Full disclosure: I am a recovering English teacher. It’s been many years since I stood in front of a class of middle-schoolers and attempted to convey the beauty of past participles, gerunds and the joy of diagraming a sentence. The response was almost always less than rewarding. Honestly, I never personally liked anything grammatical. It was just part of the job. And focusing on grammar never seemed to produce more motivated readers anyway. But I do find myself every once in a while, as I read, breaking apart a sentence to see if there might be anything hidden a little deeper in the text. This can be helpful when I attempt to comprehend the pithy thinking of a philosopher or theologian. Typically it sounds boring and labor-intensive, so it doesn’t happen often.
My grammatical antennae recently went up, however, as I was reading the Bible. It’s a book that is not always easy to appreciate, especially if you venture into the non-stories. It easily feels like theological gibberish and takes some work to comprehend what’s being said. But the payoff for making the effort can be enriching for a Jesus follower (and even those who are not yet following Him). Unfortunately, I don’t know the original languages of ancient Hebrew or Greek to help me in the process. But as my eyes passed over the text last week, some insignificant English words caught my attention and got me wondering. Suddenly I was seeing prepositions and actually asking myself what they meant. And that can be a bit unsettling, even for an English teacher.
WARNING: Short grammar lesson ahead!
It’s a category of words that most of us forgot the moment we stepped out of the classroom. Some may not have even gotten that far. Simply put, prepositions are connecting words that show the relationship between two items. They provide information about location, time, position, direction or relation. Commonly used prepositions are – to, at, in, on, before, after, through, of, by, towards, about, inside, over, under, between, within – and the list goes on. Learning to use these words give speakers of other languages fits when studying English (why do we get ON a bus but IN a car?). A simple, but not complete, image for identifying prepositions that I offered my middle schoolers in the past was, think of how an airplane might relate to a cloud. It could fly above, behind, around, below, beneath, beside, and through it – all prepositions. You get the idea.
I realized that when reading the Bible and trying to better understand our relationship to God, prepositions can provide a window to better appreciate what’s being said. Let’s look at the passage Colossians 3:3-7 (ESV) for example and focus on the seemingly insignificant word “IN”:
3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ IN God.
4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him IN glory.
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly IN you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
7 IN these you too once walked, when you were living IN them.
What Does It Show Us?
This little word is used so often in everyday English, we are not consciously aware of what it conveys. In verse three above we’re told that when we identify with Christ IN His death, our life is hidden, stored, or included WITHIN God Himself. That’s an impressive safety-deposit box. Is there a more secure place that can be found than INSIDE the Almighty Creator? That’s where the Jesus follower’s identity and energy for all that is needed is being guarded and preserved.
Verse four then gives us a picture of the future. One day when Jesus makes His full appearance to the world, we who know Him will be showcased, wrapped, or dressed IN His glory. We’ll be so covered with His goodness, light, fame, and strength that all our sin, darkness, confusion, and weakness that we presently struggle with will be eclipsed and forgotten because there’s no place for it IN Him (where our identity is). And we can look forward to this as a reality of our future existence because we will be fully ENCOMPASSED with what is uniquely His, that is the renown and glory of Jesus. It will be the clothing we wear for eternity.
Verse five then shifts, pulling off the cover to reveal what’s INSIDE us. We are instructed to identify and rid ourselves of those relationship killers that act as barriers between us and God as well as us and others. We naturally carry these wherever we go because they dwell IN us and leave no room for God’s presence that longs to replace them and take up residence WITHIN instead. It’s an unequal trade for sure, but definitely to our benefit.
And finally, verse seven describes where we tend to root our identities without Jesus. Not only do these dark qualities naturally find a home IN us, but we also are naturally drawn to live and walk IN them. A double whammy! Rather than the promised robes of glory, without Jesus we are clothed and find our identities in sexual immorality, evil desires, and the worship of other things to name a few. We end up wearing the rags of our own shame. God wants to be IN us and wants us to be IN Him!
Of course there are other prepositions even in these verses we could look at. They might reveal a bit more insight into how we can relate to God and how we naturally relate to sin and shame.
Just Read It!
My challenge to you: read God’s word. Study God’s word. And let God’s word read and study you! It’s one of the most important activities a Jesus follower can do to know Him, what He thinks and what He’s like. God has promised His Holy Spirit to guide us into understanding if we will only ask Him to help us see what He wants to show us.
If you’re anything like me, grammar is not fun. But it can be an effective tool for better comprehending what God is saying through His word. The personal transformation and intimate connection with Him, however, can happen only as we respond IN our hearts and act on what we read. It’s not easy but actually less complicated than understanding prepositions.