Reading 11. Beyond Reading to Bible Study: Words

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Words Change with Time

We must remember that when we are studying a Biblical text that the original language from which we get our English translations was a dynamic language. Too often we treat it like a dead language. We find a word in a concordance and assume that it has the same meaning in every place it occurs. It doesn’t! Words change their meaning then just like they do now. Can you think of any words that have changed their meaning in your lifetime? I’ll bet you can. What is true now was true then.

We must come to grips with the way we handle words in order to understand how to study them, looking for their meaning. Remember, the meaning of a word is determined by its context unless it is a technical phrase which has meaning applied without context. You might want to observe that a word used during David’s time might not have the same meaning as a word used during the Restoration Period. A word used by Paul in his early writings (Galatians) might not have the same meaning as the same word used during his last writings (2 Timothy).

The information in this section will supply you background for the information given in the section under Word Study, which is next week’s WordWise 12 (Studying Scripture).


In order to communicate using a language, you need words. When we communicate ideas to each other, we use words and combine them together into a larger unit of thought. Without the use of words we would be limited in our ability to express our thoughts with any precision. Words are central in language communication. Therefore, it becomes important to understand the idea of content. The correct interpretation of Scripture is the meaning required by the normal meaning of the words in the context in which they occur.

The meaning of a word is not determined from a resource tool like a dictionary. We only receive a definition there. The meaning of a word comes from the context in which it appears. Therefore, the same Hebrew or Greek word may have a different meaning when found in a different context, because a word has a range of meaning.

Range of Meaning

The same word, spelled identically, can have many totally different meanings. Let’s illustrate using two English words, first hand, then up.

Hand: We have a hand, which is a part of our body. A clock has a hand. A card player holds a hand in his hand. Hand is a unit of measurement for horses. We hear phrases like, “all hands on deck.” We may be asked at some point in time to “give someone a hand.”  In each of these cases the word is the same. It is spelled the same, but the meaning is different. The different meanings of the word hand make up the range of meaning. Under normal circumstances such a range of meaning does not cause misunderstanding or confusion. A native speaker of the language, aided by the context in which the word appears, will pick up on the correct meaning of the word. The ideas that are expressed in the larger context in which the word appears will, for the most part, clarify the intended meaning of the word in use.

Up: The following story by Frank S. Endicott is from Reader’s Digest, August, 1970:

We’ve got a two-letter word we use constantly that may have more meanings than any other. The word is up.

It is easy to understand up meaning toward the sky or toward the top of a list. But when we waken, why do we wake up? At a meeting, why does a topic come up, why do participants speak up, and why are officers up for election? And why is it up to the secretary to write up a report?

Often the little word isn’t needed, but we use it anyway. We brighten up a room, light up a cigar, polish up the silver, lock up the house, and fix up the old car. At other times, it has special meanings. People stir up trouble, line up for tickets, work up an appetite, think up excuses, get tied up in traffic. To be dressed is one thing, but to be dressed up is special. It may be confusing, but a drain must be opened up because it is stopped up. We open up a store in the morning and close it up at night. We seem to be mixed up about up.

To be up on the proper use of up, look up the word in your dictionary. In one desk‑sized dictionary up takes up half a page, and listed definitions add up to about 40. If you are up to it, you might try building up a list of the many ways in which up is used. It will take up a lot of your time, but if you don’t give up, you may wind up with a thousand.

Change of Meaning

The meanings of words do not remain fixed. Therefore, it is important to pursue what the original words in a passage meant at the time they were written in the context they occur. A new meaning occurs because a word begins to be used in a certain way. The KJV is a classic illustration of how English words have changed their meaning since 1611. As an example, the word conversation appears in 2 Corinthians 1.12, Galatians 1.13; Ephesians 2.3; 4.22; and Philippians 1.27. When we use the word conversation, we usually think of two individuals who are talking to each other. However, it meant something totally different in 1611. Today we use words like conduct or way of life to convey the same idea that conversation conveyed in 1611. The KJV translates 1 Thessalonians 4.15 as, We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will not prevent those who have fallen asleep. The word prevent in 1611 meant to go before, while today it means to stop or hinder. A sidelight of these instructions demonstrates that what served as a good translation in the seventeenth century no longer communicates what Paul originally meant. Just as English words change meanings, so have the words in the biblical languages.

Characteristic and Figurative Meaning

A word has a characteristic meaning which is the usual meaning of the word. In addition, the same word can have a figurative meaning. The word dog usually has the characteristic meaning of a four-legged, hairy little animal. However, if you used it in reference to a person, “You dog!” it communicates something quite different. The figurative meaning used this way is usually derogatory. In Scripture, Paul uses the word dog when he writes to the believers at Philippi. He says, Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh (Phil. 3.2). As a historical note, first century Jews considered dogs as detestable animals. Jews expressed their dislike for Gentiles by calling them dogs. Paul uses the word dog to throw back at the Jewish troublemakers in Philippi their own contemptuous use of the term. When Matthew and Mark use the term in the story of the Syrophoenician woman, dog carries its characteristic meaning. As we read and interpret Scripture, we must study words carefully to determine if the word is being used characteristically or figuratively.

Good reading will help you arrive at the meaning the original hearer could have heard when you are aware of context and content.

A Final Thought

Keep these areas in mind when you are reading/studying a word looking for its current meaning in the context in which you are studying.

Living into the Text!

It is always important to live into what you have learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.

  • What words can you think of that have changed their meaning in your lifetime?
  • Why is it important to understand the period of time a book was written in?
  • Where do you discover the meaning of a word?
  • How can you discover whether a word has a characteristic meaning or a figurative meaning?

The articles below come from various Bible Dictionaries and other sources. The posting of these brief articles are to introduce some readers to the vast amount of information that is provided to enhance your reading of the text of the Bible with a hope that it will lead to a better understanding of the text and will lead the reader to an improved praxis in his or her community of faith and personal life. You might read the articles offline in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try Revell Bible Dictionary. Revell Bible Dictionary is no longer in print but is available from Amazon. One of these should suit your personal needs.



Week 11: Studying Scripture

Easton’s Bible Dictionary: Galatians

Galatians, Epistle to—The genuineness of this epistle is not called in question. Its Pauline origin is universally acknowledged.


Occasion of. The churches of Galatia were founded by Paul himself (Acts 16:6; Gal. 1:8; 4:13, 19). They seem to have been composed mainly of converts from heathenism (4:8), but partly also of Jewish converts, who probably, under the influence of Judaizing teachers, sought to incorporate the rites of Judaism with Christianity, and by their active zeal had succeeded in inducing the majority of the churches to adopt their views (1:6; 3:1). This epistle was written for the purpose of counteracting this Judaizing tendency, and of recalling the Galatians to the simplicity of the gospel, and at the same time also of vindicating Paul’s claim to be a divinely-commissioned apostle.


Time and place of writing. The epistle was probably written very soon after Paul’s second visit to Galatia (Acts 18:23). The references of the epistle appear to agree with this conclusion. The visit to Jerusalem, mentioned in Gal. 2:1-10, was identical with that of Acts 15, and it is spoken of as a thing of the past, and consequently the epistle was written subsequently to the council of Jerusalem. The similarity between this epistle and that to the Romans has led to the conclusion that they were both written at the same time, namely, in the winter of A.D. 57-8, during Paul’s stay in Corinth (Acts 20:2, 3). This to the Galatians is written on the urgency of the occasion, tidings having reached him of the state of matters; and that to the Romans in a more deliberate and systematic way, in exposition of the same great doctrines of the gospel.


Contents of. The great question discussed is, Was the Jewish law binding on Christians? The epistle is designed to prove against the Jews that men are justified by faith without the works of the law of Moses. After an introductory address (Gal. 1:1-10) the apostle discusses the subjects which had occasioned the epistle. (1) He defends his apostolic authority (1:11-19; 2:1-14); (2) shows the evil influence of the Judaizers in destroying the very essence of the gospel (3 and 4); (3) exhorts the Galatian believers to stand fast in the faith as it is in Jesus, and to abound in the fruits of the Spirit, and in a right use of their Christian freedom (5-6); (4) and then concludes with a summary of the topics discussed, and with the benediction.


The Epistle to the Galatians and that to the Romans taken together “form a complete proof that justification is not to be obtained meritoriously either by works of morality or by rites and ceremonies, though of divine appointment; but that it is a free gift, proceeding entirely from the mercy of God, to those who receive it by faith in Jesus our Lord.”


In the conclusion of the epistle (6:11) Paul says, “Ye see how large a letter I have written with mine own hand.” It is implied that this was different from his ordinary usage, which was simply to write the concluding salutation with his own hand, indicating that the rest of the epistle was written by another hand. Regarding this conclusion, Lightfoot, in his Commentary on the epistle, says: “At this point the apostle takes the pen from his amanuensis, and the concluding paragraph is written with his own hand. From the time when letters began to be forged in his name (2 Thess. 2:2; 3:17) it seems to have been his practice to close with a few words in his own handwriting, as a precaution against such forgeries … In the present case he writes a whole paragraph, summing up the main lessons of the epistle in terse, eager, disjointed sentences. He writes it, too, in large, bold characters (Gr. pelikois grammasin), that his hand-writing may reflect the energy and determination of his soul.”

2 Timothy

Week 11: Studying Scripture

Easton’s Bible Dictionary: 2 Timothy

Timothy, Second Epistle to — was probably written a year or so after the first, and from Rome, where Paul was for a second time a prisoner, and was sent to Timothy by the hands of Tychicus. In it he entreats Timothy to come to him before winter, and to bring Mark with him (comp. Phil. 2:22). He was anticipating that “the time of his departure was at hand” (2 Tim. 4:6), and he exhorts his “son Timothy” to all diligence and steadfastness, and to patience under persecution (1:6–15), and to a faithful discharge of all the duties of his office (4:1–5), with all the solemnity of one who was about to appear before the Judge of quick and dead.

International Standard Version: Gospel of Mark to print

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Jesus Followers


There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.


(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)