I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. (Matthew 5:18)
In the previous article, I passed fairly quickly over vv 17-20. I said it does not contradict the idea that the whole of the Law of Moses has no authority on the believer. The key thought addressed there was the common splitting of the Law into parts – some fulfilled and not binding, some “fulfilled” but still binding – something this section and the rest of Scripture does not allow. This verse, however, says the whole law has permanence.
As I said before, the flow of thought in the section is somewhat easy to trace. Jesus makes a two-part statement in v17, I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them., followed by two explanations (for in vv 18&20) corresponding to the two parts of Jesus’ statement and one of the explanations has an inference (then or therefore depending on your translation in v 19). Verse 18 is the first explanation, explaining why Jesus has not come to abolish the Law.
It is important to notice that Jesus mentions “heaven and earth” because there is a reason for it. When Moses is presenting the Law to Israel, he says I invoke heaven and earth as witnesses against you today (Deuteronomy 4:26) Later, he says again Today I invoke heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set life and death, blessing and curse, before you. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live! (Deuteronomy 30:19). When God made his covenant with Israel, heaven and earth were called as witnesses to it. Later, when God sent Isaiah to indict Israel for their rebellion against the Covenant, the prophecy starts with calling the heavens and earth – witnesses to the Covenant – as witnesses to the indictment. Listen, O heavens, pay attention, O earth! For the LORD speaks: “I raised children, I brought them up, but they have rebelled against me! (Isaiah 1:2)
So, when Jesus refers to the heavens and the earth, the point is not that they will last a long time, but they are the witnesses to God’s Covenant with Israel – The Law of Moses. Jesus cannot and will not abolish that covenant which will last until the witnesses pass away, or the covenant is fulfilled.
This verse, instead of showing any transference of the Law or just the moral part of the Law from Israel to the Church, speaks of the continuing permanence of God’s Covenant with Israel.
Let’s now look at the inference Jesus draws from this first clarification. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19) It is to be observed that whether one relaxes the Law or does it, they are in The Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, they possess the righteousness “greater than the Scribes or the Pharisees”. Yet, they annul the Law.
As mentioned previously, the Scriptures reveal a righteousness apart from the Law. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4). Later, Paul warns that this apartness from the Law might cause some to be arrogant against Israel and her Covenant (Romans 11:17,18). He had already addressed, with shock, that some may call the Law sin (Romans 7:7). Rather, he said, it is we who are so sinful as to take what is holy and just and good as an incentive to sin. The Law locks people up in sin and reveals the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21,22).
Another purpose of the Law is to set apart Israel as God’s covenant people. People were to look at Israel and see the wisdom of her governance and confess that the True and Living God is with them.
In summary, of the approaches to the Law it is the one who splits the Law, which the Scriptures do not split but treat as a whole, who “relaxes the commandments” and not the one who sees the unrelaxed Law as wholly fulfilled in Christ for righteousness for those who believe. Of the approaches to the Covenants, it is the one who sees that the Covenant with Israel is permanent until all promised to Israel is fulfilled to Israel is the one who has not “relaxed” the Law like the one who teaches that Israel “lost” the Covenant and it has been given spiritually to the Church.