Investigating The Bible: The meaning behind the words

By David Carlson Pastor

Cultures give vastly different meanings to common words. The Shilluk people in Sudan say a stingy person has a big heart and a generous person has a small heart. This seems illogical until we understand their reasoning: A selfish person never shares with others and has a heart that grows big with possessions, whereas a person who always gives to others has little left and therefore has a tiny heart.

The accurate meanings of words in the Bible are also sometimes lost in the changing tides of culture. An early version of the English Bible was literally correct with this translation: “But whosoever hath this world’s goods, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (I John 3:17, King James Version). In the apostle John’s day, caring was linked with the intestines. If Luke’s gospel is translated literally, God forgives us because of his merciful intestines. (Luke 1:78) and the apostle Paul yearned with his intestines for the people of a beloved church (Philippians 1:8). Translations today say God forgives from compassion, and Paul’s heart longed for the church.

In other anatomical word usages, translators have not switched to different words. Old Testament writers often used the heart and the mouth as the places of thought and reason. When King David wrote, “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth,” (Psalm 34:1, ESV), he did not mean constant speech; instead, he said thoughts of God are on his mind constantly.

After the death of Moses, God commanded Joshua to use his mouth to meditate as he stepped up to lead the Jews: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” (Joshua 1:8, ESV).

As Jesus started to teach, we read, “And he opened his mouth and taught them…”. (Matthew 5:2, ESV). Matthew did not state the obvious– we must open our mouth to speak. He clarified that Jesus, from the wealth of wisdom in his mind, began to teach.

The meaning of the word heart varies with contextual usage. When Paul counseled the Corinthians that, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart…”. (2 Corinthians 9:7, ESV), he described a cognitive process. Today, we may easily misinterpret emotions in his message and not give because generous feelings are absent.

Love, a common word in our language, appears throughout the Bible, with a meaning that transcends popular usage. Biblical love is a decision, which leads to actions and is not only feelings or words. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (I John 4:20, ESV). But even actions, which outwardly appear to be generous, can fail if wrongly motivated. “If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:3, ESV).

Biblical love is defined by God’s actions. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?...(W)e are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:32, 37-39, ESV).

David Carlson Pastor (yes, that is his last name but not his profession) is an Oregon resident and graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in Minnesota (M.Div., M.Th.).



The accurate meaning of words in the Bible are also due to the scribes and other men until the Bible was standardized, mostly when the printing press was developed. Illiteracy among scribes was about 85%, so they did not know what the were transcribing. Scribes would copy books for wealthy owners and later scribes were used by the Roman church. A slip of the brush changed the meanings to be other than accurate. Men over the centuries, probably out of best interests for their flock, added stories and/or changed details.
The Bible also is allegorical, like the bleeding woman who was healed when Jesus passed by her. Honey, that’s quantum mechanics. It’s how healers work. Look beyond the words.
And if the counter argument is that it’s the Word of God, well, then why did he take books out of the Bible, put them back in, and take them out again. Not God, but a man with power did that.
Rome invented Christianity, based on stories about someone who was in the face of the Jewish hierarchy and who healed people (there are no miracles, just quantum mechanics).

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