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How Can I Regain the Use of Greek and Hebrew?

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After three decades in pastoral ministry, I can think of several reasons not to study the Bible its original languages.

First, I am not a language whiz. My skills in Hebrew and Greek are average at best.

Second, a good exegetical commentary will explain the grammatical and linguistic nuances of the passage I plan to preach this Sunday.

Third, I need more time to read theology. Reading Hannah Anderson, James K. A. Smith, and Rosaria Butterfield—as well as Augustine, Chrysostom, and Calvin—will help me cast a biblical-theological vision for living as exiles in our secular age.

Fourth, the biblical languages do not make my pursuit of holiness any easier. Sadly, I can disobey God’s Word in Hebrew and Greek as easily as in English.

All that said, though, I still read my Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament every day. And I think more pastors should do the same.

Why Bother?

Why would I want to do this? Simply put, it’s an act of love. As Eugene Peterson observed, “Exegesis is loving God enough to stop and listen carefully to what he says.” Of course, you can love God deeply and shepherd Christ’s flock effectively without knowing a lick of Hebrew or Greek. But if you give your life to preaching and teaching Scripture, why not make an effort to study it in its original languages?

John Piper exhorts pastors to ponder the thesis of Heinrich Bitzer:

The more a theologian detaches himself from the basic Hebrew and Greek text of Holy Scripture, the more he detaches himself from the source of real theology! And real theology is the foundation of a fruitful and blessed ministry.

By the way, I’ve still carved out time in recent weeks to read all of the authors I cited above. How, then, can you stay hitched to your Hebrew and Greek? Is it really possible if you are not a language nerd? Yes. Here are three recommendations.

1. Spend 20 Minutes a Day

Here is the most important advice I can offer: Spend 10 minutes a day in your Hebrew Bible and 10 minutes a day in your Greek New Testament. What J. Gresham Machen said about reading the Greek New Testament applies to the Hebrew Bible as well: “Ten minutes a day is of vastly more value than 70 minutes once a week.”

Thankfully, this is easier than it sounds. Simply build one of the 10-minute slots into your sermon preparation and the other into your devotional time.

For sermon prep, apply your inductive Bible study skills to your reading of the text in Hebrew or Greek. If your language skills are weak, then choose a key verse or two rather than the entire passage. Study and re-read the text daily.

For your devotional time, select a book or section of Scripture, and read for 10 minutes. Use a reader’s edition or a Bible software program to help you with vocabulary and parsing. Give yourself a few seconds to identify a word or parse a form before you look at the answer. It’s fine if you only get through one verse a day—especially if it’s in Job or Hebrews!

And don’t let vacation stop you. Even when I’m fly fishing a remote stretch of river in Yellowstone National Park, I’ll take a break to sit by the river and read Hebrew and Greek on the Logos app in my phone.

2. Beef Up Those Language Skills

Whatever your skill level, invest in a good intermediate grammar to review basic concepts and learn what’s changed in our understanding of the languages since you learned them in seminary.

For Hebrew, start with Gary Long’s Grammatical Concepts 101 for Biblical Hebrew (Baker Academic, 2013). Then consider investing in A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar by Christo H. J. van der Merwe, Jacobus A. Naude, and Jan H. Kroeze (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017). Both grammars pay attention to developments in linguistics.

For Greek, I recommend Intermediate Greek Grammar by David L. Mathewson and Elodie Ballantine Emig (Baker Academic, 2016). The explanations are concise and linguistically sensible. This grammar also provides a helpful entry into verbal aspect theory—an approach that’s replacing what you learned about Greek verbs a couple decades ago.

If you’ve never learned Hebrew or Greek, it’s never too late to start. Find a good elementary grammar with video lectures. Ask an area pastor or Bible student to help you find the right one. Better yet, ask them to teach you.

3. Find a Reading Partner

Two (or three) is better than one for staying consistent in reading the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. Years ago, when I pastored a church in Montana, I met biweekly with a pastor-friend to read the Hebrew Bible. In five years, we read quite a few psalms and most of the book of Judges. Our times together provided structure, accountability, and stimulating discussion.

Treasures Await

Recently I noticed a wordplay in Philippians 3 that even the best English translations don’t convey. When Paul says “I press on” to the goal of knowing God (3:12, 14), he uses the same Greek verb (diōkō) he used in 3:6 to speak of “persecuting” the church. What a stunning contrast! Paul says, in effect, that he now pursues the knowledge of God with the same intensity he once pursued the church to destroy it.

More treasures are waiting. So go find your Hebrew Bible. Dust off your Greek New Testament. Take up and read! It is nothing less than an act of love for God and his Word.

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