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What Did Jesus Say? (2012) - 7 topics 

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Chapter Twenty-Six: John 3:16 Obey Unto Jesus Saves? (Part Three)

How Was Pisteuo Used In The Immediate Context?

One of the most famous evangelical scholars — Vincent — was one of the first to note the significance of eis following pisteuo in John 3:16. He said its effect in the sentence required reading pisteuo not to mean mere belief in facts. It required the meaning of obedience. Vincent says:

“‘believe on’ (pisteuosin eis) is more than mere acceptance of a statement. It is so to accept them practically....Hence, to believe on the Lord Jesus is not merely to believe the facts of His historic life or His saving energy as facts, but to accept Him as Savior, Teacher, Sympathizer, Judge; to rest the soul upon Him for present and future salvation; and to accept and adopt His precepts and example and binding upon the life.” (Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (C. Scribner’s: 1905) Vol. 2 at 49-50.)

Background on Vincent’s Claim

What Vincent is saying is that it is often overlooked in John 3:16 that pisteuo is followed by the words “eis autos”11eis meaning “unto, into, towards, for.” (Thayer’s New Testament Lexicon.) Autos simply means him. The word pisteuo is not followed by the Greek word for in which is en.

Meaning of Eis

Liddell-Scott’s Lexicon provides us once more the most authoritative analysis of the meaning of the word eis. In its standard usage, eis means “into” or “more loosely, to.”12 Liddell-Scott, however, will explain carefully its usages where it changes to the meaning of for. (An English synonym of for is unto with non-motion verbs. The word unto is listed by Thayer above as an optional translation of eis, which will be important later.)

However, before discussing Liddell-Scott’s detailed examples of the nuanced meanings of eis, up front we need to note the word eis is never offered to be translated as the English word in by either Thayer’s or Liddell-Scott.

Yet, the King James felt free to render eis with our English word in on 138 occasions, including John 3:16. Yet, the English word in is impermissible. There is a Greek word for in, and not surprisingly it is the word en.

With that caution in mind, let’s study eis in Liddell-Scott — the most thorough and reliable Greek lexicon ever assembled.

Liddell-Scott starts out by distinguishing the possible meaning of eis if a verb expresses motion or not.

Liddell-Scott says eis with verbs of motion or direction means “into.” Thus, one would say you go ‘into’ (eis)a place. This is the typical usage of eis — it follows a verb of motion.13

Eis With Verbs Lacking Sense Of Motion Or Direction

On the other hand, if the verb “has no sense of motion to or into a place,” Liddell-Scott says then the translation should be “for.”

In such a case, eis is rendered as for because the sentence intends to express purpose or object. Eis as a preposition likewise, when standing alone, often has this function. Liddell-Scott explains:

of Purpose or Object...for good, for his good...to live for show...to be pertinent, to the purpose...to cause fear [eis phobon]

(Incidentally, this for meaning is distinguishable from the Greek word gar which means for in the sense of because. “Repent, for (Greek, gar) the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matt. 3:2.)

We find this for meaning of eis in many places in the New Testament writings.

The eis of purpose, meaning for, is how Paul spoke in Ephesians 4:11, 12. Paul said: “And he gave some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers toward (Greek, pros) the equipping of the saints for (Greek, eis) the work of ministry for (Greek, eis) the building of the body of Christ.”

The same usage of eis as for (an object) is found in 1 Peter 3:21. Apostle Peter says “baptism... does now save us — not the putting away the filfth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience eisFOR — God.” Peter means when during the washing of baptism you answer and truly repent FOR God’s sake (i.e., the answer of a good conscience), this aspect of baptism is what “saves us” (not the washing of the water).

Apostle Peter uses eis the same way again when Peter says in Acts 2:38 the following:

And Peter said unto them, Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ FOR (Greek, eis) the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (KJV).

Peter intends us to understand that the water has no magic for salvation sake (1 Peter 3:21), but that a good conscience by repentance from sin is FOR the remission of sins.

Hence, we see numerous uses of eis in Scripture to mean for a purpose or object, including for God. We saw examples where it is spoken of as having a good conscience FOR GOD or as having repentance FOR the remissions of sins. (Incidentally, please do not overlook Peter’s salvation statements just quoted at odds with cheap grace.)

Eis Can Crucially Change Meaning

Kenneth Wuest (1893-1962), formerly a professor at Moody Bible Institute, makes the point that translating eis into English incorrectly has misled the reader in other contexts. His remark below is just as applicable to what happened to John 3:16 due to the English mistranslation of eis as in, as we shall see below:

A careful study of the Greek preposition [eis] discloses some precious truth that would otherwise be obscured by reason of a wrong interpretation put upon an English preposition, and at the same time saves the expositor from arriving at a wrong interpretation.14

With all of that in mind, let’s examine the possibilities of how to translate John 3:16.

Is Pisteuo A Verb Of Motion?

Considering what Liddell-Scott explained, the correct meaning of eis here should be for (or its English synonym unto) with the sense of purpose or object. The verb pisteuo, whether obey, comply, trust, etc., or believe (some fact) is not a verb of motion.

Some suggest pisteuo has a sense of motion by paraphrasing it to mean ‘place one’s faith in or on Jesus.’ Yet, that is adding words to make pisteuo appear a verb of motion. However, if pisteuo is being used to mean believe, it not only lacks any motion, it lacks any sense of motion, as even the proponents of that meaning intend. If pisteuo means instead comply, obey, commit, or trust, it likewise signifies no motion — no physical placing. No one is going anywhere, and hence it is not a verb of motion. Thus, one can see the suggestion that it means the motion of placing something in someone else is a motion activity not present in the verb meaning itself. What drives this?

Some Christian scholars suggest that we must either “supply a missing idea of motion” or “recognize a negligent use of eis” in certain contexts.15 If the meaning is metaphysical, “it is left to the interpreter to decide which meaning is best suited to the context in every particular case.” (Butmann, id.) While never saying so, such a lesson can only be addressed to the problem presented by eis in John 3:16. If you want the meaning of eis in John 3:16 to come out as in due to a preconceived notion about salvation, you simply must supply the “missing meaning” to the verb involved (i.e., ‘placing’), so pisteuo now appears a verb of motion. Then you can rationalize eis to mean into. Then it is a short leap — although itself unjustifiable — to truncate this down to in. With that in placed where it does not belong, you can then peg pisteuo to mean believes.

However, may I suggest this idea that translators are free to supply a “missing meaning” or suppose “negligent use of eis” is doctrine speaking. It is no longer objective analysis. Objective scholars would readily see Butmann’s reasoning is used to help justify the translation of eis as in rather than as for. In other words, some describe the verb in such a manner of ‘putting faith in someone’ solely to justify the habitual English rendering of in within John 3:16. This is how they force eis to mean in — by conforming the verb meaning to justify their preferred understanding of eis. Yet, it is the nature of the verb that controls the meaning of eis. It is not the preferred rendering of eis which drives us to change and mold the verb. These translators have it backwards.

Let’s turn to objective scholars for help. Malcolm D. Hyman of Harvard provides useful analysis in Greek and Roman Grammarians On Motion Verbs and Place Adverbials (January 4, 2003) (available online).16

His study provides us an objective source of information. He says a motion verb means an intransitive verb which “denotes a change of place.” You will find it often in conjunction with “a spatial adverbial — a prepositional phrase or adverb.” Hyman points out that ancient Greek grammarians spelled out these rules with precision. Such a grammarian was Apollonius Dyscolus. Apollonius explained adverbs’ meanings change in relation to whether a motion or non-motion verb is used. Thus, ano means above, but after a motion verb it means upwards. Apollonius described this phenomenon in Greek where “semantic categories are represented by the same linguistic form.” In other words, the preposition’s meaning changes by the nature of the verb involved. Latin has the identical grammar.

What are verbs of motion? Hyman explains that if the verb signifies one is going somewhere, it is a verb of motion, and adverbials (including prepositions) take on a different meaning. For example, “I start,” “I proceed,” or “I make my way” are motion verbs. When used with motion, Hyman mentions eis means into.

When the verb is not of motion, such as here — where it is obey, commit, trust or believes, Liddell-Scott says the sense of eis is for. Also, one can see the verb followed by eis and a pronoun him (indicating Jesus) is identifying an object or purpose in view. It is comparable to the example Liddell-Scott gave of for (eis) his good. The verb activity is thus for the sake of Jesus. It is for Him.

Vincent in volume two of his work agrees on the impact of eis in the sentence. In fact, Vincent says eis drives the meaning so that pisteuo means obey, not merely believes when Jesus speaks in John 3:16. Vincent says the eis requires pisteuo to mean “to accept and adopt His precepts and example as binding upon” one’s life — the true predicate to eternal life in John 3:16.17. Pisteuo is thus unto Him — for His benefit, for His service. It means obedience results in eternal life.

Unto’s Meaning In English

In rendering John 3:16, we will prefer rendering eis as unto rather than for. It simply sounds better. In English, unto is a word that when change in “place is not the sense” (i.e., a motion is not involved in the verb), unto means “in order to or with the purpose that.”18 In short, it means for in the sense of purpose. Thus, if the verb involved is not a verb of motion from place to place, unto is a perfect synonym for the English word for. Sometimes it just sounds better to use unto in place of for. See for example Romans 1:16 RSV (“power of God unto (eis) salvation...”); Romans 6:10 (“Christ died unto (eis) sin once....”)

Having Solved Eis’ Meaning, What Is The Best Meaning Of The Expression?

Now let’s put to the test Vincent’s claim in volume two of his famous work that pisteuosin eis in John 3:16 means to obey Jesus. We will take the previously established meanings of pisteuo, and then combine each with unto as the best English synonym for eis. The result should allow us to test which of the following statements reads best. (The verb tense is continuous which is reflected below by adding ‘keeps on.’)19

“whosoever keeps on trusting unto him....”

“whoever keeps on obeying/complying unto him....”

“whoever keeps on believing (that a thing is, will be or has been true) unto him.”

“whoever keeps on committing unto him.”

The interesting thing here is no matter what meaning you give pisteuo among these, when you remove in and replace it with the sense of for (i.e., ‘unto’), the emphasis of the sentence changes. The verb activity now has a purpose that validates it. This is what the word eis does to the sentence. As Vincent said, this little preposition is the key that unlocks the verse. Unfortunately, the preposition in which the KJV used only obscures this purpose. As Professor Wuest said as to other passages, the wrong English translation of the Greek preposition eis can cause “some precious truth” to be “obscured by reason of a wrong interpretation put upon an [erroneous] English preposition” used to translate eis. The repair of such an error “saves the expositor from arriving at a wrong interpretation.” See page 431 supra.

Thus, in John 3:16 eis makes clear that whatever the activity it is that pisteuo represents, it is for Jesus’ sake. It is not a verb activity you have in Jesus. It is something you are doing FOR Jesus — “unto” our Lord. That’s the point of John 3:16. That activity, whatever it might be, is done FOR Jesus. We now pisteuo unto or FOR Jesus.

Once you have that for meaning in mind, the decision on which of the meanings best reflects Jesus’ intention is clearly obeying or synonymously committing. You are serving for Christ and His sake alone. You are not obeying to be “seen by men.” (Matt. 6:1.) It is not for others. It is not obedience for obedience-sake alone. Instead, you have taken on a commitment for Him to serve only Him. This is an obedience which you will keep on honoring and doing for Jesus’ sake, just as a good servant should be doing.

This completely lines up with John 8:51: “whoever keeps on obeying (tereo, diligently following) My Teaching should never ever die.”

Thus, John 3:16 is a synonymous way of saying what is clearly said in John 8:51.

You are keeping to your obedience for Jesus’ sake, and hence you “should receive eternal life.”

Contrast this with how many read John 3:16. For example, many belief-alone advocates say salvation is for those who “believe in the fact that Christ died for your sins.” Or that salvation is for the one who “believes in the fact that Jesus was Messiah.” Thus, Stanley says you are saved if you ever once believe or trust in the fact that “Jesus died for your sins.” (Eternal Security, supra, at 33-34.)

Yet, that is not the point at all of John 3:16. It is not what faith you place in Jesus. It is instead about what you are doing for Jesus.

Continue to Part 4.


12. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3D%2331236 (last accessed 7-4-07).

13. Another use of eis is to express relations such as "in regard to."

14. Kenneth Wuest, Practical Use of the Greek New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1946) at 61 and 62.

15. Alexander Buttman, A Grammar of the New Testament Greek (Andover: Walter Draper, 1891) at 333 (available from Google books).

16. http://archimedes.fas.harvard.edu/mdh/motion.pdf (accessed 7-18-07).

17. As quoted previously above, Vincent in his Prologue of volume two emphasizes that eis in expression of pisteuosin eis means obeying Jesus. See quote at 428 supra from Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (C. Scribner's: 1905) Vol. 2 at 49-50.

18. Edward Byrd, "Unto what then were ye Baptized?," The Reminder Volume No. 23 Issue No. 07 (November 1983), available online at http://www.anabaptist.com/ReminderTemplate.cfm?ReminderID=3 (accessed 7-21-07).

19. See See Issue #3: Continuity Or One Time Pisteousin? at ___ et seq.

Response to This Issue
Mishna's YouTube "Silver Bullett for a BenjamiteWolf" - takes the thesis of this part of JWOS, and makes a 3 Minute Video with stirring music to make the point.