What difference can a preposition make? To a grammar Nazi, quite a bit. To say a man jumped into a train can be the same as or considerably different than saying he jumped onto a train. In one sense they are one and the same; in another he is either inside or on top of the train, a distinction that could seriously affect his safety. To some, such grammar distinctions are technical exercises that are beyond the average person. To others, the variations make all the difference. For instance, one may question the various translations of a passage such as Matthew 3:17 or 17:5.
The first of these passages is Matthew’s account of the immersion of Jesus. He came up out of the water, the Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and God spoke. The second is the account of the transfiguration, at which God also spoke. The words spoken contained an identical phrase.
“This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” (King James, American Standard) Or is it “with whom I am well pleased” (New International, English Standard, Revised Standard)? And does it really make a difference?
In the Matthew passages and in Mark 1:11, the Greek text is identical. The word translated “in” or “with” is a single word. Over 1,000 times it is translated “in.” A little over 400 times it is translated “with.” There are circumstances in which one or the other is clearly the right choice. This is not one of those circumstances. In some ways this is like the into/onto a train example. It may not make a difference, or it may make all the difference.
“In whom” basically implies that God was pleased with the Son because of who he intrinsically was. It is the picture of a father who loves his son unconditionally. In that sense, “in whom” gives us all hope. If God can love Jesus just because he is the Son of God, then he can love us because we are the creation of God. No matter how sinful I may become, God can be well pleased “in” me. After all, after Jesus compared himself to the life-giving bronze serpent in the wilderness, John adds the comment that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” that those who trust in him may have life.
On the other hand, “with whom” may mean the same thing, or it may mean that God was pleased with what Jesus had done. Even though he had not yet paid the ultimate price, God was pleased with him because of his actions up to that time. This is a little less hopeful. If God is pleased “with” someone because of their actions, we are all doomed. Since none of us have lived the sinless life that Jesus lived, God cannot be pleased “with” us. And yet he was pleased with the Son, who takes our place; therefore, through Christ, God is pleased with us if we are placing our trust in Jesus.
There is one more grammatical twist to the matter. Peter mentions the transfiguration in one of his letters, and recounts what God said. But he uses a different Greek word for “in” than Matthew and Mark do. The word Peter uses in 2 Peter 1:17 is a word more commonly translated “into.” It is the same word used in Acts 2:38: “Repent, and be immersed every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for [or into, or towards] the remission of your sins.” So Peter’s version would say that God directed his pleasure toward the Son. In a similar manner, God directs his love toward us. The difference seems to be in our response. God’s love is sent our way; we may accept it through trust, or we may reject it.
Fine distinctions. Perhaps. Which is right? Perhaps all. The ultimate conclusion is that God loves. That is all we need to know.