10 Practical Suggestions for a Concise and Thorough Word StudyApril 28, 2017
The Word of God is comprised of nothing less than…well, words. The words we read on the pages of Scripture provide the eternal truths needed for this life and the one to come. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the expositor correctly and exhaustively deal with the words, as they are, when they are, and where they are in the canon of Scripture. In his book, Understanding and Applying the Bible, Robert McQuilken states, “Words are the basic building blocks for understanding the meaning of any passage. In seeking the author’s intended meaning, we must consider the meaning of individual words.” The only way you will understand the meaning of the passage is if you have a proper understanding of the words within the text.
Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Every word! Not just some of them, not just most of them, but every word! Every word has been sanctioned by the Holy Spirit…down to the jot and tittle. “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18). In other words, the smallest pen stroke in the divine revelation of Scripture has a glorious gravitas…outlasting and surviving the very earth upon which you and I stand.
That is why the study of individual words is one of my favorite aspects of the exegetical process. The writer of Proverbs said, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). I would further contend that a word rightly understood, rightly investigated, and rightly digested is like an entire orchard in a treasured landscape. So how do we get the most out of word studies? What are some things to remember as we dig into the depths of the words in the Word of God? I offer a few suggestions:
Use a Telescope-to-Microscope Method
As you study the panorama of the passage, try to understand the main thought of the text. Determine the meaning through the larger lenses of systematic truth. Once you have a basic idea of what the text is saying, once you construct a general outline or thesis of the passage, then take out the theological microscope and let the investigation of your words begin. It is possible, once you gain insight into each word, that your outline may change, but having a general idea of your passage will serve you well as you dive into ocean of word study. Remember, little words have great meaning when seen through the big picture of the passage!
Determine key words in the passage
Once the “big picture” of the text is determined, pay special attention to key words. When I say, “key words” I in no way mean some words are more inspired, but rather that some words are divinely placed in the text to help us open the door to the meaning of the passage. Consider the following verse:
“For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Many truths arise from this short verse:
- The truth of monotheism – there is only one God (Theology Proper)
- The truth of man’s sin – He is obviously separated from this one God (Hamartiology)
- The truth of Christ’s humanity – He is completely one man (Christology)
- The truth of an absolute and singular way to God – there is only one mediator (Soteriology)
The word upon which the verse hinges is obviously mediator. Christ, the God-man, is the only candidate qualified to act as mediator between the two opposing parties. Though all the words are highly significant and important, the word “mediator” is key. Without a proper understanding of “mediator” you will not understand what God requires in a relationship with fallen man. When you begin to realize the significance, the obligation, the history, and the responsibility of the mediator, you will have a greater understanding of Christ’s role in reconciliation.
Understand the relationship between each word
Words connect with other words. We must recognize how words relate one to another so that we can embrace the flow of the author’s intended meaning. Robert L. Thomas, writing on the exegetical process said, “Elaboration on Greek and Hebrew words in pulpit exposition is by far the most frequently encountered homiletical use of exegesis, but it is only a small beginning. Of at least equal, and probably greater, importance is the way words are joined in sentences, paragraphs, and sections. This area of syntax is too frequently overlooked. Yet only a full appreciation of syntactical relationships can provide a specific understanding of the flow of thought that the Spirit intended in His revelation through the human writers of Scripture.” Let’s go back to the example of the mediator. You could have a full-working definition of the word in its original, historical, literal, and cultural sense, but if you fail to see the word “mediator” in relation to “God” and “man” you will only have a great definition, not a theological truth. No one word is greater than the collection of words within the given passage; for it is in the totality of the surrounding verses you have the full revelation of the text.
Determine the Grammatical Significance of the Word
Is the word in question a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, modifier, participle, preposition? What about its tense – perfect, past, present, future? What is the voice – active, passive, middle? What about the mood – indicative, imperative, subjective? You may say, that sounds like a lot of work. Perhaps that is what Paul had in mind when he exhorted Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The word “workman” is ergates in the Greek, a noun that occurs sixteen times in the New Testament. It can mean helper, companion, or worker, but has a primary meaning of one who labors in a field. Paul was telling Timothy to diligently engage himself in the “work” of rightly dividing the word of truth. Such work involves “dividing” all the parts and parcels of the passage. It involves plowing through a text and excavating the components of the words. The work of such labor may be intense and difficult at times but the fruit of such labor is eternally satisfying
When looking up the word in the original languages, also investigate the root meanings
A careful and concise word study will consider the prefixes and suffixes of words. How is a word composed? What is the etymological formation? For example, the word “bishop” is episkopos in the Greek. It is comprised of epi, which means upon or over; and skopeo which means to look or see. Literally, a bishop is one who is to oversee, or to look upon the flock of God with a sense of protection and care. This is what Peter had in mind when he instructed the pastor to “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind” (1 Peter 5:2). When you understand the components of the word “bishop” you realize it is more than a title, it is a responsibility.
Realize that certain words have different meanings, therefore always see the word in its context
There are some words that are translated differently in different passages and therefore must be recognized by the expositor. One such case is found in the first chapter of James. The passage deals with trials and temptations. Consider the following verses:
“Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him. Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:” (James 1:12-13).
In verse 12, the concept of “enduring a temptation” deals with the perseverance of a saint during tumultuous and trying times. The word is peirasmos and it means an adverse trial. However, in the next verse, James said that God doesn’t “tempt” man. The expositor should note that this word is a different word from peirasmos. This word is peirazo and it means the enticement to sin. This is a nuanced portion of Scripture but one that must be delineated properly to understand its meaning. God can and does allow tumultuous times (Abraham, Joseph, Job are clear examples); but God does not tempt any man to sin. It is only when you carefully research the slight differences in the words that you will clarify the meaning of the passage in its context.
Research the meaning and use of the word in the original culture in which it was given
Bernard Ramm, in his book, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, contends, “Often behind a word in the Old or New Testament, is a practice of the culture, and to really know the richness of the word we must know the cultural practice.” A simple illustration of this is the concept of fishing. When Jesus told the disciples He would make them “fishers of men” they understood that concept based upon their cultural experience. The idea and concept of fishing to them was not a leisurely, laid-back day on the dock of the bay. When Christ spoke about fishing, He was referring to the disciple’s cultural understanding of the word. Therefore, to have a more thorough definition of what it means to be a “fisher of men” one must concisely study the professional traits, practices, procedures, and methods of first-century fishermen. With such an understanding, you will more readily understand the invitation Christ extended to His followers. He wasn’t inviting them to simply walk around with Him, He was inviting them to work!
Consider how many times the word is used throughout the chapter, then the book, then the entire Bible
Frequency of a word may very well give the expositor a hint to the meaning of the passage. Once you have determined the meaning of the word, search for other words that are synonymous. How many times is that word or words mentioned in the immediate text? Look a little further out and see if the word is recurrent throughout the chapter and or the book. Look throughout the Bible and discover the amount of times it is used in totality. Cross-reference meanings based upon contexts and draw parallels. In the third chapter of Ephesians, the apostle Paul used the word “mystery” three times in just a few verses. The word speaks of a secretly-hidden, concealed truth that has been brought to light. The frequent use of this word should stimulate the expositor’s mind and further lead him to investigate how the word “mystery” was used by Paul in other epistles. Such an investigation would give a more thorough understanding of how Paul used the word in Ephesians 3.
Use accurate and reliable tools and resources
Just like a doctor, a plumber, a mechanic, or an athlete, the expositor of God’s Word must have the right kind of tools to secure his success. When studying various words of Scripture, it is imperative the preacher have reliable and dependable information from accurate and legitimate resources. Just because you saw it on a website or heard it from another preacher doesn’t make it authentic. Honest and honorable hermeneutics require diligent verification of every word. Here are a few resources I use when investigating certain words:
The Strong’s Concordance
Vines Expositional Dictionary
Thayers Greek Lexicon
Key Word KJV Greek and Hebrew Bible
A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament
Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament
Word Pictures in the New Testament
A Treasury of Scripture Knowledge
Wuest’s Word Studies
There are tons of online resources, but I would be careful to verify the legitimacy and content of the site before I included the information into my expositional discoveries.
When applicable, try to “picture” the word using illustrative terms
This is perhaps the most important homiletical aspect of the word study adventure. Once you have secured the appropriate, historical, contextual, literal, and definitive meaning of a word, try to frame that word in a picture that your congregation will appreciate. A successful and meaningful word study will result in you “showing” your people the Word as they hear it being expounded. For example, the word “serve” is diakoneo which literally means “to kick up the dust.” It derives from the camel-trading days in which a servant would lift his master on the beast and “walk through the dust” in the lowered, abased position. When you can illustrate a word with an accurate picture in mind, the congregation will and can more easily embrace its intent.