The manner in which something or someone is displayed is perhaps 9/10ths of what others will identify as the real thing. As a result, a woman herself or even a simple word can be, and often is, portrayed in such a way to influence the perceptions of others into accepting the glamorous display rather than the 6am-wild-hair-no-coffee-missing-makeup-just-as-you-are-before-brushing-teeth version. We guys could learn a thing or two about the benefits of presentation.
I am not aiming here to review the concept of propaganda, although that too can fit within this observed pattern, but rather to shed light on why context carries more weight in establishing meaning than how something is commonly defined. In other words (pun intended), as helpful as a dictionary can be in understanding the common usages of a word, it is the contextual manner in which that word is used that most significantly influences its intended meaning.
With all that philosophical wash, let’s get to the point at hand. At one of the most pivotal points in human history, a question was asked to which no defined answer was given other than what was displayed in that context. Those who miss the context, were left ignorant of the answer.
The question asked by Pilate, as he debated whether or not to uphold what was right, was “What is truth?” The answer to that question remains an enigma to most in spite of the massive contributions by Webster, Oxford, Strong, and other dictionary-type resources. The reason: 9/10th of meaning is found in that particular context, not as it might compare to historical backdrops.
The younger generation at any period of time can often relate to this easier, because they are often euphemizing words in new ways to fit their context. The same can be observed by politicians looking for that memorable sound bite. And so, in order to understand their intended meaning, one must consider how the context presents that word rather than simply relying upon past definitions.
As this might impact Christians, the tendency to rely upon dictionaries for meaning without considering the significant impact of context has left many a minister preaching error. They parrot from a Greek or Hebrew dictionary, or reference their own grasp of ancient Greek linguistics, but some make little if any adjustment to reflect how that word is being presented within context. A Greek word, that may have common usage in extra-biblical sources like Homer or Socrates does not necessarily equate one-to-one with how the writers of Scripture use it.
For one thing, all dictionaries supply a numerical list of alternative meanings. That in itself ought to caution the wise by showing that even historically words expand into unrelated meanings. So when a teacher lists all possible definitions for a word, as if when combined they help to define meaning, they are actually demonstrating 52-card pickup—flinging everything into the air and leaving the disappointed participant to pick up the scattered deck of cards.
But most importantly, when the Holy Spirit inspires a writer to pen Scripture, through the use of limited and fluctuating human language and even through the linguistic personality of the author, there will nevertheless always contain a specific, divine, reliable meaning—a meaning that God defines through what he displays.
For example, when Jesus used the word sleep in reference to Lazarus, he did not mean what can be found in a dictionary for that word. The context actually rewords it as “I mean he is dead”. Jesus could have made his words dictionary-clear by just saying dead, if that was what he meant, but dead, is also incorrect to what he meant. God was introducing a new understanding by using commonly understood words that become redefined by the context of a dead believer who retains an assurance of life.
Unless one understands the impact of how a word or event is presented in the context recorded in Scripture, they are pretty much assured of faulty interpretation. This reality is so significant that the Bible puts scholars and students on notice that without the insight given through the Holy Spirit, the words of God can never be interpreted correctly! (1 Cor 2:11).
And so back to Pilate’s lament about who gets to define truth anyway. Jesus had just informed the Roman governor presiding over his pending crucifixion that the reason he came into this world was to bear witness to the truth. Any dictionary you consult, even so-called Bible dictionaries will only give definitions to the word truth like stability, certainty, truth, trustworthiness, faithful, right, sure, true, verity and root origins like to build up, support, foster, trust, certain, assurance, bring up, and turn to the right. All of which is insightful, but misses the mark.
The context in which Pilate found himself did not present truth with any of those meanings (in the above case, taken from Strong’s Concordance). The witness to truth that Jesus spoke about was himself as Immanuel, the promised Messiah who alone fully represented God. As our Lord taught those with ears to hear, I am the Truth!
The meaning of the word “truth”, as it is used within Scripture, cannot be found in a dictionary. And so it should be no surprise that many have swallowed puffballs instead of the true bread from heaven.
In subsequent posts, we will delve further into how the Bible presents truth. I hope you will join us.