For an Informed Love of God
You are here
What do Prepositions Modify (2 Thess 2:13)?
Some times it can be tricky to hook a preposition up to the word it is modifying. In the example of 2 Thess 2:13, in the commentaries I checked they did not even discuss it. This is one of the advantages of Phrasing, but I will get to that in a second.
The verse reads, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved (εις σωτηριαν) , through (εν) sanctification by the Spirit (αγιασμω πνευματος) and belief in the truth (πιστει αληθειας)” (ESV).
A couple general things first. The verse has a double accusative; God chose “you” as the “firstfruits.” There is a textual problem that explains the difference of the NIV when it reads “from the beginning” instead of “firstfruits.” And the single preposition εν governs both its objects, “sanctification” and “belief.”
This latter point is especially important in helping us determine the meaning of the passage. The realities described by these two objects are being closely connected and cannot be two unrelated truths. That much we know grammatically.
But what does the prepositional phrase modify? Prepositions can function adverbially. In that case, it would modify God’s “choosing.” They can also function adjectivally. In that case, it would modify “salvation.”
But it even gets a little more complicated in this passage. “Salvation” is one of those nouns that contains a verbal idea, and so the prepositional phrase is externally modifying a noun, but in terms of its meaning it could be functioning adverbially relative to the verbal idea in the noun. Ah, isn’t grammar fun!
As always, context is the guide. Proximity favors the view that sees the preposition modifying “salvation.” And it would be a strange thing to say that God’s election was in some way connected to our belief. Perhaps this is why the commentaries tend not to discuss this point.
Paul appears to be saying that God elected us for the purpose of saving us. This salvation was accomplished through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and also by our faith in the truth of God (see Morris commentary, page 238). This is not to say that we cooperate in our salvation; it is to say that even our belief is a gift from God (Eph 2:8-9).
The most interesting question for me in this verse is the nature of our salvation. As Morris argues, the order of the phrases (Spirit, then faith) may indicate that our faith (or belief) in God is only possible through the work of the Spirit. But the order may also be teaching that “the faith being spoken of is not simply one initial act. It is a continuing habit” (238). Most of us have heard the old adage that salvation is viewed as a past accomplished fact, a continuing act, and a future reality. This verse could be an example of the present working of salvation.
Finally, it is often pointed out that this verse encapsulates the work of all three members of the Trinity (interpreting “Lord” as Jesus). It is not a doctrinal expression of the Trinity, but shows the members of the godhead working in such a way that it was natural for the early church Fathers to see in it the Trinity.
A final word on prepositions. “Phrasing” is my term for what is generally called “sentence flows.” It is a way of visually laying out the text so you can see the flow of the author’s thought. I have been doing this for years; it is part of my approach to exegesis in my Graded Reader. This is an idea I am going to be developing in the future; my current thoughts can be seen at billmounce.com/church-greek.
The advantage of Phrasing is that it forces you to connect every adverbial or adjectival phrase to what it modifies. It makes you slow down, read the text, and ask the right questions. I encourage you to look into it.