The Christian & the Old Testament Law (Matt. 5:18-19)

Translation & sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ the Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS, 1 May 2011



17. Don’t y’all start assuming that I came to undo the law or the prophets;
 I did not come to undo but rather to fulfill.

18. For really, I’m telling you that
      until whenever the heavens and the earth pass on,
                  neither one ‘i’ nor one serif shall ever pass on from the law
      until whenever everything shall have happened.

            19. Therefore, whoever might loosen one of the least of these commandments
                  and teach the men thus, he will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens.
      But whoever might do
                  and teach thus, this man will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens,

20. for I’m telling you that unless your righteousness exceeds beyond the scribes and Pharisees,
 you will never enter into the kingdom of the heavens.

v.18 The law is more durable than the earth

v.18a  ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ,

o       We think of the earth and sky as something that has been around forever. The Kansas hit song “Dust in the wind” sums up what many people believe, “Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.”

o       But this is a lie; it is not true. The earth had a beginning: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” and it will have an end when it perishes in fire on judgment day.
2 Cor 4:18 For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

o       Jesus sets the record straight in v.18 that the heavens and earth will pass away. What does this mean?

A.1. Word study on “pass on” : Parelthae is used 31 times in the NT (Mt 5:18 is the first time) it is also used in 108 verses in the OT (ESV):

In the O.T. It referred to: physically passing by something, passage of time, trangressing or entering into a covenant, sunlight shining forth, turning aside from commands, God’s spirit leaving a prophet and a woman’s soul failing her (Song. 5:6), not keeping track of sins, passing away (for example Ps. 37:36, 148:6), renewing (Ps. 90:5), refraining from an action (Jer. 41:8), the kingdom departing from Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 4:31), and revoking a law.


(Luke 18:37) v. 37 They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by*." v.38 And he cried out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

(Matthew 14:15) Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a desolate place, and the day is now over*; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves."

(Matthew 24:34-35) Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away* until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away*, but my words will not pass away*. (|| Mark 13:30-31, Luke 21:32-33)

(Matthew 26:39) And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass* from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will."… 42) Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, "My Father, if this cannot pass* unless I drink it, your will be done." (|| Mark 14:35)

(Matthew 8:28) And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass* that way.

(Mark 6:48) And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by* them,

(Luke 11:42) "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect* justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

(Luke 12:37) Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come* and serve them.

(Luke 15:29) but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed* your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.

(Luke 17:7) "Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once* and recline at table'?

(Luke 16:17) But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away* than for one dot of the Law to become void.

(Acts 16:8) v.7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. v. 8 So, passing by* Mysia, they went down to Troas.

(Acts 24:7) [But the chief captain Lysias came* and with great violence took him out of our hands,] (this one had some textual criticism notes)

(Acts 27:9) Since much time had passed, and the voyage was now dangerous because even the Fast was already over*, Paul advised them,

 (James 1:10) v. 9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, v. 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away*.

(1 Peter 4:3) For the time that is past* suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.

(2 Corinthians 5:17) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away*; behold, the new has come.

(2 Peter 3:10) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away* with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

(Revelation 21:1) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away*, and the sea was no more.

o       We conclude then that the earth and sky are in place only for a time according to God’s will; they are certainly not to be worshipped! Rather what is enduring and worthy of our respect is the law word of God. Why?

B. The law is an expression of God’s personality which is eternal.

1 Peter 1:23-25  …you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for "All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever." And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (cf. Mt 24:35/Mk 13:31/Isa 40:8)


Jesus goes on to say that “not one jot or tittle,” not an “iota nor a dot,” not “the smallest letter or stroke” will go obsolete or unfulfilled or forgotten from God’s law.

v.18b ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται.

B.1. Explanation of jot and tittle

Greek word is ἰῶτα - only used in the Bible here in Matt. 5:18

o       Iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet, corresponding to our English letter “i” – it even looks like our letter “i” but does not have a dot on top like in English. It also corresponds to the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, the letter “yod” which looks like an apostrophe (‘) to us.

  Deut 17:17ולא  ירבה  לו  נשׁים

o       There is a story told in Jewish tradition that Solomon was convicted by the passage in Deut 17:17 that a king “should not multiply wives to himself,” so he suggested that the letter yod be simply removed from the passage. As best I can tell, this would change the verb “multiply” from imperfect to perfect tense, in which case it would no longer be a command but a statement “the king did not multiply wives,” or the yod could be removed from the word “wives” [nashim] so that it would say that the king should not multiply “breath” [nasham] for himself. Solomon tried, but he didn’t succeed. God’s word was not twisted by his effort, and his many wives turned his heart from God just as God’s law warned they would.

o       The idea is that not even the smallest letter of the alphabet is insignificant in God’s word. Nothing is disposable; all of it is important.

o       Are there puzzling little things that you have run across in the Old Testament as you’ve read it? We may not understand everything, but that doesn’t mean it is unimportant. Let us take the time to study things out and decide how to apply not only the main themes of scripture but also the “odds and ends.”

The other word denoting even the smallest things are significant in the OT is the word keraia, variously translated “tittle/dot/pen-stroke”

o       Apart from the parallel passage in Luke 16:17, keraia is found nowhere else in scripture: “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot* of the Law to become void.”

o       The word keraia literally means “horn”

o       In ancient Greek inscriptions, it is paired with the word for “syllable,” so Arndt and Gingrich, wrote in their Greek lexicon that this word refers to Greek accents or breathing marks which look like apostrophes to us.

o       However, since Jesus was referring to the OT which was written in Hebrew, this word keraia could be referring to the letter vav, which is the second-smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet and looks like our English letter “I” – this letter is pronounced “v” or “w” and is the Hebrew word for “and.” The presence or omission of even a little word like the word “and” can make a big difference!

Illustration: One of the great controversies of Christianity came over the word “and” as the Christians of 5th Century Europe wanted the Latin word “filioque” – “and the son” added to the Nicene Creed, but the Asian Christians did not believe that was accurate theology. The debate over whether or not the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the son (rather than just from the Father) is one of the major reasons that the Eastern Orthodox church is different from other branches of Christianity.

o       Other people think perhaps this Greek word keraia could refer to a serif – a part of a letter that sticks out:
In Vayikra Rabba (19), it is said: “Should any person in the words of Deu_6:4, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is (
אחד  ached) One Lord,’ change the ד (daleth) into a ר 
(resh), he would ruin the world.” [Because, in that case, the word אחר (achar), would signify a strange or false God]. AND “Should any one, in the words of Exo_34:14, ‘Thou shalt worship no other (אחר  achar) God,’ change ר  (resh) into ד  (daleth), he would ruin the world.” [Because the command would then run, “Thou shalt not worship the Only or true God”].

o       Jesus is saying that even the small things in the Bible are important, they are not something to be ignored.

o       This raises a secondary point about variants in Bible texts:

o       For instance, The Vaticanus omits the word “άν” which I have translated “whenever” in v.18,

o       and the family 13 group of Greek miniscule manuscripts adds the phrase “and the prophets” to the end of the first half of v. 18.

o        Furthermore, the NIV adds the word “the” where it does not occur in any of the Greek manuscripts when it says, “I tell you THE truth…”

o       Does this mean that God’s word is not true, that words have been added to and passed away from God’s law? All I can say at this point is:

1.      Man is changeable and God is not. The original words of God were accurate, and if they have been changed by people as they copied from the original, the original word of God remains unchanged.

2.      God has watched over the transmission of His word for thousands of years and has made sure that the most important things have been preserved, and in every case where variants have been documented, the variants do not essentially change the message, (except in cases like the New World Translation where men purposefully twisted the scriptures in order to deny Christ’s deity. In order for cults to do this, they have had to systematically change many passages throughout the Bible, not just one verse.) The difference between not one jot or tittle passing away from “the law” as opposed to “from the law and the prophets” does not really change the meaning. Likewise, the difference between the NAS translation “Truly I say to you” and the NIV “I tell you the truth” is not an essential change in meaning. Honest scholarship will yield variants, and that is something we changeable humans have to live with.

o       The point of all this, as John Calvin put it, “Sooner will heaven crash and all the fabric of the earth dissolve than the fixity of the Law shall be shaken.”

B.2. Will the law pass away? What must happen first?

o       Jesus had to fulfill every command of God, and in doing so, there were provisions that, while in principle remained, became different in practice, such as the ritual sacrifice of animals. The principal that the wages of sin is death remained, but the practice of slaughtering animals changed to the practice of looking in faith to the sufficiency of Jesus’ death on the cross for us.

o       There are prophecies in the scriptures which have not yet been fulfilled, particularly regarding the second coming of Christ. One thing that this passage is saying is that every one of those prophecies will surely be fulfilled. They will not be overlooked or preempted by anything because the will of God will not change.

o       I am not prepared to speak knowledgeably about this, but it is possible that there will be more changes in practice ahead at the fulfillment of those prophecies. Those changes would not reflect a change in God’s character which continues to be communicated through the law, but, in the new order which God institutes in the new heavens and new earth, there may be more symbols that are done away with as we live face to face with God. Some suggest that this indicates that the Bible as a book we carry around will disappear from use in heaven because the content of the Bible will be available to us directly through the Spirit in our hearts. I do not know.

o       I am living in the light of the New Testament, and just as the Old Testament prophets “searched diligently to find out the time and place which the spirit of Christ in them was pointing when He predicted the sufferings of Christ and glories to follow but found that they were serving us rather than themselves,” so we too may need to be content with walking in the light we have now and leave the future to God.

o       We do know, however, that the heavens and earth as we know them will pass away. The earth is not forever; therefore the focus of our life must be on what it eternal rather than upon what is going to disappear. “Only two things endure even after the end, and that’s the word of God and the souls of men.” ~Shawn Cushen

v.19 God’s people are called to uphold God’s commandments

v.19 ὃς ἐὰν οὖν λύσῃ μίαν τῶν ἐντολῶν τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων καὶ διδάξῃ οὕτω τοὺς ἀνθρώπους,

A. The problem with “loosening” even small commandments.

o       By “these” commandments, I believe Jesus is referring to “the law and the prophets” – the commands of God, and He expounds on three of these commandments in the rest of chapter 5: “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” and “Do not bear false witness.”

o       There was a tradition among the Jews to rank the importance of laws, and it was believed that the “least” law was the one about not eating a bird along with its eggs if you happened upon a bird sitting on a nest. (Deut. 22:6-7)

o       Matthew Henry: “It is a dangerous thing, in doctrine or practice, to disannul the least of God's commands; to break them, that is, to go about either to contract the extent, or weaken the obligation of them; whoever does so, will find it is at his peril. Thus to vacate any of the ten commandments, is too bold a stroke for the jealous God to pass by… the further such corruptions as they spread, the worse they are.”

o       Oh how easy it is to buck the authority of God and start making compromises!

x        Well, I know that God said to rest one day in seven, but this was just a busy week.

x        Well, I know that there’s a speed limit sign, but speed limits aren’t part of the Bible.

x        Well, I know there’s the thing of giving 10% of your income to God, but that’s legalistic and surely doesn’t apply to us today, besides I can’t afford it’ I’ll just give 9%.

And so we take over the role of God in deciding what we will do or not do and every compromise leads to more compromises.

o       Those of us who have learned how to hide our sins so that it doesn’t look like we are big sinners must come face to face with the fact that our little indulgences and slight exaggerations and carefully-hidden prideful attitudes are what resulted in our Lord being brutally beaten and hanged….

o       Don’t do it; don’t loosen up God’s law.

o       (This, by the way, is not the same as making up new laws and imposing them on other believers which is the flip-side of the same coin, that of taking the place of God as lawgiver and judge, and which is what the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day.)

o       We should show respect for the law and the prophets, knowing that Jesus did not disdain them, but considered them worthy of fulfilling through His coming and His obedience.

B. How do we show respect for the law and the prophets?

o       Does this mean we need to start wearing tassels on our coats and stoning sexually immoral people and burning goats on altars, etc? To answer all the questions would take more time than we have to study God’s word this morning, and even if I gave a thorough answer from my understanding of the Bible, there would be a lot of debatable points that we might disagree on.

o       So the simple answer is: study the Bible for yourself with a heart that is prepared to do whatever God reveals to you. Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you into the best way to honor everything you find. That’s the attitude God wants from us and everything will work out from there!

o       Let me also offer one more part of the answer: the overarching laws in the Old Testament (like the 10 commandments) were intended to be literally obeyed by all people at all times in history, but other O.T. laws had a symbolic nature to them that limited their literal observance to that time in history between the prophecies of the Christ to come and the coming of Jesus described in the Gospels. These symbolic laws are called “shadows” in the New Testament book of Hebrews and Colossians, and they include the offering of animal sacrifices as well as the observance of the specific Jewish holidays. Focusing on the concrete fulfillment in Christ rather than on the symbolic shadows of those ceremonies honors the law because it honors the substance behind those laws.

o       “Christ’s coming did not take anything away, even from the ceremonies, but rather the truth behind the shadows was revealed, and served to strengthen them… As God gave rules for ceremonies on the basis that their outward use should last for a period, but their significance be everlasting, one does not do away with ceremonies, when their reality is kept, and their shadow omitted.” ~J. Calvin

C. The responsibility of teachers: God will hold accountable

v.19b ἐλάχιστος κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν·

o       We should respect the O.T. because Jesus taught in no uncertain terms that He doesn’t take well to anyone who does not obey them and who teaches others to disregard them.

o       James 3:1 “Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment”

o       God will hold all teachers accountable for what they teach, and whoever shows disregard for any part of God’s word – either through their personal disobedience, or through the way they talk about it – will be punished by God.

o       This punishment is described here in v.19 as being “called least in the kingdom of God.” There are two schools of thought on this, and the commentaries I read were equally divided on this:

1.      One school of thought says that this is speaking of exclusion from the kingdom of God.

2.      Another school of thought takes the loosening of God’s commandments more as a form of immaturity rather than hostility toward God, and therefore the punishment is merely a less honorable position in the church or in heaven.

C. The strategy of Biblical teachers: “Teach the men”

This is just an incidental point, but an instructive one. The article “the” is there in all the Greek manuscripts before the word “men.” Jesus is referring to a particular group of men, and I think it is the men of the synagogue or the men of the church. The way God’s word was taught throughout Bible times was for the Bible scholars to teach God’s word to the men of their community, and those men would then teach God’s word to their families. If we want to see revival in our nation, we need to disciple the men and teach them to teach their families. But if we are going to teach, we must be careful to teach what God’s word actually says, rather than be loosening up on the word of God.

D. The integrity of Biblical teachers: teach and do

v.19c ὃς δ᾿ ἂν ποιήσῃ καὶ διδάξῃ, οὗτος μέγας κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν.

o       Our calling as Christians is to honor and obey God’s word as fully as we can, and also to teach others to honor and obey God’s word as fully as possible:

o       Matthew 28:19-20  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

o       Are you yielding to the lordship of Christ and teaching your children to do the same?

o       Are you reading the Bible with an attitude of wanting to do whatever it says, and are you encouraging your roommates or your younger siblings to do the same?

o       Are we as a church treasuring and practicing all that Jesus commanded; are we discipling followers of Christ to do the same?

o       We will never regret it if we place our priorities rightly on the word of God and the souls of men instead of upon the world which is passing away.