The Hard Sayings: Of Jots and Tittles

Hard Sayings of Jesus  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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The Law of God is uncompromising and eternal, and men are utterly incapable fulfilling it which dooms us to judgment. Jesus, however, perfectly fulfilled it and by our faith in him God imputes his righteousness to us.

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Text: Matthew 5:17-21
Theme: The Law of God is uncompromising and eternal, and men are utterly incapable fulfilling it which dooms us to judgment. Jesus, however, perfectly fulfilled it and by our faith in him God imputes his righteousness to us.
““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. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17–20, ESV)
The passage is “hard” because other places in the Bible seem to contradict what Jesus here says. The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Church at Rome, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4, ESV). If Christ is the end of the law how can Jesus say that until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot (jot and tittle in the KJV) shall pass away? It’s not just verses 18 that’s “hard” — it’s the entire passage.
1st, the Pharisees where convinced that Jesus was doing exactly what he claims should not be done, i.e. relaxing the commandments.
2nd, the Pharisees where convinced that they were doing exactly what Jesus claims should be done, i.e. those who teach the commandments will be called great in the kingdom.
3rd, The scribes and Pharisees were, in the eyes of the common people, paragons of moral and ethical virtue. How in the world can anyone exceed their righteousness?
These are the issue with the text before us.
The text teaches us that the Bible can be absolutely trusted
The text teaches us that the Bible is all about Jesus
The text teaches us that the Bible calls us to a changed life


“For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt. 5:18, ESV)
1. Jesus was regularly criticized by the scribes and Pharisees for not keeping the Law of Moses
a. they accused him of breaking Sabbath-day laws on multiple occasions
1) they had created an elaborate hedge around the Law in an attempt to keep people from getting too close to the Law, and thus breaking it
ILLUS. An illustration from our day would be a prohibition against the use of alcoholic beverages. Not only should a “good Baptist” not use “adult beverages” but a good Baptist would not even darken the door of a place that served such beverages. It’s not just sinful to drink alcoholic beverages, but it’s sinful to patronize a place that does because you might be tempted. This was the logic of the Pharisees. They called building a hedge around the Law.
b. so in their eyes Jesus was a Sabbath breaker ... he was a “sinner” because he ate with tax collectors ... he and the disciples didn’t follow the Pharisee’s hand-washing rituals ... and they regularly accused him of blaspheme
2. on the other hand, Jesus regularly criticized the scribes and Pharisees for laying a heavy burden on the people through their very strict application of the Law
““The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:2–4, ESV)
a. what Jesus criticized was their interpretation of the Law
1) it was the Pharisees’ hedge of protection that they had erected around the Law that Jesus was critical of
2) it was the heavy burden the Pharisees insisted the people carry


1. that will can be explained in one word — holiness
a. that holiness has two aspects to it
1) 1st, God’s people are to be set apart from the world — in it, but not of it — this is the negative aspect of holiness
a) as we all know, to live set apart from one’s culture is always easier said then done
b) weather it is the Egyptian culture’s influence on the Hebrews, or the American culture’s influence on the Christian, immunity from a culture’s world view is difficult live out
2) 2nd, God’s people are to live righteously — living in a way that honors God — this is the positive aspect of holiness
a) we are to be wholly devoted to Him
b. this is not only an Old Testament truth, but a New Testament truth
“even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love” (Ephesians 1:4, ESV)
2. our holiness was never meant to be a matter-of-fact legalism, but that is exactly what happened in Jewish culture, and it can happen to believers if we are not constantly on guard against it
a. God’s will for humanity — a perfect holiness — is eternal and unchangeable
1) Jesus did not come to modify it, but to fulfill it
b. he set the standard for obedience to it — to the point that he was without sin — never having broken the Law in fact or in spirit
3. the question is this: Is Jesus telling his disciples that the Law is still in force?
a. yes, that is exactly what he is say ... it is still in force, and not the least part of it will pass from the Law until all is accomplished
b. that’s the key and we will get there in later


1. Jesus tells his listeners that not an iota or a dot will disappear from the Law and the Prophets
a. it’s his way of referring to the entirety of the Jewish Scriptures
1) we call it the Old Testament, and the Jews call it the Tanakh
2. Jesus uses two terms that gives us some insight into his theology of the Scriptures
a. most modern translations say, not an iota or a dot will pass from the Law
1) the KJV says jot or tittle
2) what is Jesus talking about?
b. the jot is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet
1) it is called a yod and looks like a single apostrophe
2) the iota is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet and corresponds to the English lower case letter “i”
a) since the New Testament was written in Greek, that’s why we read it as iota
c. the English word tittle comes from a Hebrew word meaning horn or hook, and was not a letter, but a small ornamental stroke of the pen that distinguished one Hebrew letter from another
1) in the English alphabet think of the difference between a capital “O” and a capital “Q”
a) the difference is a single simple pen stroke and it’s called a tittle
3) or consider the difference between a lowercase “q” or a lowercase “g”
a) if the hook goes to the right it’s a “q” if to the left it’s a “g”
4) tittles also refer to the superscript dots over the lower case English letters “i” and “j”
5) so technically “dots and dashes” were originally referred to as tittles
ILLUS. Most of us grew up hearing the instruction in English class, “Don’t forget to dot your “i”s. Shakespeare would have instructed us to “Don’t forget to tittle your “i”s.
d. OK, so why the grammar lesson?
3. what Jesus is saying is that not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen will disappear from the Scriptures
a. it’s Jesus way of saying that the Old Testament is completely trustworthy, even to the smallest detail
b. there are three conclusions we can draw about the Scriptures from Matthew 5:18-19
4. 1st, the Scriptures are inspired
a. twice Jesus says that nothing in the Scriptures will disappear or pass away
1) heaven and earth will disappear before the truth of the Scriptures do
b. the Word of God is more enduring than nature
1) it means that the Scriptures are not a natural product
ILLUS. Over the years I’ve heard people (including some Christians) say, “The Bible is a great book, but it’s just a human book. It’s inspired, but it’s only as inspired as was Shakespeare or Robert Frost of J. K. Rowling.”
c. Jesus didn’t leave us that option
1) Jesus says that the Scriptures transcend heaven and earth
2) nature might burn up, the universe might dissolve into nothingness, but the Word of the Lord shall stand
ILLUS. Think about it. Where do the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments come from? Are they from God or are they from man? If every Bible in the world were suddenly to be confiscated, and God had to “re-inspire” them, God would not have to think, “Gosh, now what did I say to Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy? What did I tell Matthew to write in his gospel? Do I really need to include Philemon this time”
d. the Scripture endure because the Scriptures are inspired
5. 2nd, the Scriptures are wholly inspired
a. as I said a moment ago, many people believe that the Bible is inspired, but that it is only as inspired as are other great works of literature
b. some will contend that the parts that tell us about salvation are Holy Spirit inspired, but that other parts are just myths or the culture mores of their day, and thus are out-dated and obsolete for a 21st century world
ILLUS. Rudolf Bultmann was considered one of the major biblical scholars of the 20th century. He is best known for his belief that Christians had to demythologize the Bible. Here is the quote he is perhaps most famous for: “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”
c. Bultmann did not have a high view of Scripture; Jesus did
1) Jesus tells us that every word, indeed every letter that is recorded in the Law and the Prophets are there by divine inspiration
2) it means that the history of Kings and Chronicles are as wholly inspired as the poetry of Psalms or Isaiah 53
3) it means that the birth narratives of Jesus are as true as John 3:16
6. 3rd, the Scriptures are authoritative
a. if the Bible is inspired by God and wholly inspired in all of its parts then the Scriptures are authoritative in leading us to know everything God wants us to know about Him, about ourselves, and about the world in which we live
b. did humans write the Scriptures? Yes ... did humans correlate the Scriptures? Yes ... but God oversaw it all
“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21, ESV)
7. Jesus is confessing that “I believe in the divine, supernatural authority of every single bit of the Scriptures ... the ones we already have in the Tanakh, but the greater revelation that will come by the Spirit after my resurrection.”
... the Bible Can Be Absolutely Trusted


““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.” (Matthew 5:17, ESV)
1. Jesus said that he did not come into the world to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them
a. 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?
1) the short answer is: Yes and No
2) 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” and therefore the Christian is not under the Law, but holiness is still required of us, and at a deeper level than then the scribes and Pharisees could ever imagine
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4, ESV)
a) 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
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—” (Romans 3:20–21, ESV)
b) 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”)
c) the unavoidable implication of those verses is that Christ did indeed fulfill “the law and the prophets, and in and through his life the righteousness of God has been made plain and obvious
d) the conclusion is “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28, ESV)
2. 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
a. it is not the vehicle through which men and women may achieve standing with God
b. faith in Christ’s finished work has accomplished what the Law simply could not
1) so, it is fulfilled in Christ and taken out of the way
3. the Law is no longer binding on the conscience of the Christian believer, but holiness is
a. what’s the difference between the Old and New Testament then?
1) in the Old Testament the Law was written on stone
2) in the New Testament the Law is written on our hearts
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:10–12, ESV)
b. with the coming of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life at conversion, the Law is written upon our heart
1) the impetus for our obedience to it is not an external code of conduct that says, “Obey this or else,” but an internal desire that says, “I obey because that’s my heart’s desire”
2) that doesn’t mean that we will always perfectly obey — we won’t ... we will continue to sin and break God’s laws
3) but when we do, we have an advocate in Christ who pleads his own blood to the Father on our behalf, and who forgive and cleanses us when we confess our sin and repent


“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:13, ESV)
1. 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 his blood represented “a New Testament” (Mat. 26:28)
“Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.” (Hebrews 9:15–17, ESV)
ILLUS. 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.”
2. every detail of everything spoken in the law and prophets would remain until Jesus fulfilled them all
a. and he completely fulfilled them
b. and when sinners — who are completely unable to fulfill the law — when we come to Christ, all his righteousness is imputed to us and in him God declares us as holy as is His Son and it’s as if we, too, have perfectly fulfilled the Law
3. in this passage Jesus is saying, “You cannot understand me until you understand the Old Testament. You’re not going to be able to come to grips with my redemptive ministry unless you understand priests, and sacrifices, and Temples. On the other hand, you will never understand the Old Testament unless you understand that the Law and the Prophets are all about me.”
a. the point of the priests is to point us to the One true High Priest ... the point of the sacrifices is to point us to the Lamb of God slain from before the beginning of the world ... the point of the shewbread is to point us to the true bread of life who brings us into fellowship with the Father


“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20, ESV)
1. this verse is as “hard” as anything else in the passage — maybe harder
2. modern Christians tend to see the Pharisees in a negative light — mostly because the New Testament authors portray the Pharisees as legalistic and hypocritical
a. they were a religious sect within Jewish society that took seriously the biblical commands to be holy and to obey the Torah in their everyday, contemporary lives
b. they were probably the most influential group in 1st century Jewish culture
ILLUS. The Jewish historian Josephus, wrote in his work The Antiquities of the Jews, “These have so great a power over the multitude, that when they say anything against the king, or against the high priest, they are presently believed.”
1) this was partly because they seemed to live such stellar lives
c. they were generally admired and well-liked in Jewish society
3. Jesus, however, sees the heart, and Jesus knows that the inner life of many of the Pharisees does not match their outward conduct
a. and the point of vs. 20 is neither does ours, but if you’re going to come into the Kingdom your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees
1) we’re all familiar with Jesus’ You have heard it said statements
2) as a matter of fact, they immediately follow this passage!
3) this is exactly what Jesus is referring to when he talks about a superior righteousness than that which the Pharisees have
a) they’re concerned about righteous outward conduct
b) God is equally concerned — maybe even more concerned — with an inner righteousness that is our motivation for the outward conduct
4) in other words we act morally in the real world because that’s who we are on the inside
b. at this point I really want to say, “see AM sermon”
4. the essence of Christianity is this ... Though we, as imperfect human beings who can never keep the law perfectly, have in Christ, who did keep thee Law perfectly, a Savior who will give us the righteousness the Father demands we have
The Law of God is uncompromising and eternal, and men are utterly incapable fulfilling it which dooms us to judgment. Jesus, however, perfectly fulfilled it and by our faith in him God imputes his righteousness to us.
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