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Ambiguous and Meaningless (John 3:21)

Sometimes Greek can really be frustrating, especially when it is succinct. Here is a good example. John 3:21 reads, “But the one who does the truth comes to the light, so that his deeds may be clearly seen (φανερωθῇ αὐτοῦ τὰ ἔργα), that (ὅτι) they have been done (ἐστιν εἰργασμένα) in God (ἐν θεῷ).”

Most of the translation is pretty straight forward except for the final phrase. If ἐν is given its normal meaning of sphere, it doesn’t make any sense. If ἐν is instrumental, then you have the awkward idea that the person does the truth, but actually they were done by God.

As always, it is fun to check out the translations.

  • “what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (NIV)
  • “that his works have been carried out in God” (ESV)
  • “is works may be shown to be accomplished by God” (CBS)
  • “that his deeds have been done in God” (NET)
  • “that their deeds have been done in God” (NRSV)
  • “so others can see that they are doing what God wants” (NLT, with the footnote, Or can see God at work in what he is doing(”)

I must admit that the idea of “in God” is so ambiguous as to be meaningless. It may follow one of the glosses of ἐν, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. And I highly doubt that everything I do is actually done by God; I can’t find that idea in Scripture.

Certainly a frustrating passage, and one that shows a word-for-word translation isn’t always translation since it can be meaningless.


I haven't yet learned to use Greek font but I wanted to comment. If you look in BDAG 4a-b under the Greek word for 'in' (sorry-no Greek font) there are many comments on Jesus or God or the Holy Spirit being in you and you in Him. I suppose the translators could have used "with" God instead of "in" but the lack of understanding remains for translations like the NLT to enter a much shortened commentary instead of a one word translation. If we look at the scripture as the infallible word of God, I think we'll realize that we all depend on the revelation of the Holy Spirit to lead us in to the truth and teach us all things John 14:26

Hi... The ACTUAL NIV translation DOES make sense: “Whoever lives by reality comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done by means of God.” Does this not make sense? If not, let me know, and I'll explain further. Thanks! Joan

In this context,"En Theo" could mean "under the influence of" or "inspired by" God: see Mark 12:36 for this use.

In Christ The deeds in Jn 3, 21 are of course the good deeds, which can only be done in Christ, that is in God, who is the only Good and all good comes from Him. That is why Christ said to his disciples: "without me you can do nothing" Jn 15, 5, meaning nothing good. So there is no good unless done in the name of Christ, i.e. in Christ. Therefore "in God" is quite meaningful, as ap. Paul somewhere said that in Him we live and exist. Rightly so since He is the Life, not any life but everlasting life for those who believe in Him and to Him.

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