Reading Matthew 5:18 from an Eschatological Perspective

Celebrated non-Conformist scholar and Hebrew exegete Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622 or 1623) emphasized knowledge of the literal sense of the Hebrew as the prerequisite for determining the principal interpretation. After “the natural meaning of scripture being known, the mysteries of godliness therein applied may be better discerned.” He goes on to say that this discernment “may be achieved in a great measure, by the scriptures themselves, which being compared do open one another.”[1] Later in the preface Ainsworth states why such serious investigation must be pursued by the grammarian. He says,

“For by a true and sound literal explication, the spiritual meaning may be better discerned…Our Savior hath confirmed the Law, unto every jot and tittle, Matt. 5.18. that we should think that any word or sentence to be used in vain.”[2]

To illustrate the importance of a tittle, Jewish writers demonstrated in the text radical changes in theology that would be made with the change of the smallest part of a Hebrew letter, the tittle. The following citations were found in Whedon’s commentary, where he quotes from Clarke in the passage:

‘In Vayikra Rabba, s. 19, it is said: Should any person, in the words of Deut. vi. 4. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is אֶחָֽד achad, ONE Lord, change the ד daleth into a ר resh, he would ruin the world.’ [Because, in that case, the word  achar, would signify a strange or false God.]

‘Should any one, in the words of Exod. xxxiv, 14. Thou shalt worship no OTHER, achar, God change ר resh into ד daleth, he would ruin the world.’ [Because the command would then run, Thou shalt not worship the ONLY or true God.]

‘Should any one, in the words of Levit. xxii, 32, Neither shalt ye PROFANE, תְחַלְּלוּ֙ techalelu, my holy name, change ח cheth into ה he, he would ruin the world.’ [Because the sense of the commandment would then be, Neither shalt thou PRAISE my holy name.]”[3]

This verse has come under scrutiny and denied its historic place of teaching providential preservation not because of textual critical problems but because of modern philosophical and interpretive intervention, see Mark Ward. The Greek reading here is not in question; the meaning of the promise is in question. The claim is that Jesus did not mean a literal jot and tittle would not pass away, he simply overstated the point for effect meaning in hyberbolic terms that the Law would not pass away.

Soteriological and eschatological points not to overlook is that the words ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται, translated “not one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law til all be fulfilled” were first on the lips of Jesus, the Son of God before being recorded by Matthew. It is easy to get caught up in a logical disconnect between talking about manuscripts and talking about the words of Jesus who is not only the God/man but King of Kings and Lord of Lords before whom every knee shall bow. Under the heading “That no canonical book has perished by the testimony of Christ, Turretin’s first proof is from the testimony of Jesus Christ, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than for one tittle of the law to fail” (Luke 16:17; cf. Matt. 5:18). Turretin continues,

“But if not even one tittle (or the smallest letter) could fail, how could several canonical books perish? Although Christ speaks directly to the doctrine of the law and not of its books, yet it can be applied analogically to them, so as to imply their preservation and so much the more, Mention is made not only of the letters and points of which Scripture is made up, but also that God wished his doctrine to be preserved in written books.”[4]

From Jesus’ use of the Old Testament, we too see how both directly and indirectly he substantiated the providential preservation of Scripture. The promise that not one jot or one title shall in shall in no wise pass from the Law in Matt. 5:18, in that it covers the time between Moses and Christ, implicitly describes past providential preservation up until the time of Christ and explicitly beyond the epoch of Christ into the eschaton.

Verses like this particularly and the Bible in general creates a crisis of authority for the reader. Who are we to believe? A renowned scholar or Jesus? This crisis does not arise between peers but between men and God, a God who can throw both body and soul into Hell. It is not too much to say that concluding men’s opinions are more binding than God’s Word is to places one’s soul in eternal jeopardy. Listening to Jesus, talking with Jesus, walking with Jesus during his earthly ministry was on one level the most human thing a man or woman could do. No one needed special theological training to learn from the Lord. Indeed, Galilean fishermen were members of his school. And it is within this ordinary context, Jesus points to the Hebrew text then available to the Jews and says, “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

[1]Ainsworth, Annotations, Preface.

[2]Ainsworth, Annotations, Preface.

[3] Wedon, Matthew, 78

[4] Turretin, Institutes, 96.

Published by Dr. Peter Van Kleeck, Sr.

Dr. Peter William Van Kleeck, Sr. : B.A., Grand Rapids Baptist College, 1986; M.A.R., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1990; Th.M., Calvin Theological Seminary, 1998; D. Min, Bob Jones University, 2013. Dr. Van Kleeck was formerly the Director of the Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, Grand Rapids, MI, (1990-1994) lecturing, researching and writing in the defense of the Masoretic Hebrew text, Greek Received Text and King James Bible. His published works include, "Fundamentalism’s Folly?: A Bible Version Debate Case Study" (Grand Rapids: Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, 1998); “We have seen the future and we are not in it,” Trinity Review, (Mar. 99); “Andrew Willet (1562-1621: Reformed Interpretation of Scripture,” The Banner of Truth, (Mar. 99); "A Primer for the Public Preaching of the Song of Songs" (Outskirts Press, 2015). Dr. Van Kleeck is the pastor of the Providence Baptist Church in Manassas, VA where he has ministered for the past twenty-one years. He is married to his wife of 43 years, Annette, and has three married sons, one daughter and eighteen grandchildren.

3 thoughts on “Reading Matthew 5:18 from an Eschatological Perspective

  1. This argument for the providential preservation of every word of Scripture is incredibly powerful and utterly exhaustive. To reject it in favor of current scholarly sophistry designed to escape this conclusion is simply to reject the clear testimony of Scripture, and in this case the words of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.


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