In the previous article, I demonstrated why it is not faithful to the text to argue that Matthew 5:17 is incompatible with any kind of end or finishing to the Law of Moses. Rather, it teaches a fulfillment of all of the Scriptures, including the Law. And just as the fulfillment of the other prophetic Scriptures resulted in a change to the way we relate to those Scriptures (looking back at promises kept instead of looking forward to fulfillment), so the fulfillment of the Law results in a change in our relationship to the Law.
In this article, I will be focusing on verse 18. This verse really functions as a lynchpin to this passage, by giving us language that is focused on when the Law will pass away. As we will see, while it is another favorite verse of those promoting Torah observance, it presents a dilemma that doesn’t allow someone to believe what Scripture clearly says about the work of Christ while also saying we have to observe the Torah. Let’s look at the verse again:
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.
First, let us remember that this verse comes on the heels of verse 17, in which Jesus refers to the entire Scriptures by combining the terms “Law” and “Prophets”. In verse 18, notice that now Jesus just refers to “the Law”, without including “the Prophets”. There are two possibilities for why this is. Either Jesus really is focusing His attention now on something smaller than all Scripture, either the Pentateuch or the actual commandments and instructions, or He is just now using the further shorthand way of speaking of all the Scriptures, calling them all “the Law”. While the latter is certainly possible and would have been a normal way to communicate, I believe the more likely case is that Jesus is beginning to shift the focus more on the commandments, as this is what he speaks of in verse 19 specifically, and then, after this short passage on the Law generally, the next section of the sermon is a discourse on the Law and His specific teachings on specific commandments and traditions.
If that is where Jesus is going with his comments here in His statement in verse 18, then what exactly is He saying?
How the Hebrew Roots Movement Handles Verse 18
Now, let’s look at the way we are told to take it from those who promote Torah observance. What I will do here is assume the Torah observer is correct in his interpretation of the verse, to show how it makes him contradict either himself or other Scriptures.
Starting with the core statement in the verse, that not the smallest letter or stroke will pass from the law, the “jots and tittles” statement, how is this understood? The argument is, of course, that “the law” here refers specifically to the commands or instructions of the Torah. To “pass” from the law means for an instruction to no longer be binding upon the believer. In other words, in the central statement, Jesus is denying that any of the instructions of the Torah will become non-binding.
This statement is sandwiched between two “until” statements. Before it, Jesus says “Until heaven and earth pass away”, and after, “until all is accomplished”. Commonly, these two phrases are said to refer to the same timeframe. Heaven and earth will pass away in the future, when Jesus returns and there is a new heaven and new earth, and at that time, all will have been accomplished. Since that hasn’t happened yet, it is argued, we are still under obligation to keep the whole Law.
One discussion within the Hebrew Roots movement that is very important here is the discussion of sacrifices. A very large number of the laws found in the Mosaic Covenant are concerned with various sacrifices that were commanded to be obeyed in the Tabernacle, which then were kept in the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, these laws couldn’t be kept if the Jews wanted to. The Temple has been destroyed. There is no appropriate place to offer these sacrifices. The Law is clear that they cannot just be offered anywhere. Also, they must be offered by means of the Levitical priesthood, which is also gone, with the loss of the genealogical information that was housed in the Temple and destroyed along with it.
However, the mere impossibility of performing sacrifices isn’t one of the insurmountable challenges. Most Hebrew Roots apologists would point to the fact that there have been times when Israel was in exile and couldn’t offer sacrifices before, and God understood that. This argument, however, belies one of horns of a dilemma that the Hebrew Roots apologist is caught on.
The question, really, is whether or not the sacrifices should still be offered today, after Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice was completed in His death on the Cross. This is a simple yes-or-no question that, unfortunately for the Hebrew Roots apologist, has no good answer. First, let’s consider if he says “no”.
Let us remember that the only way the Hebrew Roots position can interpret “pass from the Law” is to insist that it refers to passing from binding to non-binding command. If any of the sacrifices are no longer necessary due to the sacrifice of Christ, even if it’s just one small kind of sacrifice, then at least one letter has become non-binding, and thus has passed from the Law. If that is the case, then we are forced to take the phrase “until all is accomplished” to be fulfilled, and therefore most likely not speaking of the same time as “until heaven and earth pass away”. In other words, if the sacrifices are truly unnecessary now because of Christ, then the entire argument the Hebrew Roots apologist makes from Matthew 5:18 collapses into dust.
Well, if that’s the case, then what about if the apologist answers “yes” to the question of the sacrifice command still being binding? This is where our earlier apologist talking about God understanding we can’t sacrifice comes back. This is the position that we just can’t do sacrifices now, but we would if the Temple were rebuilt, and many believe this will take place someday.
What’s wrong with this position? Basically, it contradicts long, carefully argued sections of the book of Hebrews. Attempts are made by Torah observance promoters to get around a few of the verses in Hebrews, but the sheer weight of the argument is insurmountable. An exegesis of all the relevant sections is beyond the scope of this article, but consider the following points, along with the passage that states it.
- Jesus is greater than Moses as the builder of the house is greater than the house (Heb. 3:1-3)
- Jesus’ priesthood is better because He holds it forever (Heb. 6:19)
- Jesus is able to save forever because He holds His priesthood forever (Heb 7:24-25)
- Perfection cannot come through the Levitical Priesthood, which is why Jesus’ Priesthood was needed (Heb. 7:11)
- A change in the priesthood necessitates a change in the law (Heb 7:12)
- Because the Law makes nothing perfect, it is weak and useless, and there is a setting aside of the former commandment (Heb. 7:18-19)
- With this setting aside is a bringing in of a better hope, Jesus, the guarantee of a better covenant, built on an oath by God, not keeping commandments (7:19-22)
- Jesus does not need to offer repeated sacrifices like the weak priests (Heb. 7:28), because He offered Himself, once for all (Heb. 7:27)
- The priests serve a temple that is a copy and a shadow of the real tabernacle (8:4-5)
- Jesus, our High Priest entered the true tabernacle, made by God, not by man (Heb. 8:2)
- Jesus is the mediater of a better covenant, enacted on better promises (Heb.8:6)
- This covenant is needed because the first was not without fault (Heb. 8:7)
- It is finding fault with the first covenant that Jeremiah prophesied a New (Heb. 8:8)
- The new covenant will not be like the old (Heb. 8:8-9)
- The way it will be different is because God will write His law on our hearts and minds, so that all believers will know Him and be forgiven and do not need to be taught to know Him (Heb. 8:10-12)
- Now the old covenant has become obsolete and is ready to disappear (Heb. 8:13)
- The work of the temple is now past-tense (Heb. 9:1-5)
- The gifts and sacrifices (thus including all types of sacrifices), since they only relate to food and washings and the physical body, cannot make people perfect, until the time of reformation, when Jesus entered the true tabernacle (Heb 9:9-11)
- Jesus blood, once for all, cleanses, obtains redemption from dead works, and clears the conscience to serve the living God (Heb. 9:11-14)
- The Law is only a shadow of the good things to come, not the things themselves (Heb. 10:1)
- If the sacrifices could cleanse, they would have ceased, but since they cannot, they were a reminder of sin (Heb. 10:4)
- Sacrifice and offering were not desired by God (Heb. 10:5,8)
- Whereas the priests have been “standing”, repeatedly making offerings, Jesus “sat down” at the right hand of God, the work of sacrifice complete (Heb. 10:11-13)
- By just this one sacrifice, Jesus has perfected forever those who are being set apart (Heb. 10:14)
- Where there is forgiveness, there is no longer any offering for sin (Heb. 10:18)
From chapter 6 through chapter 10, the author of Hebrews makes an argument, repeating himself several times in various ways, in order to make it crystal clear that the New Covenant has completely supplanted the Old. This can be seen in the onslaught of statements that we see above, but also from the fact that, when you go on to read the rest of Hebrews, which is not shy at all about calling believers to live lives of righteousness and submission to God, there is no statement about a continuation of the Old Covenant Law or the sacrifices of that covenant. Despite the fact that, as it is apparent this book was written before the destruction of the temple, unbelieving Jewish priests continue to offer the sacrifices, the book is clear as a bell that these are copies, shadows, symbols that point us to something better in the New Covenant and are no longer to be a part of the live of the believer in Christ.
This is why there are very many in the Hebrew Roots movement who are very clear in their belief that we will never go back to animal sacrifices. They are truly done away with, as we see in this massive, immovable passage of Hebrews.
And so we come back to the dilemma of Matthew 5:18. Jesus was clear. Not one jot or tittle, not the smallest stroke of a pen, will pass from the Law until “all is accomplished”. The one who wants to believe that Christians are still under the Old Covenant Law has a choice to make. This a dilemma with two horns
- Believe that the sacrifices have ceased, as it says in Hebrews, but then have to give up “full” Torah observance, and give up on using Matthew 5:18 as a verse about having to keep the whole law.
- Believe that the sacrifices have not ceased, but are only on a pause because of the absence of the temple, so as to attempt to preserve “full” Torah observance, but be at odds with an enormous portion of the book of Hebrews.
Option one is really functionally equivalent to non-Torah observance. Those who go on to try to impose Torah observance while acknowledging an end to sacrifice are really just being inconsistent. There is no consistent principle on which to base a partial end to the Old Covenant Law. Option two is the “consistent” option that isn’t really consistent, because it defies so much of Scripture.
And this is why this problem can be truly devastating. The thing about inconsistencies of thought is that they tend toward resolving themselves. The problem is, if Torah observance is the most foundational thing, then what you see is people moving toward more and more law, to the point where they may have thought the sacrificial system was ended, but then begin to think it is still valid, contrary to Hebrews, and the end of that road is denying the inspiration of Paul, then the New Testament, then denying Christ and going into Judaism.
Of course this doesn’t happen to everyone, but when you can’t reconcile what you believe with the New Testament, something has to give. It is at that point where your true allegiance is revealed. Will you trust in Christ, the one who is supreme over the whole universe, over the angels, over the law? Or will you go back to trusting in what could never perfect anyone?