(Some of the many Q&A's and Bible articles on the "Wielding the Sword of the Spirit" web site at www.matthewmcgee.org)
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Bible Questions and Answers: Word Meanings

Matthew McGee


Q: In referencing years, what do "BC" and "AD" mean?

BC stands for "before Christ", and it refers to the years before Jesus Christ was born. Many people think AD stands for "after death", and therefore refers to the years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But AD actually stands for "anno domini", a Latin phrase that means "the year of our Lord". It is intended to be counted from the birth of Jesus Christ. There is no "year 0". So when counting forward from 2 BC, one should count "2 BC, 1 BC, 1 AD, 2 AD ..." and so on. However, this method of numbering years was not used until a few hundred years after Christ. Some people tried to look back and determine how long it had been since Christ was born. Once they settled upon a year, they named that year 1 AD, and named every other year with respect to that year. With the information we now know, it appears that they may have missed it by a few years. We know the Bible says Jesus Christ was born before the death of Herod the Great, who commonly is recorded in secular history as having died in 4 BC. IF that is correct, then Jesus Christ was born around the year we call 6 BC, give or take a year or two. However, there is at least some degree of disagreement over the 4 BC date for Herod's death. So we cannot say with certainty just when Jesus Christ was born.

As for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, we have more detailed information on the timing. He was crucified most likely in 32 AD, but possibly 31 AD or 33 AD.


Q: In the Bible, does the word "church" always refer to a group of Christians?

A: No. The word "church" does not always refer to a group of Christians when it is used in the Bible. The Greek word that is translated "church" in the King James Version is "ekklesia," which just means "a called out gathering of people in an assembly". The word "ekklesia" was translated "assembly" when it referred to a group that was obviously composed predominantly of pagans in Acts 19:32, 39, and 41. Another example occurs in Acts 7:38, when Stephen refers to the "church" in the wilderness during the 40 years of the children of Israel's wandering. Certainly these people were not Christians. For the most part, they were not even believing Israelites. In Hebrews 3:16-19, they are characterized largely by unbelief. Now as far as I am aware, every time that Paul uses the word "ekklesia," he is referring to Christians. Sometimes he is referring to a local assembly of Christians, but often he is referring to all Christians everywhere. This usage is so common in the Bible that some people may be confused in those few cases when the word is referring to a group that is not all believers. So we must be careful not to assume too much when we see the word "church" in the Bible. It usually refers to an assembly of Christians, but not always.


Q: What is a "dispensation"?

A: The word "dispensation" (noun) in English comes from the root word "dispense" (verb). So when referring to God's Word, a dispensation is an administration (or dispensing) of God's will over a certain period of time to a certain group of people. In other words, a dispensation is God's way of dealing with a group of people during a particular time period. To properly understand a Bible passage, it is important to know both the time period to which the passage refers, and the group of people to which it applies. This way, one can determine the dispensation to which each Biblical passage applies.

God has had different rules for different groups of people in different time periods. Not only may the rules be different, but the punishment for not keeping the rules may be different. The way God interacts with man may be different. Sometimes even the environment man lives in may be different.

The Greek word "oikonomia" [oy-kon-om-ee'-ah], from which the English word "dispensation" is translated in the Bible, refers to the management of a household. It is the management, oversight, administration, stewardship, or dispensation of a household or property. Our English word "economy" comes from this word "oikonomia". Oikonomia is translated "dispensation" four times and "stewardship" three times in the Bible.

In Luke 16, when Jesus Christ spoke of the rich man with the unjust steward, the rich man said, "give an account of thy stewardship" (Luke 16:2). "Stewardship" here is the Greek word "oikonomia". So the rich man is basically saying, "give an account of thy dispensation of my household and property". Some Bible students tend to think of a dispensation as "a period of time", but that is not completely correct. A dispensation is an administration which covers a period of time. In the Luke 16 example the steward's dispensation of the rich man's estate covered a particular period of time. Some dispensations can overlap one another in the time line.

In Colossians 1:25-26, Paul explains how God gave him a dispensation to dispense unto the Gentiles. "... I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God: Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations ...." In 1 Corinthians 9:17 Paul writes, "... a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me." He says it again in Ephesians 3:1-3, "... For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery ...."

So God committed the dispensation of His grace unto our apostle Paul to give to the Gentiles. This dispensation was a mystery that was not known before God gave it Paul. This dispensation still continues today, and is unlike the previous dispensation of the law which God first gave to Moses to give to the children of Israel. Exodus 24:12 says, "And the LORD said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them (the children of Israel)."

There will also be future dispensations after this present dispensation of grace is over. In Ephesians 1:10 Paul says, "That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him ...." Here, Paul is talking about a future dispensation which has not yet begun. Below is a diagram showing all of the dispensations.

For a description of all of the dispensations shown in this diagram see the article, The Basics of Understanding the Bible.


Q: What is the difference between the terms "Hebrews", "Israelites", and "Jews"?

A: All of these terms are dependent upon ancestry, rather than upon where anyone lives. An "Israelite" is any biological descendant of Jacob. Jacob was renamed "Israel" by God in Genesis 32:28. "And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed." Jacob was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel whom he blessed in Genesis 49:1-28. Thus, the nation of Israel is often called "the children of Israel" in the Bible text, because they are the descendants of the man, "Israel".

The term "Hebrews" is almost identical to "Israelites", but it slightly broader, because it includes the fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in addition to all of the descendants of Jacob. We know this because Abraham was referred to as "Abram the Hebrew" in Genesis 14:13. Therefore all Israelites are also Hebrews.

In explaining the term "Jews", it is beneficial to understand some of Israel's national history. After the reign of King Solomon over all the tribes of Israel around 1000 BC, the kingdom was split into two kingdoms as recorded in 1 Kings 12:1-24. The southern two tribes of Judah and Benjamin comprised the kingdom of Judah. The northern ten tribes continued to be called the kingdom of Israel. Because of the split, there are some occasions where the term "Israel" is used only in reference to the ten northern tribes instead of all twelve. But usually, the term "Israel" refers to all twelve tribes, depending upon the context.

About 300 years after the split of the kingdom, in 712 BC, the Assyrians attacked the northern kingdom and took the ten tribes of the kingdom of Israel captive (2 Kings 17:6). The earliest occurrence of the word "Jews" in the Bible is in 2 Kings 16:6, near the time that Israel was carried away. The term "Jews" refers to those of the kingdom of Judah, and their descendants. About one hundred years later, in 606 BC, the Babylonians took the kingdom of Judah captive and carried them away to Babylon (2 Kings 24-25). Seventy years later, the Medes and the Persians conquered Babylon (Daniel 5) and released the Jews. However, most of the Jews chose to remain in Babylon, and only a small remnant (Ezra 2:64) of about 42,000 returned to the land of Israel.

Paul said in Acts 21:39, "... I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus (which was not in the land of Israel) ...." He also said in 2 Corinthians 11:22, "Are they Hebrews? so am I. Are they Israelites? so am I ...." So all Jews are also Israelites and Hebrews regardless of whether or not they live in the land of Israel.

As for the northern ten tribes of Israel, the Bible does not record them returning from the Assyrian captivity. Even though their whereabouts may be unknown to men, God still knows where they are and will use them during tribulation, just like the two tribes of the southern kingdom (Revelation 7:1-8). But during the first century when the New Testament was written, the vast majority of the Israelites referred to in scriptures were from the two southern tribes. Thus, they are called "the Jews". But even though "Jews" refers primarily to those of Judah and Benjamin, the term is probably not intended to exclude other Israelites who were living among them such as Hanna from the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36) or Barnabas from the tribe of Levi (Acts 4:36).

In Acts 26:2-7, Paul defended himself before King Agrippa saying, "... I shall answer for myself this day before thee touching all the things whereof I am accused of the Jews: Especially because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently. My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers: Unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come. For which hope's sake, king Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews." Notice here that Paul seems to be implying that "our twelve tribes" are of the Jews, which would seem to support the idea that the term "Jews" had taken on a broader meaning by the first century, where it no longer meant exclusively the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.


Q: Is there a difference between "LORD" and "Lord" in the scriptures?

A: Yes. When "the LORD" appears in all capital letters in the Old Testament of the King James translation of the Bible, it is almost always the Hebrew word "Jehovah", God's proper name. Jehovah means "the existing one". The KJV translators did not spell out the name Jehovah, but replaced it with "the LORD" 99.86% of the more than 6000 times that it occurs in the Old Testament. This translation may give some readers the impression that God almost always refers to Himself by the title, "the LORD", when actually, He usually refers to Himself as "Jehovah". In every case that I know of, "the LORD" in the Bible refers to God's proper name. This term is not used in the Greek portion of scriptures commonly referred to as the "New Testament".

In the scriptures, the title, "Lord", not in all caps, may or may not be referring to God. Readers should look at the context of how it is used. In the new testament, the Greek word is "kurios", which means "master" or "the one to whom the speaker belongs". "Lord" is used as a title of honor and respect. It usually refers to Jesus in the new testament but not always. For example, Festus calls King Agrippa "lord" (kurios) in Acts 25:26. 1 Peter 3:6 tells how Sarah called Abraham "lord" (kurios). In these verses, the translators left "lord" in lower case.

In the old testament, the Hebrew word "adonay" is used at a title of deep respect and translated "Lord". It usually refers to God, but readers should take care to examine the context because it may not always be a reference to God. Also, the Hebrew word "adown" is often used at a title of deep respect and translated "Lord" as in Genesis 23:6 where the children of Heth called Abraham "lord" or in Genesis 18:12 where Sara called Abraham "lord". Often, "adown" is translated as "master" instead of "lord". It usually refers to a man in a position of respect, but may occasionally be used in reference to God.


Q: What is a "mystery"?

A: The word "mystery" in the Bible is translated from the Greek word "musterion". The word musterion is defined as a hidden thing, a secret thing, a mystery. A mystery is something which God has kept secret from mankind.

In Deuteronomy 29:29 God had Moses tell the children of Israel, "The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law." Even though this was spoken in the context of the law of Moses, we see the same process, of mysteries being revealed, in action throughout the scriptures. That is, God has many secrets that He reveals at different times. Up until He reveals the new information, it is a mystery, which God had previously kept hidden.

In Colossians 1:25-27, Paul tells how his ministry is to the Gentiles. "... I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory ...." In this passage, Paul also speaks of the dispensation of God which was a mystery hidden from previous generations of people, but has now been revealed.

Whenever we study God's Word, we must take care not to anticipate revelation. That means that when we read a passage, we must not assume that the future revelations from God were known at the time in which the events in the passage or the writing of the passage took place. We must realize that from the time God first spoke to Adam, until the last book of the Bible was written, God revealed His Word to men over a period of about four thousand years. He did not give it to man all at once. For example, as Adam stood there in the garden of Eden, he could not have known anything about the ten commandments which would be given by God to Moses about 2600 years later. Nor could Jacob have told you about the sermon on the mount that Jesus Christ would preach some 1700 years later. When we read a passage of scripture, we must understand and keep in mind what God had revealed to the people being addressed up until that time. The things which are not yet known are still secrets that are hid in God, mysteries which He has yet to reveal to anyone.

Sometimes God will even go so far as to say the words, but still not allow them to be understood. When God foretold that He would punish Judah with captivity by the Babylonians, He called forth the prophet Isaiah and told him in Isaiah 6:9-10, "Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed."

Similarly, we see that during Christ's earthly ministry, the twelve apostles did not know that Jesus Christ was going to die and rise again from the dead. Even though Christ had told them this plainly on several occasions, it was hidden from them by God. In Luke 18:33, Jesus Christ, referring to himself as the Son of man says, "And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again." But even though He told them plainly, "... they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things that were spoken" (Luke 18:34). When Jesus Christ was resurrected, none of His disciples were there to see it. Why weren't they all camped out down there in front of the tomb waiting to see His glorious resurrection? Even though Christ had told them that He would rise again on the third day, they could not understand. Peter and John only went to the tomb when Mary Magdalene told them that someone had stolen Jesus Christ's body. "For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead" (John 20:9).

Paul received the gospel of grace, not from any man, but by direct revelation from the Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12). He was appointed as the apostle of the Gentiles to reveal mysteries previously kept hidden. One of these is the mystery of the gospel. Paul writes in Ephesians 6:18-20, "Praying always ... for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel for which I am an ambassador in bonds ...." Paul's gospel had been a mystery, not known to anyone before God revealed it to Paul.

Keep in mind that Ephesians was written around 62 AD, about 30 years after Jesus Christ had ascended into heaven. Paul had already completed his first three missionary journeys. Now let us look at Ephesians chapter 3, beginning with verses 1-4. "For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery: (as I wrote afore in few words Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) ...." So we see that God by "revelation" showed Paul the "mystery" which no one knew before. This is why Paul calls it "my knowledge". "Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and the prophets by the Spirit ..." (Ephesians 3:5). Note the change in tense here. Compare "is now revealed" (to the apostles around 62 AD) with "he made known unto me" (Paul) by revelation at some earlier time. Then in Ephesians 3:9, "And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ ...."

In about 66 AD, Peter, near his death, acknowledged that God had revealed many mysteries to Paul. He wrote in 2 Peter 3:15-16, "And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him (not "unto us", but "unto him") hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things hard to be understood ...." Peter was writing this epistle to Jews, so it seems clear that the epistle of Paul that Peter was referring to was Hebrews.

From Romans 16:25, it is evident that the what Paul calls "my gospel", was a mystery until God showed it to him by revelation. "Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to "my gospel", and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began ...."

Why did God keep our gospel a secret for so long? "But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory" (1 Corinthians 2:7-8). So no one was allowed to know it, not Peter, the apostles, Judas, Pilate, the demons, or even Satan himself. If the Satan and his followers had understood that Christ's death would sacrificially pay for the sins of mankind, they would not have crucified Jesus Christ. So God kept the sacrificial nature of Christ's death a secret (a mystery) until after the fact.


Q: In 1 Corinthians 14:22, does "prophesying" mean teaching? That is, preaching the word so everybody can understand?

A: No. When someone is preaching or teaching, they are explaining the Word of God so that everyone can understand. At least that's what they are supposed to be doing. But "prophesying" is speaking forth a message that came directly from God, not through the Bible. The Old Testament prophets, the apostles, and certain other early Christians prophesied from time to time, but now that we have all of God's Word for us in the Bible, there is no gift of prophecy today. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 says, "... whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect (the complete Word of God) is come, then that which is in part shall be done away." Therefore, anyone that claims to be a prophet today either does not know what the word "prophet" really means, or they are actually a false prophet.


Q: Please explain the old testament references to "unicorns" in the KJV.

A: Regarding the Hebrew word "reym" that is translated as "unicorn" in the KJV, Strong's dictionary defines it as, "probably the great aurochs or wild bulls which are now extinct. The exact meaning is not known." Aurochs (extinct for several hundred years) were the wild ancester of modern domestic cattle.

Most other English translations do not translate "reym" as "unicorn". Young's Literal Translation, NIV, NASV, and Amplified each translate most of the occurrences of "reym" as "wild oxen". The Darby version of the Bible translates it as "buffalo".

From the way it is used in the nine verses where it occurs, it was apparently a horned, wild, land animal that was very strong. And it was an earthly creature, not a heavenly creature. It is mentioned in Numbers 23:22 and 24:8, where God's strength as He brought the children of Israel out of Egypt is compared to it. In Job 39:9-12, it is spoken of as a very strong, yet wild animal that will not serve man. It is also mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:17, Psalms 22:21, 29:6, 92:10, and Isaiah 34:7.

The verses do not seem to indicate that the animal had only one horn. But if this were the case, it may be worth noting that some species of rhinoceros have only one horn, while other species have two horns, with the front horn being larger. And of course, the rhinoceros has the characteristics being very strong and wild, as does the buffalo and the wild ox.


Q: What is meant by a "week" in Daniel 9, or a "week of years" as some Bible teachers refer to it?

A: The Hebrew word that is translated as "week" and "weeks" in the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 is "shabuwa". A shabuwa means a "period of seven". It could be seven days or seven years. In scripture, it is used both ways, and we have to tell by the context which one it is. Often, shabuwa is used in scripture to describe the length of a feast or some other event that obviously is only a matter of days in length. But sometimes a shabuwa clearly means seven years, such as in Genesis 29:27-28. After Jacob was given Leah, in place of Rachel, for a wife after serving Laban for seven years, Laban told him. "27 Fulfil her week (shabuwa), and we will give thee this also for the service which thou shalt serve with me yet seven other years. 28 And Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week (shabuwa): and he gave him Rachel his daughter to wife also." Like in Genesis 29, shabuwa is used in Daniel 9 to refer to periods of seven years (not days). Some Bible teachers refer to these time periods as "weeks of years".


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