Word Studies part 2

In Word Studies part 1, I briefly discussed the importance of doing word studies, and how the immediate context helps us understand the meaning of a given word. Noting that word study is not just a mere dictionary word lookup. 

I used an extreme example to illustrate that you can have many instances of the same word, in the same sentence, and yet every instance of that word is different from each other. How much more words that are several verses, chapters or even books apart.

Consider Paul, he might use the word “flesh” in one passage quite differently from when he used it in another passage. And that is just Paul. It becomes more interesting when two new testament authors used the same words, with the same grammatical structure, and in passages that are seemingly contradictory with each other. Such as James, when he said that “one is justified by works and not by faith alone”, in contrast with Paul’s when he said that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” So, if we do not allow the context or the Apostles’ own usage of the word “justify” to define its meaning, then you have successfully created a contradiction in the bible. That is if you flatten out the wide semantic range of the word into one simplistic meaning.

Paul vs Paul – The Flesh

Let’s look at Galatians 5:24:

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

and Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Many thought that the word flesh, when being used by Paul, always referred to physical bodies, and that it is inherently evil. Heretics in the early church actually taught that. They believed that Jesus came not in the flesh, because for them flesh is evil. Only that which is non-physical or spiritual is good. So Jesus is just a phantom, and there’s no incarnation. My point in bringing this up is to show you that our understanding of words, used in the Bible, actually affects our theology, and sometimes it is deadly. So we must be very careful in our study.

English dictionary

If we look at a Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are at least seven possible meanings for the word “flesh”. Generally speaking, it is something physical and tangible. But it can also mean the “human nature” apart from the Spirit of God. So when Paul said in Galatians 5:24 that the flesh was crucified, what is he referring to? And in Galatians 2:20, which “flesh” are we living our life in by faith?

The underlying language

The greek word for “flesh” in both 5:24 and 2:20 is the word “sarx”. And yes, most of the time, Paul’s usage of the term has negative connotations. It is referring to something that is evil. But is it always about our physical or bodily existence? Is it always the kind of flesh that is evil?

Words must be defined by the context and not by dictionary alone. -@enriquetosabio
Many will say that since he used the same greek word, therefore  it must mean the same thing. Sadly it doesn’t work that way. As I pointed out earlier, the context should define the meaning for us. Not by how many times the word was used. It does not follow that if Paul used a specific meaning of a word frequently, then all instances of that word share that same meaning.

In Galatians, notice that there are two kinds of flesh here. First, a flesh that was crucified(5:24) and another that needs to be lived by faith(2:20). Obviously we know that our physical bodies were not crucified, since we’re still alive. It is the sinful desires that must be crucified. Also take note of the parallelism between 5:24 “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” and 2:20a ” I have been crucified with Christ.” “Flesh” and “I” were used interchangeably. “I” referring to the “ego” , have been crucified. It is the self, the real you, not the physical vessel. However in 2:20d, Paul used the word “flesh” in reference to his bodily existence without any notion of evil. A life live in the flesh that can be lived by faith.

Paul vs James – Justified

Now let’s look at Romans 3:28:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

and James 2:24:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Here’s an example where a greek dictionary is not much of a help to us, because both instances of the word “justified” use the same greek word, and there’s not enough of a difference in its semantic range. To be justified is to be counted, or declared righteous. It says what it means and it means what it says. So how can we resolve the apparent contradiction? Again the context! The above passages cannot be taken in isolation from its immediate context. Given that there are no chapter and verse divisions in the original greek text, Romans 4 is still part of the context of Romans 3:28. In Romans 4:3 Paul cited Genesis 15:6. It says that “…he(Abraham) believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” This is about God’s covenant with Abraham and at this point he was still childless. In James 2:24 however, the context is about Abraham’s obedience in sacrificing his son Isaac. It says in James 2:21: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” You will notice that James was alluding to Genesis 22:9. This happened several years after Genesis 15:6. Looking at Genesis 22:9, you will also see that there’s no mention of being counted righteous there. What James was saying is that being counted righteous through faith is a subjective reality, it is only between you and God. But to be vindicated and be shown righteous in the outward sense, works must necessarily follow. That is what he meant by “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his work”. In other words, what good is it to be justified by faith alone and yet not show that same faith outwardly through our works. Martin Luther stated it this way :

We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.

There are still more to be discussed about the subject of word study, still a lot of examples, but I need to be contented for now. I hope that when you do a word study, always remember that words must be defined by the context and not by dictionary alone. Keep glorifying God in exegesis, God bless!

Quits Sabio
Founder and President of Reformed Exegetes Society. Serving as an elder and sunday school teacher at Sovereign Mercy Evangelical Church Inc. at Caloocan Metro Manila Philippines. Quits is currently working as a Senior Lead Game Developer at Funguystudio(A Game Development studio at Makati Philippines). He is a musician playing various styles and genres(jazz,blues,classical,rock). A husband to Malou and a father to Amara.
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