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Biblical Interpretation (Part 2): Word Usage

In the previous post we took a look at the importance of context as it relates to interpreting the Scriptures. In fact, it is so important that it has been said that "context is king" as it relates to Bible interpretation.

If context is king, then I might suggest that word usage is queen. In my experience, word usage is far more neglected than context. Yet it is critical to proper interpretation because it involves the meaning of words. It is first recognizing that words are polymorphic:

Poly = many

Morphic = forms, meanings

So words have many meanings. If you don't believe me, get a dictionary and look up a word and see how many different meanings you can come up with! So when we are reading a passage in the Scriptures, we need to be sure we read the proper definitions of words or else we are going to get a different meaning from the text than what was intended. Let's take another look at the verse we used in the previous post as an example:

"I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall likewise perish." - Luke 13:3

Now one very important word in this verse is "perish". If we take the wrong definition of this word, we could easily come up with a wrong meaning, and a wrong meaning often results in a wrong practical application. We looked at the this word "perish" in the previous post and saw that the word could be either a physical death or a spiritual one. In this example, the context answers our question as to which one it is (physical).

But what happens if the context is not so clear? How would we determine the meaning of a word? One thing we could do is to look at the word as it is used in the Bible. We do this by:

1) Examining the author's use of the word in the same book. For example, if we wanted to know what the word "perish" means in Luke 13:3, we look up all of the occurrences of that word in the book of Luke to see how it is used.

2) Examining the author's use of the word in other books he has written. This only works if the author has written anything else in the Bible. In our current example, Luke wrote one other book of the New Testament: Acts. So we could look up all of the occurrences of "perish" in the book of Acts to see how it is used.

3) Examining any references the author may refer to elsewhere in the Scriptures. This can be helpful if the context is referring to another portion of the Bible. For example, if Luke was quoting or referring to an Old Testament passage or an earlier writing of the New Testament, this may be helpful to understanding the usage of the word.

4) Examining the usage of the word in the rest of the New Testament (or the Old Testament) and then the entire Bible. By this step you probably would already have a pretty clear picture of what the word means, but sometimes it is helpful to gather all the instances of the word in whichever Testament you are in, or even the whole Bible, and see how the word is used. If the word is clearly used consistently in one way then the safest interpretation would be for the passage in question to also be using the word in that particular way.

The first three steps are often overlooked in Bible study and out of those the first two are probably even more overlooked. Most people immediately start word studies and cross-referencing the entire Bible and end up mixing things together that never were meant to go together. This is why Paul exhorted Timothy to:

"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 (Underlining mine)

What Paul basically said to Timothy was that if he was not a diligent studier of God's word then he might wrongfully interpret it and therefore get a wrong application as a result. This would result in him not being approved unto God and he would have reason to be ashamed. So let's look back at our word "perish" in Luke 13:3 and go through some of the steps listed above:

First, if we follow the first step given with the word "perish" in Luke 13:3, we find that Luke uses the word seven times in the book of Luke. In every single instance it means a physical death of some kind, never a spiritual one. The seven verses in Luke are: 5:37, 8:24, 13:3, 13:5, 13:33, 15:17, and 21:18. It may be helpful to examine other forms of the word as well. For example, the word "perished" is used once in the book of Luke. It is found in 11:51 and also refers to a physical dying. It may also be a good idea to check the Greek word used and get a Greek concordance to see if the word was ever used elsewhere only translated differently. In this case, all eight examples are the same word in the Greek and I will not take the time right now to check for other occurences. Suffice it to say that all eight examples given are referring to a type of physical perishing.

Second, if we follow the second step we would go to the book of Acts and see how the word "perish" is used. There are two occurrences: 8:20 and 13:41. In the first, it is clearly a type of physical perishing. In the second, it could be in reference to either physical or spiritual depending on how it is read. When we read the context we find out that it is a quotation from the prophets in the Old Testament. But since the two words in Acts are different words for perish in the Greek, I will not take time to examine the context of Acts 13 or the reference to the Old Testament prophets at this time. But clearly, in the English translation, Luke always uses the word "perish" as a type of physical perishing with one possible exeption in Luke 13:41.

Since those two steps are the most often neglected I will not give further examples of steps three and four at this time. Also, it seems clear from using the first two steps that Luke always (with one possible exception) uses the word "perish" as a type of physical perishing, not spiritual.

In the next part, we will look at the distinction between grammatical definitions of words and theological ones.