Matthew 5:17-18,  to fulfill the law and the prophets

5:17 “Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill.
5:18 For most certainly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not even one smallest letter {literally, iota} or one tiny pen stroke {or, serif} shall in any way pass away from the law, until all things are accomplished.”

(Matt 5:17-18 WEB)

Not one jot or tittle

Several sheets of newspaper engulfed in flames

Today, we think nothing of burning newspapers, but the burning of religious books becomes highly emotive, usually because such documents are believed to contain the words of God. However, there are much more insidious ways to destroy their content. Misinterpret a legal document and you can undermine its author’s intent completely. In Hebrew, small marks can be used to help show how a document should be read, remove one and it leaves the document far more open to misinterpretation.

Destroying the law?

The Bible portrays God’s words as an eternal and unchanging a set of judgements (i.e. a legal framework), from which mankind can learn how to live in a God-pleasing and life-affirming manner. As this divine law also sustains the earth and the heavens, ensuring that the universe conforms to a set of rules, God’s words cannot pass away unless the cosmos also perishes. Compared to such unchanging and absolute legislation, the prophet Isaiah likened the wisdom of human legislators to the transitory beauty of a flower, an attractive diversion, but destined to fade. Faced with such unwavering laws, a person has only two choices, break it or keep it. 

There has been much debate over what Jesus meant by fulfilling the law (see the notes section for more details). However, his subsequent behaviour suggests that he kept the law down to the tiniest detail, whilst showing others what that involved, so that they could follow in his footsteps. Much of the legal controversy that surrounded Jesus arose because people failed to appreciate how, when he appeared to be breaking the law as they understood it, he could actually be keeping it. This was because Jesus’ approach, whilst fundamentally biblical, involved a radically different understanding of the Hebrew Bible’s text (as explored in The Emmaus View pages on this site).

The phrase ‘law and the prophets’ is a reference to the Hebrew Bible, as opposed to Judaism’s commentaries upon them. Jesus’ actions, even his death on a cross, were meticulously in keeping with the judgements of God as found within those scriptures. Yet his teaching highlighted that first-century Judaism often interpreted the law in ways that were not in accord with its true intent.

God’s standards are impossible to reach (except for God himself), but not impossible to aim for. Judaism recognised that people would try to keep the law but inevitably fall short or miss the target. From this we get the concept of sin, the falling short of what God expects. Under the Mosaic legal system, sin came in two distinctly different forms, that which people regretted and that which they did not. Sin could be regretted because it was unavoidable, accidental, or committed unwittingly, in which case it was dealt with by sacrificial procedures, whereby an alternative life bore the penalty deserved by the sinner. There was, however, no forgiveness for deliberate sin, though after genuine repentance it became a regretted sin and could be dealt with as such.

It is a mistake to think of the Mosaic system as totally ineffective, but it was certainly far from ideal. People keep on sinning and, under the Mosaic system, that meant that the repetition of offerings was required. Moreover, under that system, the priest’s ability to minister could easily be disrupted by contact with everyday life. By contrast, Jesus’ system avoids these pitfalls, for it is built on two potent premises: 

Both concepts are explored in more detail in The Emmaus View pages on this site.

Matt 5:17-18 in detail.