- What does it say?
Slow down and read the passage carefully. Sometimes reading the words in reverse order (the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek) will help you notice things. Consider the various readings in the textural apparatus; why were these choices made?
- What is the context?
Both preceding and following the verse or phrase you are examining. Which book of the Bible and which part of that book? Knowing what the author was writing about will help you understand what the author’s words mean in context.
- What is the cultural background?
Knowing the culture will help you decide on the meaning of words within that culture (as opposed to within your current culture).
- What does it mean?
What was the meaning of the word or phrase under examination to the original hearers? What does the word denote and connote (implying another idea or emotion in addition to the primary meaning)?
- What does it mean for today?
What can you learn about God? How might it apply to your personal circumstances?
- What are you going to do about it?
Digging this deeply into God’s Word is not just an intellectual exercise.
And Some Pitfalls to Avoid
- Avoid seeing what you have been taught to see.
- Resist the temptation to deduce a word’s meaning from its root.
- Avoid the classic error of deciding a word’s meaning from its component parts.
- Do not make unjustified distinctions between words that are synonyms or near-synonyms.
- And, finally, please do not read the meaning of a modern English word back into the Greek word upon which its etymology is based.
No matter how worthy our teachers were, the best among them would encourage us to be convinced in our own mind. Otherwise, we might shift the authority of Scripture to the traditions we were taught. Pharisees took that path.
Greek and Hebrew are among the oldest continually used languages on the planet. Words change their meanings over time. The Hebrew word for war (milhama) comes from the word for bread (lehem). You will be far, far from correct if you suggest that war in the Bible is at its root a struggle for bread, although that may be involved in some wars. Find the meaning of the word within its time and its contexts in the Bible.
The word for church, ekklesia, is a compound of ek (out) and call (klesis). I cannot guess how many times I have heard someone say from a pulpit that Christians are to be a called-out people based on this word. That is certainly true (I Peter, elsewhere), but is not the meaning of ekklesia. The word means assembly, a gathering. If this doesn’t seem right to you, consider the first Pitfall listed above, and then take a serious look at a Greek lexicon.
Two words for “love” in the New Testament have very nearly the same range of meaning: agapao and phileo, although the latter can also be used for “kiss,” a very rare meaning. Have you waxed eloquent on the significance of Jesus asking Peter, “Do you love (agapao) Me?” twice and then using phileo the third time to indicate some lower level of love? If so, consider John 3:35 and John 5:20 which both say that the Father loves the Son and have the same meaning. Check your lexicon, and you will see that the ranges of meaning of these two words for love are almost identical.
Romans 1:16 does not teach that the Gospel is the dynamite of God. Dynamite is destructive, although its name was coined from the Greek dynamis.
Tread carefully. This is the Word of God you are handling, and those dear souls out there are His own sheep, not yours.