For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.—Matt. 5:18
To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to accept what He says about Scripture and to wholeheartedly echo Peter’s sentiment: “You have words of eternal life” (John 6:68). The privilege of knowing Christ and His Word also carries with it certain essential obligations.
First, we must receive God’s Word exactly for what it is, “the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). We should be completely receptive because the Word is the highest standard of truth, joy, and blessing, and it tells us of the way to salvation.
Second, we are obliged to honor the Scripture. The psalmist wrote, “How sweet are Your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103; cf. Jer. 15:16). The great Reformer Martin Luther did not fear his human opponents. However, when he stood in the pulpit to expound Scripture, his knees often knocked under a sense of awe and duty to honor the Word.
Third, we must obey God’s Word. The apostle Paul commanded Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). A key to genuine obedience in the Christian walk is to “let the word of Christ richly dwell within” (Col. 3:16).
In what ways is the Scripture honored in your home? If this is an area in your family life that has been allowed to slip, what could you begin doing right away to restore the Bible to a place of regular reflection, instruction, and prominence?
Christ and the Law—Part 2: The Permanence of Scripture
For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. (5:18)
The honest Jew of Jesus’ day knew he could not fulfill all the requirements of the Mosaic law, and that he could not even keep all the traditions developed over the years by the rabbis and scribes. Many hoped the Messiah would bring God’s standards down to a level they could manage.
But as indicated in previous chapters,Jesus made it clear in His first major sermon that God’s true standard was even higher than the traditions, and that, as the Messiah, He had not come to diminish the law in the least bit, but to uphold and fulfill it in every detail.
By introducing His statement with truly I say to you, Jesus confirmed the special importance of what He was about to say. Amēn (truly) was a term of strong, intense affirmation. Jesus was saying, “I say this to you absolutely, without qualification and with the fullest authority.”
His teaching not only was absolute but was permanent. Until heaven and earth pass away represents the end of time as we know it, the end of earthly history. As God’s Word, the law would outlast the universe, which someday will cease to exist. “The present heavens and earth by His word are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Pet. 3:7; cf. v. 10). Even the psalmist knew that “Of old Thou didst found the earth; and the heavens are the work of Thy hands. Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; and all of them will wear out like a garment; like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed. But Thou art the same, and Thy years will not come to an end” (Ps. 102:25–26). Isaiah said, “Lift up your eyes to the sky, then look to the earth beneath; for the sky will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment, and its inhabitants will die in like manner, but My righteousness shall not wane” (Isa. 51:6; cf. 34:4; Rev. 6:13–14).
Jesus equated His own words with the Word of God: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). What was true of the law, in its fullest meaning as the Old Testament, was also true of Jesus’ teaching. It is timeless.
It is incredibly foolish to ask, “What does the Bible, a two-thousand-year-old book, have to say to us today?” The Bible is the eternal Word of the eternal God. It “is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). It has long preceded and will long outlast every person who questions its validity and relevancy.
Not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, Jesus continued. The smallest letter translates the word iōta, the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. To Jesus’ Jewish hearers it would have represented the yodh, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which looks something like an apostrophe. A stroke (keraia) literally means “little horn” and refers to the small marks that help distinguish one Hebrew letter from another. It was a small extension of a letter similar to a serif in modern typefaces.
In other words, not only will the smallest letter not be erased, but even the smallest part of a letter will not be erased from the Law. Not even the tiniest, seemingly most insignificant, part of God’s Word will be removed or modified until all is accomplished.
As discussed in the last chapter, Jesus brought to completion all the judicial and ceremonial law and certain parts of the moral law, such as Sabbath observance. But God’s basic moral law, centered in the Ten Commandments, is still every bit as valid today as when God gave it to Moses at Sinai. During His earthly ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus fulfilled many of the prophecies of the Old Testament. Others, such as the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, would be fulfilled in later New Testament times. Still other prophecies, both of the Old and New Testaments, are yet to be fulfilled. But without the smallest exception, every commandment, every prophecy, every figure and symbol and type would be accomplished.
No other statement made by our Lord more clearly states His absolute contention that Scripture is verbally inerrant, totally without error in the original form in which God gave it. That is, Scripture is God’s own Word not only down to every single written word, but down to every letter and the smallest part of every letter.
“Fulfill” in verse 17 has the idea of completion, of filling up. Accomplished (from ginomai) has the similar meaning of becoming or taking place. Arthur Pink comments, “Everything in the Law must be fulfilled [or accomplished]: not only its prefigurations and prophecies, but its precepts and penalty: fulfilled, first, personally and vicariously, by and upon the Surety; fulfilled, second and evangelically, in and by His people; and fulfilled, third, in the doom of the wicked, who shall experience its awful curse forever and ever. Instead of Christ’s being opposed to the law of God, He came here to magnify it and render it honourable. … And rather than His teachings being subversive thereof, they confirmed and enforced it” (An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1950], p. 57).
Jesus referred to the Old Testament at least sixty-four times, and always as authoritative truth. In the course of defending His messiahship and divinity before the unbelieving Jewish leaders in the Temple, He said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
When the Sadducees tried to trip Him up by asking which of seven successive husbands would be a woman’s husband in the resurrection, that is in heaven, He replied, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). The question itself was foolish, He said, because its very premise was wrong, “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (v. 30). He then went on to correct the Sadducees’ view of resurrection, in which they did not believe. “But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read that which was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (vv. 31–32).
In that confrontation with the Sadducees, Jesus’ whole argument is based on a single verb tense. In the book of Exodus, which He was here quoting, God told Moses that He is, not was, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6). Hundreds of years after those patriarchs had died, the Lord was still their God. Obviously those men were still alive. God’s Word is therefore authoritative not only down to the smallest part of every letter, but also to the grammatical forms of every word. Because Scripture itself is without error, when it is believed and obeyed it will save us from error.
Over and over again, Jesus confirmed the accuracy and the authenticity of the Old Testament. He confirmed the standard of marriage that God established in the Garden of Eden (Matt. 19:4), the murder of Abel (Luke 11:51), Noah and the flood (Matt. 24:38–39), Abraham and his faith (John 8:56), Sodom, Lot, and Lot’s wife (Luke 17:29), the call of Moses (Mark 12:26), the manna from heaven (John 6:31, 58), and the bronze serpent (John 3:14).
Jesus also made clear that Scripture was given to lead men to salvation. In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham told the rich man that if his brothers, whom he hoped to save from hell, “do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). In other words, they had God’s Word, which was sufficient to bring them to God and to salvation-if they would believe it.
Jesus also used Scripture in His own defense. When He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness at the outset of His ministry, Jesus countered each temptation with quotations from Deuteronomy (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; cf. Deut. 8:3; 6:16, 13). He could have challenged the devil in the power and authority of new words spoken simply for that occasion. But in quoting the Scriptures, He testified to their divine origin and authority.
I heard a preacher once say, “The one thing I’ve learned is that when you get into the pulpit you’ve got to somehow communicate without using the Bible, because the Bible turns people off. I’ve spent a long time developing the ability to communicate to people without ever using the Bible. I started out in my ministry saying this verse says this and this verse says that, and I finally realized that wouldn’t get me anywhere. Now I say it in my own way and people will accept it.”
What that preacher said is true. Many people today are very much turned off by the Bible. But men’s being turned off by God’s Word is hardly a new phenomenon. It has been turning off unbelievers for thousands of years. Many people today, just as in Jesus’ day-and in the days of Moses and of the prophets-would much rather hear the opinions of men than the Word of God. But those opinions cannot lead them to the truth or to salvation. Opinions that do not square with Scripture will often leave men superficially contented and satisfied, but they will also leave them in darkness and sin.
Shortly after His temptation, Jesus went into the synagogue at Nazareth “on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book, and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.’ And He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ ” (Luke 4:16–21; cf. Isa. 61:1).
The Lord used Scripture’s authority to establish His own. When John the Baptist sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else? … Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matt. 11:3–5). In that reply Jesus again referred to the same passage from Isaiah which predicted the Messiah and His work.
When He cleansed the Temple on returning to Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus defended His action on the basis of Scripture. “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ den” (Mark 11:17).
It is impossible to accept Christ’s authority without accepting Scripture’s authority, and vice versa. They stand together. To accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is to accept what He taught about Scripture as binding. To be a kingdom citizen is to accept what the King says about God’s Word. To have a kingdom character and a kingdom testimony is to obey the King’s manifesto, the Scriptures. Scripture’s authority is Christ’s authority, and to obey the Lord is to obey His Word. “He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God” (John 8:47). To trust in Christ is to say of Him as Peter did, “You have words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
If the Old Testament contains any errors we must conclude one of two things about Jesus Christ. One possibility is that He was ignorant of those errors, in which case He was not omniscient and was therefore not God. The other possibility is that He knew of the errors but denied them, in which case He would have been a liar and a hypocrite, and therefore not holy God.
If not a single letter or stroke or tense of God’s Word is going to pass away, we first should receive it for what it is, “the word implanted, which is able to save [our] souls” (James 1:21). We should receive it because of the infinite majesty of the Author and His authoritative statements about it. We should receive it because of the price that God paid to get it to us, and because it is the standard of truth, joy, blessing, and salvation. And we should receive it because not to receive it brings judgment.
Second, we are called to honor God’s Word. “How sweet are Thy words to my taste!” said the psalmist, “Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103). Charles Spurgeon said, “They called George Fox a Quaker. Why? Because when he spoke he would quake exceedingly through the force of the truth he so thoroughly apprehended.” He went on to say, “It were better to break stones on a road than to be a preacher, unless God had given the Holy Spirit to sustain him. The heart and soul of a man who speaks for God will know no ease, for he hears in his ears that warning admonition, ‘If the watchman warned them not, they perished, but their blood will I require at the watchman’s hands.’ Is the infallible revelation of the infallible Jehovah to be moderated, to be shaped, to be toned down to the fancies and fashions of the hour? God forbid us if we ever alter His Word.”
Martin Luther never feared men, but when he stood up to preach he often felt his knees knock together under a sense of great responsibility to be true to the Word of God.
Third, we should obey God’s Word. We should be diligent to present ourselves approved to God as workmen who do “not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Like Jeremiah, we should find God’s words and eat them (Jer. 15:16), and “let the word of Christ richly dwell within” us (Col. 3:16).
Fourth, we must defend God’s Word. We are to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Like Jude, we should fight for the integrity, purity, and authority of Scripture. Spurgeon said, “The everlasting gospel is worth preaching even if one stood on a burning fagot and addressed the crowds from a pulpit of flames. The truths revealed in Scripture are worth living for and they are worth dying for. I count myself thrice happy, to bear reproach for the sake of the faith. It is an honor of which I feel myself to be unworthy, and yet most truly I can say the words of our hymn, ‘Shall I to soothe the unholy throng, soften Thy truths and smooth my tongue to gain earth’s gilded toys, or flee the cross endured my God by Thee?’ ”
Finally, we live to proclaim God’s Word. Says Spurgeon again, “I cannot speak out my whole heart on this theme which is so dear to me, but I would stir you all up to be instant in season and out of season in telling out the gospel message, especially to repeat such a word as this: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.’ Whisper it in the ear of the sick, shout it in the corner of the streets, write it on your tablet, send it forth from the press, but everywhere let this be your great motive and warrant. You preach the gospel because the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
18 “I tell you the truth” signals that the statement to follow is of the utmost importance (see Notes). In Greek it is connected to the preceding verse by an explanatory “for” (gar): v. 18 further explains and confirms the truth of v. 17. The “jot” (KJV) has become “the smallest letter” (NIV). This is almost certainly correct, for it refers to the letter י (yôd), the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The “tittle” (NIV, “least stroke of a pen,” keraia, GK 3037) has been variously interpreted: it is the Hebrew letter ו (wāw) (so G. Schwarz, “ἱῶτα ἕν ἣ μία κεραία [Matthäus 5:18],” ZNW 66 : 268–69) or the small stroke that distinguishes several pairs of Hebrew letters (e.g., כ/ב; ר/ד; ך/ד) (so Filson, Lenski, Allen) or a purely ornamental stroke, a “crown” (Tasker, Schniewind, Schweizer; but cf. NIDNTT, 3:182); or it forms a hendiadys with “jot,” referring to the smallest part of the smallest letter (Lachs, “Textual Observations,” 106–8). In any event, Jesus here upholds the authority of the OT Scriptures right down to the “least stroke of a pen.” His is the highest possible view of the OT.
Verses 17–18 do not wrestle abstractly with OT authority but with the nature, extent, and duration of its validity and continuity. The nature of these has been set forth in v. 17. The reference to “jot and tittle” establishes its extent. It will not do to reduce the reference to moral law, or to the law as a whole but not necessarily its parts, or to God’s will in some general sense. “Law” almost certainly refers to the entire OT Scriptures, not just the Pentateuch or moral law (note the parallel in v. 17).
That leaves the duration of the OT’s authority. The two “until” clauses answer this. The first—“until heaven and earth disappear”—simply means “until the end of the age”: i.e., not quite “never” (contra Meier, Law and History, 61), but “never, as long as the present world order persists.” The second—“until everything is accomplished”—is more difficult. Some take it to be equivalent to the first (cf. Sand, Gesetz und die Propheten, 36–39). But it is more subtle than that. The word panta (“all things” or “everything”) has no antecedent. Contrary to Sand (p. 38), Hill, Bultmann (History of the Synoptic Tradition, 138, 405), and Grundmann, the word cannot very easily refer to all the demands of the Law that must be “accomplished,” because (1) “Law” almost certainly refers here to all Scripture and not just its commands—but even if that were not so, v. 17 has shown that even imperatival law is prophetic; (2) the word genētai (“is accomplished,” GK 1181) must here be rendered “happens,” “comes to pass” (i.e., “is accomplished” in that sense, not in the sense of obeying a law; cf. Meier, Law and History, 53–54; Banks, Jesus and the Law, 215ff.).
Hence panta (“everything”) is best understood to refer to everything in the Law considered under the Law’s prophetic function—namely, until all these things have taken place as prophesied. This is not simply pointing to the cross (Davies, Christian Origins, 60ff.), nor simply to the end of the age (Schniewind). The parallel with 24:34–35 is not that close, since in the latter case, the events are specified. Verse 18d simply means the entire divine purpose prophesied in Scripture must take place; not one jot or tittle will fail of its fulfillment. A similar point is made in 11:13. Thus the first “until” clause focuses strictly on the duration of OT authority, but the second returns to considering its nature. It reveals God’s redemptive purposes and points to their fulfillment, their “accomplishment,” in Jesus and the eschatological kingdom he is now introducing and will one day consummate (cf. Gibbs).
Meier (Law and History) ably establishes the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the pivotal event in Matthew’s presentation of salvation history. Before it Jesus’ disciples are restricted to Israel (10:5–6); after it they are to go everywhere. Similarly, the precise form of the Mosaic law may change with the crucial redemptive events to which it points. For that which prophesies is in some sense taken up in and transcended by the fulfillment of the prophecy. Meier has grasped and explained this redemptive-historical structure better than most commentators. He may, however, have gone too far in interpreting v. 18 d too narrowly as a reference to the cross and the resurrection.
 MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 102). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 260–266). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 177–178). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.