How to Do a Word Study

Our Goal:

To determine the meaning of a word within its biblical context.

Two Important Guidelines:

  • Word studies must always be based on the original language, not merely on the English text.
  • Ultimately, the context must determine the precise meaning of the word under consideration.

Some Helpful Study Tools:

  • An Exhaustive concordance
  • Vine's Expository Dictionary (Vine)
  • New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Colin Brown)
  • Word Studies in the New Testament (Vincent)
  • New Testament for English Readers (Alford)
  • A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Rienecker, Rogers)
  • Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Harris, Archer, Waltke)
  • Nelson's Expository Dictionary of the Old Testament (Unger, White)
  • Various topical indexes
  • Various commentaries

The Procedure:

1. Select a word to be studied

Example: The English word "perish" in John 3:16:

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (NASB).

2. Compare various English versions to see how the translators dealt with the word

Careful scholars will translate the original text with the English words that most clearly convey its meaning. Therefore, comparing the different English words used to translate a Greek or Hebrew word can broaden our understanding of the word's meaning.

In the case of "perish" in John 3:16, most translators stay with that word rather than seek a synonym. The Jerusalem Bible, however, reads, "Everyone who believes in him may not be lost, but may have eternal life."

Assuming the integrity of the translators, we can initially conclude that to perish is to be lost in some sense. That doesn't tell us much, but it's a start.

3. Define the English word using an English dictionary

Webster's New World Dictionary (1988) defines perish as: 1. "to be destroyed, ruined, or wiped out" 2. "to die; esp., to die a violent or untimely death."

It defines lost (from the Jerusalem Bible) as: "destroyed or ruined physically or morally"; "damned"; or "reprobate."

Note: We're not actually defining the Greek word at this point, but merely gaining insight into it's English equivalent(s).

4. Using an Exhaustive Concordance, locate any other passages in which the English word (perish) is used by the same Bible writer (John).

The New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance (p. 940) shows that perish appears again (in the NASB text) in:

John 10:28–Jesus said, "I give eternal life to [my sheep], and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand."

John 11:50–Caiaphas, the high priest, said, "It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish."

Those additional texts may shed more light on our word's meaning. In some cases we'll have many additional verses; sometimes we'll have none. But at this stage of our research, it's best to study perish only in John's writings, even though perish is used by other writers. Other writers may use it in a way that has no direct bearing on John 3:16, but normally a writer will use the same word in the same way in the same book.

Also, if we're researching a common word, the task of tracing it throughout the entire Bible could be overwhelming and yield little fruit for our efforts. In our next step, when we're researching the actual Greek word, then it may be productive to trace it more extensively.

5. Define the word in it's original language

Use a lexicon or other reference source to find the root meaning of our word. A lexicon is a dictionary of the original language (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek). Most exhaustive concordances contain lexicons.

For example: The NASB Exhaustive Concordance (page 940) tells us that "perish" in John 3:16 translates the Greek word apollumi. The Greek Dictionary section of the same concordance (page 1634) adds that apollumi is a combination of the Greek preposition apo, and the Greek verb ollumi, that means "to destroy." The preposition intensifies the verb action, therefore together they convey the idea of utter destruction.

In the NASB New Testament, appollumi is translated "to bring to an end" 1 time, "destroy" 17 times, "destroyed" 9 times, "dying" 1 time, "lose" 9 times, "loses" 7 times, "lost" 14 times, "passed away" 1 time, "perish" 16 times, "perishable" 1 time, "perished" 5 times, "perishes" 1 times, "perishing" 6 times, "put to death" 1 time, and "ruined" 3 times.

Other tools, such as Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, will give us additional information to help understand the definition of our word.

When we've completed this step, we'll have a lexical (generic) definition. A Bible writer may use a word in its strict lexical sense, but the context in which the word is used must be the final determiner of its precise meaning. It's a mistake to impose a lexical definition on to a word each time it appears in Scripture.

6. Trace the origin of the word

We can use other study tools like Colin Brown to trace the historical development (etymology) of our word, paying particular attention to any information that directly relates to our passage.

7. Consult commentaries for any additional light they may shed on the passage

Commentaries can be wonderful aids to study, and can help confirm our findings. But the joy of discovery is enhanced when we derive a word's definition ourselves rather than relying solely on commentaries. Sometimes we may discover that a commentary writer has been unduly influenced by his or her theology, or simply hasn't research the word thoroughly.

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