Jot and Tittle

Q – Could you please explain Matthew 5:17-18 concerning one jot or one tittle and the Law of Moses? Also the new covenant and how they work together in a Christian’s life, now and during the millennium.

Jim – Well, that’s a big question! So, I warn you in advance that this may be a bit long, but since you asked….

Matthew 5:17-18 has long been considered one of the tougher verses to deal with in the New Testament. But, in reality it’s quite plain. You just have to look closely at the context, the historic doctrinal development, and the words that are actually written on the page.

So, let’s start at the start. Here’s the passage in question:

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. 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.” (Matt. 5:17-18)

The difficulties with this passage are usually based on what people think it says. Then, new theologies or old heresies emerge, with these verses as “proof texts.” They are used to justify imposing facets of the Law of Moses on the Christian Church. For instance, this passage is used to justify Sabbath-keeping. Others use it justify tithing. Some use it to say that the Ten Commandments are still in force, judging and condemning the conscience of individual believers.

The sermon usually goes like this: “Jesus said that not one jot or one tittle of the law will pass away until everything is fulfilled at the end of time. Therefore, every Christian is responsible before God to keep His law until Heaven and Earth pass away!” And, with that as their basis, they start picking out the portions of the law they choose to impose on their congregations. In most instances, however, those who misuse these verses fail to follow through the implications of their pronouncements.

The New Testament tells us that attempting to seek justification before God by keeping any part of the law automatically makes us responsible to keep the entire law (Gal. 5:3, 3:10, James 2:10). You cannot pick and choose. You will either stand before God and be judged by the law, or you will be established in the righteousness that comes by faith (Rom. 3:22, Gal. 5:5). But, you cannot mix and match.

In other words, if you want God to accept you on the basis of your actions – like tithing, Sabbath-keeping, etc. – then you had also better be killing animals every time you sin. That’s the law. And, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

That being the case, if Mat. 5:17-18 is indeed teaching that the Law is perpetually binding on the conscience of the Christian believer, we have a huge theological contradiction between Jesus and the New Testament authors.

So, let’s look closely at this passage and see if we can dispel the misuse and come to a clearer understanding of Jesus’ intention.

The Historic Frame

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day – the Pharisees and Sadducees, the advocates of the law – often accused Him of being a law-breaker. They attempted to pit Him against Moses, the great figurehead of Judaism. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, they openly condemned him. After all, the Sabbath was the unique sign and token of the covenant God made at Sinai.

Jesus and His disciples were also known to eat without going through ritual cleansings (Mark 7:5). That put Him at odds with the Jerusalem leaders and made Him look antinomian, or “lawless.”

So, on this occasion, Jesus explained His position. He declared that He had not come to destroy “the law and the prophets.”

The Law and the Prophets

We have to look closer at the phrase “the law and the prophets.” That’s the first place where misreading occurs. All too frequently, people truncate Jesus’ words to say merely “the law.” They read that verse this way: “Think not that I have come to destroy the law – period.”

But, that’s not what Jesus said. He used a very specific Hebraism – “the law and the prophets.” As a matter of fact, Jesus never mentioned Moses, the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath, or any particular facet of the law in this context. He said, “the law and the prophets,” a familiar phrase that indicated the whole Hebrew Scripture – what we call the Old Testament.

For instance, notice Jesus’ use of that phrase elsewhere in this same gospel:

“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.” (Matt. 7:12)

“Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:35-40)

It’s clear that Jesus used this phrase “the law and the prophets” as a generic term that encompassed the entire Hebrew scripture to that point. Just as we use the familiar term “The Old Testament,” First Century Jews used the phrase “the law and the prophets.” The Apostle Paul used this phrase the same way:

“But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets.” Acts 24:14

“And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening.” Acts 28:23

“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets.” (Rom 3:20-21)

So, in Matthew 5:17, Jesus began by saying that He had not come to destroy what was written in Hebrew Scripture. That’s a vital distinction. Jesus did not refer merely to “the law,” as is so commonly believed, but to the whole Old Testament – those books that made up “the law and the prophets.” That is what He had not come to destroy, but rather to fulfill.

For clarity, the contrast here is between:

1) The accusation that Jesus was an enemy of the ancient religion who would seek to pull it down and destroy it. And,
2) The revelation that Jesus was the fulfillment of those Scripture, the substance to the shadow they cast (Col. 2:17, Heb. 10:1).

Jesus did not cite any particular portion of Moses’ Law or any single commandment – like keeping the Sabbath or tithing or animal sacrifice. He simply stated that He was not seeking to overturn or undermine the Hebrew Scripture; He was there to fulfill it.

Elsewhere, speaking to these selfsame Jewish leaders, Jesus said:

“Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” (John 5:39)

The only Scriptures in existence when Jesus spoke those words were the Hebrew “Old Testament” books – “the law and the prophets.” And, Christ stated categorically that they all spoke of Him. He is the fulfillment.

One Jot or One Tittle

Next, let’s look at verse 18. Jesus went on to say, “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.”

Again, it’s common to hear this phrase misread as though Christ was advocating continual obedience to every minor detail of the Law of Moses. But, we must read it in context, inseparably attached to verse 17. Jesus was responding to the apparent assumption that He was opposed to the law and the prophets. But, He stated emphatically that he did not intend to destroy them, He intended to fulfill them. Then, He decreed the lasting nature of the Law. Far from destroying it, Jesus proclaimed that the smallest letter and tiniest pen-stroke would continue …


Now, that word “until” implies an end-point. There is a terminus, a place where the law will be dismantled. The tiniest portions of the Law will remain intact – until something else takes place.

“Until what?” you ask?

Until it has all been fulfilled.

Now, that’s really interesting. Jesus just declared that He was going to fulfill “the law and the prophets.” Then, He said that the Law would remain intact, to the tiniest detail, until all of it had been fulfilled, or accomplished. So, logic would tell us that at whatever point Jesus fully accomplishes His work of fulfillment, the law will lose its standing.

The Fulfillment

Then, the question before us is: Do we find that fulfillment in the New Testament? And, if that fulfilled has occurred, is the Law of Moses still in force within the Christian Church?

The short answer is: Yes.

The long answer is: We find multiple declarations in the New Testament that the Law of Moses is both fulfilled and “taken out of the way.” In fact, we have so much information to that effect that we can only list a sampling here. But, it’s a more-than-sufficient sampling. My point is simply to prove that Jesus indeed fulfilled the Law in His death and resurrection, and that the Old Covenant, struck between Israel and God at Mt. Sinai, has been fulfilled. It is no longer binding on the conscience of the Christian believer. Rather, we are under the New Covenant of salvation by grace through faith.

For instance:

“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” (Rom. 10:4)

That’s quite plain, isn’t it? In the matter of righteousness – our standing before God – Christ is the “end of the law.” Faith in Christ takes us out from under those ordinances and establishes us eternally by His utterly sufficient sacrifice.

“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets.” (Rom 3:20-21)

The deeds of the Law cannot justify anyone. No flesh will stand before God and successfully plead their personal works of righteousness (which Isaiah 64:6 tells us are “filthy rags”). Now – under the New Covenant – we witness the manifestation of God’s righteousness without the law. And, the writers of Old Testament scripture – the law and the prophets – are witness to this same revelation.

The unavoidable implication of those verses is that Christ did indeed fulfill “the law and the prophets,” and they are witness to the “putting-aside” of the Law and the supremacy of Christ’s atoning work.

So, what can we conclude from those facts?

“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Rom. 3:28)

If this is true – if indeed and in fact a man can be justified “without the deeds of the law,” – then the law is of no continuing value. It is not the vehicle through which men and women may achieve standing with God. Faith in Christ’s finished work has accomplished what the Law simply could not. So, it is fulfilled in Christ and taken out of the way.

“And you [Gentiles], being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he [God] quickened together with him [Christ], having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” (Col 2:13-14)

That’s quite didactic. Paul incorporated the euphemism “the handwriting of ordinances” to describe the Law of Moses. But, he concluded that it was “against us” and “contrary to us.” It was not added in order to establish anyone’s righteous standing. It was added because of Israel’s sinfulness, in order to make sin all the more obvious (Gal. 3:19, Rom. 5:20, 7:13).

So, what did Christ do with those ordinances? When He took our sins upon Himself and bore the punishment we deserved, He also removed the Law that stood to condemn us. He “nailed it to his cross.” And, in so doing, He “took it out of the way.”

Christ fulfilled the purpose of the law and abolished it when He died under its curse and rose to newness of life never to die again.

“Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” (Gal. 3:13)

Once again, Paul’s language is exceedingly clear. Christ “redeemed us” from the curse that the law demanded – judgment, penalty and death.

We are not merely redeemed from our sins; we are not merely forgiven for our trespasses; our rebellion and faithlessness was not merely covered; we were also redeemed from the very Law that stood to judge us and condemn us to death.

That’s how complete the atoning work of Christ is. It removed both the law and its consequences.

So then, are Christians under the law? No.

“For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14)

To make this point abundantly clear, Paul used the analogy of a husband and wife.

“Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man. Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God.” (Rom 7:1-4)

Here Paul spoke specifically to those who were once under the Law, Israelites who “know the law.” But, once they came to faith in Christ, the law that once wielded authority over them was “dead.” Therefore, the believer is betrothed to a new husband by faith. And, they are counted as the “bride of Christ” – the Church.

Paul stated these principles over and over. We cannot be justified by works of the Law. Only faith results in genuine righteousness.

“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (Gal 2:16)

“But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.” (Gal 5:18)

Paul went so far as to say that the Law stood like a partition between Israel and the Gentile nations. So long as Israel had the distinctive of the Law of Moses as a means to approach God, the Gentile nations were outside the covenant and without hope. But, Christ “abolished” that law and broke down the “wall of partition,” making both Jew and Gentile one body.

“But now in Christ Jesus ye [Gentiles] who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.” (Eph. 2:13-17)

Did you catch that? Abolishing the Law of Moses was an absolute necessity in order to usher in the Church. As long as it stood, it was a wall between Israel and the Gentiles. But, once those ordinances – “even the law of commandments” – were abolished, the New Covenant was established and salvation became possible for all nations.

The chief problem with the Law was that it was weak. It could not save. It could only stand to condemn those who had failed to achieve righteousness thereby. So, the commandment was annulled.

“For he [God] testifieth, Thou [Christ] art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec. For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof. For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God.” (Heb. 7:17-19)

When God established a new priesthood outside of the priesthood of Aaron, with Christ as its only High Priest, it was obvious that God had annulled the first covenant – “the commandment going before.” It was weak and unprofitable. It made nothing perfect. But, the bringing in of a “better hope” did accomplish perfection and salvation. So, the first covenant was of no further use.

This is vital. The Old and New Covenant were not co-joined. They do not co-exist. The Law of Moses was not inculcated into the New Covenant. The New Covenant is distinctly new and qualitatively better. The Law only contained shadows of “the good things to come, and not the very image of the things.” (Heb. 10:1)

And, the Old is vanishing away completely.

“In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.” (Heb 8:13)

The Death of the Testator

This barely scratches the surface of New Testament theology concerning the conflict between the Old and New Covenants. But, the preceding verses clearly and obviously state that the New Covenant has utterly replaced the Old and that the Law is incapable of saving anyone, therefore a new covenant was established in its place.

“So,” you may well ask, “when did all this happen?”

At Calvary.

When Jesus ate with His apostles at the Lord’s Supper, the last observance of the Passover prior to His passion, He passed His cup of wine and told them that it represented His blood “of the New Testament” (Mat. 26:28). Then, the writer of Hebrews established that event.

“And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth.” (Heb. 9:15-17)

At that point (the inception of the New Covenant), the Old Covenant (the ordinances, the commandments, the Law) went into the grave with Him. He rose, but the old husband remained dead. The Law was put away in favor of the New Covenant of salvation by grace, “without the works of the law.”

And, “law and the prophets” were witness to it.

The Lesson of the Mount of Transfiguration

In fact, prior to His death, this principle was dramatically displayed on the Mount of Transfiguration. Moses (the figurehead of the Law) and Elijah (the figurehead of Israel’s prophets) appeared with Jesus as He was shrouded in glory and His face shone like the sun. Peter mistakenly understood the vision to mean that Jesus was on equal par with Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets. In his haste, Peter suggested building three tabernacles, one for each. But, a bright cloud overshadowed them and the voice from Heaven declared to Peter, John and James, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” The apostles fell on their faces and when Jesus lifted their heads, He alone was standing.

In other words, the law and the prophets came before Jesus. The law and the prophets testified of Jesus. But, once Jesus arrived on the stage of history, the progressive revelation of God gave Him authority over all that came before Him.

“Hear ye Him.”

Every detail of everything spoken in the law and prophets would remain until Jesus fulfilled them all.

Looking Ahead

Now, from an eschatological viewpoint, this is even more interesting. There are plenty of Old Testament promises concerning Israel, her eventual kingdom, the restoration of the throne of David and the return of Christ to rule and reign, that have not yet come to fruition. But, according to Jesus, they are intact and awaiting their eventual fulfillment. Neither one jot nor tittle of the least of these promises will pass away until they are brought to their ordained completion.

Many passages of Old Testament Scripture were indeed fulfilled in the ministry and passion of Christ. Those promises, now fulfilled, seek no fuller completion. But, the fact that some of those promises are now complete does not in any way negate the ones that await their day of fulfillment.

So, In Summary

In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus declared that the whole of Scripture was written in anticipation of His arrival. He did not come to destroy those books or undermine the ancient religion. Rather, He was the substance that they all pointed to. And, far from being an enemy of the Law of Moses, He said that the Law would remain unchanged and intact until it was fulfilled.

And then He fulfilled it.

Other portions of Scripture concerning Christ and His kingdom have yet to be fulfilled. But, that does not negate them. They stand just as sure – every jot and tittle – as the minutiae of His first coming. Just as He fulfilled them to the detail, He will fulfill every word concerning Himself with equal accuracy and authority.


I hope that helps. Thanks for the intriguing and inspiring question.

Yours for His sake,

Jim Mc.