The Use of the Preposition Eis in Matthew 12:41

By Wayne Jackson

In numerous articles we have called attention to the force of the preposition eis as used in Acts 2:38.

Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto eis the remission of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

See our recent article, The Preposition Eis in Acts 2:38. The Greek lexicons are of a united voice as to the meaning of eis in Acts 2:38.

Robinson noted that the baptism/eis connection, as used in Acts 2:38, marked “the object and effect of the rite of baptism; chiefly with eis c. acc. to baptize or be baptized into anything” (1855, 118). J.H. Thayer said that the significance of eis in Acts 2:38 is “to obtain the forgiveness of sins” (1958, 94). Arndt and Gingrich affirmed that eis denoted “purpose, in order to . . . for forgiveness of sins, so that sins might be forgiven” (1967, 228). It is wholly unnecessary to continue piling up authorities with reference to this matter.

In years gone by, it was fashionable to contend that there are rare exceptions to the prospective thrust of eis. It was alleged that the preposition could signify “because of” (the direct opposite of the standard definition). A favorite text cited in support of this position was Matthew 12:41, where Christ said:

The men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, a greater than Jonah is here.

The Lord declared that the people of Nineveh “repented at eis the preaching of Jonah.” Here, then, was the common ploy with reference to this text. The folks of Nineveh, it was argued, did not repent “in order to” hear Jonah; rather, they repented “because of” Jonah’s preaching. Thus, supposedly, this constituted an example of the “causal” (retroactive) use of eis. What should be said in response to this argument?

Analysis

The following factors absolutely must be taken into consideration.

Since eis is found some 1,750 times in the New Testament, and the standard meaning is well-recognized, one must proceed with extreme caution before announcing that he has found an “exception” to the rule. He must have an overwhelmingly compelling case before thrusting aside hundreds of precedents that suggest a norm. It is interesting that The New American Commentary on Matthew, authored by Craig Blomberg (and published by Broadman, a Baptist firm) makes no comment at all with reference to a causal use of eis in this text.

Before one can argue, therefore, that Matthew 12:41 contains this alleged exception, he must be absolutely positive there is no interpretation that can be placed upon the text in which eis carries its general, forward-looking thrust.

It is not an honest approach to the Scriptures to take an isolated text, and twist it into conformity with an interpretation that one seeks to defend due to a theological predisposition, e.g., the dogma of salvation by faith alone.

Professor Daniel Wallace is associated with the Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas. From a personal theological perspective, he does not believe that baptism is required as a condition for the remission of sins. This is important to keep in mind. Dr. Wallace is the author of the highly acclaimed work, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Therein he has a discussion of the so-called causal use of eis. He contends that studies have shown that “the linguistic evidence for a causal eis” falls short of proof. He stingingly calls this misguided twisting of the preposition an “ingenious solution” that “lacks conviction” (1996, 370-371).

The celebrated Baptist scholar, H.B. Hackett, rendered the Greek phrase, eis aphesin hamartion in Acts 2:38, as “in order to the forgiveness of sins,” and referenced Matthew 26:28 and Luke 3:3 as parallel texts (1879, 54).

The question now engaging our attention is this: is there any reasonable view of Matthew 12:41 that allows the careful student to assign eis its normal, forward-pointing meaning? The answer is yes; clearly there is.

Here are the facts of the case. The people of Nineveh were in rebellion against God. Because of his concern for the souls of these pagans, Jehovah dispatched his prophet, Jonah, to preach a message of repentance to them. That message was designed to bring them into a penitent state, a reformed life, which would be reflected in turning away from their sins. This is precisely what happened (Jonah 3:10).

By means of a common figure of speech called metonymy—a form of which states a cause, which, in actuality, stands for an effect. Here is an example. When Job said: “My arrow is incurable” (34:6), he referred to an affliction (allegedly rendered by God). The term “arrow,” however, is a form of metonymy, the cause standing for the effect (Terry 1890, 160-161; cf. Dungan n.d., 271-276).

Similarly, as a result of Jonah’s proclamation, the citizens of Nineveh turned, transforming minds and deeds into a reformed state of life demanded by his message. The internationally recognized scholar, J.W. McGarvey, carefully explained the matter in his commentary on Matthew.

The preposition here rendered “at” is eis, which usually means “into.” Some writers have contended that it here means “because of,” or “in consequence of,” a meaning quite foreign to the word. It is true, as a matter of fact, that the Ninevites repented in consequence of the preaching of Jonah; but had it been the purpose of the writer to express this thought, he would have used the preposition dia instead of eis. The thought of the passage is quite distinct from this. They repented into the preaching of Jonah. This is not idiomatic English, but it conveys the exact thought a Greek would derive from the original. The term “preaching” is put for the course of life required by the preaching, and it is asserted that they repented into this. Their repentance, in other words, brought them into the course of life required by the preaching, and it is asserted that they repented into this (1875, 113).

This is a perfectly reasonable explanation of the passage, quite in harmony with the use of the preposition elsewhere in the New Testament. This is a far more responsible exercise of exegetical skills than that which has been proffered by some biased scholars of a bygone era.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Arndt, W.F. and Gingrich, F.W. 1967. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
  • Bloomberg, Craig. 1992. The New American Commentary — Matthew. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
  • Dungan, D.R. n.d. Hermeneutics – A Text-book. Cincinnati, OH: Standard.
  • Hackett, H.B. 1879. A Commentary on the Original Text of the Acts of the Apostles. Andover, MA: Warren F. Draper.
  • McGarvey, J.W. 1875. The New Testament Commentary — Matthew and Mark. Des Moines, IA: Eugene Smith Reprint.
  • Robinson, Edward. 1855. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.
  • Terry, Milton S. 1890. Biblical Hermeneutics. New York, NY: Eaton & Mains.
  • Thayer, J.H. 1958. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T.&T. Clark.
  • Wallace, Daniel B. 1996. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.