Level 2 Word Study: Borrowing from Others
Every Greek word has multiple meanings.
But every Greek word has one meaning in a particular context.
That’s why a Greek word study involves two steps:
(1) Discovering all the possible shades of meaning
(2) Discerning the meaning used in a specific verse
Most words have multiple meanings, but once they appear in a particular context, you have to narrow things down to the specific meaning that the writer originally had in mind. For example, the word shot could mean “a 16-lb iron ball used in a track and field event” or “the thing that happens when you pull the trigger on a rifle” or “a small quantity of whiskey.”
All those meanings are possible. But when you read, “The photographer took candid shots of the bridal party,” none of those meanings make sense. A little common sense tells you that the shot here refers to wedding photographs.
Finding the right information
Any commentary that seriously attempts to explain the text of Scripture will give you miniature word studies.
For example, when Jesus surveyed a crowd of 4000 at the end of a long day of teaching, he commented, “If I send them away fasting to their home, they will faint on the way” (Mark 8:3). D. Edmond Hiebert explains the word faint: “Faint, ‘become weary, give out,’ is an expressive term. It literally means to be completely unloosed, and suggests that the strength of the hungry people will relax, like an unstrung bowstring, and they will be unable to continue homeward” (Mark: A Portrait of the Servant, Moody 1974).
Lexicons & other word study tools
Many of the more complete lexicons not only list the possible meanings of a word, they also give you the specific verses where each meaning appears.
For example, here is a lexicon entry on faint, the word used in Mark 8:3:
ekluo (a) become weary or slack, give out (Matthew 15:32; Mark 8:3; Galatians 6:9)
(b) lose courage (Hebrews 12:3, 5)
Source: F. Wilbur Gingrich, Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament
(I have tweaked this entry slightly to make it easier to find the information. Every word study tool arranges its material differently, but it is usually fairly simple to figure out whether a particular dictionary has the information you want.)
Hints & Tips
1. EVALUATE — Not all commentaries are created equal. Ask yourself whether this writer really knows his stuff, or whether he’s just jotting down devotional thoughts.
2. COMPARE — The Bible is inspired, but commentaries are not. Even the best writer can overlook something important, so try to check two or three commentaries to ensure that you find the information that helps you most fully.
3. THINK — Stage 2 of a word study requires you to take all the raw information – the long list of possible meanings – and use your educated, sanctified common sense to discern the meaning that was intended in this particular verse. You probably don’t know enough to argue with the scholar who list all the possible meanings of a word, but you do have the privilege of disagreeing with a commentator who says, “It’s meaning #3,” when you can find good reasons for thinking that Paul originally had meaning #2 in mind.
4. LEARN — Be aware of the frequency and dates when a word was used. If it carries a certain meaning 90% of the time, you’d better have solid reasons for disregarding that meaning and choosing a minority usage. And beware of lightly choosing a meaning that went out of use three centuries before the New Testament period.
We are blessed to live at a time when inexhaustible riches of godly scholarship are at our fingertips. It doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility for studying Scripture ourselves, but we can be grateful to God for the resources He has lavished upon us. It would be a shame to ignore all these treasures!
When you have completed the “borrowing from others” method of a word study, you can always go deeper on your own. Simply set aside some extra time and follow the steps for do-it-yourself study.