This was presented to our fellowship on Jan.21, 2018, for the benefit of folks who were considering a word study class. It is an enhanced combination of essays you may have seen on this site, but we thought some might find it useful. It also includes a description of the classes themselves.
We are very fortunate to have many languages represented in our small fellowship. We began with readings from Psalm 119 regarding the “word” of God, and then the first couple sentences from John 1 in each of the languages represented. It was fascinating to learn that “word” did not mean the same thing to all of them. For some, it was simply information. For some, it applied only to speech. For others it could be spoken or written. For others, a specific message. This alone was a strong message that understanding is essential!
Introduction to Word Study for GMF, Jan.21, 2018
You may have noticed that all of these have one thing in common: they all involve or imply COMMUNICATION!
From the very beginning, God has been trying to communicate with his people, even going so far as to apply “word” to himself! They needed instructions on how to handle the life that he had given them. They needed to get acquainted! In all the accounts of God’s calls to various individuals throughout history, a common theme has been to come out of the prevailing culture – some of which were very highly developed – and become a new people that would be peculiarly set apart for God’s purposes! It was only logical that this would require some instructions. Why is that such a strange concept for today’s church?
Characteristic is God’s statement about Abraham (who is believed to have come from Sumer – where writing may have been originally developed) in Genesis 18 – “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord.” There were of course no written instructions at that time, and the results were spotty. But by the time Moses came along, principles were recorded, and expected to be taught and observed. The summary in Deuteronomy includes the admonition that every family was to teach its children every day. This was – and is – too serious a responsibility to be left to a few individuals. Everyone had to be involved.
As time went on, though, an ecclesiastical hierarchy took over many of the responsibilities that were initially supposed to belong to every person, and things disintegrated seriously. During the whole chaotic period of the Judges, not a single mention is made of “the word of the Lord.” There were a few good leaders, but they did not return God’s Word into the hands of the people, and reforms did not outlast the men who started them. The later historical books record many reform movements, but only four reached very far. In the reforms instituted by Josiah, Jehoshaphat, and Hezekiah, it is pointed out that Levites were sent throughout the kingdom to teach all the people the principles that had been neglected. These reform efforts lasted longer. Joash, however, the little-boy king, depended upon the priest Jehoiada for his instructions and his reforms fell apart as soon as his mentor died. Depending upon a single person, however faithful, is a recipe for disaster!
It is no accident that the Reformation came on the heels of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, which made the Bible accessible to many more people than previously. All the reformers began by comparing the institution they knew to the descriptions they saw in Scripture. They differed in how far they were willing to go to recover the original vision. This was the primary conflict between Zwingli and the Swiss Brethren in Zurich. Tyndale, Wycliffe and others gave their lives to making the message available to ALL. A couple centuries later, the Wesleyan revivals started in “lay”-led Bible classes. The term “lay” comes from the Greek “laos”, which simply means “people” – NOT “clergy”, which designation is not found a single time in the New Testament.
This, then, is the goal of Word Study: to put the Word of God into the hands of his ordinary people. That is the ONLY way that we will enjoy a renewed, revived and faithful church. We dare to believe that if ordinary folks who desire to be faithful above all else, have access to the wonders of that Word, wonderful things can happen again. Notice that in the Ps.119 readings, the suppliant asks to “understand” in order to obey.
Words are funny things. Although they are essential for communication, they can nevertheless confuse as much as they clarify. Words encompass far more than their “lexical meanings” – a term used by linguists to refer to formal dictionary definitions. Connotations, implications, and shades of meaning, differ widely, depending upon the perspectives of the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader, which may, or may not, be similar.
Our understanding of words is heavily dependent upon context. If I use the word “drive”, for example, how do you know if I am referring to operating a car – collecting funds – playing or watching golf or baseball – a very hard rain – hammering a nail – intense ambition – basic physical needs – a gadget on my computer – or a host of other things? English is particularly bad at that. Only context can give you a clue.
When one moves between languages, the situation becomes even more complicated. There is seldom a one-to-one correspondence between any two words in any two languages. If one tries to translate “literally”, how is he to choose among all these possible “meanings”?
Cultural convention, likewise, affects the “flavor” of what is understood by certain words. This varies over time. In the 1950’s, for example, the heyday of the McCarthy persecutions, “red” was no longer simply a color. It was a dangerous – even life-threatening – accusation!
Also, any currently spoken language is constantly changing. Consider as an example that is not theologically “loaded”, that in Elizabethan English, the word “quick” meant “alive”, and not “fast, sudden, or rapid”. “The quick and the dead”, therefore, meant “the living and the dead”, and not, as some would have it, “the two kinds of pedestrians in city traffic”!
All of these considerations and others come into play when applied to the study of Scripture. Over the years, many “definitions” or understandings have become codified into “doctrines” which have become in turn weapons in the battle for “orthodoxy”. Subsequent “translations”, (many of which are merely paraphrases, the writer’s opinion of what the text means, not what it says), assorted “Bible dictionaries”, and “chain references” have then incorporated these standardized understandings, without any reference whatever to the freight carried by the words and grammatical structures chosen by the original writers. Many “proofs” are derived entirely from English texts, without regard for their departure from the source documents. Accurate understanding depends upon trying to hear what was communicated to the first readers!
The basic principle of word study is simple linguistics: One learns best to understand the meaning of a word by observing every context in which it is used. That’s how you learned to talk! When your toddler is learning to talk, you don’t hand him a dictionary! You point, and demonstrate. You “show and tell.” That is also the best way to learn to understand any language!
Why does the first-hand understanding of the meaning of words matter? There are hosts of writers and speakers who are ready, willing, and eager to tell you what “the Bible says!” in order to add muscle to their particular interpretations of Scripture. There are all sort of footnotes, commentaries, dictionaries, and study guides, and literally hundreds of English translations and paraphrases. So why bother?
Well, which of those are you going to believe? They do NOT all carry the same message! Whom do you trust to choose your path, when all these “authorities” do not agree? Some differences are minor, but some are very serious. How do you evaluate what you hear or read? DO you evaluate it? Does it really require a “leader”, be he scholar, pastor, minister, deacon, bishop, or whatever other honorific title with a string of fancy degrees that a person claims, to understand the Lord’s instructions for his people?
As our good brother Paul pointed out, when God chose to call out people for himself, “he did not choose the wise and learned” but very ordinary folks. In fact, depending which historian you listen to, anywhere from 70 to 90% of the members of the New Testament church were enslaved political prisoners from Roman conquests in many areas, many of whom were probably illiterate! Yet they spread Jesus’ message throughout the known world! They created a brotherhood that changed the world, and the lives of everyone they touched!
So why study words? The process of word study, and even the original Greek language, are neither ends in themselves, nor weapons with which to clobber anyone who espouses other views. They are simply tools which may be used to better understand “the wealth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” that is made available to his people in Jesus Christ. They are directions for our journey – the GPS, if you will, for the Kingdom!
Why study words?
The purpose is
NOT to pontificate, prove, or insist upon a particular “doctrine”
NOT as an intellectual exercise to inflate our egos
NOT to find answers to all of our questions.
But it DOES/will
– aid in discernment of what is and is not trustworthy scholarship, commentary, or instructions
– enrich our appreciation of all that we are offered in Christ
– enable our obedience to our Lord, as it increases our understanding.
It will definitely rattle many people’s comfortable cages. No one can honestly face the New Testament without having his preconceived notions challenged.
None of us is big enough, or smart enough, to understand and encompass all of the Lord’s truth. We need each other’s insight and encouragement.
Remember that it is HIS – the LORD’S — opinion that matters – not ours.
Keep these assumptions in mind:
1. God INTENDS – has always intended – to reveal himself. He has never tried to be obscure. That’s why “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” in the first place!
2. The New Testament was written for ordinary people. You and I are just as ordinary as they were.
3. We have Jesus’ word that “If anyone wants to do the Father’s will, he will know…..” That’s the ONLY “prerequisite” for success in the study. But it is non-negotiable.
4. Rightly used, the New Testament itself is its own best commentary.
5. The only genuine “expert” is your brother or sister who has spent many years working at being faithful to the Lord.
If you would like to learn this approach to Biblical study, we would enjoy making it available.