Using Greek and Hebrew in the Pulpit

How much do you use the Greek and Hebrew that you learned? How do you handle these things when preaching? These are questions that are often asked in seminary classes and asked back and forth among pastors.

The danger on the one hand is ignoring the languages in your preparation so that it’s as if you never even learned them or don’t think they’re important. (A close corollary to this danger is using Greek or Hebrew but only from the commentaries. That is, never discovering things yourself or, as some guys do, never even checking the things you find in the commentaries.)

The danger on the other hand has two aspects. Some guys refer to the languages in such a way that, intentionally or unintentionally, they parade their learning in front of the listener and end up, intentionally or unintentionally, convincing the listener that unless they, too, know Greek or Hebrew, they can’t possibly hope to understand the Bible like the preacher does. The corollary to this one is that oftentimes the sermon becomes an exegetical lecture rather than a message.

How then do you handle this? I don’t profess to be an expert in these matters but I have had more Greek than the average seminary-trained pastor (eight undergraduate classes and five graduate-level classes along with a Greek scholar’s award) and so I have thought through this perhaps more than some pastors. Here are my suggestions with some exceptions for each rule.

Never use the Greek or Hebrew word in the pulpit.

You can always say, “The word translated…carries the idea of…” There would be very few occasions on Sunday in a church service where you would absolutely have to use the word from the original language. The only time I break this is when I think churched people may have heard the word before. Examples include words like agape or koinonia.

Never use technical terms in the pulpit.

It’s easy simply to say, “Paul has written this in such a way as to tell us that he’s expecting ‘no’ as an answer.” That’s actually easier, and more understandable for the average person than to say, “The me is untranslatable but anticipates…”

I break this sometimes if the term is easy to understand and it’s just easier to use the term. For example, I’ll say, “This is a conditional sentence, maybe you’ve heard it called an ‘if-then’ sentence’ which means…” I won’t say things like, “This genitive absolute…”, etc.

If there’s another translation that translates something in the way you think is correct, then cite that translation.

This way the congregation knows that you aren’t just pulling this out of thin air.

Don’t be afraid to say when the translation or exegesis is hard.

There’s no shame in saying, “This verse is very difficult to translate and commentators of every stripe have struggled with this one.” This way they know that just because the KJV says it doesn’t mean they necessarily had it all figured out. Be sure to conclude by pointing out that we can still have confidence in God’s Word and that this doesn’t mean we can jettison the Scripture’s authority in favor of our own.

Sometimes it’s good to point out when the translation you use and your congregation uses is correct. Your people should hear, “[name of your translation] gets it right here when it says, ‘…’” This way you encourage them in the reading and study of the Bible

Whatever you do, don’t make more of yourself than you ought.

Paul’s words in Romans 12:3 are applicable here and a healthy dose of them on a regular basis will go a long way toward helping us remember that we don’t preach so that we will receive accolades or so that people will be impressed with us.

We preach so that Christ will be lifted up and all people drawn to him and nourished on him. If your citing that specific Greek word or naming the technical term for an item of Hebrew syntax doesn’t work toward that end, then leave it out.

About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
This entry was posted in Languages, Pastoral Ministry, preaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Using Greek and Hebrew in the Pulpit

  1. Good stuff. William Mounce has a good article on the same subject in John Piper’s festschrift. A lot of overlap.

  2. Thanks, Derek! It’s good to know that I’m not totally off-base then. I’ll have to look it up.

  3. mlward says:

    Good post. I fully agree, and yet I found myself extemporaneously violating these principles just this past Sunday. I immediately regretted it. Dr. Rod Decker tells his students that they probably shouldn’t make a point if they can’t support it from the English text (p. 14 here.)

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