Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

53. The Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17-20)*

The way in which Jesus had spoken about his disciples in terms of the temple and its place amongst the people of Israel may have given rise to uneasy doubts in their minds that he was set on a revolutionary replacement of all the venerated Mosaic order. Certainly he had already had serious clashes with the scribes and Pharisees because of drastic differences of religious attitude. Were these to be regarded as omens of yet greater divergences later? So an early definition of attitude, for his own sake and for his disciples’, was imperative.

It was true, in a sense, that Jesus was set on sweeping religious changes, but it was important for all to realise that these would not be destructive. It was a spiritual up-grading which Jesus sought: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets.” The word ‘or” is important here, for the Sadducees claimed to uphold the Law, but rated the prophets as having less authority. The Pharisees, by their casuistry and emphasis on the letter rather than the spirit, unloosed (Gk.) the real authority of both Law and Prophets.

It should have been already evident to disciples and critics alike that the Scriptures of the Old Covenant were the very bed-rock of the teaching of Jesus: “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” That Jesus sought to bring down much of the traditional interpretation of the Scriptures was to become increasingly obvious. Through a large section of his Sermon on the Mount the refrain was to be: “Ye have heard that it hath been said... but I say unto you...” (5:21 - 6:18). But the Word of God was in no danger from the Son of God. How could it be? “I come not to destroy, but to fulfil.”

Yet, oddly enough, the main criticism made against Jesus by the religious leaders-and made repeatedly-was that he ignored explicit commandments of the Torah. The reason they returned time and again to the charge about sabbath-breaking was because here, as they thought, was a clear-cut issue, with their case fully demonstrated: Jesus of Nazareth is playing ducks and drakes with the Law of Moses, and yet he says: “I am not come to destroy.” The man’s a hypocrite!

But of course what Jesus was set on destroying was the dogmatic unspiritual literality of their interpretations which efficiently evacuated the Law of almost all its spiritual value.

The Law’s true authority

Whilst it is true that prophecy and type were to find their true reference and ultimate meaning in all that Jesus was and did (Lk. 24:44), his ensuing teaching at this time showed clearly enough that it was the filling out of the moral teaching of Law and Prophets which he had specially in mind. Indeed, the exacting character of the Law of Moses, as Jesus upgraded its precepts into principles, became more and more evident as he proceeded.

It is noteworthy that on the other occasions when Jesus used this comprehensive phrase, it was the moral and essentially religious content of the Old Scriptures which he had in mind: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt. 7:12). “On these two commandments (love of God and love of neighbour) hang all the law and the prophets” (22:40).

The searching and wide-ranging nature of his practical applications of familiar teaching was to leave his contempories aghast at the sheer impracticability (as they thought) of the idealism he now injected into the well-known words. Yet all that he did was to show men the true scope of the precepts of the Law of Moses, a teaching which men had demeaned by the spiritual small-mindedness they had brought to it.

Heaven and earth

So in very emphatic fashion Jesus re-instated what the Jews had lost and did not know they had lost: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (5:18).

Once again it is needful to stress that fulfilment of type and prophecy is not what these words mean (though doubtless that is included). The last phase would be better rendered: “till all things (concerning me) come to pass”; that is, till all my work as teacher and redeeming sacrifice has been accomplished. There is a strikingly similar usage in the familiar words of the Olivet prophecy; “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled (RV: come to pass). Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (24:34, 35). By this echo of Matthew 5,
Jesus clearly put Law and Prophets in the same category as his own teaching. It is a superb witness to the divine authority of the ancient Scriptures. (Also, compare Jn. 18:19 with 19:24.)

The fact that here Jesus did envisage the passing of “heavens and earth” shows that he intended the expression figuratively. This was a usage inherited straight from the prophet Isaiah. The following group of passages is prophetic of the passing of the old order and the inauguration of the New Creation in Christ:

“Lift up your eyes to heaven and look upon the earth beneath: for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner: but my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.” (Is. 51:6; cp. also Ps. 102:25-27 as used in Heb. 1:10-12).

“... lo, they all shall wax old as a garment; the moth shall eat them up. And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people” (ls.51:16; cp. Jer.31:35, 36). Hence also, the fine words of the apostle Peter:

“Nevertheless we, according ‘to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet.3:13).
It is a radical failure to appreciate this prophetic idiom which has led zealots like the Seventh Day Adventists into an insistence on a highly inconsistent observance of certain parts of the Law of Moses, whilst carefully excluding much else which it contains.

The primary meaning, then, of this forthright declaration of Jesus was that for the time being all that the Law laid upon men went untouched and unquestioned: “One jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law”. The emphatic negative used here underscored the fundamental importance of this declaration. Here was the charter for his Jewish disciples to continue their adherence to Mosaic observance “till heaven and earth pass”, that is, until the time came when such observance was no longer possible because the temple and all it stood for would be swept utterly away.

But the rest of Matthew 5, with its startling “Ye have heard that it hath been said...but I say unto you...“demanded that these disciples now bring a better insight into the spiritual qualities of the Mosaic precept than the purblind literality of the scribes had been able to achieve.

Jot and Tittle

There is here also a pointed reminder of the importance of Bible details. The “jot” is the tiniest letter in Old Testament Hebrew-so tiny that very easily it could be overlooked by a copyist. The scribes, in their bibliolatry, had counted every yod in the text- 66, 420 of them -but their zeal did not extend to a like concern for the lesser principles of Old Testament teaching, which is what Jesus was really getting at.

The “tittle” was the very tiny “horn” or projection which distinguishes in Hebrew between a D and an R, a K and a B, an H and a CH. (see Ps.119). Just how drastic a difference in meaning can be introduced through the omission or inclusion of one of these is illustrated by the following pairs of readings, where in each case the changed meaning is due to a “tittle”:

  1. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord (profane the Lord)” (Ps. 150:6).
  2. “There is none holy as the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:2) – “there is no holiness in the Lord.”
  3. “Thou shalt worship no other God” (Ex. 34:14) – “Thou shalt not worship the One God.”
Great and least

Jesus was careful to make clear that he was not so much concerned with textual divergences of this sort, important though they are, as with the serious effect on godliness and holy living which superficial interpretations might be responsible for. “Whosoever therefore shall unloose (not ‘break’, as AV) one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Except the righteousness you teach surpasses what scribes and Pharisees teach, there is no hope of the kingdom for you.

There is here an impressive combination of severity and graciousness. How greatly the special responsibility of the teacher is accentuated! “My brethren, be not many teachers, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment” (Jas. 3:l RV). Yet it is to be noted that although “least”, such an one may be “in the kingdom of heaven” (cp.1 Cor. 3:15) -- a conclusion markedly at variance with the attitude so often and so dogmatically adopted by certain purists.

On the other hand, “ whosoever shall do and teach them (these least commandments), the same shall be called great (but not greatest) in the kingdom of heaven.” The one who fulfils either of these functions, but not the other has no title to be called “great”. Yet, strangely enough, the “little child” who is humble enough to be instructed is called “the greater” (Mt. 18:4 RVm).

It seems almost possible to construct the Lord’s scale of values thus:

The greatest in the kingdom is, of course, Jesus himself.
The greater is the one who, as a little child, humbly learns and obeys.
The great is he who both does and teaches true principles.
The least is he who unlooses the force of commandments, and teaches this.
And he is nothing who is a stark literalist missing the spirit of the commandment.
The Lord rounded off this segment of his teaching with an open repudiation of the strict Judaism of his day: “Except your righteousness (the righteousness you teach or the righteousness you practise?) shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Clearly he spoke here of a future kingdom. No other meaning makes sense.

And he declared this with a sublime assumption of authority which must have taken men’s breath away. The prophets said: “Thus saith the Lord”. The apostles: “as it is written”. The scribes: “Rabbi So-and-So saith.” But Jesus’ word was: “I say unto you.”

Notes: Mt. 5:17-20

Think not. The aorist imperative implies: Don’t for a moment think that... And “think” (nomizo) sounds like a play on nomos. law. I am come. “The Coming One” (11:3) was a well-recognized name for Messiah.
These least commandments. So some commandments are less weighty than others; cp. 12:1-8; Jn. 7:22, 23. Least in thekingdom, and yet in it! Cp. 1 Cor. 3:17. Do and teach. Note 23:3.
In no wise enter. Moses the lawgiver could in no wise enter! Dt. 3:23-27.

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