Hermeneutics—“rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)—begins with a careful look at each word to determine its original meaning. We are to study to find what God meant in the words He chose.

Strange, even wild, views have always cropped up within Christianity. From pole sitters like the monk Simeon Stylites to snake handlers of Appalachia, men and women have come up with some pretty odd ideas in the name of Christ. Today just as many diverse views creep into the church, such as the belief that there is no hell or that life evolved over millions of years.

The Bible warns us that false teachers will arise and turn many away, so it is more important than ever for all Christians, not just church leaders, to learn how to distinguish legitimate views from serious errors. We all must handle the Word of God accurately. The name for such study—reading and interpreting the Bible correctly—is hermeneutics. Every Christian should know this term and understand the basic principles of interpretation.

The Most Basic Principle

We must consider many things to interpret scripture passages properly, including the context of the passage, but perhaps the most basic principle of proper hermeneutics is to understand what the words themselves mean. This step may seem obvious, but it is critical to those of us who hold to a literal, historical, contextual and grammatical interpretation of Scripture. Every single word was inspired and chosen by the Holy Spirit, a truth referred to as the plenary, verbal inspiration of Scripture. God guided the biblical writers to give us the exact words He wanted in the original manuscripts while still allowing the writers to use their individual vocabulary and style.

Our English Bibles are translations of copies of the originals. Nuances can be lost in the transmission process, and meanings of words can change over time. So it is important to study diligently what each word means.

The Weight of a Word

For example, in some English Bibles the word hell appears again and again. This word is often chosen to describe a place of future punishment. However in the Greek and Hebrew Bible at least four words are translated into English as “hell.” And the Bible describes at least two different places that are called hell in English Bibles. It is important to know the difference!

Words matter. Even parts of words matter. In Galatians 3:16, Paul bases an important argument on whether the word seed is singular or plural. The Holy Spirit’s perfect choice of the singular is essential to identifying the seed in this context. Often a single word’s Greek tense is foundational in understanding the doctrine of the verse.

Jesus’s dialogue on the shores of Galilee, when He asks Peter three times if he loves Him and Peter responds three times that he does, loses some of its power in English until we learn that Jesus uses two different words for love: agapao (sacrificial love based on a high regard for the other person) and phileo (love and affection based on association). In His first two questions, Jesus asks if Peter’s love is agapao, but Peter responds using phileo. The third time Christ, too, uses phileo, asking Peter if he even has this type of love. The added understanding of the words provides a further glimpse into the mindset of this man who had recently denied His Lord multiple times.

Genesis 6–9, the factual account of the historical, worldwide Flood, mentions three windows. But each of these “windows” is expressed with a different Hebrew word. The window Noah builds on top of the ship is different from the windows of heaven that open to let the rain fall, and a third word is used for the window that Noah opens to let the raven and dove fly!

Tools for English Speakers

Since the Holy Spirit superintended the choosing of exact words in revealing truth, we must do our best to discover what each word means and how it was used by the men who wrote them. As the saying goes, “What was said when it was said to whom it was said?”

We must do our best to discover what each word means and how it was used by the men who wrote them.

This may sound daunting, but English speakers have access to more helps than speakers of any other language on earth. For instance, for a few dollars anyone can buy a simple concordance that shows where every word appears in the Bible, what the original word was, and a simple definition of that word. And how many variations of study Bibles are available to us? (Although we must be wary because all such tools are the work of fallible human beings—just like preaching is—they can still be very helpful.)

What does the Word mean? Well we must first know what the words mean.

Discussion Questions

  1. Think of some of the odd ideas you have heard from other Christians (such as the snake handlers of Appalachia). Can you trace these back to some misinterpreted Scripture?
  2. Read James’s caution for teachers in James 3:1–5. What is the reason behind his warning?
  3. Considering the verse above, what impact can false or ignorant teaching have within a small group, a church, or even a whole society? How does this danger reinforce the value of hermeneutics?
  4. What are some basic principles of interpretation that every Christian should follow? Brainstorm some tools that you can use to equip yourself.
  5. Read Matthew 7:7–8. The Greek verb tenses in these verses (ask, seek, and knock) express the idea of continuous or repeated actions. How does this insight give these verses further depth and application to your life?
  6. Read Hebrews 4:12; Isaiah 40:8; John 17:17; and 1 Thessalonians 2:13. What characteristics of the Bible are given in these verses? Why do these verses support the importance of being careful with every word of Scripture when we interpret and apply it in our lives?
  7. Was there a time when a false interpretation hurt your spiritual life? What can you do to protect yourself and others from this problem?
Don Landis is pastor of Community Bible Church in Jackson, Wyoming. He is president of Jackson Hole Bible College (www.jhbc.edu), a one-year intensive worldview study course with a special emphasis on creation apologetics. Don is also the founding chairman of the board for Answers in Genesis–USA.

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