Word studies are a gold mine—and a minefield. Why? Because it’s tempting to derive too much significance from a single biblical word. (We’re looking at you, agape.) With that in mind, here are six steps that will help you mine the gold without hitting the mines.
1. Set expectations
Word studies are helpful because they can illuminate the significance of biblical concepts like justification or repentance. But you can’t just search for the word “joy” to find every time the Bible employs the concept of joy. Psalm 150, for example, is a psalm bursting with joy, but the word is never used. Studying the use of a particular biblical word is helpful, but we must be careful not to derive too much meaning from a word study.
This isn’t to say word searches are unimportant. They can be deeply insightful guides to a text’s meaning. But ultimately, we are interested in concepts. Word studies are merely a means for understanding biblical concepts, and the results of our study must be considered in light of the overall biblical witness concerning a given concept.
2. Choose a word
As you are studying a biblical text, look for words that might deserve a closer look. For example, let’s say you’re studying Matthew 4 and you come upon verse 4:
But [Jesus] answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
As you’re reading through this verse, you wonder, “Is there any significance to the use of the phrase ‘every word’?” This is an example of the kind of question that may lead to a profitable word study.
3. Research biblical word usage
Once you’ve chosen a word for your word study, you need to examine word usage. There are three steps you’ll need to take to accomplish this:
4. Consult commentaries for lemma discussion
Commentaries often discuss key terms or important words in the context of the passage where they occur. The best commentaries draw from various dynamics informing the text, such as historical context and non-biblical usage. Since these discussions are focused on a specific passage, they may provide useful, in-depth information on how the word is used in that passage.
You can find where commentaries discuss your word in one of two ways:
5. Record observations and come to conclusions
Naturally, you’ll take notes as you study. Some people prefer paper notes, while others rely on digital note apps for this. Logos comes with a built-in note-taking system that was created with studying the Bible in mind. Notes stick to the passage or word your studying so you always know where to find it. Logos will even build your bibliography for you.
By observing how the word was used in similar contexts, did you unearth any interesting insights? For example, look at other places your author used the word? Did he use it differently than other biblical writers? These are the kind of observations that lead to insightful conclusions.
Understanding the significance of a biblical word can help you see a passage in an entirely new light. As long as you’re following the steps outlined here—and avoiding the pitfalls—you’re sure to find insights that were just waiting beneath the surface.
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