Bible Word Study
in Three Simple Steps

A Bible word study is always an important part of any Bible study.  If you want to know what the Bible says, then you have to understand the meaning of the words that are used.  The English translations do an adequate job in conveying the meaning of the original language, but there are nuances that are not carried over that really bring the text alive.  

It is important when you are at a particular verse to remember where you are in the surrounding verses.  If you ignore the context, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say by a process called “proof-texting.”  This is when you take a verse or a phrase, and lift it out of its context.  If you have a point that you want to make, you take a single verse or phrase, and use it to prove your point without regard to the surrounding verses.  Doing so makes the passage appear to be saying something that it was never meant to say.  

We all need to be very careful to make sure that if we are using a verse in the Bible to make a point, we are using it in a way that is consistent with the context.  Here are three suggestions to help us do a Bible word study so that we can understand a passage by looking at the words and keeping them in the surrounding context.  

Step One in doing a Bible Word Study:
Look for Paragraph Settings

Look at a passage where you want to do a Bible word study and study it within the paragraph it is written.  

Consider Matthew 7.1 as an example of a passage that is often not considered in its paragraph form.  

Matthew 7.1:  “Judge not, that you be not judged.”

Matthew 7 was written in a context of Jesus in the middle of preaching the Sermon on the Mount.  If you look at this in a paragraph form, the paragraph begins with Matthew 7.1 and ends at verse 5. 

If you just extract verse 1 without giving attention to the rest of the paragraph, it would appear to say that we do not have the right to judge another.  But if you place this verse back into its context and consider the rest of the paragraph, you will find that Jesus was condemning a specific kind of judging.  Look at verse 5.

Matthew 7.5:  “Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.” 

This is a passage where Jesus was condemning those who were hypocritically judging others when they themselves were also guilty.  But if you don’t do a Bible word study verse 1 within the paragraph that it was written, you will miss it.

Some Bible version will put the verses in paragraph form.  This will help you see the surrounding paragraph easily.  Some Bible versions will be in the form where each verse is laid out one after the other.  If that is the case, you will want to look for the verse where the verse number is in bold.  If you are reading a text and come to verse five, and the number five is in bold, that indicates that you are at the beginning of a paragraph. 

Also keep in mind as you do a Bible word study that chapter divisions and verses were not in the original text, but have been added by scholars to make moving through the Bible a little easier.  These paragraph settings were added my men.  That means that you will have to use a little bit of common sense in determining when one thought ends and a new thought begins.

The Bible tells us that we need to be diligent in “rightly dividing the word of truth”  (2 Timothy 2.15).  That means that you need to be divide the word of God correctly, and you do so by giving attention to the context.

Step Two in Doing a Word Study
Look for Transitional Words

What these pivot terms do is join paragraphs together.  They would include words such as…

  • “Therefore”
  • “Since”
  • “but”
  • “for”

When you come to a verse that you want to understand in context, you go to the beginning of the paragraph to begin reading.  Suppose that at the beginning of the paragraph is this word “therefore.”  The word “therefore” is a pivot or bridge term.  It connects what you are about to read with what was written in the paragraph before it.  That means that you need to go back and read the previous paragraph.  In doing so, you follow the flow of thought from one paragraph to the other to get a sense of what the particular verse you are studying means.  That’s how you do a Bible word study in context.  

You have to train yourself to start looking for some of these things.  Jesus said this in Matthew 4.4…

Matthew 4.4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” 

That means that every word is important.  We are to live by "every word."  If you ignore the transitional words and do not consider what was written before the passage you are about to read, you may miss the point and misapply the passage.

Consider an example from Romans 5.1

Romans 5.1:  "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ"

This is a passage that tells us that we are justified by faith.  When you look up the word "justified" in the dictionary, it carries the idea of being made right.  Contextually, it is referring to one is made right with God.  You can be made right with God when you have faith.  

Notice the first word in the above verse.  The word "therefore" alerts us to the fact that what we are about to read is connected to what was already said in the previous verses.  If you want to understand what this verse teaches, you need to go back and read chapter 4.  Without a Bible word study, you would never know to do that.

If you go back to Romans 4, you are presented with Abraham as an example of faith.  You read about the kind of faith that Abraham possessed, and learn that it was a faith that accepted what God said and then obeyed what God commanded.  When he had that kind of faith, Abraham was justified.  

In Romans 4.12, we are told that we need to have the same kind of faith as Abraham.  If you have the same kind of faith that Abraham had, then you will be justified as Abraham was justified.  That leads right into chapter 5 where we are told that you are justified by faith. But you would not know the kind of faith that you need to have unless you go back to Romans 4 and read about the faith of Abraham.  The word "therefore" is what tells me to go back and read the previous verses.  Doing a Bible word study should always include looking for these transitional words.  

Step Three in Doing a Bible Word Study
Look at the Definition of Words

The words in a passage can be extremely insightful, but can also be extremely misleading if we make assumptions on what we are reading.  Often in the Bible, there different words in the original language but are translated the same way in the English.  Looking at the words in context is enough to discern the meaning of a passage, but there is so much more to gain from doing a Bible word study in the original language.  

Consider an example found in 1 Peter 1.22

1 Peter 1.22:  “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart.”

Here is a passage that tells us that we need to love our brethren.  Twice in this passage you will read the word "love."  

If you do a Bible word study on the two times that the word "love" appears in this verse, you will want to look at an interlinear Bible which shows me the English words and the corresponding original Greek works.  When you do that, you will find that each one translates a different word.   

  • In the phrase, "love of the brethren," the word translated as "love" is the Greek word “agape.”  When you look up that word in a Greek dictionary, you will find that it expresses the idea of wanting what is best for the person who is loved.
  • In the phrase, "love one another," the word translated as "love" is the Greek word "philadelphia."  When you look up this word in the Greek dictionary, you will find that it is actually a compound word.  The first word is "fileo" which expresses the idea of friendship.  The second word is "delphos" which means "brother."  Put together, "philadelphia" is a word that describes the idea of loving your brother as a friend.  

When you put these thoughts together, you learn that this passage is telling us that because you sincerely want what is best for your fellow Christians, you need to treat them like your friends.  Doing a Bible word study where you look up these words helps you to understand the passage better.  

Let's look at another example which we will take from John 1.12.

John 1.12:  “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.”

Look at the verbs closely.  

  • There is the verb “received.”  This word is in the past tense.
  • There is the verb “become.”  This word is in the present tense.

Listen to how this passage is understood when you take into consideration the tense of the verbs.  Those who have already received Him has the right to become the children of God.  It doesn’t say that those who have received Him have become the children of God, but that they have the right to become the children of God. 

By looking at the verbs tenses, you learn that there is more involved than just receiving Jesus to become a child of God.  Most people will tell you that you are saved if you receive Jesus by accepting Him into your heart.  This passage tells me that there is more to it, because they had already received Him, but they’re not the children of God yet.  It is always important when doing a Bible word study to pay attention to the tense of the verbs.

Consider one more example that we will take from Acts 2.38 as we think about the prepositions that are used.

Acts 2.38:  "Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

Prepositions are words that offer further explanations.  For example, if you look at the sentence, “She arrived," there are no details to explain what this means.  But if a preposition is added, it helps give further details.  You might sentences like this.

  • “She arrived after dinner.” 
  • “She arrived on time.”  
  • “She arrived in her car.”  

The words “after," "on," and "in” are prepositions.  These prepositions can make a passage dance off the page.

There are a couple of prepositions that are in Acts 2.38 that help explain the actions of "repent" and "be baptized."  

  • You are to repent and be baptized "in the name of Jesus Christ."  Your obedience to the gospel is explained as being by the authority of Jesus.
  • You are to repent and be baptized "for the remission of sins."  Your obedience to the gospel is explained as being for the purpose of being forgiven.

Some will try to tell me that the word “for” means "because of."  They claim that this passage is teaching that you are to repent and be baptized because your sins have already been forgiven.  However, if you look up the definition of the preposition, you will discover that it always looks forward.  It never looks back.  "For" the remission of sins doesn’t look backwards at sins already forgiven.  It looks forward to sins that are yet in need of being forgiven. 

Compare the way the preposition is used in Acts 2.38 with the same word that is found in Matthew 26.28.

Matthew 26.28:  “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

In Matthew 26.28, you will find the same phrase, "for the remission of sins" that is found in Acts 2.38.  If your repentance and baptism is because you have already been saved, then that means that Jesus shed His blood on the cross of Calvary because you have already been saved. 

The fact is that Jesus shed His blood so that you can have your sins forgiven, just as repentance and baptism is so that you can have your sins forgiven.  To learn that, you need to give attention to the prepositions. 

If you want to understand the Bible, then you need to give attention to the words that are used.  You need to look up the definition of the words.  You need to see the words within the context that they are written.  You need to look at the tense of the verbs and the details that the prepositions provide.  By the end of a deep Bible word study, you will be able to come away understanding a passage better than when you started.  

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