Dangers of Word Studies…

OK, I admit it. I’m a lover of words. I actually enjoy studying the etymology of words and learning some of its history. I can be a “word nerd.” Given that disposition, I enjoy word studies. Many times a good word study has shed light and provided a nuance that I had missed earlier.  Yet, for all of its benefits, word studies also have a built in danger.

Take an imaginary trip with me to the future. The year is 3,017. Our language is unrecognizable by today’s standards. Many English documents from our time have been translated into Americish, our native tongue. Yet, as “word nerds” we enjoy looking at “the originals.” In our preaching, we say things like, “Now this word in the English means…” But we have a problem. We have come upon a word in our studies that is unrecognizable – it is a hapex legomena (a word that only appears once). The word is butterfly. We quickly deduce that this is a compound word, made up of butter and fly. So, we give our interpretation, “A mythical container of butter that sprouted wings and flew away.”

In our 2017 mindset, we groan with the illustration. It is simply non-sensical. But here’s the rub: we often do the same things as we try to extrapolate some extra meaning from a Greek or Hebrew word. Allow me to be transparent and share an illustration where I blew it…

John 21, Agape vs. Phileo

As a young preacher, I was so excited that I even knew a Greek word. When I came to John 21, I “illuminated” the text for my hearers. Jesus said, “Peter do you love me with a divine, selfless love?” Peter responded, “Lord, you know I can only love you like a brother.” The second time, the story repeats itself. Then, in round three, Jesus comes down to Peter’s level and uses “phileo.” As I sometimes like to say in my Bible classes, “Now, that’ll preach.” But my students know there is always a caveat, “But is that what it means?”

Sometimes the text simply gets in the way of good preaching! Where did I go wrong? Here are some important tidbits I never considered:

  1. I assumed that Jesus and Peter had this conversation in Greek (rather than simply being recorded in Greek). If the conversation was in Aramaic (likely) then this distinction is not available.
  2. I wanted to make “agape” and “phileo” bigger than the context itself
  3. I assumed Peter was grieved because Jesus kept using “agape” even though the text says he was grieved because Jesus asked him the same question three times (so, if the conversation took place in Greek, Peter saw no difference in the question with either Greek word)
  4. I never looked at how “agape” was used in the Bible (Demas “agaped” the present world…Men “agape” darkness rather than light…the Pharisees “agaped” the praise of men more than of God – It would be a stretch of inordinate amounts to say that Demas divinely loved the present world, etc.)
  5. I never looked at how “phileo” was used (The Father “phileod” the Son in John 16.27…Why did He not “agape” Him?!)

Word studies can be helpful. But if we start preaching “one word from the text” at the expense of the context, we may inadvertently do an injustice to the text.

How about you? Have you learned one of these painful lessons by experience as well?

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