The Meaning of the Words
(Note...I am uncertain as to from where I gleaned some of this information. Several sources were involved. I am happy to have gleaned it, though, and hope you find it profitable. JQ)
The Bible is written in words and words mean things. We have several good English translations to choose from: KJV (1611), ASV (1901), NASB (1971) and the NKJV (1979). The Bible is a rather easy book to understand, much of it is pretty straight forward. God wants us to understand His word, so He did not write it for the scholar, the genius, the theologian, the scientist, the professor. He wrote it for people in general. He wants all to come to the knowledge of truth (1 Timothy 2:3,4; 2 Timothy 2:23-26). Sometimes the “wise of this age” do not care for the simplicity of the gospel and try to complicate it or reject it as simplistic or foolish (1 Corinthians 1:18,21-24)
But, even in dealing with simple truth given in simple words, there are some things which can become confusing if one is not careful. This is true for any subject in any language. Consider some helpful insights into the nature of language and words as we approach the Scriptures of God.
Simple Words Can Have Multiple Meanings
Consider the word “cleave”. This word can have exactly opposite meanings! The KJV says concerning marriage, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24). What does this mean? Look up “cleave” in a dictionary: “to divide by a blow, as of an ax, to split.” The word “cleave” means to “split” but another meaning is the opposite… “to adhere, cling.” This verse does not mean to “divide your wife in two” but to “adhere to”. This is also seen in the context by the phrase, “become one flesh”.
So, one must check the context in which these words are used to determine their definitions. This has to be done all the time with all kinds of communication. It must also be done with the Bible. Taken out of context, I could say, “The Bible says, 'There is no God..” It is true that the Bible contains that phrase; those words in that order. But a look at the context helps us understand the message: “The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.' ” (Psalm 14:1).
There are rare times when the immediate context is of no help either. In this case, we must consult what the Bible says about the same thing elsewhere. The word “hate” means to “have a strong dislike, ill will, or to despise.” So, what does this mean? "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26)? Are we to despise our close relatives? Have ill will toward them?? (Some cults actually have said so!)
Nothing in the context suggests it means something different from the common definition, but I know it does mean something different. How? From what the Bible says elsewhere! The Scriptures teach that we are to love our relatives (Ephesians 5:25; Titus 2:3-4).
Note similar statements using the word “hate”. Leah was “unloved” or “hated” (KJV - literal). (Genesis 29:30,31). Jacob loved Rachel more than he loved Leah. He “hated” Leah not in the common sense of “hate” but rather in a relative sense. He loved Rachel much more than Leah. “Hate” in this example means “to love less.”
We must love Jesus more than we love our relatives. It might be that our relatives become angry at us for being faithful Christians… it happens. We must love Jesus more (see also Matthew 10:30-39). The word “hate” in Luke 14:26 means to “love less” relative to our love for the Lord. It does not mean to not love at all.
Different Words Can Have the Same Meaning
Again, that different words can have the same meaning is true in every subject or topic; not just Biblical studies. A good place to find different words sharing the same definition is a thesaurus. A thesaurus tells us that words that mean the same thing as “cleave” include “Stick, adhere, hold fast, clasp, become attached, cohere.”
It is very helpful in our study and understanding of the Scripture if we understand that sometimes the Bible uses different words to describe the same thing. For example, when looking at all the terms used with reference to the “church” we will be aided in understanding the nature and necessity of the church. We will learn that it is Jesus' church, that is built on the rock of Jesus' identity as the Christ, the Son of God, that not even death can overpower it, and that it is synonymous with the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:16-19). We learn that God puts us into the kingdom when we are redeemed and forgiven and that Jesus is the head of this kingdom, or church (Colossians 1:13-14; 18). We learn that the church, or body of Christ is to be subject to Christ in all things, and that Jesus is the Savior of the body, or church, and the saved are members of His body (Ephesians 1:22,23; 5:23, 30). Also, this “church” or “kingdom” or “body” is also called God's “household” or family. As God's children, or household, there are family rules and responsibilities which we accept (1 Timothy 3:15). Finally, not only is the church God's household, but also His temple, or dwelling place. This involves building the church on the foundation of the words of Jesus and His apostles (Ephesians 2:19-22). When we see that these terms can be used interchangeably, then if we want to learn the truth about the Lord's church, we will notice what the Bible says about all of them.
But again, it must be remembered that these terms do not always refer to the church. Remember, words do have multiple meanings. “Kingdom” may also refer to an earthly kingdom (Luke 21:10) or the future heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18). It does not refer to the church every time it is used.
Also, understand this is the way all language works. These “difficulties” are not peculiar to Bible
understanding. No serious problem exists that is not remedied by reasonable, careful and honest thought.
The Same Word Can Be Used In Different Degrees or Extents
Sometimes, a word can be used in an exaggerated way (hyperbole) to get across a lesson. For example, a faithful disciple will place emphasis on spiritual things (Matthew 6:31-33). We are told to work for our living (2 Thessalonians 3:10; Ephesians 4:28). But what about Jesus' command: "Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life…” (John 6:27)? Is this a blanket order for us not to work for physical food? Of course not. But rather it is that we give emphasis to the spiritual. (we do the same thing in everyday language: “He lives to golf… not much else matters to him” is understood to mean that his interest in golf is so great it makes his interest in other things appear to be meager.) Jesus is dealing with our chosen life's purpose.
This is not overly difficult. Many of the so-called Bible discrepancies alleged by skeptics hinge on a basic misunderstanding (probably intentional) of these principles. But what will you do with the word of our Lord God? Make it the central part of your life, and victory will be yours.
By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 17.4; April 2010