Better Bible Study Tip #42: The Meaning of a Word is Determined By Context

When I first started studying my Bible, one of my go-to resources was a Bible dictionary. If I wanted to know what a particular word in my Bible meant, I would look it up. That’s what a dictionary is for, right? At some point, I discovered lexicons, where I could actually look up the definition of the original Greek or Hebrew word that stands behind our translations.

Although I still use bible dictionaries and lexicons, at some point it dawned on me that looking up a word in a dictionary may or may not be the best way to fully understand how a word is being used. For example, think about the English word “run.” We all know what the word “run” means. It refers to a type of movement that is faster than a walk, where only one foot touches the ground at a time. Right?

But now put word “run” in a sentence. “Inflation is running wild!” Do you see how the word “run” changes meaning depending on how it is being used? I could also say “The Braves just scored another run”, or “You have a run in your sweater”, or “the river runs south” or I could talk about a politician’s “run for office.” If I didn’t know English, and I wanted to know what the word “run” means, I could look it up in a dictionary, but that would only get me part of the way there. Although dictionaries can be helpful, if we really want to understand what a word means, we need to understand the context in which the word is used.

When doing word studies, we must remember that a word may be used in different senses in different places. For example, the word “doxa” or “glory” might mean “splendor” (“…Solomon in all his glory…”, Mt. 6:29), or “praise” (“…he did not give God the glory…”, Acts 12:23), or “brightness”, (“the glory of Moses’s face”, 2 Cor. 3:7). The word “grace” may refer to “thanks” (2 Tim. 1:3), or “kindness” (Titus 2:11), or a “gift” (2 Cor. 9). The word “pnuma” or “spirit” might refer to “wind” (John 3:8), or a person’s character (Lk. 1:17), or part of man that exists after death (1 Pet. 3:18).

It’s also important to remember that words can’t mean anything we wish. We must avoid the temptation of looking up a word in a dictionary or lexicon, and picking out whichever definition best serves our purpose. While a word can mean many different things, we must strive to understand what meaning makes the most sense in a given context.

Ultimately, a word means what the author intended for it to mean. For example, in one instance when Jesus used the word “temple”, people were wrong to assign their own meaning to the word that Jesus did not intend. He meant the temple of his body, not the grand building in Jerusalem (John. 2:19-22). As hearers, we must strive to understand what the author was trying to communicate, and not make arbitrary interpretations.