Word study is a valuable tool in our getting to understand the Word of God, but we must understand that there is a correct way and a wrong way of doing word studies. One primary concern is that every word has multiple meanings.
Two Principles to Keep in Mind
(1) The first principle is that words in all languages have a range of meanings. The technical term for this is semantics, which is defined as, the study of how meaning in language is created by the use and interrelationships of words, phrases, and sentences.
Let us just chose one word, the English word “grace.” There are numerous uses for that word: elegance, beauty, and smoothness of form or movement; dignified, polite, and decent behavior; a capacity to tolerate, accommodate, or forgive people; a grace period in one’s finances; a pleasing and admirable quality or characteristic; in Christianity, the infinite love, mercy, favor, and goodwill shown to humankind by God. To have the word “grace” written on a piece of paper by itself, it would carry no meaning, you must have it in a sentence, like the following: She fended off queries with her usual grace, or it is so good of you to grace us with your presence.
(2) The second principle is that the context will determine the meaning of any word. Context is by far the most important principle in Bible study.
There is no way to determine the meaning of a word without all of the material that surrounds it. If you were asked what does the “grace” mean? You would have to say, ‘well, it all depends on the context.’ In considering the context, we may want to move outwards, in a sort of spiral. Of course, we will want to look at the immediate context, the surrounding words, sentences and paragraphs. We’ll want to consider how the text is being used. It may be beneficial to look at how the word is used elsewhere, like Paul in the book of Romans, and the book of Galatians. In addition, we may want to consider the rest of the New Testament, if it is a New Testament word. However, I would offer a word of caution, in that just because Paul uses a word 20 times, it does not mean that he is always using it in the same sense, context determines that.
Do Not Become Sidetracked With Word Studies
No, I am not encouraging you not to do words studies. One can become bogged down in word studies if they attempt to study every word in a reading that may make up 10 to 20 verses. Imagine having to do an extensive word study on several hundred words. Therefore, it is best to focus your energies on the more important 4-5 words in each text, such as the verbs. It is the verb that moves the action along, so they are usually be important. You may find that, the same word is showing up repeatedly. In the latter part of chapter 3 and chapter four in the book of Hebrews, the word “today” shows up numerous times. "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion." (3:15) Other words that would be important are difficult words, or theological words. You will want to read the passages repeatedly, looking for those words that the passage seems to hinge on, as well as figures of speech, and words that come across as different.
While there are those that are still using books, tablet and pen, today’s Bible student has access to software tools that make word study a simplified task. What would take hours previously, can now be done in just minutes. At the end of this chapter, I will recommend some software programs that run from free to somewhat expensive. The only need is access to a computer.
Word Study Fallacies
One of the primary fallacies comes from those who only use one specific Bible translation, like the King James Version only Bible students. If you are only studying or reading on the surface, you will never discover what is behind some of those English words. The other aspect of this is the reader is thinking with his or her modern day mindset.
Philippians 2:5-8 (King James Version)
5Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Philippians 2:5-8 (English Standard Version)
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5-8 (New American Standard Bible)
5Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Looking at the King James Version, and our English mindset, how are we to understand what it means that Jesus made himself of no reputation? It can give us the impression that he was simply attempting to avoid fame, to avoid a reputation. This is certainly not the case, and by exploring more than on translation, it can wake us up to a misunderstanding, or at least a difference that needs to be investigated. While there seems to be no end to the new English translations, it must be said that there will always be a need for new translations. ‘Why?’ you may be asking. If we were to turn to the many translators in the field of Bible translation, they would offer at least three good reasons: (1) the manuscripts that have been discovered over the centuries are always being studied and better understood, then this increased knowledge may mean adjustments in the translation. (2) Our knowledge of the Bible languages just keeps improving over the years, and once again this can leader to more accurate translations. (3) Languages are living and growing and change over time, altering the meaning of words, in some case, to the opposite. In 1611, “let” in “I let John go to school” meant “stop” or “restrain.” However, it is not just the need to have something other than the King James Version. One needs to have a translation that is current as to language and corrected as to the text.
What I recommend is that for study of God’s Word, use 2-3 very good literal translations, and 2-3 dynamic equivalents as a sort of quick commentary on Scripture. As to the literal translations, we would recommend the English Standard Version, 2001 (ESV), The Updated New American Standard Bible, 1995 (UNASB), the American Standard Version, 1901 (ASV), the Holman Christian Standard Bible, 2003 (HCSB), as well as the Lexham English Bible (LEB). As to the dynamic equivalent, we recommend the New Living Translation, 2007 (NLT), the Good News Bible, 2001 (GNB), and the Contemporary English Version, 1995 (CEV).
The Root Fallacy
The basis of this fallacy is that I acquire my understanding of the Hebrew or Greek word by its root. The root of a word is the simplest possible form of a word, the smallest meaningful element of speech or writing. An English example for runners is run. This fallacy assumes that every word has a meaning that is derived from its shape or parts. It is often said that the person who has only learned enough Hebrew or Greek to be dangerous commits this mistake. However, once you read enough commentaries, you will find that the scholars commit this fallacy as well.
A verbal cognate is a noun that functions as the object of a verb that is from the same etymological root, as in "to dream a dream" or "to think a thought." The pastor regularly says that the verbal cognate of apostle (apostolos) is “I send” (apostellō); therefore, the root meaning of “apostle” is “one who is sent”, “send forth” or “send off.” In a leading Bible dictionary, Holman has it this way, “APOSTLE Derivation of the Greek word apostolos, one who is sent.” This meaning is established by breaking apostellō apart, apo + stellō. It is likely that ‘sent out’ is an aspect of apostolos (apostle), it is not the primary meaning. The word apostolos primarily means ‘a special messenger, a representative,’ with the idea of being sent out as an implication from the background. (Louw 1982, 27-28)
This is not how language works. If we turn to an English example, it may clear things up for us. Say 2,000 year from now, a linguist is trying to discover the meaning of our English word “pineapple.” He discovers that the document that he is holding was written in part of the United States that had a lot of pine trees, with many apple tree orchard nearby. The linguist suggests to his colleagues that the scientists back in the 20th and 21st century must have combined the gentics of these two fruits to produce a pineapple tree. The parts of a word does not determine its meaning. Just because an icecream truck brings us icecream, are we to expect that a firetruck brings us fire? Does the word “parkway” mean a large parking lot? No. Does a “driveway” infer that it is a place for driving a vehicle? What would linguistic scholars 2,000 years from now think of our English language?
Having made a case for the above, one must say there are no absolutes, as some words carry a meaning based on their parts that make them up. The way you should hold this within your thinking is this way, ‘largely, words do not derive their meaning from their parts, or their internal structure. However, at times, this can be the case. Yet, the key is, what did that word mean to that culture, those people at that time, or how was it commonly used?’ An example of this, is the fact that at time a preposition was added on the form of a word for intensification purposes. An example would be gnosis, which is the Greek word for “knowledge,” with the preposision epi (meaning “additional”) added to the front, giving us epignosis, meaning complete, accurate or full knowledge.
The Time Frame fallacy
This fallacy is the act of taking the meaning of a word hundreds of years before or after the time of the writing and applying that meaning to the word under consideration, to get the meaning we want. For example, the teacher may take the meaning of the Greek word hades, as it was understood in classical Greek (“netherworld,” hundreds of years before) and apply it to the New Testament meaning of hades (grave).
The apostle Paul tells us at Romans 1:16 that the ‘gospel is God’s power for salvation. The Greek word behind the English “power” is dynamis, which means “power, might, strength, and force.” However, the pastor will say that dynamis is where we get our English word dynamite from. Then he will go on to say that ‘the gospel is the dynamite of God.’ You the reader can obviously see the fallacy in this from a timeframe standpoint. The apostle Paul was not aware of the word dynamite, and the meaning it conveys is not what was going through his mind as he penned the word dynamis. What word picture do you the reader draw at the idea of dynamite? It is used to blow things up, to destroy things, and terrorists use it. There is really nothing about the word that can be read into what Paul meant by dynamis.
To say that the gospel is “power” is to acknowledge the dynamic quality of the message. In the proclamation of the gospel God is actively at work in reaching out to the hearts of people. The gospel is God telling of his love to wayward people. It is not a lifeless message but a vibrant encounter for everyone who responds in faith. Much religious discourse is little more than words and ideas about religious subjects. Not so the gospel. The gospel is God at work. He lives and breathes through the declaration of his redemptive love for people. To really hear the gospel is to experience the presence of God.
The Overload Fallacy
As we have discussed, every word has more than one meaning, and it is context that determines its meaning. Those who are guilty of this fallacy, take a word that has multiple meanings and attempts to incorporate all of the meanings into this one word. The word has one meaning in its context, that the author intended by its use in that context he placed it in, at the time and place of the writing. Worse still, the person chooses the meaning that he likes and applies that to the word, regardless of its context.
How to do a word study
(A) Determine which English word in a given text that you wish to know more about. As was said in the above, you do not want to do every word, as it will lead to burnout from boredom.
Let us choose Ephesians 1:7 as out test passage. We are going to investigate the English word “grace.” The first thing we want to do is look at numerous translations, to see if the word is rendered the same way each time. “Grace” is a theologically important word, so as was expected, it is the same in all the translation I considered (ESV, HCSB, NIV, NLT, NASB, and the ASV). However, I came across a highly interpretive translation that tends to render what they believe a word means, not what it is, so I will include that below as well. The Contemporary English Version has determined that “grace” means “kindness” here at Ephesians 1:17.
Ephesians 1:7 (English Standard Version)
7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace
Ephesians 1:7 (Contemporary English Version)
7-8Christ sacrificed his life's blood to set us free, which means that our sins are now forgiven. Christ did this because God was so kind to us. God has great wisdom and understanding,
(B) Now we need to determine the Greek word behind our English word “grace.” It is charitos (charis). The easiest tool to use at this initial stage is the interlinear. I would personally recommend the Word Study Greek-English New Testament for the student. (astore.amazon.com/bibletranslat-20/detai...)
The interlinear will seem somewhat confusing as was discussed earlier. The word order of Greek is not the same as the English, so it will come off as somewhat garbled. However, you are just looking for your English word, and the Greek word beneath it. If we look into our word study interlinear, we find our Charitos, but we also find that the interlinear has rendered it “favor.” My, it seems the further that we dig; the more confusion is beginning heaped upon us. However, let us stay the course, and see if the dust settles in the end, clearing things up for us. Anyway, we find that I has Greek number 5485, which will help us make sure that we are considering the right word in our tools as we move along.
A step that is not always necessary is to look the word up in a concordance. “A concordance is a book that lists all the words in the Bible in alphabetical order, and under each word shows you the verses in which that word occurs.” I need to offer you a word of caution on concordances. A regular concordance can be misleading to the beginner. You may look up an English word and find a hundred occurrences, and not realize, it is showing you all the occurrences of your English word, but there might be several different Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek words behind those occurrences. Our word study book has a special concordance in the back. It will show you all the occurrences of the same Greek word. We simply move through the numbers until we come to our 5485. We are going to find every place that charitos is used and a short phrase, which encompasses our word. At Ephesians 1:7, we find “to the riches of his grace.” One thing that we discover immediately is that Paul uses charitos with the same meaning all through Ephesians, 12 times.
(C) The next step in our word study is to find the range meaning for our word charis.
You will also notice that the word study book has chosen “favor” as a primary meaning, which will be found throughout the interlinear under each occurrence of charis, regardless of how it will end up being rendered in the English Bible translation. Another discovery is that the word is used with a number of meanings: grace, thank, thankfulness, thanks, favor, graciousness, benefit, gift, credit, and grateful. Another tool is the word dictionary, or as the scholar calls them, the lexicon. Here is an example of our word charis.
5485. charis; a prim. word; grace, kindness:—blessing(1), concession(1), credit(3), favor(11), gift(1), grace(122), gracious(2), gracious work(3), gratitude(1), thank(3), thankfulness(2), thanks(6).
(D) The next step in our word study process is looking to the context. You have chosen the English word to investigate, discovered the Hebrew or Greek word behind it, and you then determined the range of its possible meaning. Now you need to turn your attention to the context.
As was stated earlier, you are working in a spiral, moving out from the word, to the sentence, the verse, the section of verses that encompass the subject, the chapter, and the Bible book itself. What you will do is take the list of possible meanings and plug them into the sentence, seeing which fit the sentence context. If that does not resolve things, you move out to the verse itself. If you are still struggling with the choice, move out to the verse before and after your verse, all of which are dealing with the subject area of your verse. For example, our Ephesians 1:7 would include verses 3-7. What you need to keep in mind is the further removed you are from the initial sentence; the less likely you are to lock down the meaning. Therefore, you will want to ascertain the meaning as soon as possible. On the return trip home after the festivals in Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary may have thought that Jesus was with the family, so at first his not being present had gone unnoticed. Three days later, when Mary and Joseph came to find Jesus, he was in the temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”—Luke 2:44-46.
Luke 2:46 (English Standard Version)
46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
This was no 12-year-old boy question of curiosity. The Greek word erōtaō is the Greek word for “ask,” “question,” and is a synonym of eperōtaō. The latter of the two was used by Luke and is much more demanding, as it means, “to as a question, to question, interrogate someone, to questioning as used in judicial examination” and therefore could include counter questioning. Therefore, Jesus, at the age of twelve did not ask childlike questions, looking for answers, but was likely challenging the thinking of these Jewish religious leaders. What was the response of these Jewish religious leaders?
Luke 2:47 (English Standard Version)
47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
Biblical Word Pictures
Most have heard the saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ However, the Bible has a real knack of painting a picture with just a few words. The word pictures found in God’s word create an image in the mind of the reader that will unlikely ever be forgotten. The phrase that I am using, ‘word picture,’ is to be understood as all of the different figures of speech found in God’s Word: metaphors, similes, as well as other forms of literary devices that involve figures of speech. If we were to meticulous read through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we would discover that he used over 50 different word pictures.
It is paramount that we learn how to discover the meaning behind these word pictures. Without discovering their true meaning, you will misinterpret the Bible, and misapply it in your life. As we have already seen in the above, misapplication cannot only cause one not to have the success that the Bible holds out, but can be dangerous at times, like the rod of the shepherd and the many proverbs that talk about the disciplining of a rebellious boy. Of course, these word pictures throughout God’s Word are not to be taken literally, but the message they convey by the picture is to be taken literally.
Correct Mental Grasp of Word Pictures
A word picture is one thing used or considered to represent or express something another. The topic is what is being compared with the image. There is something about the topic and the image that are similar. In order for us to discover the true meaning, we must find these similarities. The danger is overdoing this aspect, finding more than was intended by the author.
Proverbs 30:18-19 (English Standard Version)
18Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: 19the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.
There is a similarity to the above list. An eagle soars through sky, the way of a serpent on a rock is that it crosses the rock, the way of a ship on the high seas at it cuts through the waves. The similarity is that none of these three leave a trail, which does not allow anyone to follow their path. This now helps us establish the similarity of number four, where the proverb was leading us, “the way of a man with a virgin.”
A man may engage cunning ways of using insincere flattery and pleasantness, especially in order to persuade somebody to do something, to slide into the friendliness of an innocent virgin. She is innocent and untested; she would not be able to discover his charms. It is near impossible for her to see the trail or path of a seductive man, yet he has a goal just as “the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas.” The seductive man has the objective of exploiting her for sex.
Revelation 3:3 (English Standard Version)
3Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.
Jesus said, “I will come (topic) like a thief (image).” There must be a similarity. The context of verse three answers the question for us, as it reads: “you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” Therefore, we can rule out that the verse is telling us why he is coming, but instead tells us of how he will come. It will be like a thief, unforeseen and without warning.
The context helps us. Jesus went on to say: “You will not know at all at what hour I shall come upon you.” (Revelation 3:3) So the comparison does not point to the purpose of his coming. He was not implying that he would come to steal anything. Rather, the point of comparison involves the unforeseen, without warning aspect of his arrival.
1 Thessalonians 5:2 (English Standard Version)
2For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
While the context here does not offer us a spelled-out explanation of the similarity, like the words of Jesus, it is best to use one part of the Bible to interpret the other. So, then, let us wake up!
Word Pictures and God
Psalm 145:3 (English Standard Version)
3Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.
Job 26:14 (English Standard Version)
14Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?"
It is impossible for us to understand fully the greatness and the power of God. But the Bible paints the best picture, for our limited minds. Walk with me as I list just a few of these word pictures: King, a Lawmaker, a Judge, and a Warrior—obviously, someone you should esteem and revere. He is also described as a Counselor, a Shepherd, an Instructor, a Teacher, a Father, a Healer, Lawgiver, and a Savior—One you can hardly relist loving.
Psalm 16:7 (English Standard Version)
7I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.
Psalm 23:1 (English Standard Version)
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Psalm 32:8 (English Standard Version)
8I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Psalm 71:17 (English Standard Version)
17O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
Psalm 89:26 (English Standard Version)
26He shall cry to me, 'You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.'
Psalm 103:3 (English Standard Version)
3who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
Psalm 106:21 (English Standard Version)
21They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt,
Isaiah 33:22 (English Standard Version)
22For the LORD is our judge; the LORD is our lawgiver;
the LORD is our king; he will save us.
Isaiah 42:13 (English Standard Version)
13The LORD goes out like a mighty man, like a man of war he stirs up his zeal;
he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes.
John 6:45 (English Standard Version)
45It is written in the Prophets, 'And they will all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me
2 Samuel 23:3 (English Standard Version)
3The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me:
When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God,
Psalm 18:2 (English Standard Version)
2The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
Deuteronomy 32:4 (English Standard Version)
4"The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.
Psalm 84:11 (English Standard Version)
11For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.
Psalm 121:5 (English Standard Version)
5The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
Isaiah 51:16 (English Standard Version)
16And I have put my words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand, establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, 'You are my people.'"
Psalm 17:8 (English Standard Version)
8Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings,
Psalm 36:7 (English Standard Version)
7How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
Psalm 103:12 (English Standard Version)
12as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
Isaiah 38:17 (English Standard Version)
17Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back.
Micah 7:19 (English Standard Version)
19He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.
Word Pictures and Jesus
John 1:34 (English Standard Version)
34And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God."
John 15:1 (English Standard Version)
1"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.
John 15:5 (English Standard Version)
5I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
John 15:8 (English Standard Version)
8By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
Word Pictures and the Similarity
One can never find the meaning of the word picture, without finding the similarity. In fact, as our example illustrates, to miss the mark is dangerous, if taken the wrong way.
Romans 12:20 (English Standard Version)
20To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head."
Are we to infer that Paul was suggesting a retaliate attitude? No. Here we have to go back the historical setting of the first-century. The melting of ore in order to get metal from it was accomplished by heaping the hot coals on top of the ore. This process was to soften the metal to cause impurities to separate. The similarity is that you are to soften the enemy with loving kindness and bring out the good in him.
Luke 11:4 (English Standard Version)
4and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation." [Do your sins feel like a debt to you?]
Psalm 32:1 (English Standard Version)
1Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
The word picture is capable of taking a difficult concept and using an easier one, to help us wrap our mind around the difficulty. There can be multiple word pictures, to highlight the different aspects of the subject. The word picture may be used to emphasize the concept the author is trying to bring out, to be more memorable, or more appealing.
Recognizing the Different Features
WORD PICTURE: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water.” (Psalm 1:3)
TOPIC: You (the one who loves God’s Word, vss 1-2)
IMAGE: tree planted by streams of water
SIMILARITY IN CONTEXT: life is drawn through the root from the water, you draw spiritual vitality through God’s word
LESSON: Just as a tree that is most healthy by being next to its life-sustaining element of water, you are most healthy when you are in the Word of personal study, meeting and ministry.
I will close out this chapter with the same important message that I opened it with: word meaning is predominately determined by the context from which the word appears. All Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek dictionaries are going to list the range of meanings that a word may convey, but it is the context that will help you hone in on the meaning that is most appropriate.
 Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 88.
 Robert H. Mounce, vol. 27, Romans, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 70.
 William D. Mounce, Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), xvi.
 Robert L. Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries: Updated Edition (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998).
 It should be noted that some dictionaries and lexicons of Bible words simply list how the word has been rendered in a particular version of the Bible, such as the King James Version, the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, as opposed to independently defining the meaning of the word.