in Jesus’ audience would have thought, or what everyone knows the expression to mean today. Rather, it is a cryptic term, without any explanation in the immediate pericope, used to denote the Herodian Temple/Tabernacle (heaven) and the Land (earth) of Israel. This reasoning, then, applies the passing of “heaven and earth” to mean the destruction, captivity and exile of the Jewish people from their land at the hands of the Romans and their alliances in 70 C.E. Yet, this pernicious error is in response to the previous one, for these adherents are entirely at odds with any notion of the laws of Moses, as they stand written (the jots and tittles of the pen on paper), being applied today, or having any significance in terms of New Covenant faith and practice (i.e., Christianity).
Further, since the heaven and the earth passed in 70 C.E., in their reasoning, then the Mosaic Covenant passed as well, which implies that it was in force until such passing. This is contradicted, however, by the plain evidence of the New Testament itself in the ministry of the Apostles, and, most explicitly in the inauguration of the New Covenant at the Cross of Christ, the night he was betrayed. Jesus’ sacrifice as the Lamb of God immediately discounted all animal sacrifices “once and for all.” They had no efficacy whatsoever to God, or man. They were fulfilled. But, and here is where the point is often missed, the jots and tittles did not immediately disappear from the Law – the text. They are still here to this day. From Jesus’ words, then, we must infer, and indeed can only infer, in order to avoid the two obvious errors above, that the fulfillments of the jots and tittles, the text, the Scriptures, will not disappear until all is accomplished. All has not yet been accomplished, therefore, the text remains. Just as all prophecies that have been fulfilled still remain in their written form (jots and tittles) – they have not disappeared – then, too, Jesus was able to fulfill the Mosaic Covenant and set aside its former regulations as they applied to Israel under Moses without the disappearance of them. By seeing that Jesus has in mind the disappearance of the written text, the written text will not in one jot or tittle disappear until everything in them is fulfilled. Then heaven and earth will disappear, too.
As hinted at above, the passing of heaven and earth along with the text of Scriptures, the written form (our Bibles, and their various translations, various interpretations, etc.), notes the these two forms stand together. Heaven and earth are held together by the fulfillments of the written word of God. Heaven and earth cannot pass away, it is impossible for them to pass away, until the words of God are fulfilled. This is a staggering thought. Jesus is the One “through who the ages were made” by his word. His Word will never disappear, but the heavens and the earth will, along with the written texts of Scripture. He is the Word of God, living, personal, alive. He cannot pass away. His word sustains eternity itself.
In rightly interpreting this saying of Jesus, we are informed that all is not yet accomplished in the redemptive Purpose of God. Jesus has given us two witnesses to this: the Scriptures and the heavens and the earth have not disappeared. They will “when all is accomplished.” Secondly, we avoid the errors of those that seek to place each and every burden of Moses on our shoulders. Their fulfillment does not mean their disappearing, for the Law, considered as the laws of Moses given to the covenant nation of Israel, do not make up every jot and tittle of the Scriptures. And, in this interpretation, does not necessarily exclude their principles and applications by the fact that they have not disappeared, and therefore, serve a necessary purpose and function bound up in the accomplishment of every jot and tittle. We avoid the errors of those who fancifully seek to equate “heaven and earth” with the destruction of the Temple and expulsion from the Land in 70 C.E., for if that is the matter, then the jots and the tittles of the Hebrew Scriptures have “disappeared” – they are exhausted and no longer serve any function.
In effect, then, Jesus said this: “Don’t anyone think, or let anyone tell you that I, Jesus, have come to destroy the Scriptures. I have not come to destroy them at all, but rather I have come so that they may be fulfilled. Mark my words, until heaven and earth disappear, not one of the least marks of the Scriptures, or the stroke of a letter made by pen shall disappear from the Scriptures, until every mark and stroke be accomplished.” And, we may heartily say, “amen” to this for the least mark and the slightest stroke of the Scriptures have not disappeared, and neither has the heaven and the earth. Many strokes and many marks have been fulfilled, indeed – have been accomplished. But, not all of them have been, and until all of them are fulfilled, none of them will disappear.
To make this even plainer, if we could visualize Jesus holding scrolls of the synagogue Bible in his hands and saying, “do not think that I have come to strip away from these scrolls, the Law and the Prophets, or take words away from them. I will not take one word from them, but will fulfill every word of them! Heaven and earth will not disappear, and not one yod or a hook of a letter will disappear until every one of them are accomplished.”
6 thoughts on “Analysis of Matthew 5:17-18”
In 4.3 you say, “The Scriptures, then, stand as a witness and testimony to themselves.” Thinking about this passage in this manner is a revelation to me. Not one jot or tittle passing away until all is fulfilled allows the jots and tittles (even the fulfilled ones) to be a witness to their own fulfillment thus offering a testimony and witness to themselves of their fulfillment. Those that have already been fulfilled remain for all to see as a witness and testimony to God’s faithfulness to His Word. This provides a firm foundation for trusting Him to fulfill all those jots and tittles that are not YET fulfilled. Fascinating. Good stuff. Thanks brother. It is nice to still be able to remove the blinders I had on while being a full preterist all that dark time.
Greg, what you have responded with here equally unfolds more to me! Reciprocal blessings!
Another person responded that the “commandments” are what is in view here, and certainly they are. But, a little lower in the same “sermon”, Jesus speaks of “swearing by earth, or by heaven or by the City of Jerusalem.” Now, if “heaven and earth” in 5.18 is “old covenant judaism and the temple”, to what was Jesus speaking against swearing by?
““His reference now was only to ‘the law’ rather than to ‘the law and the prophets’, as in the previous verse, but we have no reason to suppose that he was deliberately omitting the prophets; ‘the law’ was a comprehensive term for the total divine revelation of the Old Testament. None if it will pass away or be discarded, he says, not a single letter or a part of a letter, until it has all been fulfilled, until it has all been fulfilled. And this fulfillment will not be complete until the heavens and the earth themselves pass away. For one day they will pass away in a mighty rebirth of the universe. Then time as we know it will cease, and the written word of God’s law will be need no longer, for all things in them will have been fulfilled. Thus, the law is as enduring as the universe. The final fulfillment of the one and the new birth of the other will coincide. Both will ‘pass away’(parelthe is repeated). Jesus could not have stated more clearly than his own view of the Old Testament Scripture.” John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount IVP, 1978
I know this is an old blog post but it is what I am currently studying and this pooped up in my search. I struggle with saying the “jot and tittles” will literally disappear as if every bible and every scroll will just burn up or something like that.
It seems to me that the “passing away” has to do with the obedience verse 19 upholds.
I would say the law has “passed away” in the sense that it is “null and void.” (It is no longer binding nor demands obedience from those who have the Spirit.) Isn’t this exactly Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 3?
Just saw this in my Comments! I think the “passing of the jots and tittles” has direct reference to what a “jot and tittle” are (written marks on paper). It has to do with the still-relevant authority of Moses’ words. Jesus has not come to “remove” any books, or words, but bring them to their “full meanings” in terms of pleroma. This does not require a continued “strict obedience” to the Mosaic covenant (what is called, “the first” or “the old covenant”) in terms of “jots and tittles” – but a still-relevant authority in terms of “framework” and “guidance” for what the unfolding of Jesus’ mission at the right hand of God means: to fulfill the law, prophets and writings (Tanak). Jesus is saying, “My advent (coming) is not a brand new, never before heard of, never announced in the Tanak mission, but a fulfillment of Tanak, within Tanak, and of Tanak.” With the dissolution of “heaven and earth” would come, naturally, the dissolution of books, texts, and such. It’s a striking picture, and a strong statement by Jesus that authenticates Moses and the Prophets as still relevant to what Jesus was doing, is doing, and will do.