Word Studies 2 – Identifying Key Terms

This week we are pondering the specific skill of word study in preaching.  Today I’ll focus on identifying key terms, then tomorrow we can consider the actual processes involved.

So how do you identify words to define more carefully?

1. Prayerfully read and study the passage.  Sounds silly, but until you get some decent familiarity with the passage, you can’t start identifying words.

2. Recognize that not every word is equal.  All words are equally inspired, but not all words are equal in a passage.  You might assume this is obvious.  After all, a weighty word like justified or righteous must be worth studying, while a normal word like in or of is obvious, right?  Sometimes wrong.  A “weighty” word may not be a key term in a particular passage (it may be given in the build up to the point of a prayer, for instance), while an obvious word may be the key to the whole section.

3. Recognize that your time is restricted.  It would be great to do a full chase on every term in a passage.  Actually, hypothetically it might be great in your study phase, if you had infinite time.  But in reality studying every word equally will distract you from the force of the passage in your study, and it will certainly confuse people in your preaching.  For instance, in Ephesians 1:15-23, I would cover the first 47 words fairly briefly.  Why?  Because I want the focus to be on the point of the passage, which is what Paul is actually praying from the end of v17 onwards.  If I give detailed explanations of faith, Lord, love, saints, prayers, God, Father and glory in my sermon, people will be numb by the time I get to Paul’s actual request.

So how to identify key terms?

A. Look for repeated terms.  In Ephesians 3:1-13, the term mystery is repeated and seems important. (Dynamic equivalent translations may hide repetition of terms, prefer formal equivalence for focused study.)

B. Look for structurally important terms.  Down in verse 8, grace was given to Paul with the results being the rest of verses 8-10.

C. Look for key connections or little words.  In this passage, the as, of verse 5 feels significant when the passage is read carefully (even better, when the passage is broken down to a phrase by phrase structural outline, or disagrammed if you have that skill from Greek).  Incidentally, once you start looking at the structure of epistle text like this, a good formal translation needs to be the working text, not a dynamic equivalent text.

D. Look for key terms in the wider context.  A term may only be used once in the passage, but be critical in the flow of the book.  For example, stewardship in verse 2 is important in the flow of Ephesians 1-3.

E. Look for key terms that are missed by the other guidelines.  Here’s the catch all.  It forces you to keep looking and observing the text.  In this case, it allows you to notice that glory in verse 13 is massively significant.  Doesn’t look it structurally, but actually Paul digressed in verse 1, so completing that thought in v13 is a big deal here.

Bible Versions and Preaching – Say What?

Yesterday we asked the question about what to do with the 1611 anniversary, recognizing that each church situation is different.  Some would be wise to avoid overplaying it.  Others might use it as a great evangelistic opportunity.  Others may see it as an educational moment.  But what about Bible Versions and preaching?  Here are some largely non-1611 connected thoughts…

1. Inject gratitude into an often overly contentious issue. As a preacher, if the subject comes up, you have the opportunity to either stoke the fires of dispute, or to inject gratitude for the amazing privilege we have in our language.  Just read about what it took to produce Bibles in the past, or observe the work involved in a new translation, or consider the sacrifice paid by many in the world today if they are caught with one, or recognize the historical anomaly of easy book ownership, or even look at what is now available for free online (for example, check out the excellent NET Bible) . . . and you will see that we have great reasons to be very very grateful.  As a preacher your opinion may count for a little more than that of others, even if you are uninformed.  Be informed, but be careful too!

2. Be very wary of undermining trust in translations. People don’t automatically know the difference between the inspired nature of the original texts, and the authoritative nature of translations inasmuch as they accurately convey the original text.  Sometimes real damage has been done by a cavalier critique of some detail in one translation or another, leaving listeners feel that they cannot trust their version, or even any version in their language.  Surely this is not helpful.  Often there are far more subtle ways to convey a more accurate sense of the meaning of the text than outright critique of the translation (and remember that one of the hardest things to know is what you don’t know on a subject . . . so it’s probably safe to presume your knowledge, even combined with a commentator, may not be absolutely better than the translation committees of several Bible versions … there are some issues in translations, but be humble and careful what you say!)

Tomorrow I’ll share a couple more thoughts on this issue, feel free to comment.

(NB The Cor Deo podcast that just went live is a conversation about the role of the Bible in the believer’s life and relational Bible reading – click here to get to the player, or find Cor Deo on iTunes.)

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Undermining Popular Fallacies

A couple of years ago we had the relatively short-lived hype of The Da Vinci Code movie.  While the hype soon dissipated, the effects of Dan Brown’s book and then the film have surely continued below the surface for many uninformed readers.  How many in our churches are under the impression that Jesus’ deity was a decision made by a vote three centuries after He was on earth, or that the New Testament canon was formed in a smoke-filled room by leaders with a hidden agenda?  The absolute historical fallacies promulgated by The Da Vinci Code called many of us to address them directly at the time (special Da Vinci Code messages).  However, the effect of such teaching is longer lasting and perhaps we need to think through whether we need to subtly address underlying false assumptions about the Bible, Christ and history?

In a recent seminar I used a video clip wherein members of the public were giving their personal views of the Bible.  Most of them saw very little value in the Bible and so didn’t read it for themselves.  Several times the same fallacy came through.  “So much has been lost in translation,” and “it is poorly translated” and my favorite of all – a mini-beard stroking “intellectual” who stated, as if every informed person would know this information, that “the Bible has been translated over five million times!”  This kind of misunderstanding is common in the streets and even the universities of our towns.  The so-called “New Atheists” love to take pot-shots at the Bible, as do other major world religions that do not advocate the translation of their “holy book.”

While the Bible has been at least partially translated into over 2000 languages, we need to make it clear that the Bible people are looking at as  they listen on a Sunday morning has been translated once.  From the original language text into English – direct, by highly competent linguists, once.  We do not have the end result of a two-thousand year game of Chinese Whispers.  We do not have the last link in a chain of translation and mis-translation.  Once.  We have very accurate translations of original language texts based on overwhelming manuscript evidence, the likes of which no other historical work can even come close.  Just once.

In a culture where peoples’ understanding of the authenticity and authority of the Bible cannot in any way be presumed, we as preachers need to think about how to establish the trustworthy nature of the text that we preach.  A great message is so easily undermined if there is no confidence in the text from which it comes.