Those “little words” mean a lot. To, from, at, in, on, for, to, and all the rest of the prepositions, words without a really precise definition. When we were hosting international students, these little words caused more confusion than any other part of the English language. But their meanings make such a difference in clarity of communication.
I was reflecting on this after seeing a handpainted sign on a rural road, for the gazillionth time, posted on a tree, with a Bible verse on it. I have seen this particular verse painted on trailers, nailed to fence posts and trees, spray-painted on barns. Handpainted, professionally painted, printed on handbills. It is posted all over the West and for all I know, the entire country. You may have seen it as well. It’s Acts16:31.
I have been noticing it for decades, in fact, and was always puzzled by the grammar. It bothered me. Did they make a mistake, I wondered as a child? Don’t they mean believe “in”? We, as Catholics, always said believe in.
My New American Bible translates the verse like this: Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.
The King James Bible translates it like this: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.
Basically the same, yet that second word, that one small word in the sentence changes the meaning so much. And in these reflections, I certainly don’t mean to disparage anybody. Perhaps I am too literal, but the word “on” indicates to me a position, as in on top of, or affixed to. Maybe this refers to a foundation, to believe on Jesus as the foundation of your life, that He is the rock upon which your faith is built. Not a bad understanding, not a bad metaphor, not really.
Except, all houses are built on similar, strong foundations, but they all go different directions in their architecture, seldom any two alike in the details of height, structure, shape, and appearance. The foundation is simply the bottom, one can branch out from there without much reference to what they are on. They are connected to their foundations, but they are not part of it, they remain a distinct and separate part. Which is not to say that people who read the King James Bible are not paying attention to their own foundation in Jesus Christ or are separated from Him and gone their own way. That is not necessarily so. But a look at the vast number of Christian denominations and their varied teachings does lend some support to my understanding of this verse, I think.
The word “in” calls to mind union, oneness, togetherness, communion. It is an intimate word. As we say at Mass: Through Him, with Him, in Him. Not separate, or resting upon, but part of Jesus Himself through the mystery of the Eucharist. We eat His Body, drink His Blood, and take Him within us as part of our every cell, our body and our soul. He is one with us, and we strive to be one with Him for all of eternity. God has opened Himself to us in complete and embracing love.
I don’t know what the original (Greek?) wording is, or how it is most properly translated in the Scriptures, but nevertheless I feel that the theology is most beautifully expressed in our own Catholic tradition. I would be interested in hearing if you are familiar with this verse being painted on signs throughout our land, and how you interpret this difference in wording and its implications.