Matthew 5:18 is a commonly cited passage when discussing what Scripture teaches about preservation. This comes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel.

For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Matthew 5:18 (LSB)

As usual, context is key to understanding what Jesus is talking about. In the preceding verse, he says this:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.

Matthew 5:17 (LSB)

Jesus is teaching that He came to fulfill the law — all of it — down to the smallest letter and stroke. He goes on in verse 19 to make it clear that this fulfillment of the law does not mean that there is no more abiding validity to those who would go after him. To the contrary, he establishes the law, as Paul would later similarly do in Romans.

Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:19 (LSB)

When we look at the surrounding context, it becomes clear that verse 18 is not primarily talking about the preservation of Scripture down to the smallest letter or stroke, but the fulfilling of the law down to the smallest letter or stroke.

In response, some object that there can be no fulfilling of the law without knowledge of the law, and there can be no knowledge of the law without possession of the law. In other words, the fulfillment of the law down to the smallest letter or stroke cannot occur without the preservation of the law down to the smallest letter or stroke. While this argument is perhaps compelling on the surface, it proves too much. Remember, Jesus primarily used the Septuagint translation, and as demonstrated earlier, it differs in ways that are decidedly greater than the smallest letters and strokes. As God the Son, Jesus’ knowledge of the law did not ultimately depend on his human nature having access to a copy of the Torah that exactly matched the original autographs. This passage isn’t teaching that.

There are a couple of other passages in this vein that warrant exploring.

Psalm 12:6-7

The words of Yahweh are pure words;
As silver tried in a furnace on the ground, refined seven times.
You, O Yahweh, will keep them;
You will guard him from this generation forever.

Psalm 12:6-7 (LSB)

Once again, this passage is often cited without providing the overall context of the Psalm. The Psalm begins, “Save, O Yahweh, for the holy man ceases to be.” The godly man is in distress, and God responds with a promise to deliver him in the verse immediately preceding the contended passage.

“Because of the devastation of the afflicted,
because of the groaning of the needy,
Now I will arise,” says Yahweh;
“I will set him in the safety for which he longs.”

Psalm 12:5 (LSB)

When David sings that “You, O Yahweh, will keep them,” he’s praising God for keeping the words of his promise to rescue the holy man of verse 1. Psalm 12:6-7 is a beautiful promise about God’s covenant faithfulness in staying true to his word in the preserving of his saints. An exegesis of this Psalm shows that it is not making a theological assertion about the preservation of Scripture in perpetuity for the common man. To come up with that notion, you have to read something into the text that’s not there.

Revelation 22:18-19

I bear witness to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book. And if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.

Revelation 22:18-19 (LSB)

To begin with, notice that the curse is spoken specifically about “the words of the prophecy of this book.” In context, the book being referred to is the Revelation of Jesus Christ, not the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. This doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be a similar curse if these antics were applied to the other 65 books, but that’s not the primary intent of what’s being communicated. The “plagues” here are speaking specifically about the judgments in Revelation. We mention this because it’s rarely acknowledged by those who bring up this passage in objection. This is important because the first task in getting a text to say something it’s not is to rob it of its immediate context and meaning, and thereby free it up for new primary interpretation. John the Apostle is warning those who would seek to smooth the hard edges of his Revelation prophecy. That behavior would be the opposite of those who are overcomers, as defined in the seven-fold promise in the letters to the seven churches.

These verses are used to besmear the editors of the Critical Text platform, who allegedly have sought to both add and remove words from the Bible. This objection is a bit ironic, given the fact that the passage comes from a book of the Bible for which the Textus Receptus has the worst manuscript support. Erasmus back-translated significant portions of Revelation, particularly towards the end, from the Latin Vulgate, introducing readings in the Greek never seen before, some of which remain to this day in the Scrivener TR.1 If this is what the Apostle John is warning about, surely no one is more guilty than Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus.

Revelation 22 is not warning about those who seek to do textual criticism — those who in good faith desire to know what the New Testament authors actually wrote. On the contrary, Revelation 22 warns about malicious false teachers who seek through editorial means to change the message of Scripture.

  1. In his correspondence with Edward Lee, Erasmus explicitly admitted that he back-translated from the Vulgate to acquire his first and second editions of his TR. Then, when he sent his 3rd edition to the city of Basel for printing, he requested that they fix Revelation 22:16-21 by using the Aldine edition because he knew his had fallen short, but he didn’t care enough to do the legwork himself to fix it. The problem was that the Aldine edition was based on Erasmus' original work. In other words, there was nothing to change in the 3rd edition for Rev 22:16-21 when incorporating the Aldine edition into Erasmus' text. Erasmus wasn’t bothered by this, because he had a low view of the importance of Revelation (he elsewhere stated that we can’t know who its author is). Moreover, he wasn’t bothered by this because he knew he’d made this situation very clear in his annotations. He assumed you’d be reading his annotations alongside his text. ↩︎