Welcome to our 4th post in our series entitled the 7 Rules of Bible Interpretation EVERY Christian Should Know.
In this post I want to introduce you to Technique #4 – Word Up.
This technique teaches you the importance and the process of studying individual words in a passage to see how they might add clarity, meaning and depth to any text.
This step will be divided into four lessons, two of which we will cover in this post and two in the next.
The first question we might ask about this rule is: why are we interested in studying the individual words of a passage?
There are two basic answers:
One reason why we are interested in doing a further study of individual words in a passage is because they may have a deeper or wider meaning than may be apparent at first glance.
In my own culture, for example, there are many words and expressions that communicate far more than the term or phrase might indicate.
Terms or phrases such as “rock star”, “9/11”, “right-wing nut” or “liberal” (the last two in a political sense) all have varying degrees of background and richness.
A term like “liberal” would mean something different to someone in the U.S. vs. someone in Great Britain. It might even mean something different to someone living in New England vs. the South. No one could deny that the term is loaded and fraught with both positive and negative connotations.
The same depth of meaning could be applied to a phrase like “right-wing nut” or a mere number like “9/11.” Both of these phrases are loaded within mainstream U.S. culture. Both communicate far more than the actual words or numbers. And perhaps, most importantly, both would require a certain amount of translation and explanation to be fully understandable by outsiders to U.S. culture.
This is how language works and it is even more the case in a language and culture that is 2,000 to 3,500 years removed from our own.
Another reason for going deeper into the words of the Bible is because we may attach incorrect meanings to the words we read in the Bible. Again, think back to our lesson on pre-existing conditions and recall how easy it was to bring our own language assumptions into the words of the Bible.
Slave, church, husband and marriage all have particular meanings in the 21st century. However, these terms could have a completely different meaning to someone living in 1st century Palestine.
Slavery was a normal part of the ancient Mediterranean world, as was a male dominated patriarchal system and a form of marriage where an engagement had about the same degree of commitment as the actual wedding itself.
Thus, reading terms with our 21st century and cultural lenses can lead us to misinterpret the meaning of certain words.
Before you can dig deeper into a word, you should have a few criteria to determine which terms might be good candidates for further study.
A few simple rules might be helpful as you read your passage.
For example, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 uses the term “falling asleep” three times:
“But we don’t want you to be uninformed, brethren about those who are asleep” (4:13)
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (4:14)
“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep (4:15)
Why would Paul do this?
Using Technique #4 – Word Up might give us a better clue since it would help us dig deeper into the meaning of this phrase.
Another example of repetition is from Ephesians 3:3-9, where the word “mystery” is used three times in such a short span.
Another way to choose the right terms for Technique #4 is to choose words that have a rich history behind them. Typically, these are words that are overused in the Christian culture (covenant, sin, sacrifice, faith, love, gospel, Lord, etc.)
Choosing to study these terms in a deeper way will help you remove some of the preconceptions you might have about what these words mean.
You’ll begin to understand how the Bible actually uses that word and not necessarily how you have been taught to think about it.
Genesis 1:26 states that we were created in God’s “image.” What does that term actually mean? How is it used in other places in the Bible?
You needn’t limit yourself to a formula.
If there is a term that catches your interest or you want to learn more about simply choose it and do a more in-depth study using Rule #4.
Words like “anointing”, “God-fearer” or “firstborn” have depths of meaning that are not readily visible at first glance.
Studying any word in-depth brings you a wealth of knowledge about the Bible. You can hardly go wrong with what you gain.
The deeper study of the words in a particular passage is an important tool in your study of the Bible.
As we demonstrated, words can sometimes have deeper meanings than is first readily apparent. At other times, we may be giving words meanings which were not original to the Bible.
Identifying which terms to study further is equal parts art and science.
Repetitive, loaded or ambiguous terms are good candidates. However, the above guidelines are simply that, guidelines. Let your interests and your own sense of what’s important in the text be your ultimate guide in choosing appropriate terms to study.
In our next lesson, we’ll break down the process for how to use Technique #4 – Word Up.