Greek Language/Linguistics / Leadership/Ministry

The Role of Greek in Sermon Preparation (Part 1): Introduction

I’m beginning a new series of posts geared towards seminary students and preachers in using their Greek New Testament in preparing sermons. I’m assuming here that knowing the original languages is important to proper sermon preparation. But it seems to me that many pastors seem to have “lost” their original languages since leaving seminary, or use their Greek to a minimal degree (such as limiting them to “word studies”; I’ll devote a full post to this later in this series). However, there is definitely much more to gain from reading and interpreting the Greek of the New Testament than simply “decoding” words or phrases. My objective is hopefully to stir up some potential readers who are engaged in preaching and teaching to use their Greek in a much more fruitful way than they have been doing already. Sometimes, pastors don’t know where to start–or rather, pick up from where they left off ten years ago. So I hope to encourage some of them to dust off their UBS or Nestle-Aland Greek editions (imperfect as they may be), or maybe even log onto, and gain insight from the Greek text in their sermon preparation. What I won’t do here is to write on how to preach, or how to build a sermon, or any other homiletic instruction. I simply offer advice on how to properly utilize the Greek of the New Testament when the preparer is doing the early part of exegesis on the passage they will be preaching on.

My first advice is broad–probably not immediately helpful, but certainly will be in the long run: know how the Koine Greek language functions. Greek is not English. I know that sounds basic and obvious, but many pastors seem to treat Greek like an “encoded” English, and if they do refer to Greek, it is simply to translate it into English or say that the Greek word really means such and such (it’s usually relegated to words). My advice is to know Greek the way one would know any other language. The only thing about it being a dead language is that no one speaks it anymore; but it was at one point a language that people spoke, wrote, and read. We have 27 books (as well as a bunch of documentary papyri, most of which still haven’t been translated), which is actually a lot for us to know how a language functions. So how do we know Greek? Read it. Read it a lot. I know most pastors may not have that sort of time, but I’d say start with whatever passage is targeted (it may be around 5-10 verses), and know that passage for that week. Five to ten verses in a given week after a year will have been 250-500 verses. That’s a lot of verses. Take your Tuesday and just focus on the Greek (develop your outline or whatever on Wednesday, but leave Tuesday to know the Greek). For the time being, forget about deciding what kind of genitive is being used (sometimes, these are not helpful categories), and just read and know the Greek. Note the word order, the presence or absence of articles, tense-forms (I’ll talk about this in my next post), whatever else. Use Logos or BibleWorks or whatever other computer software in the beginning to help you get over the hump (or if you don’t have one, your church should buy it for you!). One of my Greek professors in seminary advised us against using it, but I think it can be helpful, especially at the beginning. Whatever it takes, understand how Greek works. You will notice things that commentaries don’t typically mention (this also will be discussed in a later post, the role of commentaries in sermon prep).

For those who have been out of the game (the translating game, that is) for a number of years, it might be painful at first. It would be like going to the gym after 5 years of skipping out; but if one wants to get fit, one has to start somewhere. It might seem like a waste of time to be struggling over the Greek, but the preacher knows deep inside it is necessary and fruitful. So go ahead, “cheat” if you have to. But I think the fundamental task is not to look up a Greek word in a lexicon (anyone can do that! Plus, if you’re going to TDNT, that’s not really the best thing to do…; more on this in a future post). The fundamental task is for you to know Greek. And that just means (having considered you’ve taken at least 2 years of Greek) going back and reading it over and over. The main thing that separates preachers from parishioners is not that they are more spiritual or holier or more sanctified (although upstanding character is certainly important); the main thing is that they are better equipped to study and teach the Bible, which necessarily entails knowing the original languages.

So in conclusion… (I’m purposely using a bad homiletic device here), know Greek by reading Greek. The more you read, the more you know. Next up, I’ll post on this whole thing about verbal aspect and why it’s so profitable for interpreting the Greek text.

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