Do the “Jots and Tittles” Matter?

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This blog post is my response to some thoughts my dad shared:

“Okay so here is a jump into the law/no law debate….there seems to me to be two threads running in the Old Covenant scriptures…one thread is the redemption thread….ie animal sacrifice etc…and the civil thread….ie common law for Israel which includes the ten commandments. It would seem to me that the first thread is tied off on Calvary while the second thread is ongoing, especially if you are Jewish. The Jerusalem Council statement in Acts that frees Gentiles from the second thread, allows a volitional obedience to the civil law by Gentiles…thus Jesus’ words about not one jot or tittle of the law passing away until all is fulfilled come into play…lots to discuss here…have fun”

There are a thousand different angles I could take in my response to these ideas, but I’ll do my best to keep it simple. Of course, I think that when Paul says we are free from the law of sin and death, he means what he says. Paul does not draw a distinction between ceremonial law or civil law, so why should we?

Over and over again throughout Paul’s letters—especially in Romans—Paul makes it abundantly clear that by his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ freed us from the law, and we are no longer bound by its statutes, whether they be civil or ceremonial. I compiled a list of some of these key passages here, so I won’t delve any further into Paul’s treatment of this debate.

Another point raised is that in the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15, the early Christians established that Gentiles were obligated to follow only certain parts of the law that they deemed essential: abstaining from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, eating the meat of strangled animals, and drinking blood.

This does not correspond with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 whatsoever—four laws out of hundreds hardly qualifies as “every jot and tittle”! So why these laws? I am no expert on the Torah or first century Judaism, but I would wager a guess that these laws were especially important to James and the other members of the Jerusalem Council, and that violating them would have been deemed particularly offensive to the Jews.

So I don’t think this was about obedience to the Law at all, but rather a matter of James mirroring what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 about becoming “all things to all people” for the sake of the Gospel. I think James is asking the Gentiles to become as Jews, and honor the Law not for the sake of the Law, but because honoring it is a sign of respect for the Jews and their way of life.

This would explain why Paul seems to completely reject the decision that the Jerusalem Council established about the law of circumcision being binding on Gentiles—a decision that he even supplemented with eye witness testimony of Gentile converts! Just one chapter later, Paul circumcises Timothy:

 “Paul went first to Derbe and then to Lystra, where there was a young disciple named Timothy. His mother was a Jewish believer, but his father was a Greek. Timothy was well thought of by the believers[a] in Lystra and Iconium, so Paul wanted him to join them on their journey. In deference to the Jews of the area, he arranged for Timothy to be circumcised before they left, for everyone knew that his father was a Greek.” (Acts 16:1-3)

Therefore, the Jerusalem Council was not about rejecting the law of circumcision. If that were so, Paul would not have circumcised Timothy. The text says that he did so “in deference to the Jews  of the area” in order to preserve the peace and unity of the body of Christ. Sometimes, people aren’t ready for the radical, life-giving freedom that Jesus gifted us with, and honoring the Law even when it has no intrinsic value is the best way we can emulate the life Jesus has called us to live.

Speaking of Jesus, the last point my dad brought up was to pull a quote from Matthew 5 as justification for the “civil law” being binding on believers today. Jesus says:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19, NRSV)

I have a couple thoughts on this passage. The first is that there must be more to this passage than the surface level reading. After all, our righteousness is not measured by our diligence to the letter of the Law. If that were the case, Jesus would have praised the Pharisees instead of chastising them. Over and over again, in his parables and teachings, Jesus rejects strict adherence to the letter of the Law in favor of a more compassionate approach to obeying God that requires a faithful heart and not just faithful actions.

So I did a little poking around online, and I came across an informative article that breaks down the passage in question and addresses the meaning of each verse. With regard to verses 19-20, this article states that most Christians interpret these verses one way:

 “Many understand Jesus was contrasting the “old” and “new”, i.e., comparing the “Law of Moses” with the “Law of Christ”, which would govern His kingdom. This in essence has Jesus teaching that the “Old Law” only condemned the outward actions but that the “New Law” introduced by Jesus condemned the inner conditions which lead to the outer actions.”

That makes sense to me. But then, this writer continued to offer another alternative that I found to be even more compelling:

“However, I understand the contrast to be different. It was a contrast between the “traditional interpretation and application” of the Law [and] the “righteousness of the kingdom” Jesus would require of His disciples. In fact, Jesus demonstrated that the righteousness of the kingdom was not only contrary to the manner many had interpreted and applied the Law but was in harmony with the original spirit of the Law as given to Moses and the Israelites.”

This makes so much more sense, and dovetails perfectly with Paul’s radical statements about how New Covenant believers are free from the Law. Particularly, in Philippians 3:8-9, Paul’s words reflect the above interpretation of Matthew 5:19-20 perfectly.  Jesus came to complete and fulfill the old covenant, in which the veil is intact and obedience to the letter of the Law is equated with righteousness, with the new covenant, in which the spirit of the Law dictates how we apply it to our lives—i.e., the Golden Rule is our standard.

This is why Jesus would say he desires mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13), and why men were stoned for carrying sticks on the Sabbath under the Old Covenant (Numbers 15:32-36), yet Jesus defended his disciples for picking grain under the New Covenant (Mark 2:23-28). Jesus brought a new way of living in relation to God. It is not a relationship which allows believers to ignore the Law entirely, but rather to view it with a spirit that is covered in a blanket of grace, in which the Father’s love for us drives us to righteousness. We are not concerned with legalism, or even the jots and the tittles, but as we more deeply understand the nature of the Creator of the Law, and as we walk daily in the love of the Father, something tells me the jots and the tittles fall into place anyway.


Posted on March 26, 2014, in Doctrine, Law, Righteousness. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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