Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
Words convey meaning. Using the wrong word or misusing a word will convey the wrong meaning. Using the right word will convey the meaning you intend. Misunderstanding and error arise because we mishandle words.
Earlier this year Harold Camping predicted Judgment Day on May 21 and the end of the world on October 21, 2011. At the root of his interpretations is the false assumption that Bible verses can have “twofold meaning.”1 And historical and biblical context don't matter. Assume those things and you can make the Bible say anything you want. Consequently when the end didn't happen he said the predicted earthquake did happen because people, who are made of earth (Genesis 2:7) quaked in fear. And the rapture or “catching up” occurred because as of that date there was a “catching up” or completion of those who are to be saved. Now complete, no one else will ever be saved.2
Because Scripture is inspired and the individual words of the Bible are God-breathed, we know words and their meanings are important to God. They should be to us as well. Here are some fundamentals to remember when handling God's words.
A word can mean many things. When we interpret the Bible, we must remember that a word may be used in different senses in different places.
For example, in the Bible, the word “glory” can mean many things: splendour (Matthew 6:29), praise (Acts 12:23), brightness (2 Corinthians 3:7), and heaven (1Timothy 3:16). How do we know which meaning to choose? The context is the key that unlocks the sense so read the context.
A word cannot mean anything you wish. When we interpret the Bible, we must not attribute our own meaning to a word.
In Through the Looking Glass, Alice holds a strange conversation with Humpty Dumpty.
“I don't know what you mean by ’glory,’” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant ’there's a nice knock-down argument for you!’” “But ‘glory’ doesn't mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that's all.”3
While a word can mean many things, each of those things must be sensible with regard to that word. That's why, for example, Peter used the word “defence” in 1 Peter 3:15 and did not use the word “glory” in that place. The word “defence” can mean “a nice knock-down argument” but the word “glory” would not express that idea at all. No, Humpty, a word cannot mean anything you choose it to mean.
A word can mean only one thing at a time. When we interpret the Bible we must remember that a word can mean but one thing in one place and we cannot accommodate two conflicting meanings.
Seldom does one intentionally use a word in an ambiguous manner so that it has a double meaning. Normally a word means only one thing at one time. As an example, the word “word” itself is used in the sentence, “For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20 NASB). Obviously “word” here must refer to the prattling of men. It means this one thing here.
In another place we have, “those who gladly received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41 WEB). Obviously here “word” refers to the message of Christ, which Peter had preached. It means this different thing here. Only one of those meanings can exist in one place.
A word means what its author meant. When handling God's words we must strive to gather what the author meant by what he said, and not make arbitrary interpretations.
For example, when Jesus used the word “temple” in one instance, people were wrong to put a meaning upon that word which Jesus had not intended. He meant the temple of his body, not the grand place of worship in Jerusalem (John 2:19-22; Matthew 26:61; 27:39-40).
Each time a word is used, its meaning is fixed in that instance, and it is the author who has fixed that meaning. The reader is not free to put his own meaning on it. Rather, he must gather what the author meant by it.
Harold Camping needs to learn this.
3 Carroll, L. Through the Looking-Glass. Raleigh, NC: Hayes Barton Press, 1872 ISBN 1593772165, (72).