Until Heaven and Earth Pass Away
In my recent debate with Hebrew Roots teacher David Wilber of 119 ministries, a point came up which was quickly glossed over in the flow of the discussion. It’s actually an argument I had first brought up in a teaching on Matthew 5:17-20. And I thought it would be helpful to drill down a little deeper on that point because it has some significant implications for our Torah-observant friends. It reveals a Scriptural situation where, essentially, an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. And I don’t see how Torah-keeping theology can get around it.
In the middle of Jesus’ teaching on His fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17–20), we find the following verse:
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.Matthew 5:18
If there is one verse on which all of Torah-observant Christianity hangs its hat, this is it. They believe this verse presents a clear and unambiguous teaching that not an iota or dot of the Mosaic Law will change until heaven and earth pass away. And there are a couple of things we can all agree on regarding this verse.
First, Jesus is teaching that there won’t be even the slightest change in the Law of Moses until some condition is met. Either until heaven and earth pass away, or until all is accomplished, or both. (Depending on how you want to interpret these two clauses.) Second, we all agree that heaven and earth have not passed away. I think the world would have noticed if that had happened! So we agree on these two things.
And there is actually a third fact we can all agree on. And when we point it out, our Torah-observant friends will typically squirm and dance around a bit because this is an uncomfortable truth for them. The third fact is this: things much more significant than an iota or a dot have already passed from the law. Scripture teaches that there have been substantial changes to the Law of Moses because of the work of Yeshua.
This is a game-changer. If the law has been altered—even one iota—then there is only one valid interpretation of v. 18. The condition of Jesus’ statement that “nothing shall pass from the Law” must be “until all is accomplished” and not “until heaven and earth pass away.” Because we all agree that heaven and earth have not passed away, yet things have passed from the law.
What Has Passed from the Law?
Let’s look at a few examples from Scripture that reveal things have already passed from the Law. The Torah says,
Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house . . . Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people . . . because of their transgressions, all their sins.Leviticus 16:11, 15-16
Here we have the laws about the high priest and the sin offerings required annually on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The sacrifice of animals is required under the Mosaic law to atone for sin. But the New Testament teaches that Jesus was our sin offering “once for all” (Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 9:26, 10:10), and therefore “there is no longer any offering for sin” (Heb 10:18). The Law of Moses required a regular offering for sin. The New Testament does not. That is a significant change.1
Indeed, Scripture reveals many changes to the Law of Moses. For example, the Torah requires that every male child be circumcised on the eighth day after birth (Lev 12:3). The New Testament teaches that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).2 And the Law of Moses required all priests come from the tribe of Levi (Ex 40:12-15; Deut 18:1-5). This is why it was called the Levitical priesthood. Yet under the New Covenant, Jesus is our High Priest (Heb 2:17, 3:1, 4:14-15, etc.) even though He is from the tribe of Judah (Heb 7:14). A high priest from the tribe of Judah is a change. The Mosaic Law also required a big, beautiful curtain in the temple to separate the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place (Ex 26:31-35). The Torah describes it as “a veil of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. It shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it” (Ex 26:31). But in the New Testament, at the very moment Jesus died on the cross, God Himself ripped that beautiful temple veil in two from top to bottom (Matt 27:51).
There are many other biblical examples of changes to the Mosaic Law that resulted from the redemptive work of Christ. I would encourage you to study this for yourself. You will quickly discover that it is simply untenable to suggest that not an iota or a dot of the Law of Moses has changed. I would submit that because heaven and earth have not passed away, and there have been significant changes to the Law of Moses, the best interpretation of our Lord’s words in Matthew 5:18 is that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Until Heaven and Earth Pass Away
What, then, are we to make of the other clause in v. 18: “until heaven and earth pass away”? There are two general schools of thought on how best to understand this statement. And in the end, they each seem to end up at the same general conclusion. On the one hand, Jesus’ words could be validly interpreted as a Hebraic idiom, a common teaching method for Him. For example, just a few verses earlier, Jesus calls His followers salt (v. 13) and light (v. 14). And a few verses after this passage, He tells His listeners that if their right eye or right hand causes them to sin, they are to remove those body parts and throw them away (v. 29-30). These passages were clearly meant figuratively. Christ-followers are not literally salt or light, nor are we expected to maim our bodies to avoid sin. (Even a man with no right eye could still lust after a woman with his left eye!)
So if interpreted metaphorically, Jesus’ statement in verse 18 can be seen as a restating for emphasis of verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” In verse 18, Jesus is then stating that heaven and earth would sooner pass away than He would not complete His mission of fulfilling the Scriptures. The Greek word behind the phrase “do not think” is νομίσητε (nomisete) could be translated: “Do not even begin to think!” which supports such an emphatic interpretation.
A second viable approach is to view this passage more literally. In which case, the question arises as to how the two “until” clauses are to be understood.
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.Matthew 5:18, emphasis added
The most direct interpretation is that the first “until” clause sets the scope for the second. Jesus meant something like, “The following statement shall remain true until heaven and earth pass away: nothing will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” The Greek grammar, however, also allows the two clauses to be understood as equivalent phrases that speak to the duration of the authority of the Jewish Scriptures. Carson explores this notion:
The first—“until heaven and earth disappear”—simply means “until the end of the age”: i.e., “never, as long as the present world order persists.” The second—“until everything is accomplished”—is more difficult. Some take it to be equivalent to the first (cf. Sand, pp. 36–39). But it is more subtle than that. The word pant (“all things” or “everything”) has no antecedent . . . the word cannot very easily refer to all the demands of the law that must be “accomplished,” because (1) the word “law” almost certainly refers here to all Scripture and not just its commands—but even if that were not so, v. 17 has shown that even imperatival law is prophetic; (2) the word genētai (“is accomplished”) must here be rendered “happen,” “come to pass” (i.e., “accomplished” in that sense, not in the sense of obeying a law; cf. Meier, Law, pp. 53f; Banks, Jesus, pp. 215ff.).D. A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Vol. 8, pp. 145–146)
In other words, the Greek word panta (“everything”) in this passage is best understood as referring to the prophetic role of the Mosaic law—until all these things have taken place as prophesied—rather than the persistence of every legal precept. Stated another way, Jesus uses the complete phrase “the Law and the Prophets” in v. 17 to refer to the Hebrew Scriptures. In v. 18, He uses the single word “law” as shorthand to refer to the same thing. Therefore, v. 18 could be interpreted as teaching that God’s entire plan must take place as foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures. Not one “iota or dot” will be left unfulfilled. Thus, we could paraphrase vv. 17-18 as follows:
Do not even think that I have come to abolish the Hebrew Scriptures. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from them until all these things have taken place as prophesied.Matthew 5:17-18, paraphrased
Jesus repeats this same idea a few chapters later when He teaches, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (Matt 11:13). Barbeiri provides a helpful summary of this understanding of Matthew 5:17-20.
This section presents the heart of Jesus’ message, for it demonstrates His relationship to the Law of God. Jesus was not presenting a rival system to the Law of Moses and the words of the Prophets, but a true fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets—in contrast with the Pharisees’ traditions . . . Jesus’ fulfillment would extend to the smallest Hebrew letter . . . These things are important because letters make up words and even a slight change in a letter might change the meaning of a word. Jesus said He would fulfill the Law by obeying it perfectly and would fulfill the prophets’ predictions of the Messiah and His kingdom.L. A. Barbieri, Jr., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 30).
Jesus’ Words Confirmed
A corresponding passage is often left out of the discussion of Yeshua’s words in Matthew 5:17-20, which were spoken during His earthly ministry. In Luke 24, the resurrected Jesus stands before His disciples—having just eaten some fish to prove that He was genuinely resurrected in the flesh—and reminds them of the words He spoke at the Sermon on the Mount.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms3 must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”Luke 24:44-48
Let’s break down what is happening here because it is amazing. Jesus starts by reminding His disciples of what He said while He was still with them—namely, that everything written about Him must be fulfilled (v. 44). When did He say that? In Matthew 5:17-20, of course. There, as we just saw, Yeshua proclaimed that He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets and that not an iota or a dot would pass away until that was accomplished. And now, after His resurrection, Jesus explains to his disciples what He meant. And to do so, He had to first open their minds to understand the Scriptures (v. 45).
“Thus it is written…” He begins (v. 46) as He reveals what the Hebrew scriptures said about him: He was going to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day (v. 46), and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed in His name to all nations, and it will begin in Jerusalem (v. 47). And then Yeshua tells his disciples, “You are witnesses of these things” (v. 48). In other words, they saw these things happen. The Hebrew scriptures were fulfilled before their very eyes. Before He died, the qualifier Jesus put on these things was “until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18). And the resurrected Christ is now telling His disciples that all has been accomplished. Osborne notes,
All of history has prepared for this moment, and the entire future of the human race rests on these three days from the cross to the empty tomb . . . He is saying that every single iota of Scripture pointed to him, and the true purpose of the old covenant was to prepare Israel for the coming of Christ . . . In spite of all the times this had been addressed, none of his followers had been able to grasp the reality of what was coming. It was too far out of their religious experience and expectations, and so they misunderstood the God-intended meaning of the prophecies. Jesus now clears away the debris of false understandings and enables them to grasp the truth. The doubts that dominated their thinking are now over once and for all. Not only the reality of the cross and empty tomb but also the scriptural prophecies that foretold these events are now clearly perceived.Grant R. Osborne, Osborne New Testament Commentaries (Luke: Verse by Verse) (Lexham Press, 2018), p. 575-576.
Viewed through the Principle & Expression framework we can understand why Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. He did not come to tear down the Law of God (the universal principles grounded in the nature of the Father). Rather He came to fulfill them, to live them out perfectly. And in doing so, He ushered in the New Covenant and with it, a new and superior expression of those same, unchanging Laws of God.
1 If you want to study this for yourself, read Leviticus 16 and then read Hebrews 10. You will see all kinds of changes.
2 See also 1 Corinthians 7:18-19 and Galatians 6:15. And notice that the Jerusalem Council determined that circumcision is not required of new Gentile believers (Acts 15:1-29).
3 Interestingly, this is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus refers to the Hebrew Scriptures using all three categories: the law, prophets, and Psalms. He is stressing that He has fulfilled the entirety of Jewish Scripture.