Friday, May 25, 2012
NOT ONE JOT OR TITTLE?
Jesus says, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)
At the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins by establishing that he has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. In the King James version of this same verse the phrase “one jot or one tittle” shall pass from the Law.
But, what did Jesus mean to communicate in this sentence? Did he mean, as some suggest, that the Old Covenant Law should be observed until the return of Christ? Or did Jesus intend to say something different?
We must first look at the context in which Jesus spoke these words. At the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is speaking primarily to his disciples about the Kingdom of God that he has come to inaugurate. His Beatitudes establish a new set of values that stand in stark contrast to the values of this World. He lays out a set of expectations for his followers to go above and beyond the Old Covenant laws to embody a more radical expression of God’s love to the World.
So, when Jesus pauses at the beginning of his Sermon to say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”(v. 17), he is preparing them to hear what is about to come next. Namely statements that appear to contradict the Old Covenant Laws but in fact take them to another level. Statements like:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (v.21-22)
Additionally, we have to take into account the qualifier that Jesus adds at the end of his “jot and tittle” statement when he says “until everything is accomplished.”
Let’s first ask ourselves, “Has anything from the Old Covenant Law ceased or passed away?”
The answer, of course, is “Yes.” We don’t observe animal sacrifice any more. We don’t observe the Sabbath anymore. We don’t support a Levitical priesthood with our tithes any longer. We don’t keep Jewish festivals or feasts or observe holy days any longer. We don’t insist on circumcising male children on the 8th day. These are parts of the Law that have since passed away.
So, what’s up? Is Jesus wrong? Or maybe the Law and the Prophets have been fulfilled? Let’s see what Paul says about this:
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)
The shadows were summed up in the Old Covenant dietary commands to avoid pork and shell fish, and to observe religious festivals, including the Sabbath day. But these all pointed us to the Messiah – the reality – who has already now come. Because he has come and because Jesus has fulfilled these shadows of the Old Covenant they are now obsolete and we are under a New Covenant. As it says it Hebrews:
“By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Hebrews 8:13)
“But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.” (Hebrews 8:6-7)
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.” (Hebrews 10:1)
So, while Jesus does affirm to his disciples that the Old Covenant Law and the word of the Prophets will not pass away, he clarifies that they will stand until they are fulfilled. Jesus fulfilled them. Now they are passing away.
This means we are no longer under the Old Covenant. I know that for some of you this isn’t big news. But for many, many people this is a very strange concept. I’m constantly running into people (mostly online) who continue to return to the Old Covenant scriptures to make a point about how a Christian should behave, or to quote Old Testament prophets to settle an argument about how we should interpret Jesus. This is bass-ackwards (as my father would say). We should never interpret Jesus or Paul or any of the New Covenant scriptures through the lens of the Old. Instead, we should always take the words of Jesus as authoritative and interpret the Old Covenant in light of the new revelation we have received through Christ.
To do any less is to put ourselves back into bondage to the Law. As Paul says, this is foolish:
“Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” (Colossians 2:18-19)
“These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2:22-23)
Now that Jesus has come and now that he has fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets we are truly set free. God has written His laws upon our hearts. He has called us to be His people and for us to call Him our “Abba”.
We are no longer bound by those Old Covenant regulations and laws. We are children of God. We are co-heirs with Christ. We are Ambassadors of the Kingdom of God.