How To Do Word Studies

Recently, I posted about the inherent pitfalls and dangers that may accompany word studies. The dangers come when context is ignored, when a word is lifted from a text because “that’ll preach,” or when a dictionary is consulted and a definition is chosen that supports our biases and theological convictions.

Yet, these dangers should not deter us from doing word studies. In this post, we will use Colossians 1.15, Who [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.

If you have ever spoken with religious groups who deny that Jesus was God in the flesh, then you have probably been asked to explain this verse. “Obviously” Jesus cannot be God if he is the firstborn of all of creation. (The implication being made is that Jesus was the first to be created; yet, if he is a created being then he is not God.)

This verse, then, presents the Bible student with a good candidate for a word study. How should we start? What steps can we take? How can we understand what Colossians 1.15 really means?


  1. My first step is to define the paragraph in which this verse is located. Why? Because context is my best friend! I use a Bible software program called Logos and in this software I have a paragraph Bible. Each paragraph Bible may have some slightly different divisions, but they are close enough to help us make our connections. The Cambridge Paragraph Bible marks this paragraph as 1.9-1.21.
    1. In verses 9-14, Paul is delineating his prayer for the Colossian church.
    2. His prayer is centered upon their relationship to Christ.
    3. In verses 15-17 (where our key word is located), he describes Christ in what many believe may be an ancient hymn.
    4. Verse 18 becomes the pinnacle with this phrase, “…that in all things he might have the preeminence.”
    5. Setting verse 15 in the context shows me that whatever Paul means by “firstborn,” it is connected to an exalted understanding of who Christ is, what He has done, His relation to the Church, and His relation to all of creation.


  1. My second step is to define the underlying word that is translated firstborn.
    1. In this instance, the word is prototokos (πρωτὀτοκος).
    2. I want to get a “dictionary” meaning – the word’s denotation.
      1. Using the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Early Christian Literature (BDAG), I learn the following concepts:
        1. Firstborn, heir apparent
        2. Pertains to birth order
        3. Pertains to a special status
      2. If I stop here, I am back to the post, “Dangers of Word Studies,” for if I believe Jesus is God, then #3 is the right option. If I do not believe Jesus is God, then #2 is the right option. But if such an important theological position is to be obtained by blindly picking a dictionary meaning – we are in trouble!
    3. Now, I can get a concept meaning, a context meaning – the word’s connotation. Here are the questions I ask, though space doesn’t permit an answer for all of them here.
      1. Does Paul use this word anywhere else? If so, how does he use it?
      2. Do any other NT writers use this word? If so, how?
    4. In looking at the Greek translation of the OT, does the LXX use this word, and if so, how?
    5. Since the NT was written in koine or common Greek, do any of the extra-biblical documents contain this word?
    6. In Psalm 89.27, Jehovah promises to make David his firstborn among all the knots. This cannot be a reference to birth order.
    7. In the Jewish world, the emphasis was not on first in time, but first in priority
    8. We still do this today. We have a “First Lady” – a privileged position.
    9. We still do this today. We have a “First Lady” – even though she is not the “first” to have that title. We have Air Force One, though it is not the “first” plane to be labeled with the “One” title. To say that Mrs. Trump was the first lady ever created would be a ridiculous understanding of the phrase, “First Lady.”


  1. My third step is to set the word in its context.
    1. In the context of Colossians 1.15 (as well as verse 18), is Paul emphasizing a birth order or a privileged position?
    2. In the context, Paul has described Christ as:
      1. The One in whose blood we have redemption
      2. He is the Image of the Invisible God (Image is another word worthy of our attention)
      3. He created all things
      4. He is before all things
      5. He is the Head of the Church
      6. He deserves preeminence
      7. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells within Him
      8. He has reconciled the world to God
        1. In these lofty terms, the context points to what Paul meant by this term. Paul is not saying that the Father created Jesus who in turn created everything else. Rather, he is saying that Jesus is the Creator God and holds a privileged status / position over all of His creation.


A good word study can help illuminate a passage as we try to either understand it personally or explain it to others. These three steps (Define the Paragraph; Define the Underlying Word; Set the Word in its Context) may sound simple, but a good word study is really a good work study as well!

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