Prospering in all we do:
How to start the day with God’s word
Dr. Jim Denison
My first Bible was a red New Testament distributed by the Gideons at James Butler Bonham Elementary in Houston, Texas on March 27, 1969. I know because I wrote that information in its flyleaf. When I received it, I began carrying it in the hip pocket of my jeans, accounting for its tattered condition today.
While I was pleased to have my own Bible, I couldn’t do much with it. Like most first-time Bible students, I opened to the first page. And found the “begats.” After three or four, I gave up. Clearly I didn’t know enough to understand this book, I thought.
I was both right and wrong. There are principles and practices which guide all effective Bible study. But these tools are intended for every person who wants to meet God in his word. Even a fifth-grader in blue jeans.
As we begin our study of a specific passage, first we will ask important background questions. Then we will read the text in question, preferably in several translations. Note what seems to be the major idea of the passage, and its relation to the author’s intended purpose for the book.
Now ask basic questions of the text:
Who is speaking, writing, and/or acting?
What is the subject of the text?
Where is it happening?
Why and/or how?
With this information in mind, we are ready to proceed. We will follow the “four-fold” approach to Bible study:
Grammar: what do the words mean?
History: what are the circumstances behind the text?
Theology: what spiritual and theological truth does the text intend to communicate?
Practical: what applications does the text intend to make in my life?
Word study (“lexicography”)
Begin with the words themselves. We want to know that the author intended them to say, not just what they seem to say to us today. Word which survive long in any language acquire added meanings and implications. We want to know that meaning which the author intended.
For instance, Jesus told us of a man who entrusted his servants with “talents” (Matthew 25:14-30). Today the word refers to gifts or abilities. In Jesus’ day it was a measure of money (worth more than a thousand dollars in our currency). We misinterpret the parable if we think it relates to our God-given abilities and spiritual gifts.
The King James Version tells us that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus “and could not for the press, because he was little of stature” (Luke 19:3). We picture this short man trying to see around the reporters who are interviewing Jesus on his way into Jericho. Of course, “press” in the 17th century means “crowd”. Luke is not condemning the media.
How do we do a word study? Ask these five questions.
First, how was the word defined? With the help of a Bible dictionary, look up all unclear words in the passage. Be careful to confine your work to the definition of the word as it was intended by its original author.
Second, what is the context of the word? Often the sentences surrounding the term will explain its meaning. For example, Jesus referred to the Kingdom of God in the Model Prayer (Mt 6:10). What was this “kingdom”? Our Lord defined it himself: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus used parallelism, a kind of Hebrew expression where the second line repeats or defines the first. The “kingdom” is where God’s will is done. The context defines the term.
Third, what is the history of the word? A dictionary or encyclopedia will provide its background and root meanings. But again, be careful to confine your interpretation to the intended meaning of the author. And work with the word in its original languages, as the commentaries enable such study.
Note that the history of the translated word may have little to do with the author’s intended meaning. Consider “blessed,” the word with which Jesus begins each of his Beatitudes. The English word may come from the Old English “bliss,” meaning “joy.” It could come from “blod,” referencing “blood sacrifice”–someone is “blessed” if they have been atoned for by sacrifice. It may come from “benedicere,” a Latin word meaning “to wish well.” When I first preached on the Beatitudes as a college student, I used each of these definitions in my explanation of the word.
Only later did I realize that Jesus did not use our English word “blessed,” but the Greek word makarios. And it has none of this background in its history. “Makarios” describes a happiness which transcends circumstances, a joy beyond words or the world. By importing definitions from the English translation, I missed the meaning of the original word. Don’t do that.
Fourth, what are other biblical uses of the word? A concordance or dictionary will help here. Since Scripture interprets Scripture, other passages can often help clarify the meaning of the words of the text.
For instance, remember that Jesus warns us that one who calls someone a “fool” is in danger of the “fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22). Why? Because “fool” in the Bible describes a person of the worst moral deficiency, someone who rejects God for a life of terrible corruption. This is the person who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1). To call someone a “fool” was to malign their character and value, the worst form of insult. Other texts make clear Jesus’ intention.
Fifth, what is the cultural background behind the word? What practices current in the author’s day affect his use of the term?
Jesus told us, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:41). Was he talking about joggers out for a run, or bikers on a trail?
Actually, he referred to a Persian custom taken over by the Romans, by which a subject could be forced to carry a soldier’s pack for one mile. This was done not to help the soldier so much as to remind the subject that he serves the Empire. Jesus is saying, If someone humiliates you, allow him to humiliate you even further. Don’t return slander for slander, insult for insult. Treat even your enemies with humble service. The cultural background clarifies the intention of the phrase.