Word Studies

Course: How to Read Your Bible

Lecture: Word Studies


I. Introduction

Let's discuss how to do word studies and some of the things that we need to watch out for when we're doing word studies.

One of my favorite little stories is about a lady stockbroker. This lady stockbroker was making a lot of money for a sheikh, and the sheikh decided that he wanted to do something nice for this lady stockbroker, and so he said, "Well, let me buy you something. I want to buy you a very fancy car. I'd buy you a house. You've made me millions and millions of dollars. Let me just buy you a nice house."

And she kept saying, "No, I was just doing my job. You don't need to do that." But he kept pestering her. So finally she said, "Well, I'll tell you what. I'll let you buy me a set of golf clubs. I've taken up golf and I enjoy playing golf, so if you want to buy me a nice set of golf clubs, that will be fine."

Well, she didn't hear from him for several weeks and she thought, well, he's probably forgotten it and it has gone off his radar screen. But then she got a letter in the mail and it was from the sheikh, and the sheikh wrote to her and said, "Dear Madam, I want you to know that I'm working on the golf clubs. I've bought three so far and two of them have swimming pools."

I like that story. I'd love to meet a sheikh sometime who'd want to buy me golf clubs like that.

Well, let me ask you a question. Why does that story work? Why do we get to the punch line of that story and we start laughing and we say, "Oh, okay." Well, it's the duality of the word "clubs." You have a word in English that can mean two different things. In fact, in a lot of the jokes that we tell, the turning point - the hinge of the story that makes the story work - is the fact that you have words that have two different meanings. Right?

Let us get right into the subject for today.

II. Two principles in word studies

There are two principles to keep in mind in dealing with word studies.

A. Words have a range of meanings

First of all, we need to understand that words have a range of meanings in any language. Technically, this is called the semantic range. Semantics just means meaning.

Now let's look at an example of that. How about the English word "hand." Let's think of how many different meanings there are of the word "hand."

"Give me a hand" means what? It means "give me some help." "To hand them something" is a verb meaning "will you bring this to me." "Give them a hand" means applause. Then you have your physical literal hand. "To handle something". What about "the hands on a clock"? How high is a horse? So many hands high. What about a "hired hand"? Someone who is working on a ranch or whatever. I don't have a good hand. This gives us enough to see that you can't say what does the word H-A-N-D mean? What is the definite meaning of the word H-A-N-D? Well, the meaning of that word is dependent on the second point, which is context.

B. Context always determines meaning

As far as principles go in Bible study, reading in context has got to be one of the most important principles because you do not have words mean specific things apart from the context. This principle laps over all kinds of literature and different kinds of dynamics we find in the Scripture.

All of the material, the other words and the sentences and the paragraphs surrounding a particular word help us to tune in to what that word means.

So context is going to determine meaning. So if I said to you, "What does the word H-A-N-D mean?" The correct answer to that is, "Well, it depends on the context. How is it being used?" Because we use that English word to mean a lot of different things, we want to look at the passage where that word appears to determine its meaning. We want to look at the book or that section of the book. We want to look at what it means in these other places. Is it used elsewhere in the Bible? Even is it used in the broader New Testament world?

Let me give you an example of a difficult case of that. There’s a word in Romans 8:1 that we normally translate as “condemnation.” “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Now that statement is true, but there’s a problem with that translation. I mean, we’re not condemned by God because of the forgiveness that’s been brought to us in Christ. But that word is a Greek word “katakrama.” That Greek word is only used three times in the whole Bible. It’s used in Romans those three times. And it’s a little bit hard from just the context of Romans to determine exactly what that word means. So we’re going to need help from some other tools, and what we find is that when you look at the use of this word in the broader New Testament world of that time, there’s no place that it means what we mean by condemnation. It’s one of those words that’s kind of sneaked its way in or one of those translations that has sneaked its way in. It has become very dominant. When you look at the broader literature of that time, the cultural context, that word means something more like “fines” or “fees”. It’s not the threat of being under judgment which is how we normally use the word “condemnation.” It is the actual penalty, living under the penalty.

Now think about it this way: In the context, doesn’t this make more sense. “There is therefore now no longer any lingering punishment or penalty for those who are in Christ Jesus for the law of the spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death. You’ve been liberated.” So it’s not that we’re not under the threat of some impending judgment that God’s condemned us and we’re going to be punished. It’s rather that we’ve been released from living under the penalty of sin, the domination of sin. It’s not that we’re under the threat of being put into jail. It’s that we’ve been released from jail. So we learn that from a very broad context and that’s the broader cultural context of the day. So context is going to be very, very important for us to tune into as we do our word studies.

III. Elements of word studies

Let’s talk just a little bit about doing word studies and I want to mention a few word study fallacies, and these are kind of fun to deal with. And then we’ll talk very briefly about how we do word studies well.

First of all, by way of introduction, word studies take time and you cannot possibly study every word. Now what this means is that you can feel overwhelmed, especially if you’re looking at a larger passage of eight to ten verses. You can feel overwhelmed by saying, wow, I’ve got to go look in the dictionary for all of these words.

What I want to encourage you to do is, when you're studying a passage, try to tune in on the three or four most important words of the passage that seem to stick out as the most important words. What do you think would be some of the most important kinds of words to study?

A. Verbs

A lot of times the verbs are going to be very important because they carry the action of the passage. So maybe what seem to be very central verbs would be important. What else would be some things that we would want to? If we have to narrow it down to three or four, what would be some other things that we would want to zero in on?

B. Key characters

If you're dealing with narrative and you have a key character in the story, then you may want to tune in to that person.

C. Repeated words

What about words that are repeated throughout the passage that seem to tie the passage together? If you have a key word that really ties the passage together, then we might want to really zoom in on that and focus on that.

D. Difficult words

How about difficult words? Something that you just don't understand, especially theological words. If there's a word that seems to have a real theological import, we might want to zoom in on that. For example, words like "sanctification" or "propitiation." You might say, wow, what does that mean? So some words are a little hard to understand so they take time to figure out. But let me give you this word of encouragement. Once you learn to use a simple tool like a Bible study software program or a concordance, which we're going to talk about in a minute, you can pop through and do word studies in just a matter of a few minutes and really get a lot of insight into what's going on. It doesn't take hours to do word studies; you just need to know the right tools and have those tools at your fingertips.

E. Figures of speech

Another thing that we might need to tune in to is figures of speech. You may not have a tool that specifically deals with figures of speech, but there actually is a good one. It's a dictionary of biblical images and there are a couple of those out there where you can actually look up a figure of speech. So, if your passage is talking about rain coming down, you can look up the article on rain. It will show you all the different ways that rain is symbolically used in the Scripture. So that's a tool that you might want to check out.

F. Unclear, puzzling words

And then finally, look for words that are unclear, puzzling or difficult. So these kind of fill out that idea that it takes time but we want to zoom in on just a few.

IV. Word study fallacies

Now let me mention a few word study fallacies. I've done this before with pastors, and I've had pastors from our area come up and say, "Well, Dr. Guthrie, you ruined four of my sermons this morning when you did that." Well, I've ruined a few of my sermons along the way with these as well, so let me mention a few things that we want to think about here.

A. English-only fallacy

First of all is the English-only fallacy. What I mean by that is we get dependent on a specific English translation and we don't ever look underneath the surface of those words to see what they are saying here. And we just assume that the surface meaning the way we hear it in our culture is the right way to understand it. For instance, look at Philippians 2:5-8 just for a minute. Let's see if we have a couple of different translations of this passage. Let's read this passage in the King James translation.

"Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men."

"He made himself of no reputation." How do some of your other translations translate that phrase? "He made himself nothing." "He emptied himself." Now think about that just for a minute. If we just went with the King James at that point, "He made himself of no reputation." What does the emphasis seem to be just based on how we normally use that English language there? It gives the idea that he wasn't trying to build up fame, when really that's not at the heart of what's being said there.

Now that can happen not just with King James, but with any of our translations. If we don't dig a little bit deeper by, for example, comparing different translations to see where a difficult translation issue might be, we can end up putting a lot of stock in the way our translation reads in English. So the English-only fallacy would be one fallacy we want to avoid.

B. Root fallacy

A second fallacy is called the root fallacy. Now the root fallacy means that I'm going to base my understanding of the word on the Greek or Hebrew root of the word. Now this is when a person gets into doing word studies and they learn just enough to be dangerous. Now let me give you an example of this and then tell you why this just doesn't work.

Years ago, I heard a guy teaching on spiritual gifts and he was taking the words, the Greek words that are used in different places in the New Testament, and he was pulling the words apart and saying, well, this is the definition of this word. So, for instance, he used the Greek word karismata - karismata, which means gift - and he said the root of this is kar, the first three letters, and this is also the root of karis, which is grace and the root of kara which is joy. So his reasoning was that karismata are the grace gifts that give you joy in your service to God. The problem with that is words don't work that way. What he was doing was he was saying, well, this root has these associations with these different words.

What about our word "pineapple"? Let's say a thousand years from now, someone is trying to study the English language and he says, "Well, what was a pineapple? We really don't have records that tell us, but based on the roots here, we know this document was written in the southern United States. They had a lot of pine trees in the southern United States. And they also grew apples, so somehow they must have combined pine trees with apple trees and come up with a very unique kind of fruit." What about the word "butterfly"? Butterfly. Well, we know butter was a very popular thing to eat at this time in history. And you know a person could go in all the root details of the word "butter" and the word "fly" and the fact is that those root meanings would have nothing to do with what a butterfly is. You get the idea? Words just don't work that way.

Now there are times when you will hear someone preach or teach and they'll bring out a word and they will bring out the roots of the word, two parts of it, because the way that word developed, the roots do have a direct relationship to the ultimate meaning of that word. But here's the key: what did this word mean in that culture at that time? That's the key. It's not trying to dig out obscure roots that sound real intriguing and, wow, I've never seen that before. They key is to ask what did this word mean at that place and at that time? So we want to be careful about getting into all kinds of hidden root things that Paul and Jesus never thought of.

C. Time-frame fallacy

Here's a third one. The time-frame fallacy. And, by the way, these fallacies are important for us as we listen to teachers, whether we're listening on the radio or elsewhere. We want to be tuned into the fact that sometimes people misuse language to say what they want to say.

Let's look at Romans 1:16-17 for an example of time-frame fallacy. This is a popular passage. The way my translation reads is "For I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is God's power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."

Now the time-frame fallacy is this: It is taking an earlier meaning, maybe something that this word meant 500 years before the New Testament era, or taking a meaning that came hundreds of years after the New Testament era and reading those meanings into the New Testament. There are Greek words, for instance, that meant something different 300 years in classical Greek era prior to the New Testament time. There are Greek words that meant something completely different than they meant during the New Testament time.

Here's one that you can identify with and this is a meaning that comes from a much later time. Have you ever heard someone preaching on this passage and they would say, "Well, the word for power here is the word 'dunamis'." Now what's the next thing I'm going to say? "Yeah, that's where we get our word 'dynamite' from." And so the gospel is what? It is the dynamite of God. Now what's the problem with that from a time-frame standpoint? Paul had no concept of dynamite. He was not using this word to communicate what we mean by dynamite. In fact, you can get into all kinds of weird stuff. What does dynamite do? Dynamite destroys things. It blows things up. It's used in terror activities. Well, you can get all messed up going in that kind of direction.

Now when someone says that, they're saying, "Well, here's an association," but it's a very weak and poor association. What we would rather do is try to see what this word mean. How does Paul use it in other places? It does mean that the gospel is powerful. It is something that can change things. It can change our lives. But we just want to be careful not to read these meanings from other times into the passage because it draws up connotations that really are not appropriate.

D. Overload fallacy

Another fallacy is the overload fallacy. The overload fallacy just means that you take all of those different possible meanings and you read all of them into the text at this point. Here's the worst version and those of us who are preachers are really guilty of this kind of thing. What we do is we say, "Okay, here are seven different possible meanings. Boy, I like that one because it fits my sermon really well." Well, that word doesn't mean all of these different things in the passage. It means what the author intended it to mean given the context. And so the way to tune in to what the word means is to tune into the context. Given the context, what's the most probable meaning of this word at this point?

So that's the overload fallacy. It's when we just kind of do eeny, meeny, miney, moe with all the possible meanings. Rather, the appropriate way to look at it is to look at the context and say, of these possible meanings, what's probably the best meaning of the word here.

E. Word-count fallacy

And then finally, the word count fallacy. Let's say you looked up your Bible dictionary or your Bible software and you pulled up all the uses of a word and how it's normally used. And there are only four or five places down here where it's used differently. You say, "Well, it's got to be this because look at all these places that it seems to carry this meaning."

Well, we can't simply do that because it may not mean what it means in the majority of the times in the New Testament. There might be some places where it's used in unique ways, and again the context will help us tune into that. Now we do not want to come up with things that are so obscure that, again, Jesus and Paul never would have thought of them. We want to find out what the word really meant at that time. But just because it's used this way in the vast majority of times doesn't mean that that's the way it's used every time. So we want to be sensitive to that.

For those of you who are teachers in your small groups or whatever - word studies are another one of those areas that can be very, very rich and can really help you tune into what the author is trying to say. But again, we want to be cautious and do them appropriately. And what is really the driving force in word studies? It’s context. We want to tune in to the context.

By the way, let me say this. I think there is a basic posture we need in approaching study of any kind - and word studies can certainly be included. There will be times when you're going to look and see what the different commentators have said a word means, and you're going to find that commentator A disagrees with commentator B who disagrees with commentator C. Because of the way God gave us his Word - through human beings in real life context - there are places where we're not completely sure exactly what a word means. We have overall patterns, so it's not going to be that often you run into this. But there are places where all I can say is - the best I understand it, this is what the author is saying at this point. That calls for humility for us to say, Lord, I want to be faithful to understand your Word the best that I can, but at the end of the day, there are some places where I'm not going to be able to be dogmatic about. I shouldn't be dogmatic anyway, but where I'm going to need to just exercise humility and say, you know, the best I understand it, this is what's being said here.

There is plenty there in the Scriptures that is clear that we need to work on applying. I think it was Mark Twain who once said, "It's not the parts of the Bible I don't understand that bother me, it's the parts that I do understand." If we just spend our time focused on all of the stuff that's there that is clear to understand, then we don't get bogged down in the places that are harder. But when we do hit those places that are harder to understand, we need to be humble and admit it and say that, boy, this is tough and I'm trying the best I can to understand what's going on here.

V. How to do a word study

All right. Let's talk about how to do word studies.

A. Identify key terms or concept in passage

As we've already said, we want to identify key terms or concepts in the passage. One way to do this is to have three or four translations side by side. If you don't have the ability to do the language work with the Greek and Hebrew, which most of us don't, and you don't have Bible software. Let me just say that Bible software programs are amazing these days. There are programs where you can click on the word and it will pull up the Greek dictionary and give you the options of what this word meant in the Greek language. But let's say that you don't have that kind of software program. What you can do is look at several translations side by side and those translations will help you tune into what seem to be the most significant words or words that are a little bit harder to understand.

For instance, look at the three versions that you have there. The New American Standard, the NIV, and the New Living Translation. "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus," verse 5. In the NIV: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus." And then the NLT, "Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had." It seems that attitude is up front here and so that would be a very important word for us to tune into.

Look at verse 6 in each one of them. "Who although he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped." In the NIV, "Who being in the very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped." But in the NLT, "Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God." Now what's the term there that seems to be critical and also maybe present a little bit of difficulty in understanding exactly what it means. The word "grasped."  What does that word mean? So we may want to tune into that.

So if you look at several translations side by side, so far in this passage I would say I want to look and see what the word "attitude" means here. I want to look and see what the word "grasp" means here. So we're going to tune into specific words.

B. Consult a concordance

Next, we're going to consult a concordance to see how the terms are used elsewhere by this author and others. If you use an exhaustive concordance, which I spoke to you about when we talked about tools, those exhaustive concordances have Greek and Hebrew dictionaries in the back that are keyed by numbers. If you use a Bible software program, a lot of those will take you right to the dictionary if it has those in it. But if you have an exhaustive concordance, what they're going to do is like what you have there on the page. Look at the word "attitude." And you go down the page there and you find that Philippians 2:5 "Your attitude" - that little "a" is an abbreviation - "should be the same as that" - and then out to the right it has a number, 5858. Now in the back of that exhaustive concordance, all you do is you go to the Greek dictionary and you just follow down until you find the number 5858, and it's going to give you a dictionary definition of the possible meanings of the Greek word underlying the translation "attitude." Very simple to use. You just go to your concordance, you find your passage, look at the number out to the side, and then go to the dictionary in the back and it's going to show you the possible meanings of that word. And again, once we find those possible meanings, we're going to then say, okay, based on the context, which of these meanings seem to be best here.

Now there are a couple of other examples of tools that do the same thing but in a little bit different way. There's a two volume set that Zondervan has. My friend, Bill Mounce, has done what he calls a "reverse interlinear." What he does is he has the translation - underneath the translation you have the word but notice down at the bottom of the little column under "attitude" you have 5858. So you can look that up in the same type of Greek dictionary or there's a companion volume to Mounce's volume by Verlyn Verbrugge, and this is his entry on "attitude." This is his little theological entry if you look on the next page, on the word "attitude." His commentary on that Greek term.

He says, "Thus Paul frequently exhorts believers to be of one mind or of the same mind. Such exhortations which are linked often with warnings against arrogance do not spring simply from a pragmatic outlook that puts church unity above all else. Rather, they are based on Christ since he is the one on whom the church is built. This is especially prominent in the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6-1 and in 2:5 which introduces the hymn. This verse is best understood as meaning have the same thoughts among yourselves as you have in your communion with Jesus Christ rather than simply saying Jesus' own attitude is a model for us to follow."

Now what he means by that in part is when that passage says have this attitude among yourselves, it’s not talking about just individually I need to have the right attitude in church. It’s saying work out in community, being really bonded together and especially find your bond in your relationship to Jesus Christ. And so it’s a community dynamic rather than just an individual tweaking of my attitude and getting my attitude straight. So this word “attitude” here is something that we could study a little bit more in depth.

C. Consult a good commentary

Now one other thing that will help us with word studies are commentaries. There are some wonderful commentaries out there these days. What I would encourage you to do is when we’re doing a series here in church or you’re going through a Bible study on it maybe in your small group, or even when you just want to do your own personal Bible study through a book, look and see what the best commentaries are on that book and then use that. Buy one or two at a time and just invest a little bit like that over time. There are commentaries that do all different kinds of things and I’m going to tell you a little bit more about that. But just invest in those a little bit at a time.

If you go to Union University’s website (www.uu.edu), on the front page you can find a link to the Center for Biblical Studies. And on that Center for Biblical Studies page it gives you our suggested list of the best commentaries on all the different books of the Bible. And so it’s taking all the possible commentaries and narrowed it down to about five or six of the best ones, and it lets you know that these are different levels, a beginner level or intermediate level or an advanced level. So you might want to check those out, and I’ll be glad to help you personally with any of those if I can.

VI. Conclusion

Well, why is all this important? Again, it’s easy to get lost in all the details if we’re not careful, but the reason why all this is important is because words have meanings and the meaning of words has implications for how we understand the Bible and how we live our lives. And so it’s important that we tune into specific meanings so that we can really hear what God would say to us.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was married to Robert Browning and her parents did not approve of the marriage. For years, this wonderful author wrote letters to her parents and yet those beautiful, profound letters were never opened. It was a time when her relationship with her parents were estranged. The reason why we want to do word studies is to hear the power and the beauty of God’s word. It’s not just to be technical but it’s to hear the power and the beauty of God’s word so that we’re drawn closer into relationship. And if we will give detailed study to the text, if we hear the text, it will reward us relationally and spiritually.