08.01.04 Mt. 5:17-20 The Law And Gospel


Bill Heinrich  -  Jan 07, 2016  -  Comments Off on 08.01.04 LAW AND GOSPEL

08.01.04 Mt. 5:17-20




17 “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.    20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.


If there was one thing Jews enjoyed doing, it was having theological debates and exchanging ideas.  It encouraged learning and memory. Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew whose disagreements with the leading Pharisees are very much in the spirit of the enduring intra-Jewish debates so characteristic of rabbinic literature.  Little wonder then, that Jesus in Matthew 5:17-20, clarified His position on the Torah. Ironically, Jesus embodies the paradox of uniting Jews with Christians and separating Jews from Christians.

The Torah, written about 1450 B.C., was a “type and shadow” of Jesus who was to come at some future point in time.[1]  While the Law/Torah did not bring anyone to salvation, getting rid of it, likewise, did not bring salvation.  The Law, or Instruction, indicates the lifestyle a person must live to reflect the character of God and the grace of God through Christ Jesus made it possible. Just as Jesus was a human being, the Law was a foreshadowing of Jesus.  Just as a shadow resembles a person, a “foreshadow” represents a person before he arrives on the scene.[2] Jesus did not come to destroy the Law of Moses or the writings of the Prophets, but to fulfill them.

Of the four levels of Pharisees,[3] the lowest (local) level consisted of men who were truly concerned about the people in their congregations and being righteous before God.  However, the upper echelon consisted of leaders who maintained their wealthy social-economic level, had no concern about righteousness, and constantly challenged Jesus. There were a few exceptions, such as Nicodemus. Across the entire Jewish spectrum there was a misunderstanding of the intent of the Law, which made it very difficult for them to receive the teachings of Jesus. This was illustrated when Nicodemus met Jesus as he had difficulty understanding His concepts.


“The Law or the Prophets.”  Jewish scholars divided their Bible into three classifications: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.


  1. The “Law” consisted of the five books written by Moses, known as the Mosaic Law. In Hebrew these books were known as the Torah, but in Greek they were called The Pentateuch, which means The Five Rolls.[4] The term law (Gk. nomos 3551) is translated from the Hebrew word torah (309). There are distinct differences between the meanings of the Greek and Hebrew words. The Greek understanding of law is restrictive, and that meaning has been passed on to English translations. However, the Hebrew meaning emphasizes instruction, a vital concept that is lost in translations. Therefore, the Hebrew definition of key terms is critical to understanding their message. Greek dictionaries very seldom include the Hebrew meaning.[5]


  1. The “Prophets,” which is a classification of books consisting of the later prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and the former prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), as well as the twelve minor prophets. It is a collection of writings from men who had divine insight of current and future events, and were proclaimers of God’s message.[6]


  1. All other books were classified as the “Writings.”[7]


It should be noted that Jesus always based His teachings and arguments upon the entire Hebrew Bible.  Furthermore, Paul underscored the words of Jesus when he said that the Law would never be nullified, but rather, needs to be upheld (Rom. 3:31).  When Jesus said He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, He used a figure of speech to refer to the entire Hebrew Bible, even though He did not specifically mention the Writings. Furthermore, he stressed the promising character of Scripture.[8]

“I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” In this passage, Jesus clarified the purpose of His ministry. However, the word “not” can be confusing to the modern reader. Therefore, for the purpose of explanation, it is removed momentarily.  The phrase, “to come,” is a Hebraic idiom that means mission, intent, or purpose.[9] This statement is not at all related to His incarnation, but to His purpose or mission. With that understanding, the words “I did not come” in the Greek translation has two possible constructions:


  1. Stop thinking that…


  1. Never think that…[10]


In this case, Jesus referred to the second construction, “never think that,” applies. There is no question that the purpose of Jesus was to live a perfect life, suffer and be the sacrifice for our sins, to rise from the grave that He can offer eternal life for all those who place their faith in Him. However, this was God’s plan from the foundations of the earth. Therefore, the Law, or Torah, has to be understood as the first written document in that process and Jesus came to fulfill that law.

The term destroy (Gk. Kataluo, 2647) means to overthrow completely.[11] Some translations use terms such as abolish or disintegrate. In rabbinic usage, the word abolish is a technical term to mean, to cancel or nullify, and fulfill is a technical term to mean uphold or preserve, based upon the correct or incorrect use of the text.[12] When a sage or rabbi incorrectly commented on a text, his peers would say that he was abolishing the text. Since the people of this time were trilingual; they spoke Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. Therefore, one messianic scholar suggests that the word fulfill needs to be examined in those languages to insure understanding.


  1. Greek – To make complete, to fill up, or to fill up the measure of.


  1. Aramaic – to add, or fill out.


  1. Hebrew – to uphold, preserve, establish, or sustain. The teaching being given completely agrees with the text of Scripture in question and spells out it correct and complete implications.[13]


The importance of preserving and communicating the Bible accurately is underscored in the proverbial “jot and tittle” passage of verse 18. That archaic phrase is translated as “the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter” and is further explained below.


A Lesson in First Century Hermeneutics:

08.01.04.X The Significance Of Letter Serifs.

Not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter.”  Some sources translate this phrase as “not one jot or tittle.”  The smallest letter is the Greek word iota (2503), from the smallest Hebrew letter yod has the appearance of an apostrophe.[14] It appears similar to, but is different from the “tittle” (KJV) that Jesus mentioned.  That is the one stroke  translated from the Greek term keraia (2762) and means a little horn. It is a small stroke that distinguishes one Hebrew letter from another.[15] It might be considered similar to todays’s font serif [16]  in size, but not in distinguishing one letter from another.  Care must be taken when writing Hebrew because changing the stroke of a letter changes the word, and thus, changes its meaning. The statement by Jesus is a pattern of speech similar to the modern English phrase, “dot your I’s and cross your T’s.” [17] 

The problem with a literal translation is that languages are in constant change. Everyone understood that the slightest change in the writing of a letter would change the word and its meaning. An inaccurate interpretation of Scripture was said to be an “abolishment” and an accurate interpretation of the Scripture was said to be a “fulfillment of the law.” The point that Jesus made was that not the slightest or seemingly least insignificant point of the Mosaic Law will ever pass away.[18] God’s Word is eternal and, therefore, remains unchanged.


An example is found in the recorded debate of two rabbis at the end of the first century (A.D.), after the temple had been destroyed some three decades earlier. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiba were arguing about sacrifices and sin offerings, when Rabbi Eliezer touted,


            Would you uproot what is written in the law?


            Mishnah, Pesahim 6:2


The word “uproot” the rabbi used means to abolish what was written in the Mosaic Law. No rabbi would ever consider such a thought. This was affirmed later by the Apostle Paul, who said in Romans 8:4 that those who are filled with the Holy Spirit fulfill the righteous requirements of the Torah.

The problem of modern interpretation is that, as in this case where an idiom is lost, there can be a possible misunderstanding of the text. Idioms are figures of speech that are unique to the language.  For example, when Adam knew his wife Eve (Gen. 4:1), it refers to a sexual relationship, not that he finally met her and got to know who she was.  Here Jesus was speaking of the absolute necessity of divine truth and righteousness coming to its completion, as intended by every “jot and tittle,” and His words were not forms of legalism sometimes associated with linguistics.[19] Rather it confirms the permanence and firmness of the Word of God.[20] There are many similar statements throughout rabbinic commentaries, such as:


Should all the nations of the world unite to uproot one word of the Torah, they would be unable to do it.


Leviticus, Rabbah 19:2     




08.01.04.A. ILLUSTRATION OF TWO HEBREW LETTERS WITH SERIFS. The letters yod and lamed are shown with and without serifs, the small angular decorative line at the top of each letter. Illustration by the author.


Changing the stroke of a letter changes the word, and thus, changes its meaning. The difference between the proverbial “jot and tittle” or “the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter” is quite significant in the Hebrew language. Two examples are as follows:[21]


  1. The slight change of a pen can change the Hebrew phrase, He alone is God, to He is just another god.


  1. The difference between the Hebrew letters hay and het changes the phrase, praising God to profaning God.


The Pharisees were interested in the minute details of their own laws and traditions, but Jesus simply applied their method of interpretation to His Written Law.  He assured them that He was not recommending an abandonment of the Old Testament, but was bringing a deeper and fuller understanding of its true meaning and purpose.  Paul confirms this when he said:


Do we then cancel the law through faith? Absolutely not! On the contrary, we uphold the law.


Romans 3:31


The rabbis taught that the entire Torah needed to be taught in the same manner that today pastors proclaim the whole counsel of God.   To do otherwise was/is considered an abomination. The Talmud also gives some insight into the meaning of the words of Jesus.


Baraitha taught: “Because he has despised the word of the Lord” – this refers to him who maintains that the Torah is not from Heaven.  And even if he asserts that the whole Torah is from Heaven, except a particular verse, which he maintains was not uttered by God but by Moses himself, he is included in “because he has despised the word of the Lord.”  And even if he admits that the whole Torah is from Heaven, excepting a single point, a particular ad majus deduction or a certain gezerah shawah, he is still included in “because he has despised the word of the Lord.”  

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 99a


To be included in the phrase “because he has despised the word of the Lord” was a condemnation because the sacred writ was compromised.  Note that in this statement, the name “Heaven” is capitalized because it is a synonym for “God.”  This is a typical Jewish expression today, just as it was 2000 years ago.

There is no lack of confusion among Bible students concerning the issue of law – whether the Written Law was “fulfilled” or “ended.” And if it was ended, why are the Ten Commandments still important?  There were essentially three categories of laws, and while Jesus “fulfilled,” some of these laws, others continue to be operative in human life.  Notice the three kinds of laws:[22]


  1. The Hebrew term mishpatim, refers to moral and ethical laws that need to be observed for people to live together in peace and harmony. This term is sometimes translated as judgments.


  1. The second group of laws pertains to the “Jewish” festivals and rituals. The festivals are in fact, festivals of our Lord intended to be observed by the Jewish people. These festivals all point, in some way, shape, or form, to Jesus in a prophetic manner. For example, Passover points toward His Passion Week when He died as the Lamb of God. The prophetic element of this festival was fulfilled, however, the Feast of Trumpets is not fulfilled, and some scholars believe it will be when Jesus returns for His church.[23]


  1. The Hebrew term chukim or decrees refers to the moral, judicial, and civil laws of a nation.


Of these three categories of laws, obviously the first and third ones are still in effect and Jesus is the fulfillment of the second one – the Festivals of our Lord.  However, the curse for breaking any of these laws is likewise broken, in that as we confess our sins, He is willing and able to forgive us of our sins.  In the Old Testament Period, sins were covered by a sacrifice of some kind.  In the New Testament Period (today) we have a better covenant – by the blood of Jesus our sins are completely removed, not covered.

Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.” This is another case where the literal translation presents difficulty, unless the phrase is understood as an idiom. Most certainly it seems possible that the righteousness of believers will far exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes whom Jesus condemned.  These men were full of hypocritical self-righteousness.[24] Obviously the believer is not to be like these corrupt religious elitists, but exceedingly more righteous and holy unto God than the good and honor-worthy Pharisees who served in the local synagogues.[25]  While most Jews observed Pharisaic traditions, they did not officially belong to the religious group.  As was stated previously, the leading Pharisees were usually synonymous with the teachers of the Law,[26] which is why it is at times difficult to distinguish them from the scribes.[27]  All Pharisees who were members of the Sanhedrin were also scribes (cf. Mt. 23:7-8).[28]

Today, the thought of observing the Law is considered a negative point among many Christians. In Acts the question arose as to whether Gentile converts were required to observe “the Law,” meaning the entire Torah (Acts 15:1, 5).[29] The discussion was centered on what kind of laws were to be observed, and the synopsis is as follows:


  1. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice and, therefore, all laws pertaining to sacrifices of any kind are terminated. Ceremonial laws were clearly terminated, although the temple still stood when the book of Acts was written, thereby giving rise to the discussion.


  1. Religious laws, such as kosher foods, were given to the Jews because they were to remain a distinctive people and not become intermarried with local pagans. They can chose to observe them if they wish.


  1. Finally, there are divine laws such as the Ten Commandments, which pertain to all humanity and are still in force.


Ironically, history repeats itself, although in reverse. In the book of Acts, some believed that Gentiles had to become Jews first, so they could become believers in Jesus.  Today, some Christians believe Jews have to give up their Jewishness and become like Gentiles to find salvation.


As previously stated, observing the Law did not bring salvation, but neither did its removal. After the Apostle Paul was converted on his trip to Damascus, Ananias, a devout Christian Jew who observed all the Laws, ministered to him (Acts 22:12).  It is nearly impossible for Christians today to think of a law-observing Jew as one who is also free in Christ. Yet Ananias was precisely such a figure. Luke records that faith in Jesus exploded, resulting in thousands of Jews becoming followers of the Messiah, and all of them were zealous for the Law (Acts 21:20). After this Paul publicly preached that believing Jews should not turn away from the observation (Acts 21:21-25).   The Law was considered by Paul to be holy, righteous, good, and even spiritual (Rom. 7:12, 14).  Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, the Jewish observation of circumcision had become meaningless, but likewise, being uncircumcised, which had profound significance in ancient times, was now also meaningless.  The important issue was the circumcision of the heart and a life of love (Gal. 5:2-6; 6:15; 1 Cor.7:18, 20).  The conclusion was distinctive.  It was Paul’s desire that Jews, who came to faith in Christ Jesus should, but were not required to, continue living like Jews. Paul, who said that he observed the Law, also stated that he did not live under the laws, meaning that the requirement of observation was removed.

[1]. See “type and shadow” in Appendix 26.


[2]. Brown, Our Hands are Stained with Blood.  82.

[3]. See 02.01.14.Q1.


[4]. Barclay, “Matthew.” 1:127.


[5]. With all due respect to W. E. Vine’s incredible work and that of many other fine scholars like him, in his Greek dictionary he failed to show that the gospel writers were Jews who acted and wrote like Jews. Vine did not indicate the Hebraic definition of law (= instruction) within his Greek dictionary, therefore, many students of Scripture miss this concept that was vital to the gospel writers. While he did define it in his Hebrew dictionary, the connection is lost. He is typical of many Gentile scholars. See Vine, “Law.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 1:133-34; 2:354-57. See “Law” in Appendix 26.


[6]. Brown, “Prophet.” 3:74-92.


[7]. New International Version Study Bible footnote on Mt. 5:17.

[8]. Smith, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew. 89.   

[9]. Vine, “Come.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:108.


[10]. Fischer, The Gospels in Their Jewish Context. (Lecture on CD/MP3). Week 10, Session 1.


[11]. Vine, “Destroy, Desroyer, Destruction, Destructive.”Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:164.


[12]. Fischer, The Gospels in Their Jewish Context. (Lecture on CD/MP3). Week 10, Session 1.


[13]. Fischer, The Gospels in Their Jewish Context. (Lecture on CD/MP3). Week 10, Session 1.


[14]. Vine, “Jot.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:335.


[15]. Spangler and Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. 165-66; Barclay, “Matthew.” 1:127; Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:40; Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 195-96; Vine, “Tittle.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:635.


[16]. Barclay, “Matthew.” 1:127.


[17]. Fruchtenbaum, The Jewish Foundation of the Life of Messiah: Instructor’s Manual. Class 9, page 6; Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, 95.


[18]. Brunn, One Bible, Many Versions. 157.  This is an excellent source for Bible translations.


[19]. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. 340; Bivin and Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words. 54-56; New International Version Study Bible footnotes on Matthew 5:18-20; Naveh, Origins of the Alphabets. 21-33.

[20]. Chumney, Eddie. “Jots and Tittles.” Hebraic Heritage Ministries Int’l. Newsgroup Email Newsletter. July 22, 2004. Chumney makes a special emphasis on the permanence of the Hebrew Bible.


[21]. Fischer, The Gospels in Their Jewish Context. (Lecture on CD/MP3). Week 10, Session 1.

[22]. Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. 59.


[23]. For an interesting study, note the “rapture” verses when the trumpets are blown and the Feast of Trumpets.


[24]. See the discussion on hypocrites/hypocrisy in 08.03.04 (Mt. :5-15) and in “Pharisees” in 02.01.14.

[25]. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. 340; Bivin and Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words. 54-56.

[26]. Mt. 3:7; 15:1; Mk. 2: 16, 24; Lk. 11:38.


[27]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 59.


[28]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 236. Being a scribe was a family occupation, handed down from one generation to another. For a list of families of scribes, see I Chronicles 2:55, and for a “company of scribes,” see 1 Maccabees 7:12.


[29]. On an important side note, the Church has adopted a Roman view of law, that means restriction and is therefore bad, while the Hebrew Bible views law as instruction and freedom, and is therefore good.


  • Chapters