The Bible Is its Own Dictionary

The Bible, as far as possible, should be allowed to define its own terms. Why is this important? If you had moved to another country and were attempting to learn the new-to-you language of that county and trying to get along in it, knowing the meaning of words would be very important.

Because we know English and the Bibles we use are written in English we tend to assume that we know the meaning of all the words. We might struggle for a while to get used to the “thees” and “thous,” if using the King James Version, but once we get used to that or start using a modern-English version we think we can, for the most part, understand the word meanings. Then we may have to refer to a dictionary for a few less-familiar words such as propitiation or justification.

However, there are actually quite a number of words (even common words) that have a Biblical meaning that is different than the definitions given in our English dictionaries. “Biblical meaning” refers to the meaning, in Bible usage, as determined by the meaning of that word in its context. Why should there be any differences?

  • Word meanings change over time
  • Satan has, I believe, worked to change especially certain word meanings to confuse us.
  • Some words have been borrowed from other languages
  • Translation errors
  • There are also some punctuation and verse-division errors which have not helped

Following is a discussion of some of these sorts of changes.

Words Can Take on New Meanings

In 2009, I published a book In the Heart of the Earth: The Secret Code That Reveals What Is in the Heart of God that carefully examined the timing of Jesus’ resurrection especially in regard to this verse:

“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt 12:40)

By determining how the Bible used key words such as “heart” and “earth” as in the phrase “in the heart of the earth,” the conclusion was reached that this was not a reference to Jesus being in the grave.

I have posted word studies forheart and earth and for the phrase first day of the week.” It can be easily seen that word meanings have not always been used in line with the original meanings.

The legal system of the Roman Empire had an elaborate judicial system and has given us a number of words that have been incorporated into theological understandings. A prime example is the term “justice” which most people understand in a particular way but which the Bible, when allowed to define its own terms, uses differently in many cases. A coming page will explore the influence of Roman law.

Translation Issues

Words with different meanings in the original language can sometimes be translated into the same English word. A good example (that very much relates to the character of God) is the word “forgiveness.” We have that one word used to translate multiple Greek words that have different meanings. Obviously, translations where those different words are rendered as the same word in English will miss the distinctions in the original meanings.

I published the book Biblical Forgiveness: Are There Two Types? (2013) which showed that forgiveness is a two-part, two-party transaction with different words for each part.

Charizomai describes forgiveness as granted by the person (the offended) doing the forgiving.

“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven [charizomai] you.” (Eph 4:31-32)

Notice that Paul is calling for them to put away sins they are currently involved in while saying that they have been (past tense) forgiven by God. Also, we are to do the same (“forgiving [charizomai] one another”) for those who have wronged us – release our feelings against them and don’t hold a grudge. Here is a similar verse:

“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven [charizomai] you all trespasses;” (Col 2:13)

The forgiveness in those cases is entirely dependent on the loving, forgiving nature of God independent of whether we deserve it, want it or even know about it. He always forgives (at His end of the transaction; from His heart) all sins.

Apheimi describes forgiveness as received by the person (the offender) being forgiven. Apheimi forgiveness is conditional on us accepting it and is best described by:

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive [apheimi] us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Notice the conditional aspect – “if.” But it is conditional on us, not on Him. When we receive forgiveness we are freed from the burden of guilt that comes with sin.

Herb Montgomery has a very good video presentation on this.

Words With Opposite Meanings

The context in which words are used is very important. Sometimes context must be viewed in terms of who is using the words or to whose actions they apply.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:8-9)

How can they be so different? Well, because we are so different; we have a very different nature than God (despite starting in the image of God). God is love; self-giving agape love whereas we are all about self; selfishness. Aren’t those opposites? It would make sense then that our ways, the way we go about doing many things would be the opposite of God’s way.

“Yet saith the house of Israel, The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?” (Eze 18:29)

In considering this in relation to the issue of the character of God, words such as “wrath” are critically important to understand. The world has an understanding of what wrath means. But is that the same as what the Bible means, especially in reference to God? Perhaps the best single passage to define the wrath of God is Romans chapter 1 which actually tells us that there is a revelation of the wrath of God:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;” (Rom 1:18-28)

The passage above uses the color-coding system described here with many more examples.

There is a definite pattern in scripture. God, being a gentleman, never imposes His presence where it is not desired. He just graciously but sorrowfully (Hosea 11:8) leaves and then, without His protection, the trouble comes. His leaving can be expressed directly as Him leaving or as Him giving the sinners up (withdrawing His protection/presence) to the dangers or enemies they face or turning His face away etc. Either way it is God pulling back, respecting the free will of others. Sometimes, the presentation of truth to a person puts them in the position of having to make a decision which, if they make the wrong decision, leads to ruin rather than salvation.

The Character of God and the Gospel Glossary shows how the Bible often defines its own terms much better than dictionaries or man’s opinions or traditions.