After we have recognized and understood the relationships of words to each other, we need to examine the words themselves. The context of the word is the greatest definer, but lexical meaning is important. At this point a lexicon is a necessity. The standard authority on New Testament Greek is Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker (often referred to by the acronym BAG or BAGD), though there are others that are helpful, including Mounce and Louw Nida. For Hebrew, Koehler and Baumgartner’s HALOT, Brown, Driver, and Briggs, and Gesenius are helpful resources.
These tools are helpful for understanding etymology and usage, and can especially help the researcher discern when usage is a greater factor than etymology in definition. For example, in English, the word icebox is a compound word that retains the independent elements of the original words –and icebox is literally a box that holds ice. On the other hand, a butterfly has very little to do with butter that flies. The same principle can be seen in the Biblical languages. We still need to understand etymology, but we should not assume too much of its influence on definition.
It also should be noted at this point that what we are after is as much objectivity regarding the definition of the word as possible. We do not want to read theology into the words (so be cautious when using a theological dictionary). Instead we need to recognize the usage of the time in which the word was written, and how the context contributes to that usage.
Once we are armed with some appropriate tools, we can begin to identify key words in the text. What words appear frequently? What words are emphasized by their place in the sentence? What words represent pivots in the thought or emphasis? In reality, every word is a key word, but we need to understand what each word means in that context, and which words the writer is emphasizing.
So first, we identify key words by emphasis, then we need to do word studies to be certain we are handling the words properly. A word study involves several steps: (1) identify, define (grammar and etymology), and parse (morphology) the word with aid of a lexicon, (2) examine usage of the word in other contexts (a concordance is particularly helpful here), and (3) summarize key concepts arising from keywords. Here are a few Biblical examples where word studies can be helpful:
Identify a significant connection between Exodus 3:14 and John 8:24, 28, 58; What is the key difference between Exodus 7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35 and 8:15, 32; 9:34?
How many times is the phrase under the sun used in the book of Ecclesiastes, and why is it significant to the theme of the book?
Note yom in the Old Testament, quantified by context, sometimes as 24-hour period (i.e., Gen. 1), sometimes including a longer period (such as the Day of the Lord [Joel, etc.]).
What is meant by the term weeks as translated (NASB) in Dan. 9:24-27?
What words for love are used in the dialogue recorded in John 21:15-17? Are they significant, and if so, why?
What are some important words in John 1:1-18, Romans 5:1-11, Galatians 3:16-22, and Ephesians 1:1-14? How are they used? What is their significance?
Note the NIV rendering of 1 Corinthians 5:5, sinful nature as a translation of the Greek sarx, what would be a better rendering?
How is the meaning of Savior pivotal in 1 Timothy 4:10?
What unique word is repeated six times in Revelation 20:1-7? What does it mean? How is the word connected to Psalm 111:1; 112:1; and 113:1, etc.?
Word studies can be a helpful way to engage the text, and will usually help us to understand the passage better – unless we fail to properly consider how influential the context is in defining the term. If we divorce a word from its context, then word studies can actually be destructive. Unfortunately, it is common for a teacher to rip a word out of context and spend much time talking about that word, instead of explaining how the word contributes to the context. In other words, a word is a vehicle, not a destination. A word is a means to an end. The writer used the word(s) for a reason. Our job as interpreters is to understand what the writer said with the words he chose.
Perhaps the most important thing we can say about a word in a passage is that the word is not the most important thing in the passage. The individual words are vital, and we must understand them in a literal grammatical-historical way. In so doing, we can uphold that all-important principle: context, context, context.