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.

Better Bible Study Tip #41: Context is King

For most of my life I’ve heard others talk about the importance of reading scriptures in context. They are exactly right. Context is king.

But what exactly does it mean to read scriptures in context? I used to think that reading scripture in context meant reading the verses immediately preceding and following the scripture, in order to get an idea for the flow of thought. I might even think bigger picture, and think about how the scripture contributes to the overall flow of the book, or even how the idea fits in the larger context of the whole Bible. If you think that’s what context is, you are exactly right. Those are some really important aspects of reading scripture in context.

Sometimes we might think of context in terms of genre. Is the author writing a discourse? Is he speaking historically? Is he speaking poetically? Is he speaking literally or figuratively? This is another important level of context to consider, and it can certainly help our understanding of the text.

But literary context is not the only level of context that matters. One level of context that is frequently overlooked is the historical and cultural context. Since the Holy Spirit inspired the writings of scripture through real life people as they experienced real life historical circumstances, we need to try to make ourselves aware of the circumstances that occasioned the text, as well as the cultural features of that time.

For example, when Paul wrote Romans, he wasn’t writing in the historical context of the reformation movement. He was primarily addressing the conflict between Jews and Gentiles in the early church. This isn’t to suggest that principles addressed in the book of Romans can’t be applied to other historical contexts, but we need to keep our understanding of the text rooted in the original historical and cultural circumstances.

For another example, the book of Genesis wasn’t written as a science textbook for the purpose of addressing evolutionist in the early 20th century. It was written in an ancient near eastern context, and interacts with and confronts some of the ungodly worldviews that were prevalent in that culture at that time. This doesn’t mean that Genesis is historically or scientifically inaccurate, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider it when interacting with modern worldviews. It just means that we need to be careful to keep our understanding rooted in the original historical and cultural context.

The Bible was not written in the context of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformation movement, the Restoration movement, or a modern context. Two of the best questions we can ask are, “What did the original author mean when he wrote this?” and “How would this have been understood by the original audience given their cultural and historical context?” If we’re going to rightly apply the Bible in our own cultural context, we first need to make sure we are understanding it correctly in it’s original cultural context. For better Bible study, remember that context is king.

Better Bible Study Tip #40: Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

The Bible puts more emphasis on certain things, and less emphasis on others. For example, think about what the Bible teaches us about the life of Jesus. A vast majority of what the Bible tells us comes from about a three year period of his life. We know almost nothing about Jesus’s first thirty years on earth. We’re given details about his birth (Mt. 1-2; Lk. 1:1-2:40), and one story from when he was twelve (Lk. 2:41-51). Other than that, about all we know about Jesus’s early life is that he worked as a carpenter in Nazareth, and he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Lk. 2:52).

This absence of detail isn’t an oversight. It’s intentional. The writers of the gospels weren’t writing to give us a full biography of Jesus. They wrote with the purpose of convincing people about the gospel. They were intentionally selective about what details they gave us, and what details they omitted as unnecessary. Keep in mind that these writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The details we are given are precisely the details we are supposed to be given. When details are lacking, that’s important too. If the Holy Spirit wanted us to have more details, He certainly could have given them to us.

The same is true with points of doctrine. For example, the Bible includes a lot of teaching about the importance of baptism and living a new life in Christ, but there’s only a handful of verses that help explain the roles of angels and demons. The Bible includes several clear principles about the roles of men and women in the church, but it doesn’t give us all the details we might want to answer every question about application with precision. Remember, all of this is intentional. The inclusion and omission of details is all inspired.

It’s important to think carefully about what this means, and what it doesn’t. This does not mean that details don’t matter. They do (see Bible Study Tip #14). If the Holy Spirit chose to include a detail, it’s important.

What it does mean is that we need to be careful to keep the main thing the main thing. If the Holy Spirit continually emphasizes certain points of doctrine, we should recognize this, and try to emphasize those same points. Where the Bible gives few details, we should resist the temptation to fill in the gaps. “Speak where the bible speaks, and be silent where the bible is silent” is good advice, not only for our teaching, but also for our personal study. Keep the main thing the main thing.

Better Bible Study Tip #39: Prayer Does Not Guarantee Correct Interpretation

Resist the temptation to believe that you have prayed yourself to a correct interpretation of scripture. Be careful not to think “I’m confident I can’t be wrong on this subject, because I’ve spent so much time in prayer about it.”

Of course, it should go without saying that we should continually surround our Bible study with prayer. We should be asking God to guide our thinking as we study, to help us to study with a humble and honest attitude, to help us to think clearly, and to help us to understand the text rightly. But as we pray about our study, we need to remember that God is not like a magic genie in a lamp. Although God does promise to answer our prayers, he does not promise to automatically grant us every wish.

Most of us already know that God doesn’t always give us what we pray for. When God answers our prayers with a “no”, we trust that God has good reasons for doing so. Paul prayed three times that his thorn in the flesh would be removed, but the answer was no (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Even Jesus was denied his request when he asked God to “let this cup pass from me” (Mt. 26:39).

Although it can be disappointing to not receive what we pray for, upon just a little bit of reflection, it’s easy to understand why this might be the case. Maybe what we have asked for isn’t actually good for us. Maybe our motives aren’t right. Maybe God has something better planned. Maybe by denying our request, God is providing an opportunity for us to grow.

But why would God ever deny someone’s prayer to understand scripture correctly? Why wouldn’t God want that? How could God possibly answer such a prayer negatively?

Of course God wants us to understand scripture correctly. He desires us to understand scripture correctly just like he wants us to worship with a reverent attitude, to treat our spouses with love and respect, to love our enemies, and to be generous with our money towards those in need. But all of these things also depend on our own will, our own commitment to obedience, our own wisdom, and our own efforts. For example, if we pray that a person in need will be warm and be filled, but we refuse to give them the things they need, what good is that? (cf. Jas. 2:16).

It’s the same way with Bible study. Yes, we should pray that God will guide our thinking as we study scripture. But we still have to make sure we are studying with a humble and honest attitude. We still have to make sure we are meditating on the scriptures day and night. We still have to make sure we are reading scriptures in context. We still have to put in the hard work that good bible study requires. It is good to pray about out study, but prayer must never become an excuse for a lazy and sloppy treatment of the text.

This is obvious if you think about it. All you have to do is find two people who have arrived at different conclusions from their study, both of whom have prayed about their Bible study. This happens all the time.

The point of this is not to suggest that we shouldn’t waste our time praying. The Bible teaches that God does answer prayers. The point is that prayer doesn’t guarantee that our conclusions are always correct. We must continue to put in the effort of continually doing good and intellectually responsible Bible study.

Better Bible Study Tip #38: Not All Interpretations are Equally Valid

Different bible class teachers have different styles of teaching. As long as the teacher keeps “Bible study” as the primary objective of the class, I can appreciate different styles. But there is one popular style of Bible class that irks me. It’s what I would call a “Pooling of Ignorance.” That’s the kind of Bible class where a scripture is read, and then everyone in the class shares their own varying opinions about the text.

It’s not that it’s a bad thing to hear different people’s thoughts. In fact, I love it when Christians engage in conversation about Scripture, even when the occasional incorrect interpretation is shared. But sooner or later we must remember that not all interpretations are equally valid.

Some people get defensive when they are reminded of this point. Some people presume that since none of us are perfect, that anybody’s idea is just as valid as anybody else’s idea. But this just isn’t the case. When the biblical authors wrote Scripture, they meant something. If we understand the text differently from how the author intended for us to understand the text, we’re not just understanding it differently; we’re misunderstanding it.

Other people get discouraged when they are reminded of their own imperfection. Don’t be. It’s okay to be mistaken every now and then. What’s not okay is to be satisfied with our ignorance. God doesn’t expect perfection, but he does expect us to be humble and honest in our study of scripture. He does expect us to continue to study to correct our errors. He does expect faithfulness. Don’t be discouraged by your own lack of omniscience (Better Bible Study Tip #11).

Go ahead. Invite others to share their opinions about the text. But don’t stop there. After hearing those suggestions, go back and study the text to figure out which interpretations are most faithful to the intentions of the original authors of scripture.

Better Bible Study Tip #37: Pay Attention to Font Style

Did you know that most Bible translations will occasionally change up the font style in order to give clues about the original text? For example, look at Genesis 1:2 in the New King James Version:

“The earth was without form, and void; and darkness wasa on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

Notice that the word “was” is written in italics, with a small superscript “a” inserted on the top right hand corner of the word. If you look the footnotes at the bottom of the page, you will see the following note:

1:2 aWords in italic type have been added for clarity. They are not found in the original Hebrew or Aramaic.”

So basically, translators were faced with a choice. Since the original text did not include the word “was” at this point, they could leave it out completely. This would be a more precise way to make the translation read “word-for-word”, but leaving out the verb would result in really poor English. The translators have resolved this difficulty by putting the word in italics and adding a footnote so that the reader can know that the word was isn’t in the original text. The KJV uses the same trick. Pretty cool!

Another trick used by translators involves the usage of capital letters. For example, notice how the ESV translates Psalm 110:1.

“The LORD says to my Lord:
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.'”

Notice how the first word “LORD” is written in all capital letters. This is a trick used by translators to tell the reader that the Hebrew word being translated is the divine name, YHWH (or “Yahweh”). This distinguishes the personal name of God from the generic Hebrew word for “lord” or “master”, the word adon.

In Psalm 110:1 both words are used. Since the first word “LORD” is in all capital letters, and the second word “Lord” isn’t, we can understand that David was saying “Yahweh says to my Master.” The NIV, NKJV, and KJV use this trick as well.

The NASB will occasionally begin a verse with a bold letter in order to indicate that a new paragraph is beginning, and will uses all capital letters to indicate when the authors are quoting from other scriptures.

Every translation is unique in how they use font styles. The best way to understand these clues is to pay attention to footnotes and to read the preface to your translation. So pay attention to font style. When font style changes, there’s a good chance the translators are giving you a clue about the original text.

Better Bible Study Tip #36: Pay Attention to the Formatting

Pay attention to how your Bible translation formats the text. Sometimes translators will use formatting to give readers clues about how to read a particular text.

For example, notice how the ESV formats Genesis 1:26-27:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Notice how verse 26 is formatted differently from verse 27. Verse 26 begins with an indention, but contains no other line breaks or indentions. The text is presented as simple prose like a historical narrative would be presented. The initial indention indicates that readers should read verse 26 as it’s own paragraph, or as a unit of thought.

Verse 27 is formatted with line breaks and indentions. The translators have formatted this part of the text as a poem, in which different lines are written in a parallel relationship to each other. The translators are giving you a clue that you should look for the poetic symmetry in the lines of verse 27.

Not every translation formats the text in the same way. For example, the KJV, NKVJ, and NASB usually start each verse on an new line. This makes it easier to reference specific verses. The ESV and NIV format prose into paragraph form. This makes it easier to follow the natural flow of thought in the original text. There’s not a right or a wrong way to format the text. The different formats have their own unique strengths (and weaknesses).

So yes, formatting makes a difference. Pay attention to how your Bible is formatted.

Better Bible Study Tip #35: Try To Ignore Chapter and Verse Divisions

Many people are unaware that the chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles are only about 500 years old. The Bible was not divided into chapters until the 13th century, and the Bible was not divided into verses until the 16th century. In some ways, chapter and verse divisions are very helpful, especially in helping us to quickly reference specific parts of scripture. But for better Bible study, it’s important to remember that these divisions aren’t original. In some ways, they can actually make Bible study more difficult.

For starters, many books of the Bible have a natural structure that is often overlooked. For example, Matthew doesn’t have 28 chapters, it has five natural sections. The book of Acts has six natural sections, each ending with the phrase “and the word of the Lord continued to spread and flourish”. Chapter divisions can sometimes distract us from the more natural divisions intended by the author.

If we aren’t careful, chapter and verse divisions can cause us to miss the author’s natural flow of thought. It’s easy to read to the end of a chapter and then use the chapter break as a good place to stop. But this isn’t always helpful. For example, its not uncommon to hear people use Romans 13 (where Paul says that governments do not bear the sword in vain) to show that Christians are allowed to bear the sword against evildoers, without acknowledging that God uses governments to accomplish the very thing Christians are forbidden from doing in Romans 12. If it weren’t for Paul’s thought being divided with a chapter division, perhaps less Christians would draw incorrect conclusions about this text.

Another problem caused by chapter and verse divisions is that it makes it all to easy to grasp onto random scriptures and to use them for our own purpose instead of considering the wider context. How often have you heard Philippians 4:13, Psalm 33:12, and others misused in social media memes without any consideration to their original context?

Although chapter and verse divisions continue to play an important role in helping people to interact with Scripture, for better Bible study it’s best to try to ignore these divisions. Try to pay attention to the original author’s natural flow of thought.

Better Bible Study Tip #33: Learn Some Basics About Translation Philosophies

The Bible was originally written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The problem is, most of us don’t know how to read those languages. The simplest solution to this problem is to pick a good translation of the Bible. Most people will simply pick the translation they are most familiar with, or they will pick out a translation because they find it easy to read. Although familiar translations may be easier to memorize, and readability is certainly important, for better Bible study, it is good to learn some basics about translation philosphies.

Translation is not always as simple as picking an English equivalent to words in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. There’s more to understanding what is being communicated than simply being able to look up words in a dictionary.

In order to illustrate this point, imagine you were asked to translate the following sentence into a foreign language: “The running back for the Crimson Tide has really been piling up the yards.” We could translate the sentence word-for-word into another language, but unless the reader had some basic cultural understanding about the game of college football, the sentence would end up sounding like nonsense. The reader would have to do a little bit of homework about SEC football before they could understand our translation. Another solution would be to try to rewrite the phrase so that someone from a different culture could understand the main idea without having to do extra work.

Bible translators run into these kinds of problems all the time. One approach to translating the Bible is to translate it “word for word”. Translators call this “formal equivalence.” This goal of this translation philosophy is to account for every word in the original language with an English word as much as possible. The problem with this style of translation is that the translation can sometimes end up sounding awkward.

Another approach is called “dynamic equivalence” or “functional equivalence.” This approach tries to determine what the original phrase meant, and then uses whatever words necessary to communicate that meaning to English readers. There is not as much emphasis on accounting for each individual word. The result is usually a more readable translation.

So which translation philosophy is best? On one hand, there’s a lot to be said for readability. The Bible was, after all, written in common, everyday language (see Bible Study Tip #31). But it’s also important to remember that God inspired the original words of Scripture. Details matter. Sometimes individual words can make a big difference (see Bible Study Tip #14).

In order to translate from one language to another, it is necessary to come to some conclusions about what the original words mean and how to best convey that meaning to the audience. This introduces certain degree of human understanding into all translations. One big advantage of formal equivalent translations is that it limits how much the translator’s own ideas can be introduced into the translation. Yes, a formal equivalence translation may sound more clunky at times, but there are plenty of resources available to help us to understand these difficult words and phrases.

Dynamic equivalence translations aren’t bad. They can be good, especially if you’re just wanting to causally read large sections of scripture to get the big picture (Bible Study Tip #13). But when we use them we need to be aware that what we are reading may or may not accurately represent the original text. For deeper studies, it’s important to have a good word-for-word translation.

If you want to know what kind of translation philosophy is being used, read the preface. Although most popular translations use a mixture of the two main philosophies, the King James Version, New King James Version, New American Standard, and English Standard Versions all lean more towards formal equivalence, while the New International Version, and the New Living Translation lean more towards dynamic equivalence. There’s also paraphrases, such as The Living Bible and The Message. Paraphrases aren’t actually translations at all. Paraphrases begin with an English translation, and then reword the translation into the most readable English possible. I don’t usually recommend paraphrases, unless we’re only looking to consult them similar to how we would use a commentary.

Translations are like golf clubs. Different translations are better for different purposes. But for better Bible study, it’s good to be familiar with the translation philosophy being used by your particular translation.

Better Bible Study Tip #32: Learn Some Basics About Bible Manuscripts

A good translation should, as much as possible, attempt to represent the original wording as it left the original author’s hand. One problem, however, is that the Bible isn’t like the Declaration of Independence, where we can go back and look at the original document. No “originals” have been preserved. What we do have are thousands of handwritten copies (manuscripts).

What’s incredible is that these copies are almost completely identical with one another. Although there are differences between manuscripts, a vast majority of the time these differences are very minor alterations. For example, sometimes manuscripts will have different spellings of a name, or perhaps will contain “scribal notes” that were likely added to clarify passages that might have been confusing. These differences between manuscripts are called “variants.” In almost every case, textual variants are easily explained, and they almost never make any significant impact on the meaning of the text. The striking degree of similarity between the manuscripts gives scholars a high degree of confidence regarding the original wording of the text.

But there are some textual variants that are more difficult to solve. That’s why most translations will offer footnotes that say “Some manuscripts add…” or “Some manuscripts do not have…”. Pay attention to those footnotes. They can help you to be aware of those places where scholars aren’t as certain about the original text.

When scholars try to determine the original wording, there are a few key pieces of evidence they consider. Most scholars will tend to give more weight to older manuscripts (although sometimes this will be debated). In the Old Testament this often comes down to a choice between the Masoretic Text (primarily medieval era copies of the Hebrew text) and manuscripts of the Greek Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament that dates all the way back to 250-150 BC!). The Masoretic text is newer, yet it contains the original language. The Septuagint is older, so although it is a translation, it may be based on even older and more original Hebrew texts. So when differences occur between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, which is more reliable? This is sometimes a tricky question to answer and scholars love to debate this sort of thing.

Sometimes textual problems can be solved simply by using logic. Where variants exist, usually the variant that most logically explains how all the others came about is usually presumed to be original. For example, in Mark 1:2 the NKJV reads “As it is written in the prophets“, while the ESV (following different manuscripts) reads “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” What follows is a quotation that combines Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. If the original text read “Isaiah the prophet”, it would be easy to explain why a later scribe would attempt to “correct” the text to simply read “the prophets”. But if the original text read “the prophets”, it would be more difficult to explain why a scribe would specify “Isaiah”. So while we may not be 100% certain which wording is original, it’s probably good guesswork to assume that Mark originally referred to Isaiah (which makes sense, since Isaiah is the more significant of the prophets he quotes). But, as with most all textual variants, it makes little to no difference as to the overall meaning of the text.

Since we want to know what the original author wrote, it is an incredible blessing to know that there are so many manuscripts standing behind our translations. Where uncertainty exists, it’s good to know why. And in all the other places, where our Bible doesn’t include those footnotes, it’s very reassuring to know that there is little to no uncertainty that we do in fact have the original words of the author.