Explanations of the word "in" in Colossians 1

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: I’ve been studying Colossians 1, and some of the uses of the word "in" have been confusing me. There are so many different uses of the word "in" (http://www.learnersdictionary.com/definition/in) that I often feel that the meaning is unclear and somewhat abstract. Could you help me understand how Paul uses the word "in" in Colossians 1: 7-8, 9, 17, 24, 27, 28? Thanks.

Answer: You probably know that the New Testament was originally written in (Koine) Greek. The problem with this is that every translation bears the burden of evaluating those words in light of their ancient cultural contexts before bringing them forward into the contemporary idiom. This is good news and bad news for a student of the Bible.

The good news is that thousands of scholars have already done the heavy lifting. We have an embarrassment of English versions to consult! And they represent the range of the translators’ algorithms. The bad news is that the student is still responsible to check out the Greek. But take heart, we can do this without being fluent in the language.

In each of your citations, the Greek word for “in” is ἐν (pronounced en)… and it means what it seems to mean in English. But as you noted from the English dictionary, the word “in” can mean quite a few things. So, what does it mean in these verses? That’s always the right question!

The word ἐν is a preposition, and the job of a preposition is to show the relationship between two things. So, your question will always be twofold: what two things are in focus, and how are they related? So, since there will be so many variables, when we do this, we have to analyze each passage on its own merits… and let’s do this with Colossians 1:7-8.

“just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.” (Colossians 1:7–8)

The two things in focus are “your love” (which is the love of the Colossian Christians specifically) and “the Spirit” — the Holy Ghost. And what is the relationship between the two? It’s one of location. Christian love lives in the Holy Spirit. But why did Paul teach this?

His audience already knew of two other types of love, so he had to differentiate Christian love from these. For instance, a boy and a girl may love each other with a nearly inexpressible passion. But that’s erotic love, eros in the Greek. And people may also feel a non-erotic type of brotherly affection which is phileo in the Greek. But since Paul did not have either of these in view, he did not want them confounded with God’s love.

Now, Christians may experience eros and phileo, too. But Christian love is different… and it’s different by type and by location. Where eros and phileo are byproducts of human interaction and are available by merely participating in life, Christian love (agápē in the Greek) comes only from God. But more to your question, it is in God — God, the Holy Spirit… and it’s only available to those who are in Christ.

So, the “trick” is not so much to wrestle the preposition into a single meaning. It is more to see what two elements are being brought into a relationship and understanding what type of relationship it is… and if these elements are ever in doubt, we need to broaden our view to see the context. Let’s move to Colossians 1:9.

"And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding," (Colossians 1:9)

The two elements in a relationship here are “the knowledge of his will” and “all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” How does the word “in” affect the relationship here? It limits the field. Paul wants these believers to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will… but not without constraint. That knowledge must be tempered by (and here’s the Holy Spirit again) spiritual wisdom. He wants to make sure that the open field of God’s will is narrowed down for each believer’s spiritual particulars.

Some translators use the word “through” here rather than “in”… but it has the same effect. Anything you are going “through” constrains you — either in real space (like a cattle chute) or as an experience (like going through a divorce). This action can also be called disambiguation.

But for something a little different, let’s move on to verse 17 where the word “in” turns Jesus into glue!

"And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Colossians 1:17)

The two elements in focus here are Christ (him) and creation (all things). Not only did Christ create the universe, but he also holds it all together. So, the word “in” ties Christ to the keeping together of the universe. He created it… sure. But that’s no guarantee that it will continue to be friendly to life. But the statement, “it holds together in him” is such a guarantee (…in case you were worried).

Let’s move on to verse 27 because I’m saving verse 24 for last.

"To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Colossians 1:27)

In the verse above, the phrase “which is Christ in you” explains what Paul means by the word “mystery.” The objects related by the preposition “in” are “Christ” and “you” … and here, the relationship is one of location. Christians are said to be “in” Christ collectively, as a body. But this is because Christ is “in” us individually as people.

Let’s finish this section with another example of disambiguation in Colossians 1:28.

"Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ." (Colossians 1:28)

In this verse, the word “in” relates to the terms “everyone mature” and “Christ” by narrowing the focus. Paul wants everyone to be mature… but that’s a broad field. Many people of the world are mature in age, in emotion or in knowledge. But Paul wants us to be mature in the Christian arts — and in Christ himself… which is a different field of discussion than is the world’s understanding of maturity. So, “in” also serves as a disambiguator in this verse.

Now, before we move to verse 24, please note that even though you’ve organized your request around the word “in,” you are still asking me to tell you the meaning of these verses… which is hard to do through email. This is better done through Bible commentaries. So, I’m going to use verse 24 to move us in that direction, and to start, visit the following link:


Welcome to Bible Hub! … and note that they’ve provided about 28 translations of your verse. I suggest this as a first attack when you’re wrestling with a verse. Many translations say the same thing the same way, but some say the same thing in a different way… and this is often the key to unlocking the meaning.

If you go to the Comment menu near the top, you’ll find commentaries on this verse. Commentaries are not themselves Scripture. They contain the works of scholars who are commenting on Scripture… so, there is no guarantee that they are “right” in a biblical inerrancy type of way. But they are always helpful, so check some of them out.

Now select the Greek menu. Here you have a table with all the Greek words from your verse. So, find the word “in” and go to the left-hand column (Strong’s) and click the number there. This brings you to a lexicon section that will tell you how the Greeks used the word “in.” This is of primary importance when wrestling with a verse. Here you will discover what a word can mean… which is often surprising… and you will sometimes find your word referenced to the very verse you are questioning… although with “in” being used 2777 times in the New Testament, Colossians 1:24 did not make the cut.

I’m not trying to put myself out of business, but if you touch down with Bible Hub and do a little of your own study first, many issues will resolve themselves while you are gathering your data.

I hope my explanations and this little exercise helped. God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20210118 What’s in a word?).

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