On Keeping Your Greek and Hebrew in Ministry
I hate trying to talk while I’m in the dentist chair. It vexes me why anyone would ask me questions while drilling, scraping, or spraying my teeth. I hope they don’t expect anything more than an “uh-huh” or “huh-uh.” Recently, however, my dental hygienist asked me how long it takes me to prepare a sermon. When I was free to access the full range of my phonetic members, I said, “Sometimes it can take as much as 20 hours.”
“20 hours! 20 hours!” she shouted. She ran around the office telling her colleagues with surprise, “Did you know that sometimes it takes him 20 hours to prepare a single message?” I didn’t expect such a response.
But why did the length of my sermon prep fascinate her, and why did she think anyone else would care? Because the dental hygienist and her colleagues are Mormons. In the LDS church, the local bishops are volunteers. They don’t deliver sermons each week. They often arrange for one of the members to share an anecdotal testimony during their meeting. Almost no preparation necessary. So, I tried to explain to her why it took me so much time. I told her my job is to preach the Bible. Each week I translate an ancient Hebrew or Greek text. I work hard to understand the meaning of the text in its historical context using the original languages. I then try to prepare a message that is faithful to the author’s intended meaning while making appropriate applications. Sermon preparation is hard work, plain and simple.
With that introduction, you might think this article is about the topic of preparing sermons. In some ways it is, but my assignment is to write on keeping up your Greek and Hebrew in ministry. Before explicitly making the obvious connection between sermon prep and sustaining your skills in the original languages, allow me a word of clarification from the outset. The title of this article assumes that you have Greek and Hebrew to keep! In other words, I’m writing to those pastors that received formal training in the biblical languages. Not every pastor is so fortunate, and we must thank God for the abundance of exegetical tools at our disposal for studying our English Bibles. And to those desiring to study the biblical languages, never in the history of the church has the opportunity to take courses on Greek and Hebrew been more accessible.
But to those who have spent hours in seminary parsing Hebrew verbs and diagramming Greek sentences, I have two main contentions: First, I believe that the single most important thing you can do to keep your Greek and Hebrew skills alive in ministry is to do the hard and time-consuming work of preparing sermons out of the Greek and Hebrew text of Scripture. Second, the single greatest challenge to keeping your Greek and Hebrew alive in ministry is the sustained conviction that it matters.
GREEK AND HEBREW FOR PREACHING
I wonder if some evangelical pastors have come to believe that time-consuming effort in the original languages during sermon preparation is a thing of the past. After all, this is the age of information. Isn’t sermon preparation as simple as ordering a pre-made outline, listening to what a few celebrity pastors have already preached about a text, dabbling in a few commentaries, and then taking the best each has to offer? No. No it’s not.
The apostle Paul told Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15, ESV). The old King James version put it this way, “Study to show thyself approved.” I’ll let you decide which is the stronger translation based on your study of the Greek text. The point is that pastors must be mighty in the Scriptures. We have been given a charge to preach the Word (2 Tim 4:1–2), which means that we must give a substantial amount of time each week to preparing sermons.
What better way to keep your Greek and Hebrew alive than to prepare your OT sermons from the Hebrew Bible and your New Testament sermons from the Greek New Testament? Such a weekly rhythm of study will certainly keep your Greek and Hebrew fresh.
Everything these days is about productivity and speed. Maybe someone needs to tell pastors, “It’s okay to slow down. Linger over words and phrases. Spend some unhurried time studying your passage in the original language.” You’re not neglecting your responsibility when you’re working hard to prepare meaningful, excellent sermons from the original languages. You might even find that your confidence in the pulpit soars when your sermon is the fruit of your own rigorous exegesis. Reflecting on the importance of patient lingering over texts, John Piper wrote, “Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.”
DOES IT REALLY MATTER?
Let me be the first to say that keeping your Greek and Hebrew in ministry is not easy. Trying to stay sharp in the biblical languages is time-consuming, tedious, and discouraging. The pressures of pastoral ministry are monumental at times. And any new pastor fresh out of seminary will quickly discover his church members really don’t care about the finer points of NT Greek verbal aspect. In fact, they probably don’t even care that you can read Greek and Hebrew—not one bit.
So what will motivate us to keep plodding when so many responsibilities compete for our time? I think we need a firm conviction that our primary calling is the ministry of the Word. Pastors are not TED talkers; we’re not pop psychologists, motivational speakers, organizational managers, or godly social workers. We are theologians, interpreters, exegetes, expositors, and heralds of a divinely inspired text.
If you’ve learned Greek and Hebrew, keep using it because detailed study of the Word of God matters. Pastors should give themselves to personal study and forge sermons crafted by their own exegesis, meditation, and reflection. Spending time in the Greek and Hebrew text will aid your interpretive task, broaden your exegetical discoveries, and foster critical engagement with commentaries. You and your people will benefit.
“WE HAVE NEED TO GO FORWARD STILL”
Maybe some aren’t so convinced. Are the original languages really that important? Perhaps we should seek answers from another time in church history. During the Reformation, God raised up pastor-scholars that appropriated the cry of the renaissance to their own work: Ad Fontes! (To the sources!) Martin Luther had such high regard for the importance of studying the biblical languages that he believed “unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish.” The languages, Luther said, “are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held.” Without the languages, Luther believed the Reformation may have never happened. He himself would have remained a “chained monk” while the Pope and his unbiblical empire would have “remained unshaken.”
John Calvin, who preached his sermons directly from the Greek and Hebrew text, considered knowledge of the biblical languages indispensable for pastors. He believed that pastors are theologians and scholars that never move beyond serious study of the Word of God:
God will not have us trained in the gospel for two or three years only, but he will have us go through with it, so that if we lived a hundred years or more in this world yet we must remain scholars, and know that we have not yet approached our perfection, but have need to go forward still.
Let’s not leave the languages behind after two or three years of classes in seminary. For the sake of the church, and the purity and defense of the gospel, we have need to go forward still.