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Ambiguous and Meaningless (John 3:21) - Mondays with Mounce 288

Categories Mondays with Mounce

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)
  • “his works may be shown to be accomplished by God” (CSB)
  • “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.


William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language and exegesis on the ZA Blog. He is the president of, a ministry that creates and distributes world-class educational courses at no cost. He is also the author of numerous works including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek and a corresponding online class. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.

Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at


Professors: Request an exam copy of Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek here.

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