Words are tools of communication; the vehicle that conveys meaning. To get a good grasp of the message, attention must be given to the words. To achieve precise understanding, the Bible student must give double attention to words.
In this post, we shall consider the role of word usage, etymology, and tenses in biblical interpretation.
Let me reiterate. Diligent study and Spirit guidance are both necessary in bible study. The former ensures that biblical texts are not subjected to private interpretation under the guise of the “spirit”, and the latter prevents us from being extremely mechanical, thereby reducing bible study to a purely academic exercise.Diligence and Spirit guidance are both necessary in bible study. The former ensures that biblical texts are not subjected to private interpretation, and the latter prevents us from reducing bible study to a purely academic exercise. Click To Tweet
Now, let us consider etymology.
Etymology is the study of the origin and history of words, and their development through history.
If you have ever attended a bible study session and the teacher referred to the Greek or Hebrew meaning of a word, then you have had some interaction with etymology already. Why do preachers talk Greek meaning? Why not just preach with basic English in our bibles?
A bit of history might help. The bible was originally written in three languages – Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. How does this affect anything?
- Sometimes in translating from one language to another, meaning is eroded, and depth is lost.
- Words evolve. The meaning of a word at a dispensation might not be the same in another.
For example, there are English words that have changed meaning over the years. “Silly” originally meant “blessed or worthy” in the 12th century. “Nice” used to mean foolish. “Meat” or “bread” as used in the bible sometimes connotes “food” generally.
In the same vein, in translating from the originals to English, some meaning might have been distorted unintentionally.
Via etymology, we find that “giving thanks” in Hebrews13:15 surprisingly is just one word in Greek; the word transliterated “homologeo” which means “to say the same thing as another i.e., to agree with or assent”. This gives a better understanding of that verse: that the words in worship must agree with the testimony of the Word concerning us.Via etymology, we find that “giving thanks” in Hebrews13:15 is just one word in Greek; “homologeo” which means “to say the same thing as another”. Telling us that our words in worship must agree with the testimony of the Word… Click To Tweet
Without word study, we would not have known what the Bible means when it says Melchizedek has no descent. A study of the word “agenealogetos” which means “unregistered as to birth” or “one whose descent there is no record of” reveals that the bible only meant the birth of this King of Salem was not recorded.
Did you know that “surely” and “die” in Gen2:17 are actually the same root word, transliterated “muth”, and it can be read “thou shall die die” describing the kind of death that man’s disobedience would bring?Did you know that “surely” and “die” in Gen2:17 are actually the same root word, transliterated “muth”, and it can be read “thou shall die die” describing the kind of death that man’s disobedience would bring? Click To Tweet
Did you know that “and” in the Greek “kai” is not always a conjunction but could serve the purpose of emphasis on some occasion? Thus “born of water and of the Spirit” in John 3:6 is better expressed as “born of water, even the Spirit”. Do not forget, John the Baptist already said Jesus’ baptism is not of water. Read about the Granville Sharp rule.
These examples show us the importance of words. Concordances and bible dictionaries would help in this regard.
One word used within a text can determine the meaning of that text. The bible is replete with examples.
Jesus giving the promise of the Spirit in John 14:17 said to his disciples “…but you know him, for he dwells WITH you, and shall be IN you.”
“WITH” speaks of their experiences of the Spirit, but “IN” communicates a greater reality that was to come upon the resurrection of Jesus. God making his home with man by indwelling him via his Spirit.
In Phil2:12, Apostle Paul admonished the church to WORK OUT their salvation. He did not say “WORK FOR” i.e., make that which is within visible for all to see.
In Genesis17:7, God made the promise to Abraham and his seed, not “seeds”. This was deliberate. Paul explaining this in Gal 3:16 says the seed is “Christ.”
The Bible student must agree with the tenses of the new testament, especially the epistles. Consider past as past, present as present, future as future.The Bible student must agree with the tenses of the new testament, especially the epistles. Consider past as past, present as present, future as future. Click To Tweet
The epistles often speak of our new creation realities in the past tense. We have been delivered Col1:13, we are forgiven Eph4:32, justified Rom5:1, blessed Eph1:3, sealed Eph1:13.
Christ has done them.
New creation responsibilities however are often in the Present/Present continuous tense.
Walk in love Eph5:2, Continue in prayer Col4:2, Forgive Eph4:31-32, Flee fornication 1Cor6:18, Obey and submit to your leaders Heb13:17, Study 2Tim2:15, Meditate 1Tim4:15
These require our participation.
Finally, the bible speaks of certain events in the future tense.
We shall be changed 1Cor15:52-53.
The man who resists temptation shall receive a crown James1:12.
In a subsequent post, we will consider the place of parables, figures of speech, and exegesis.