You know that dad who veers off the road to the vacation destination to take his family to some random tourist trap?
That’s what preachers do when they take their congregation through a bad word study. The preacher waxes eloquently while the tortured pew-sitters ask themselves, “What in the world are we doing here?”
The kind of preacher you do want to be is like the dad who surprises his family with a detour down the less-traveled scenic route. The kind that leaves a lot of nose prints on the windows of the mini van.
So the question is: how do you discern ahead of time if your word study is a tourist trap or a scenic route?
For starters, avoid these five common word study mistakes.
1. The padding your stats mistake
How often have we heard pastors pile on the cross references with no discernible pay off? How often have we done that ourselves?
Our word study makes a withdrawal on our people’s attention, so compensate with an edifying deposit.
A good rule of thumb is to take your congregation to the best cross reference instead of several. Often an even better choice is to summarize the findings of your word study in a sentence or two. You can keep your people focused on the passage you’re preaching.
2. The importer/exporter mistake
It goes something like this: Paul talks about A and B in your passage, and he talks about A and C in another passage. So you conclude that he must be thinking about C here, as well.
You then start preaching about C, which has nothing to do with his passage. You imported it from the other one.
The other way to do this is to export your meaning into the other passage. The one you’re not even preaching on anyway.
When you do a word study, concentrate on how the use of the word or phrase in one passage is similar to yours. Leave the dissimilarities of the contexts where they are.
3. The long distance mistake
Here the preacher takes his congregation to an obscure verse on the other side of the Bible. One that it has little interpretive bearing on his passage.
This pastor will sound like he really knows his Bible. “I never read that verse before!” exclaims the congregation. Problem is, neither did the pastor until his concordance showed it to him.
This mistake ignores the levels of literary context: sentence – paragraph – chapter – book – author – testament – Bible – contemporary literature. The rule of thumb is that the closer in proximity your word study texts are to the passage you’re preaching, the more likely it will bear on the meaning of your passage.
The practical outworking of this is to stay inside your book with your word study. If you can’t, then you go to another book by the same author. If you can’t do that, then expand further.
The time to break this rule is when the NT writer of your passage is quoting or alluding to an OT passage, or you are tracing the trajectory of your OT passage toward Jesus.
4. The he said, he said mistake
The pastor fails to recognize that different authors of the Bible use different words differently. That is to say, the biblical writers typically use key words or phrases (you know, the kind you’d do a word study on) with particular shades of meaning.
For the author of Hebrews, “perfect/perfection” (the telos word group) is an example of a key word, used in a special way by the author. You wouldn’t want to tell your congregation that Jesus had to be perfected (Heb. 5:9), and we do, too (Phil. 3:12). Both verses employ telos, but the authors are employing the words with different nuances.
5. The word-concept mistake
The preacher mistakenly assumes that just because the word is absent from a passage, the concept is lacking, too. Unlike the first four mistakes – where the preacher is too permissive with his words studies – here he is too restrictive.
If I told you about the game last night where the batter hit a walk off grand slam, you would know that I was talking about baseball. I didn’t have to use the word “baseball” for you to know what I was talking about.
Similarly, Paul never uses the word “sanctification” in his letter to the Galatians. Does that mean he’s not talking about sanctification in 5:16-26? Of course not. The word is missing, but the idea is there, loud and clear.
Now you know the tourist traps…
Some day, Lord willing, we’ll hit the scenic routes.