7 Ways to do a Good Word Study.

The truly sad thing about the many faulty word-studies out there is that a good word study is relatively easy. The key is keeping context king – that’s really the main goal of this 7 step process. The following steps aren’t all necessary for a word study; only for a very thorough word study. If you’re a layman or a pastor, you probably only need steps 1, 2, 3, and 7. But it’s still good to know the rest of the steps for when more in-depth studies are required, or even for filtering through commentaries that haven’t done their homework properly.

1. Identify “Spark” words. What words seem to translate awkwardly in English? What words are repeated in the text? Which words seem theologically rich (churchy words like “grace”, “justification”, etc.)? What words are specifically being defined with synonyms and antonyms? Choosing a word that meets some of these qualities will help you get the most bang for your buck during your word study.

2. Know the lexical range. Lest we forget, lexicons themselves are biased. Therefore, it’s important that we know the whole lexical range of a word, not simply the given lexical meaning. Once again, this doesn’t mean that the word contains all the meanings, or that it could mean any one of them. It means that there are a range of meanings that might work depending on the context.

3. Study the immediate context. This is the most crucial step: determining what makes the most sense in the sentence, paragraph, chapter, and the author’s main point. Dr. Jennings of Gordon Conwell says it well: “the point of a word study is not word study; its authorial intent.” Some commentaries would have you believe that the word study itself, separated from context, is king. This is what makes for all 7 fallacies we discussed last week. Words are essentially weak – they need other words to survive and have meaning. For more on this, see the “fly” example from last week (or think of the range of meanings of the word “fly” yourself.)

4. Study the authorial context. After step three, most pastors and lay-people will be done. But if you want to go further, don’t look up every single use of the word in the Bible, OT and NT! Instead, find the way the specific author you’re studying uses that same Greek word in different contexts. What are the differences? What are the similarities? What is unique about the way the author uses the term in this particular context, if anything?

5. Study the wider context. If you really want to go in depth, look at how other Biblical authors use the word. Go to cross-cultural sources for a rare word (Philo, Josephus, etc.). Find the way the Septuagint (LXX – Greek Old Testament) uses that same word or phrase. If you’re hardcore, look up words with a related meaning and cross-reference these, or words that have the opposite meaning and do the same.

6. Identify defining passages. Not all word study passages are created equal. It is important to note which passages have a specifically defining function. Which passages offer good synonyms? Which offer good antonyms? Are there any goldmine passages where the intent of the author is to define a word? These passages will help clarify the author’s intent in a particular context; notice the variants and different emphases. What was the author trying to say about the word that he didn’t say in other places? What was he trying to corroborate with his other writings?

7. Use the “fit-o-meter.” This is the climax of the contextual word study. Don’t choose what might give a supple meaning, a cool sermon illustration, or make a clever point. Choose what fits in context. In fact, that could be the only rule of a good word study: choose what fits in context. Now rinse and repeat.

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  1. Fantastic post! Very thorough on your approach. And, I so much appreciate your emphasis on context defining the word within its spectrum of possible meanings. Good work.

    • Thanks, Scott. Admittedly, I’ve never done a word-study that’s quite this thorough, but some people like Tim Gordon here are way more analytical than I am! And you nailed it – the whole point is to keep context in charge.

  2. Excellent points, all, but I’d start with #0: “DON’T do the following 7 steps during the sermon/Sunday School class/Bible study!” 🙂
    People at church sometimes ask me why I don’t carry a Bible around, or follow on an app during readings. The answer is simple: I have an analytical, detail-oriented nature that demands WAY to much word-study time and depth, and will seldom be denied if I have any amount of research material open in my hands at that moment when a passage is being read. Too often when I used to carry a Bible I found myself startled out of just nicely getting started researching the first verse or so of a sermon or class… by the closing hymn or prayer! Time flies (!) when you have the right materials at hand. (Leaving your Bible behind is another big problem when you were know as the absent-minded professor in school.)
    Thankfully, most sermons can now be listened to again on-line, with indeterminate pauses where needed, so that the questions which would otherwise quickly escape my short-term memory are revived by listening later, when a detailed study can be made… without zoning out and missing coffee hour…!

  3. So context is king? Or is context slightly different from authorial intent? I confess that I rely much on context in trying to get at the meaning of a word or phrase, but I don’t yet have the tools (or perhaps the experience) to know how to delve deeply into authorial intent. Your points here are a good start for me, though, Nick. I appreciate them greatly.

    If it’s not too much to ask, how about a third part in this series. I’d suggest a word study exemplar, where you take us through these 7 steps to show how you arrive at the meaning of a word or phrase. It would be really great to watch as you go through the process.


    P.S. I got into words at my place today too, but not the biblical word study issue. Just how word mean things, and some words – depending how they’re used – are demeaning things.

    • Good question, Tim – I think context is what most clearly articulates authorial intent, so that’s why we point word study to context. So, you’re absolutely right in saying authorial intent is king, and we get to authorial intent through context.

  4. Scott,
    Thanks for this post.
    In a previous post on the wrong way to do word study, I promised to do a study on the way John uses “agape” and “phileo” in his gospel, referring to John 21:15-17. I came to some very interesting insights. Unfortunately the post is to long to paste here, but I would like your commentary on my blog at http://bibledifferences.net/2013/02/28/agape/
    Going through this post, I see that I did in fact use most of the same criteria.
    God bless.

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