One of the most common and elusive uses of “in” by Paul is found in the phrase ἐν Χριστῷ (in Christ).
The BDF grammar (§219 (4)) says in frustration: “The phrase ἐν Χριστῷ (κυρίῳ), which is copiously appended by Paul to the most varied concepts, utterly defies definite interpretation.” So, I would be well advised to say no more. I won’t heed the advice, though, and comment anyway, first more generally about ἐν.
In its basic locative sense ἐν can refer to position inside something in a 3-dimensional space or at/on something in a 2-dimensional space. English normally uses “in” for the first and “on” for the second. (The Greek ἐπί is also used for the 2-dimensional space).
In an extended locative sense ἐν is used to point to the context or environment of a state or activity (often called “sphere”), and it can also indicate a reference for a predicate or modifier (Lk 16:10; 2Co 10:3; Eph 2:4; 1Pe 4:11). (For these citations, I am indebted to Pam Bendor-Samuel’s thesis: The Exegesis and Translation of Prepositional Phrases in the Greek New Testament – a semantic role analysis. See the table of contents here: http://www.sil.org/acpub/repository/43841_front.pdf). The full text is available here.
Sometimes ἐν can refer to the target (or goal, direction), although the more usual preposition for this is εἰς. I made some comments on this in connection with πιστεύω in an earlier post (http://betterbibles.com/2010/03/07/genitives-and-the-semantics-of-love-and-faith).
Another common function of ἐν is temporal, either as time-when or the situation/circumstances in which something happens (English can do the same: in sickness and in health).
A common function of ἐν is “means”, which can be either an instrument or a method used by an agent to accomplish something. Closely related to “means” is “manner”. They both answer the question “How?”
Turning to the phrase ἐν Χριστῷ (κυρίῳ/Ἰησοῦ), Pam Bendor-Samuel says: “It is Paul’s short-hand formula, a formula which encapsulates and summarises the unique, close, living, dependent relationship between the believer and Christ, with all the implications which flow from that.” She then suggests the three main semantic roles behind the preposition to be sphere, agency and target. Concerning “sphere” she says: “The term ‘Sphere’ is itself figurative, and implies context, framework, environment, setting, conditioning, hence also description, reference, and even definition.”
When she discusses ἐν Χριστῷ in the section about sphere the focus is on the state of being in a close relationship with Christ. The GNB often translates it as “in union with Christ”.
In the section about agency she notes that the more usual preposition for this is διά, but Paul often uses ἐν Χριστῷ in the sense of agency. In that sense ἐν Χριστῷ can be understood as a shorthand expression for “by way of or as a result of what Christ has done.” In such contexts, the English “through” or “by way of” may be the most appropriate translation, but “because of (what) Christ (has done)” is also a possibility.
Sometimes the focus is on the state that is a result of what Christ has done and then it shows the close, dependent relationship between Christians and Christ. To be “in Christ” is almost the same as being a Christian. In other words, it is often difficult to decide whether the focus is on the agency of Christ in bringing about the state or whether the focus is on the resultant state. It is quite possible that Paul did not intend to make such a distinction.
In her third section, Pam B-S. discusses the less common semantic role of target. She says: “Christ is the object of faith, hope and joy for the believer. The role of Target is commonly expressed by the prepositions εἰς and ἐπί.” And she continues: ”Target is also a role of ἐν Χριστῷ, though much less frequently than the other two.” She lists the following examples, but also notes that there is not agreement about the function of the preposition in several of these: John 3:15; Gal 3:26; Eph 1:15; Col 1:4; 1 Tim 3:13; 2 Tim 3:15. There are other examples of ἐν showing target (or direction) with a different noun than Χριστῷ, for instance: Mark 1:15; 1 Cor 2:5; Rom 3:25.
Since I have been studying Galatians for the last month, I’ll try to look briefly at some of these ἐν phrases in Galatians:
1:13 you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism – temporal, circumstantial, my life as a Jew.
1:22 churches of Judea that are in Christ – remembering that ἐκκλησία is a general word for assembly, the phrase ”in Christ” indicates the sphere or more specifically specification. It describes these assemblies as Christian assemblies.
1:24 And they glorified God in me (KJV) – they praised God for me. The ἐν indicates “with reference to” or “with respect to”, but there is a metonymy, where ”me” stands for what happened to me or what Jesus accomplished in me. L&N calls it ”with regard to (specification)”. NIV says: ”they praised God because of me” and GW says: ”they praised God for what had happened to me.”
2:4 the freedom we have in Christ Jesus (NIV) – both agency and sphere may be seen here. The freedom has come about through what Christ did, and we are now in the state of being free. GNB says ”the freedom we have through our union with Christ Jesus.” CEV says ”the freedom that Christ Jesus had given us.”
2:17 we seek to be justified in Christ (NIV), we seek to be justified by Christ (KJV) – It is the same idea of both agency and state: through what Christ did and the resultant state of being united with him (because of our faith in him) we are justified. The concept of faith is implicit and made explicit by the NLT: “seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ.”
2:20 The life I live in the body, I live in faith in the Son of God – temporal, circumstantial and descriptive of my current life.
3:8 In thee shall all nations be blessed (KJV) – by means of you and through you. Instrument and method.
3:11 no one is justified before God by (ἐν) the law – same as above: instrument and method.
3:16 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus – the target or direction of faith, although some prefer to take it as agency+state. (NIV2010 changed the old NIV here.)
4:14 And my/your temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not (KJV) – in reference to my bodily condition, which could have tempted you to despise me.
4:20 I am perplexed about (ἐν) you – with regard to you.
5:10 I have confidence in (εἰς) you through (ἐν) the Lord (KJV) – probably agency + state, through what Jesus has done for you, you are now in union with him, and that gives me confidence in you that you will come to agree with me. However, some prefer to take this as describing Paul’s confidence in himself and his authority as an apostle.