The Bible, being literature, is comprised of words. For that reason, an understanding of the words themselves is basic to understanding what the Bible says. A word study is a valuable tool in that it allows the student of the Bible to see how the same word is used throughout the Bible and in other literature of the same time.
A good way to conduct a word study is to read a particular book or author (Paul, for instance) and see how a certain word is used consistently. Based on the usage of the word and its common definition, we begin to get a feel for what the author means when he uses it. For example, the Greek word dunamis (“power”) appears 119 times in the New Testament. We could study Luke’s use of the word in his gospel, and then compare what we find to Paul’s use of the same word in 1 Corinthians. Or we could study the Hebrew word korse (“throne”) throughout the Old Testament.
We must be careful of what one biblical scholar has called “illegitimate totality transfer.” A word can mean different things in a variety of contexts. We cannot automatically transfer the totality of the meaning into every instance where the word is used. A word may have several meanings, but that does not mean that all the meanings are intended every time the word is used—we must be sensitive to the context. For example, the Greek word angelos properly means “a messenger.” The word is commonly used in Scripture to refer to a spiritual being created by God, living in heaven, performing God’s will. However, the word is also used in Scripture to refer to a demonic being (Revelation 12:9) and even a ghost (Acts 12:15).
Some good tools for word study are The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis edited by Willem A. Van Gemeren and The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis edited by Moisés Silva. However, these are somewhat scholarly and may be difficult for those with no exposure to the original languages. Other tools for word study include Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words and Strong’s Concordance. To start a word study, use an exhaustive concordance to find every passage where the word occurs, and read those passages. Take notes and develop a feel for the meaning of the word yourself, and then check your conclusions with scholars and commentators.
To see how a word study works, try this:
Use a concordance to look up the word gospel (Greek, euaggelion) in the book of Romans.
Read all the passages in Romans that contain the word.
Answer these questions:
- What is the dictionary definition of the word?
- In what way(s) is the news “good”?
- What phrases are attached to the word gospel that show the source or the nature of the good news?
- Why does Paul call it “my gospel” in Romans 2:16 and 16:25?
- In what way(s) is the gospel to be “obeyed” (Romans 10:16)?
- What else do you notice about how the word is used in Romans?
Compare Paul’s use of the word gospel in Romans to Luke’s use of the same word in the book of Acts.
Spend some time praising the Lord for the gospel.