The Power of Prepositions

When it comes to reading the Bible, we often pay attention to the key verbs and phrases, names and places, and often skip right over those tiny prepositions. But why do prepositions get overlooked? Is it because they tend to be fewer letters? Or is it that we do not fully see their power? Maybe I am just a Bible nerd who has a passion for all things grammar and syntax. Or maybe prepositions might excite you too, if someone shows you why they are exciting!

What if some of the Bible’s most concrete truths about Jesus were magnified by prepositions?

Let’s take a look at Colossians 1:16-17 as an example. I’ll provide a translation of the Greek with some transliterated Greek prepositions in italics.

16 Because in (ev) Him [Jesus] all things were created—the things in the heavens and on the earth—the visible and the invisible; whether thrones, authorities, rulers, or powers—all things through (dia) Him and to (eis) Him were created. 17 And He is before (pro) all things and all things in (ev) Him are held together.

Just by slowing down to pay attention to the prepositions you are probably seeing more in the text than you would with a cursory read. What are some things you observe? Maybe one of the first is how diverse the prepositions are. With that, let’s briefly explore some of the powerful prepositions in this passage.

The first “in” (Greek: en) is translated in two main ways. It either can convey the instrument by which something is done (“by Him”), so the CSB. Or it could be translated to emphasize the location of where something was done (“in Him”), so the NIV. But note that this is an English translation issue, not a Greek syntax one. What do I mean? English forces us to parse out the intent of “in,” whereas the Greek preposition can express both the instrumental and locative means. The Greek text is conveying something powerful that we can often miss…

All the creative energy necessary to bring about creation resided in Christ. The pre-existent one is the common source of all that has come into existence.

We have to remember that no one other than Yahweh, the God of Israel, can claim to be the Creator. He alone takes credit for the act of creation (Genesis 1:1; Nehemiah 9:6; Isaiah 37:16; 40:26; 44:24; 45:18). Therefore, Colossians is proclaiming Christ to be the cosmic Creator! And the prepositions en (“in/by”) and dia (“through”) help demonstrate the point.

Let’s look at the preposition eis (“to”) in verse 16. In context, the passage has just shown us that Jesus is the source of all creation, now, the text shows us that Jesus is also the goal of creation. One of the world’s leading scholars on Greek prepositions, Murray J. Harris, comments on the use of eis in this passage:

Είς [eίs] can also express metaphorical direction, i.e., goal or purpose… While είς  here [in Colossians 1:16] may mean “for him,” i.e., for his benefit or glory… more probbly the sense is “to him [as their goal].” The whole universe has been created and now exists… with Christ as both its sole cause (δια) and its ultimate goal (είς). (Harris, Prepositions and Theology, 88)

With this reasoning, Harris chooses to translate the latter part of Colossians 1:16 as “All things have been created through him and he is their goal.”

This three-letter preposition, eis, shows how all of creation finds its convergence and coherence when directionally pointed toward Christ.

That is why some scholars even like the translation “towards him,” which highlights how redemptive history is moving chronologically towards Christ becoming the reigning, enthroned king over everything.

The last preposition we will briefly look at is pro (“He is before all things”) in verse 17. What kind of “before” is in view here? The Greek preposition can refer to a priority in time or a priority of position or rank. Temporal priority would communicate something like: “I was here before you.” A good example of this is in 1 Corinthians 2:7, NIV:

No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before (pro) time began.

Priority of rank or position says something to the effect of: “this is before all else, it is the most important thing!” A good example of this is found in 1 Peter 4:8, NIV:

Above all (pro), love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

So which use of pro (“before”) is being deployed in Colossians 1:16? A priority of time or of status? Referring again to the scholarship of Murray J. Harris, and following his conclusion, both are at play, conveying the dual concept.

If two meanings of a preposition are not contradictory, then they both can be infused in the preposition’s meaning. So, here, pro (“before”) refers to both Christ’s preexistence and His preeminence over everything!

He—and no one else—is before (pro) everything in time and rank.

As we have seen, paying attention to prepositions enriches our reading and study of Scripture. So, as you read your Bible, pay attention to those prepositions. After all, they are pregnant with powerful meaning!

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