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Defining A Word By Its Context

Certain words can only be fully defined by the way theyíre used in context. Some words have more than one meaning while other words may have one meaning but more than one application.

A friend pointed out to me that the Hebrew word "yireh" for the most part is translated as "fear", "afraid" and other such words in the Old Testament. "Yireh" can also be translated as "see", so to understand how this Hebrew word should be translated, you need to understand how the author intended it to be used.

The same with the Greek word "pneuma" which is translated as "spirit" or "wind" in the New Testament. The basic definition of "pneuma" is "wind" so the context in which it is used will determine if you translate it as wind or spirit. The context will also show if "pneuma" is in reference to the wind blowing across the sea, to the Holy Spirit, to the spirit of man, or an evil spirit.

English words are similar. Take the English word "board" for example. You say, "you need a board and Iíve got one". I answer, "what kind of a board do you have? Is it a piece of wood, a committee of people, or a bulletin board"? Dictionaries have 10 or 11 different definitions for "board".

When you tell me that youíre ready to hit me over the head with a two by four, your context tells me I better run. I now know what type of board youíre talking about, and its not a committee of people. Iím not sure whatís worse, being hit by a two by four, or being clobbered by a church board.

Although the Greek word "baptizo" basically means "to immerse or to dip", the application for our English word "baptize" needs to be understood in its context. We normally think of baptism in reference to water, but it also is applied to the Holy Spirit and even to the church.

In Acts 8 we have the story of Philip sharing the gospel with an Ethiopian. Verse 36 says, "as they traveled the road they came to some water and the eunuch said, Ďlook, here is some water, why shouldnít I be baptized"? We clearly understand from the context that this baptism is in reference to water.

As a side note, something you donít learn from the text but do learn from a geography lesson is that the country-side in which this took place was extremely dry and there is a good possibility that the stream wasnít deep enough for anyone to be immersed in. Itís likely that Philip stooped down and somehow scooped up water and poured it over this man. So sometimes the way the word baptize is used may not even reflect its basic definition.

Paul, in 1 Cor. 12:13 also uses the word "baptize". He says, "we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body". Someone suggested to me that Paul is speaking of water baptism here, but thatís not so. According to this text those who are baptized are baptized into the body of Christ, (the church) not water. So how does one get baptized into the church? Does he get picked up by a couple of strong ushers and get thrown off a platform into the congregation? Unless youíre willing to invent a new doctrine, I donít think Paul is talking about such a thing. When the Holy Spirit comes into our lives we are not only joined to God but also to fellow Christians. This joining is a baptism in the sense we are totally submerged into a relationship with the rest of the people of God. We arenít isolated individuals, but connected to other body parts . We are immersed into Godís people as we would be in water.

Itís important to understand how a word is used in its context because even if you know its definition, the context will further define its meaning and application.

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