What’s the word?


Word studies are a key component in expository preaching.

Notice that that I said “a” key component, not “the” key component.

First, let me offer a warning. The overuse of word studies to explain the text can actually be harmful to your congregation.

This warning may come as a shock, but hear me out.

Always remember that expository preaching involves exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics. Word studies are essential to the exegetical and hermeneutical stages of sermon preparation. They deepen our understanding of author’s intent and enrich our knowledge of the Word.

I am convinced, however, that we can damage our congregation’s confidence in their English translations if we spend too much time explaining word studies. If I find that the audience’s basic understanding of a particular English word is adequate to comprehend the text, I typically do not give the details of my word study. The members of the congregation need to know they can understand the Bible even if the preacher is not around.

At the same time, I will go into details about a particular word if it offers a vivid picture or a deep theological insight. In those instances, the information is so enlightening that I would be cheating the congregation by not sharing.

Experience will help you discern when and when not to use word studies in the homiletical phase.

The word study process is a simple one. Think of concentric circles. The inner circle is the word itself. The second circle is the author’s use of the word in that particular Bible book. The third circle is the author’s use of the word in other Bible books. The fourth circle is the word’s use in other books in the same genre. The fifth circle is the word’s use within its testament, either Old or New.

For instance, assume you are preaching from Romans 8:12-17. Paul states in verse fifteen that we have received a spirit of adoption. Adoption is an important concept, so you will need to do a word study.

First, you will need to find all of the uses of the word translated adoption in Romans. Be careful if you are not familiar with Greek or Hebrew. Make sure you are only looking at the results for a specific word, rather than all of the words that may be translated with the same English word. Your concordance or bible study software will show the numbers assigned to each Greek or Hebrew word so you can avoid this error.

Your search will reveal that Paul uses adoption in Romans 8:15 (but you knew this), 8:23, and 9:4. Verse twenty three has the most bearing on your sermon preparation, since that verse appears in the paragraph that follows 8:12-17. Romans 9:4 also sheds light on adoption because of Paul’s discussion about national Israel.

Second, your concordance results show that Paul also uses the word in Galatians 4:5 and Ephesians 1:5. The Galatians passage parallels much of what Paul teaches in Romans 8 and can be brought into the sermon for support. Ephesians 1:5 provides further support, as Paul uses adoption as he describes the Father’s role in salvation.

Because Paul alone uses this word, you cannot study how other epistles or the entire NT uses adoption.

The final step in the word study process is to consult word study books. My favorite resource is the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. I understand that a revised edition will be published in early 2015. I am looking forward to purchasing it, even if it makes a major dent in my book allowance.

Other resources are also helpful, such as the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, or the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. This list is not exhaustive, but it is a good foundation for your word studies.

These resources analyze the meaning and background of words. The more scholarly works will discuss the word’s origin and its usage history. If there is any information that leads to the use of vivid word pictures, it can often be found in these resources.

Your observations from concordance searches and reference works will yield a deeper understanding of a particular word. The information may or may not be used in your sermon delivery, but it will certainly shed light on your understanding of the preaching paragraph.

Keep in mind that an understanding of context is essential to word studies. The context of the preaching paragraph determines a word’s meaning, not a list of possible definitions in a word study book. We  have all heard sermons in which a preaching point comes from a word’s potential, rather than actual, meaning. This type of poor exegesis disregards the author’s intended meaning. Our goal in expository preaching is to determine the Holy Spirit inspired authorial intent. To this end, context is king.

One final warning. Do not pronounce Greek or Hebrews from the pulpit. It can easily be perceived as showy or arrogant. Your people are not concerned with how to pronounce huiothesia. Instead, they need to know why it is such good news that they have been adopted.

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