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.