Word Study for Preaching

Mar 19 2014

by Stafford North


In preparing sermons, a preacher must very carefully study various passages of scripture.  Often he will be just dealing with one passage and must communicate its meaning clearly to the audience.  On other occasions, the preacher will be dealing with several passages and wants to glean from them collectively a message to share with the congregation.

Here are just a few thoughts about digging into the meaning of words in the Scriptures.

  1. Recognize that some words have more than one meaning and the context determines which meaning to use in the passage. A word used in various places in the Bible can illustrate this very well.  What does the word “cleave” mean?  Sometimes it means “to split “as in “cleaves the mountains” and yet we are told that a husband and wife are to “cleave” to each other.  In this case the word means to “stick together.” So in one context “cleave” means “to separate” and in another it means “to unite.”  Similarly, the word “deacon” may either apply to all Christians or to those who serve in the office of “deacon.”  The word basically means “to serve” and in this sense, of course, all Christians are to be “servants.”  In other places, however, the word refers specifically to those appointed as special servants of the church who meet the qualifications set out in 1 Timothy 3. So, when you study words, think of what the word means in the particular context you are studying.
  2. Do not rely primarily on English dictionaries for word meanings but look for the meaning in the original language. Since the Bible was written in Greek and Hebrew, a detailed study of words requires us to check on the meaning of the word in the original language. It is not hard to do that in these days because, even if you don’t know anything about Greek or Hebrew, you can have a Bible on your cell phone, IPad, or computer which allows you just to click on a word and get the meaning in the original language. An example would be in studying the word “baptize.”  In the original Greek, the word always means “to immerse.” In the English dictionary, however, the definition will indicate that baptism can be by immersion or by sprinkling since that is how the word is used by some people in our time.
  3. Check to see how the word is used in other places in the Bible book you are studying and in other places in the Bible. In Matthew 24:34, for example, Jesus says that “this generation shall not pass away until all these things are fulfilled.”  But who is “this generation?”  In the previous chapter, Matthew 23:36, where Jesus is speaking on the same occasion, Jesus uses “this generation “to speak of those who will reject him and kill those He will send out. So, He uses “this generation,” then, to mean those to whom He is speaking on that very day.  Another example would be in Galatians where Paul often speaks of “the law.”  He is referring here to the law of Moses and says in Galatians 2:16 that no one will be justified “by observing the law.”  But in Galatians 6:2, Paul speaks of “the law of Christ.”  Our study of the word “law” then must take us to various passages in which it is used.  Sometimes it refers generally to the laws of a government, sometimes to the law of Moses, and sometimes to the commandments of Christ.

Word study, then, is one of the key elements of digging into scripture.  When we ask the question about the meaning of words, some of the questions we ask are:  What does the context suggest about the meaning of the term?  What does the original meaning of the word tell us?   And what does use of the word elsewhere in scripture suggest about the meaning?  Digging into the Scriptures with careful word study is certainly a vital part of the preparation of sermons.

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