About Jots and Tittles (Matthew 5:17-20)

What are the differences between these sets of words: I’LL REST and ILL PEST?  There is quite a difference in meaning, but honestly not that much in form and the use of letters. The apostrophe makes the difference between I’LL and ILL, while the little descending line in the letter “R” makes the difference between REST and PEST.  jot_and_tittle

Tiny marks and strokes in written languages can make a big difference between words. And when Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount spoke of (in the language of the King James Version) jots and tittles, he was speaking of little marks in the Hebrew language that were like apostrophes, and of small dashes that distinguished one letter from another.

Not only was Jesus saying that the content of the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures was true, it was fully reliable down to the very smallest portion of the letters of the words. There can be no doubt from the entire record of Christ’s statements that he saw the Scriptures as God’s perfect revelation to mankind.

The religious leaders at the time of Jesus, particularly the Pharisees, did not see Jesus as a model for anything but an upsetting of the apple cart of tradition and truth. They viewed him as a rival. And Jesus says that he did not come to compete with the Law (the Old Testament), but to complete it and fulfill it in a way the Pharisees could not. (See, in English that letter “L” made all the difference in meaning between “compete” and “complete.”)

If we call someone today a “Pharisee” we have debased them and criticized them for being arrogant and pompous in belief, speech and action. It is a negative. But at the time of Christ, the Pharisees were respected and generally held in high regard for their precise observance of Scripture. Along the way, they had also codified thousands of actions that were precise (and often ridiculous) requirements to fulfill the Law. And they worked very hard and very publically at being the very best.

But here is the problem: nobody can be perfect about everything, not even a blue-chip Pharisee batting clean-up on the Pharisaic all-star team. Jesus is pitching a new set of fast balls right past them – upping the standard… such as not just avoiding adultery, but being guilty because of lust.

Throughout the chapter, Jesus burns them over and over with their platitudes (“You have heard it said…”), and the chapter ends with the statement that they need to be perfect as God is perfect. And again, there is the problem.

The purpose of the Law was to set a perfect standard of God’s righteousness, showing that it could not be met … that it could only be covered (atoned for) in blood. And Jesus came to be the perfect sacrifice, fulfilling the Law and paying the price of sin on behalf of those who could not do it themselves. Christ offers his righteousness for those who will trust and receive it.

This fulfillment of the Law down to its finest and smallest points is what Christ came to do, and it is indeed the good news – the gospel of salvation from the grind of works and deeds that could never really make the standard.

All of this points to the precision of Scripture – from dozens of writers over hundreds of years. And it all ties together in one great message and theme of God’s salvation in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

17 “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 tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.