Decide What the Word Does Mean in Context

In light of the context, the first thing you must do is to select from the possible meanings the one meaning that best fits your word. What we said earlier about the importance of context bears repeating: Context determines word meaning! Context includes everything that surrounds your word, such as the paragraph containing the word, the subject matter, the author’s argument or flow of thought, as well as external factors such as the historical situation of the author and the original audience.

One of the most reliable ways to let the context guide your decision is through a concept known as “circles of context” (the diagram below illustrates the circles of context for a New Testament word; the same principle would also apply to the study of Old Testament words).

Generally speaking, the closer the circle is to the center, the greater influence it should normally have on your decision about the word’s meaning. When trying to decide the meaning of a New Testament word, for example, you would usually give more weight to writings by the same author (and especially to the word’s immediate context) than to other parts of the New Testament. All of this is based on the notion that we should look first and foremost to the original author to discover the meaning of the word.

Your goal when using the circles of context is to start with the immediate context and work your way out until you find your answer. Rarely will you have to move beyond the “same author” circle to answer the question about the meaning of the word. (The double lines in the diagram signal the priority you should give to everything written by the same author.)

You should expect to spend most of your time working in the smaller circles of context. Remember that our purpose in doing word studies is to try to understand as precisely as possible what the author meant when he used a certain word in a specific context. We cannot stop our analysis when we know the possible meanings of the word. We must go on to choose the meaning that is most likely. As you struggle to decide the most likely meaning of the word in its context, you may find the following questions helpful.

  • Is there a contrast or a comparison that seems to define the word? For example, Ephesians 4:29 reads: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The contrast in the immediate context between “unwholesome” talk and words that build up and benefit people helps us understand “unwholesome” talk as any kind of speech (not just profanity) that damages relationships.
  • Does the subject matter or topic of the passage dictate a word meaning? Back to our Genesis 39 example (NIV: “make sport of”). Which category did you choose of the various possibilities? Although “make sport of” sounds very much like sense (d) (“to ridicule or mock”), the subject matter in the immediate context is clearly sexual in nature. Could it be that sense (c) (“to caress physically”) is the more likely choice? Read 39:14–15 again in light of the topic of the passage and see what you think.
  • Does the author’s usage of the same word elsewhere in a similar context help you decide which meaning best fits the word? If you are studying the word “world” in the all-time favorite verse John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world …”), for instance, you would be interested to know how John uses this word elsewhere in his writings. To save you time we can tell you that John uses the term “world” in a variety of ways, but he often uses the word in the sense of human beings in rebellion against God, of people opposed to God and his purposes. John probably uses “world” in this sense in John 3:16 also. When we read that God so loved the “world,” we are not to think merely of God’s affection for his physical creation, but of God’s willingness to send his Son to die for those who despise him. Knowing John’s use of “world” gives you a glimpse into the self-giving heart of God.
  • Does the author’s argument in the book suggest a meaning? At times the author’s argument (or train of thought) will affect your decision about what the word means. In Galatians 3:4 Paul asks the Galatians a pointed question: “Have you sufferedso much for nothing. . . ?” (NIV 1984). The Greek word translated “suffered” (paschô) can mean (a) negative experiences (i.e., suffering) or (b) positive experiences. Most of the time in the New Testament the word carries this negative sense of suffering, as it does the other six times Paul uses the word (1 Cor. 12:26; 2 Cor. 1:6; Phil. 1:29; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:5; 2 Tim. 1:12). But his argument in Galatians seems to call for meaning (b). If you were to study Galatians thoroughly, you would see that in this section Paul recalls the Galatians’ positive experience of the Spirit, speaking in the surrounding verses of God’s gift of his Spirit and miracles. Paul then asks them if they are giving up all their great spiritual experiences for nothing. Because of the author’s argument in the immediate context, the NIV 2011 translation of paschô as “experience” seems preferable: “Have you experienced so much in vain. . . ?”
  • Does the historical situation tilt the evidence in a certain direction? Occasionally the historical context will strongly favor a particular option. To the Philippian Christians Paul writes, “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). The key verb translated “conduct yourselves” (politeuomai) probably carries political overtones that Paul makes use of to connect with the Philippians. The citizens of Philippi took great pride in their status as citizens of a Roman colony. The Christians in Philippi would likely have shared in this civic pride. Paul seems to be telling the believers there to make sure they live like citizens of heaven in Philippi and not merely like citizens of a Roman colony. After all, the real Lord is not Caesar but Jesus! Knowing the historical background can often help you discern a word’s meaning.

Now, using these questions and others like them, select the meaning that best fits. Sometimes you will discover that more than one sense is possible, maybe even several are possible. But you need to decide which one best fits the context. Resist the temptation to select a word meaning only because it is more exciting than the other options or because it will “preach” better than the rest. What good is a captivating word meaning if it is not true to the text of Scripture? As you make your decision, remember that interpretation always involves an element of subjectivity. Therefore, we need to make our interpretive choices and hold our interpretive convictions with humility. We could be wrong. It has happened before.

Before moving on to our actual word study of “offer” in Romans 12:1, there is one more thing you can do to select from the possible meanings the one that best fits—get advice from the experts. To check your own work and deepen your understanding of a word, consult the standard word-study resources as a final step in the process. In many cases you do not need to know Hebrew or Greek to access the standard resources. Sometimes you can use the G/K numbers directly, in other cases you will need to convert to Strong’s numbers. Certain resources are only accessible to the English reader through particular computer software programs (see the “Note on Computer Tools,” below).

Note on Computer Tools

A variety of software packages include standard resources for studying words. The Logos Bible Software package is particularly good. Having fingertip access to these kinds of tools is a wonderful time-saver, but it will not guarantee reliable results. We strongly encourage you to follow the same method of study in any case. Choose your words carefully, determine what the underlying Greek or Hebrew word could mean (i.e., its semantic range), then decide what it does mean in its particular context. Since context rather than a dictionary definition determines the meaning of a word, we hope you will consult the standard resources only as a final step. If you happen to have access to computer resources, the process should go much faster.

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