One should never underestimate the place of prepositions in Scripture or their value to biblical hermeneutics. Many an interpreter has failed to correctly perceive the significance of a passage because of a failure to correctly perceive the purpose of the prepositions employed. "A proper understanding of prepositions is vital to exegesis. Many an exegetical debate has turned on the use of a particular preposition" (Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the NT, p. 357). I appreciate the way Dr. A. T. Robertson has phrased it in his classic work -- "There are pictures in prepositions if one has eyes to see them" (A Grammar of the Greek NT in the Light of Historical Research, p. 565).
Prepositions are in some respects a type of extended adverb in that they frequently modify verbs and demonstrate how they connect to and interact with various objects in the sentence. Unlike an adverb, however, they convey additional information, and at times govern the nouns in a sentence. Thus, they are capable of multi-tasking. "In general, the prepositions that take accusative and dative case objects function adverbially, while those that take a genitive case object often function adjectivally. All of this is in keeping with the simple case uses: The accusative and dative are usually connected to a verb and the genitive is usually connected to a noun" (Wallace, p. 357). In Greek, all prepositions are intimately associated with particular cases, the significance of which will become more evident as we progress in this study.
The use of prepositions in the New Covenant writings is so frequent that one can hardly read a sentence without encountering several. Indeed, four out of five verses have at least one preposition, and there are over 10,000 occurrences of prepositional use in the pages of the NT documents. The three most frequently used prepositions are EN (2752 times), EIS (1767 times), and EK (914 times). These three are most often translated, respectively: "in" ... "into, unto" ... "out of." It should also be noted that "In general, the more common a preposition is, the more varied are its uses" (Wallace, p. 357). Thus, we should not be surprised at discovering significant semantic range with respect to a preposition such as eis, and should not suppose it would convey exactly the same nuance of meaning in each of its 1767 occurrences. "Too often prepositions are analyzed simplistically, etymologically, and without due consideration for the verb to which they are connected. Prepositions are often treated in isolation, as though their ontological meaning were still completely intact" (Wallace, p. 359). Great care must be taken not to fall into this exegetical trap.
One thing that is extremely vital for any student of the Word to determine, when examining the significance of a particular preposition to a passage, is whether it is stative or transitive. In other words, does the preposition in question suggest a settled state (stative) or does it convey the concept of motion (transitive)? This is known as the spatial aspect of prepositional use, and it is critical to correct interpretation. Machan, for example, in his book on Greek grammar, notes that "the dative is the case of rest in a place, and the accusative the case of motion toward a place." This would be illustrated, respectively, by the use of EN with the dative case and EIS with the accusative case. The former would indicate a stationary state, whereas the latter would suggest movement or motion toward and even into. Appendix 104 in The Companion Bible points out that the preposition eis, just to illustrate the above, "denotes motion to or unto an object, with the purpose of reaching or touching it."
As a hermeneutical guide, Dr. A. T. Robertson offers the following: "The scientific method of studying the Greek preposition is to begin with the case-idea, add the meaning of the preposition itself, then consider the context. The result of this combination will be what one translates into English, for instance, but he translates the total idea, not the mere preposition" (Robertson, p. 568).
Having said all of that, let me share with you a question that was recently posed to me by a reader of these Reflections from Tennessee. You will then better appreciate the need for the above brief and skeletal introduction to Greek prepositional use. The reader asked:
Galatians 2:16, contextually, makes it very clear that our justification is not as a result of works of law, but rather is acquired through faith. The verse ends by emphatically stating: "for by works of law shall no flesh be justified." There is no definite article employed with the Greek word nomos ("law"), thus Paul very likely has far more than just the Law of Moses in view here. He is without doubt speaking of any attempt by man to acquire justification via any system of law and its works. We are saved by faith, not by works of law. That great Truth is one of the central facts of the New Covenant. Failure to perceive and practice this will cause our fall from grace and our severing from Christ (Galatians 5).
In the midst of this verse, and of this discussion, Paul states, "...we believed (aorist active indicative) in Christ Jesus in order that we might be justified (aorist passive subjunctive) by faith..." (Gal. 2:16). The significance of the passive voice is that "we" (the subject of the phrase) are not to be perceived as being the active agents effecting our own justification. Thus, believing is something we exhibit (active voice); justification is something we receive (passive voice). Our belief, or faith, moves us toward Christ Jesus and that ultimate justification in Him. The very next verse in this passage (vs. 17) informs us that our quest is to be "justified IN Christ." The preposition used is EN, which when used with the dative case, as it is here, constitutes the stative or settled state and is suggestive of a stationary state of rest in place. In other words, dwelling IN Jesus Christ, and with established faith IN Him, we are justified. When we abide IN Him -- when we are settled IN Him -- we are justified. Salvation and justification are IN Him, not OUTSIDE OF Him.
But, how do we get unto/into Him? The previous verse (vs. 16) declares we "believed INTO Christ Jesus." This is the use of the preposition EIS with the accusative case, which is transitive in nature, and thus a state of motion or movement toward. Therefore, our developing faith moves us toward a union with Christ Jesus, IN Whom we have justification and salvation. Faith alone does not put one INTO Christ any more than baptism alone or repentance alone put one INTO Christ. Each move us in that direction. When these are all joined, however, that combined motion toward brings us ultimately into the very object or goal of our quest. In other words, faith, when demonstrated as decreed, places us WITHIN the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is then in place IN Him that we find justification and salvation. How are we to demonstrate our faith? How does faith respond to God's grace? What visible evidence is divinely decreed? Faith visibly and obediently responds via repentance of heart, confession of lips & life, and immersion of body. Each of these critical manifestations of faith are essential to move us beyond mere movement toward Christ Jesus, and incorporate us INTO Christ Jesus in a settled state. Dwelling within our Lord we experience salvation, and it is by our active, visible faith response that we are added to the Lord and thus abide in that settled state of grace. We then continue to evidence the fruit of our faith in our daily faithfulness to Him.
Thus, both repentance and baptism, as depicted in Acts 2:38, are part of the process that moves us unto and into (EIS with the accusative case) the settled state of continual forgiveness for those IN Him. Active faith moves us unto and into (eis) that "resting place" in (en) the Lord Jesus. Thus, Gal. 2:16 and 3:27 are in reality very complimentary. Faith moves the believer to the point of acceptable response, and one's immersion (as well as repentance and confession) is just part of that required demonstration of faith. In these manifest responses, therefore, we have faith revealed in action (James 2); a faith that receives God's grace and thereby enters into a saving relationship with Him.
At what point do we enter Christ Jesus? At the point of demonstrated faith. James tells us an UNdemonstrated faith is dead; it is worthless; it will not save or justify anyone. Faith shown, however, is saving faith. What must I do to show my faith? No more or less than our Lord has specified. He has asked us to repent: to turn our lives away from the futile self-pursuits of this world and toward Him. He has asked us to confess with our lips and lives our conviction concerning Him (Romans 10:9-10). This is not just an initial confession of faith, but one which we confess and profess daily (which both evidences faith and expresses gratitude). He has also asked us to visibly demonstrate the reality of our spiritual death, burial and resurrection unto newness of life (our new birth or birth from above) in a symbolic action known as baptism. If we love Him we will comply with His requirements; if we truly believe, we will willingly respond. This faith response then receives the free gift of His grace: our justification and ultimate salvation. Are our repentance, confession and immersion WORKS that merited or earned these blessings? No, of course not! They were merely responses of faith that received them. Are we justified or saved without repentance, confession and immersion? No, we are not! After all, as James teaches, faith apart from demonstration is dead, being alone!
Our movement toward and entrance into Christ Jesus is a beautiful spiritual process characterized by mutual love, initiated by God's matchless grace, and appropriated through our responsive faith. May He grant us the wisdom and maturity to move our faith forward to fruition -- unto an abiding IN Jesus, and may He grant us the insight to perceive it as a gift bestowed rather than wages earned.
From a Reader in Texas:
I just this morning read your Reflections #41 and am in full agreement with your thoughts on conditional immortality. I had come to the belief thirty years ago that 2 Thess. 1:9 teaches that hell is "eternal destruction from the face of the Lord" (ASV), not a burning lake of fire. I could not imagine a worse fate than being eternally bereft of anything good, pleasant, peaceful or "Godly." But it was Edward Fudge who convinced me in 1982 (in his book The Fire That Consumes) that "destruction" really means "destruction." I was only "half-way there!"
From a Reader in California:
Another great article! Thanks for your work and study. So far I've not "borrowed" your articles for sermons, but this one might some day end up as a sermon on my end -- with full credit given to you. There is so much misunderstanding about this subject, and much of what we hear at funerals only exacerbates the ignorance!
I've preached for 25 years and I know that few sermons are "home runs," so to speak. I've been reading your articles for several months now, and am waiting on you to "hit a single" ... you always get at least "a triple!" Keep up the good work. I continue to recommend your web site to friends.
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