Words Have Usages, Not Meanings Apart from Context

While working in Hebrews 10:24, a foundational but very important principle of biblical interpretation struck me again: words have usages, not meanings. In other words, the same Hebrew or Greek word does not mean the same thing every time it’s used in Scripture. Context clarifies a word’s usage.

Here’s what happened in my study:

  • I opened the ESV and Bible Word Study guide
  • I chose one at a time the panel menu on each panel (A)
  • I linked both panels to Set A (B)

  • I clicked the word stir in Hebrews 10:24 (C)
  • Bible Word Study generated a report for the Greek lemma translated stir up (D)
  • The Translation ring indicated this lemma is used only twice in the NT: Acts 15:39 and Hebrews 10:24 (E)

Now here’s where the word study gets fun!

In Acts 15:39 the Greek lemma is translated a sharp disagreement (ESV) referencing the difference of opinion Paul and Barnabas had about Mark resulting in the missionaries going their separate ways.

In Hebrews 10:24 the word is translated stir up (ESV) pointing to the mutual encouragement Christians are to offer one another resulting in love and good works (ESV).

Wow! It’s the same word, but its first occurrence seems to have a negative connotation while the second a positive one. How can the same word have such striking differences in usage? After further examination, I discovered the general “meaning” of the word is provocation or stimulation. Context is what assigns a “positive” or “negative” connotation.

Words can never be divorced from the contexts in which they’re used. Had we imposed on Hebrews 10:24 the usage of Acts 15:39  we may end up with something like Christians, make each other mad enough that you’ll start exercising love and good works! That certainly may work in some situations, but I doubt that’s what the writer of Hebrews had in mind.

Just remember to carefully consider the contexts of words before assigning usages to them. With that principle in mind, I encourage you to revisit some passages with fresh eyes and closely examine some words:

  • Meditate (ESV) in Joshua 1:8
  • Rulers (NASB) in Psalm 82:1
  • Sick (ESV) in James 5:14 and James 5:15 (2 different Greek words here)
  • Cold and Hot (ESV) in Revelation 3:15

For more information about the Bible Word Study guide, please check out the Logos Training Manuals Volumes 1-3 in print or in digital.

Also, be sure to register for an upcoming live stream Camp Logos Inductive webinar August 13-17 or August 27-31.

And for 24/7 Logos training, check out the new MPSeminarsOnline.com website.

Remember to follow Faithlife.com/mpseminars and you’ll automatically receive a FREE digital download of Dr. Grant Osborne’s commentary Ephesians Verse by Verse.

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Morris Proctor
is a certified trainer for Logos Bible Software. Morris, who has trained thousands of Logos users at his two-day Camp Logos seminars, provides many training materials.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Morris. Your short note, ‘words have usages not meanings’, will be very helpful to me when I am teaching English to my friends, often church friends, here in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. I will turn 80 next year, so I’m not actually holding classes any more, just answering questions. When I attended your classes in Florida 4-5 years ago, I didn’t tire as easily so was more active. I also value your posts.
    As for my website below: I think I have it right, my computer expert is turning my blog into a webpage in order to make my Bible study, The Scarlet Thread Through the Bible, more accessible, so it might not be available right now.

  2. While it is the case with the English language, that words have usage not meaning, this is not the case with the Hebrew language. Those who understand and know the Hebrew language knows that words have meanings and the meaning of each word is intrinsically locked in the words construction. Every letter in Hebrew has a meaning and when used in a word it contributes to the meaning of the word.

    So while this is true of the English language and may be true of the Greek language, it is not true of the Hebrew language. In Hebrew words have meaning and usage.

  3. Thank you for all you do for Logos and its users.

    I think your title here is inaccurate. Dictionaries give meanings of words. Think of English dictionaries first. Now we don’t have dictionaries of Greek and Hebrew words written by contemporaries of those who wrote the Bible, so we are creating dictionaries by studying the usage of these words.

    You explain what you mean by your title, but I think your explanation doesn’t fit the title, and people will remember that even more than your tip. I don’t think that will be helpful in the long run. I would suggest reconsidering and renaming your article. Maybe, Words have multiple meanings.

    Thank you

  4. Charles M Buter says:

    I resonate fully with the need to understand context before interpreting a word or phrase.

    Your statement, “words have usages, not meanings,” struck me as concerning as a title. At first reading, it seemed to convey the post-modern concept that meaning is determined by the reader rather than by the author. I understand, after reading your post, that you were not saying that. I am relieved.

  5. Morris, your reference to Joshua 1:8 says “Mediate.” I’ve used Logos as suggested above and don’t see that. Should it be, “Meditate?”

    Thanks for all your blogs.

    Jesse