I'm translating Ephesians 1:9 and having a bit of trouble with the phrase ἐν αὐτῷ. I don't know whether the pronoun refers to God the Father or Christ the Son. To compound my confusion, the YLT translates the pronoun αὐτῷ as "Himself" whereas the ESV translates the pronoun as "Christ". How do you understand this final phrase of the verse? Is it clear whom it refers to?

γνωρίσας ἡμῖν τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ, κατὰ τὴν εὐδοκίαν αὐτοῦ ἣν προέθετο ἐν αὐτῷ

making known[a] to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ (ESV)

having made known to us the secret of His will, according to His good pleasure, that He purposed in Himself, (YLT)

having made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his favor, which he purposed in Himself (my translation)

Update: I think the next verse also helps us understand what is meant. The verb προέθετο ("purposed") in verse 9 is complemented by ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι ("to gather together into one") in verse 10. God the Father is the one doing these actions. Being the steward of time, he gathers together all things into one in Christ. Thus αὐτῷ can indicate that he purposed this in Himself, or that he designed this in Christ. The pronoun is still ambiguous, but the overall meaning is more or less clear.

  • Is it clear whom it refers to ? - No, because at least one instance (v. 7) clearly refers to Christ when saying his blood. Otherwise, one might be tempted to think that all third person singular pronouns from within the entire passage (v. 3-13) refer to God. But, as such, we are not able to clearly discern anymore.
    – Lucian
    Jan 16, 2018 at 0:54
  • Good question. Up-voted.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 16, 2018 at 12:49

2 Answers 2


This is an excellent question and as you have already seen, not any easy one. The fact that Ephesians begins with some very long sentences does not make the task any easier.

There is another issue that further complicate this one, punctuation. Various Greek texts put the punctuation in different places in Eph. 1.

In the UBS4 critical text there is a period after verse 6 (other Greek texts put a semicolon or none at all). Then the first pronoun in verse 7 can only be referring to Christ. With this punctuation grammatically it would then make the pronoun in verse 9 as referring to Christ. Zerwick (578), in his grammatical analysis of the Greek text says "ἐν αὐτῷ i.e. to be realized in Christ."

One of the best tools I have is the Exegetical Summary series that was produced by the SIL translation group out of Dallas. They present various exegetical questions that arise from an examination of the Greek text and then list in summary form the positions of various translations and commentaries. In my LOGOS software they are all cross linked so it is an excellent tool.

Here is what they have for this question (the abbreviations are the translation or commentary series they come from):

which he-purposed in him/himself:

LEXICON—a. aorist mid. indic. of προτίθεμαι, προτίθημι (LN 30.62) (BAGD 2.b. p. 722): ‘to purpose’ [El, LN, Lns, Rob, TH, WBC, We; KJV, NASB, NIV], ‘to determine beforehand’ [NJB, REB], ‘to plan’ [BAGD, NIC], ‘to plan beforehand’ [LN], ‘to intend’ [BAGD, LN], ‘to set forth’ [NRSV], ‘to decide’ [TEV], ‘to set’ [AB; TNT]. This is also translated as a verbal clause: ‘to cherish the purpose for one’s self’ [NTC], ‘to decree a plan’ [NAB].

b. ἐν with dative object (LN 90.6): ‘in’ [El, LN (30.62), Lns, NIC, NTC, Rob, TH, WBC, We; all versions except TEV], ‘by’ [LN], ‘by means of’ [TEV], ‘upon’ [AB].

QUESTION—To whom does αὐτῷ ‘him/himself’ refer and what relationship is indicated by ἐν ‘in’?

  1. This refers to Christ [AB, Can, EBC, IB, LN (30.62), Lns, Lt, NCBC, NIC, NTC, Si-ed, TH, WBC, We; NAB, NIV, NJB, NRSV, REB, TEV] though some translate only ‘him’. It refers to Christ because the middle voice of the verb itself already incorporates the reflexive idea of ‘in/for himself’ [Lns, NTC, We]. Two commentators think that ἐν ‘in’ indicates the means by which God will accomplish his plan [TH; TEV]: which he purposed (to accomplish) by means of Christ. The remainder leave the preposition ambiguous.

  2. The pronoun is taken as equivalent to ἑαυτῷ ‘in himself’ and refers to God [Ba, Cal, Ea, ECWB, EGT, El, Gd, Ho, My]: which he himself purposed. Here, the connection with προέθετο ‘he purposed’ is so immediate that the reflexive form alone seems the only possibility [El]. The text is speaking of the purposes of God, i.e. what was in his mind, and while God is the planner, Christ’s role was to carry it out [Ea, EGT, My]. The repetition of ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ ‘in Christ’ in the next clause forbids the reference to Christ here. To take it as referring to Christ is to introduce tautology into this passage [Ho].

Glenn Graham, An Exegetical Summary of Ephesians, 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2008), 38.

If you were to look up all of the references, one common pattern emerges between the two versions. All of the earlier commentaries (early 20th century and earlier) all say the pronoun refers to God. It is the more recent commentaries that say the pronoun is referring to Christ. Included in that list is Bruce, the expositors series (more conservative), and the Word Biblical commentary series (tends to be more liberal in there conclusions). I am more intrigued by the comment at the end by Charles Hodge "To take it as referring to Christ is to introduce tautology into this passage." At first glance I think at I would side with the latter group in spite of the fact that most of them are earlier works.

  • 1
    Nice answer. I believe the fact a case can be made for either is a reflection of a purposeful ambiguity written into the passage. The ambiguity is necessary because (according to my belief in the Trinity) Christ is also God so any individual attribute of The Christ must necessarily also be true of God. Jan 16, 2018 at 15:37
  • Thanks for the excellent and comprehensive answer! You account for both positions very well and it is good to know the timeline of each position. At first glance I too side with the second position (taken mostly in the early 20th century and prior) that αὐτῷ refers to himself. Hodge makes a cogent argument in that one line. I think this answer will help anyone who has the same question reach their own decision.
    – ktm5124
    Jan 16, 2018 at 19:58

I think v.10 implies that ἐν αὐτῷ in v.9 must refer to God the Father, and not to Christ:

9γνωρίσας ἡμῖν τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ, κατὰ τὴν εὐδοκίαν αὐτοῦ ἣν προέθετο ἐν αὐτῷ

having made known to us the secret of His will, according to His good pleasure, that He purposed in Himself,

9εἰς οἰκονομίαν τοῦ πληρώματος τῶν καιρῶν, ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι τὰ πάντα ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ

in regard to the dispensation of the fulness of the times, to bring into one the whole in the Christ

I don't think the phrase προέθετο ἐν αὐτῷ ... ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι τὰ πάντα ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ (He purposed in Himself ... to bring into one the whole in the Christ) makes sense if Himself (αὐτῷ) were to refer to Christ rather than God the Father.

  • Thank you for your answer! At first glance I think I agree with you. Charles Hodge is persuasive when he says "To take it as referring to Christ is to introduce tautology into this passage". But I might be able to see a case where that is otherwise. I guess I don't have a strong opinion at the moment.
    – ktm5124
    Jan 16, 2018 at 20:03
  • 1
    I haven't checked, but you also might see how some of the Greek commentators - especially Chrysostom - read the passage.
    – user33515
    Jan 16, 2018 at 20:55

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