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2 Thess 2:13—What do Prepositions Modify? (Monday with Mounce 70)

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Sometimes 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)
n 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

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.

MounceWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greekand is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. 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 and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at

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