Pastoring remains at once both an astounding privilege and sober responsibility. The Chief Shepherd clearly admonishes us to carefully and faithfully feed his blood purchased flock. Thankfully, the one dispensing this command also provides his under shepherds with abundance of spiritual food. In today’s church culture, marketing consultants drag before pastors a nearly endless parade of sugarcoated sermon aids. Many of these materials foster laziness in pastors and spiritual anemia in local churches. Against this tide of mediocrity, the Lord upholds His Word as the primary source of eternally relevant, thoroughly transforming, and positively peerless truth. Furthermore, regarding the New Testament, no purer form exits than the Greek text. Thus, it behooves those charged with feeding the sheep to lead them into this exceedingly rich field. Conversely, Satan would love for pastors to handle this cornucopia of truth with either extreme arrogance, disdainful complacency, or unnecessary ignorance.
Over the past several years, I have both witnessed and noted a wide array of pastors repeatedly committing similar errors in handling the Greek. In order to counteract such error, I humbly offer the following article. Correcting the four mistakes detailed below allows pastors to make tremendous strides for truth. It bears note that three of the four errors primarily concern the attitude of one’s heart. While a work on the mishandlings of grammatical minutia may prove beneficial to some, such an endeavor exceeds the scope of this article. By far, thee most important factor in properly handling the Greek remains humility. How ironic that the very thing designed to transform us into God’s image is often twisted into a tool for self exaltation! Therefore, let us receive the Greek with a teachable meekness. From this position, we can, with great confidence, disburse its bounty to those God has placed under our care.
Method Number One: The “Know It All” Method
This method often operates as a kind of “look at me” device in the pulpit. The average layperson’s inexperience with Greek allows pastors to wantonly employ such a damaging model. In reality, this tactic preys on the ignorance of others. In other words, because nobody present will know the difference, one can say whatever one wishes about Greek. Arrogance masquerades as intelligence by deceptively wrapping itself in the garb of “in the Greek, this passage means…” The pastor presents the Greek as slightly out of reach for the average layman. Therefore, from a mind of “brilliance” one graciously hands down pearls of supposed wisdom. In truth, “know-it-alls” know very little. Thus, in a vain effort to overcompensate, they parrot bits and pieces of incomplete information. Armed with warmed-over half truths, such pastors throw around Greek words with apparent skill. However, this kind of showmanship draws attention to oneself and not the Greek text.
Pastors, be careful not to overuse the phrase, “in the Greek.” Furthermore, exercise care to not overdo the concept that “you can only truly understand the meaning of this passage in the Greek.” While in many cases this proves true, if overstated, it can create an artificial separation between the people and God’s Word. Remember, many believers have experienced magnificent results from Scripture without knowing one word of Greek.
In addition, this method promotes the repeated trumpeting of trumped up credentials. Pastors, beware of exaggerating this matter. First, do not measure your credentials regarding Greek against the average layperson. In other words, a cursory knowledge of Greek should not spur you to “think of yourself more highly than you ought” (Rom 12:3). A good means of bringing someone into reality concerns their ability to read the Greek New Testament. Looking up words in a lexicon proves a far cry from possessing the skill to actually read the Bible in Greek. On one occasion, for the benefit of the church, I had to expose a supposed “expert in Greek.” Although he presented himself as someone with “years of intense study,” his actual Greek comprehension remained below an elementary level. When challenged to read from the Greek, he could not keep pace with a first grader.
The realm of pastoring already contains far too many devices that puff egos up to ridiculous levels. We dare not add an over inflated, condescending knowledge of the Greek to the mix. Instead, let us work hard to incorporate the Greek in a manner that magnifies the text and hides us behind it.
Method Number Two: The “Know Nothing” Method
At the end of the spectrum, opposite from the “know-it-all,” sits the “know nothing” method. This method, at best, simply ignores and, at worst, actually maligns the study of Greek. Unfortunately this remains the technique of choice for many pastors. Two forces both create and foster this spurious course of action: ignorance and laziness.
The belief that the study of Greek belongs only in the realm of dead, wholly cerebral theology has proved exceedingly damaging. Strangely, this school of poisonous thought flows from the lips of those holding no knowledge of Greek. Thus, they have condemned the study of subject they themselves have never studied. Pastors adhering to this method often, from the pulpit, take sarcastic jabs at the study of Greek. Embedded in their sermons, one might hear statements such as “Theologians might know what the Greek verse says, but, praise God, I know the one who said it!” While a personal relationship with Christ certainly outweighs one’s knowledge of the Greek, Jesus never rejoices in our ignorance of the same. In fact, a familiarity with the Greek can greatly deepen one’s knowledge of God. The Greek New Testament belongs neither high on a dusty bookshelf nor in an obscure corner of a dreary library. Instead, it seeks residence in the hearts of those seeking to know its author. God has saddled pastors with the mandate of perfecting the saints in the knowledge of Christ. The Greek contains enormous resources geared toward producing such perfection. Therefore, rather than turning away in ignorance, let us turn in with vigor.
Other pastors, although they desire to know Greek, view the acquisition of such knowledge as hopelessly out of reach. In other words, they agree that “it is great that the pastor across town has a grasp of Greek. However, I will never be able to learn that skill.” One can combat this lie by employing a two fold strategy. First, set reasonable, measurable goals. For example, do not set your first goal as “sometime learning to read the Greek New Testament.” Instead, set a goal of learning to read, write, and speak the alphabet in two months. This will then equip you with the ability to truly read entire words. Thus, you will then be able to look up word meanings in a Greek lexicon (a fancy word for a dictionary). Second, gather a few easy-to-understand teaching manuals. Most Greek grammars apply to college level courses taught by an experienced instructor. However, works do exist that can greatly benefit those on the path of self-study. For a work with excellent helps for learning to read and write the Greek alphabet see, William Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek Workbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 1-4. For an introductory level book (written to benefit an audience not versed in Greek) revealing the profitability of practical insights into the Greek New Testament see, Rick Renner, Sparkling Gems from the Greek. In addition to books, an assortment of computer software remains available. I believe BibleWorks stands out as the premier Greek language program. Pastors, in light of our calling, let us put forth the effort and discipline necessary for this immensely enriching endeavor.
Method Number Three: The “Everyone Else Wants to Know” Method
This method errs, not in what it knows, but in what it shares. Unlike the “know-it-all,” pastors using this tactic actually possess a working knowledge of Greek. They know how to dig deep and mine for riches. Their mistake concerns the unchecked desire to share their findings with their congregation. While such “eureka” moments may provide loads of blessings in personal study, this excitement should probably remain contained. Without question, an in-depth look at a verb’s particular tense can expand one’s understanding of theology. Nevertheless, very few people understand the more advanced aspects of Greek. In fact, most fail to fully comprehend the rules of grammar belonging to their native language.
In several services, I have seen such exposition actually quench the flow of God’s Spirit. Once, in the midst of a powerful sermon, I witnessed a pastor launch into a discussion of the different Greek meanings for the word translated “and.” In another service, prior to an altar call, a pastor gave a lengthy explanation on the difference between the Greek “aorist” and “perfect” tenses. These same pastors understand the concept of feeding milk to spiritual babes and meat to more mature saints. Then, when it comes to Greek, they repeatedly feed meat to infants. Furthermore, such pastors understand the concept that God grants certain revelations for individual benefit and others for the benefit of the entire body. For example, believers sometimes receive a powerful truth during a worship service. However, this reception does not necessarily equate to a word for the entire congregation. In fact, when someone speaks a supposed word of prophecy by blurring the line between private and public revelation, their utterance falls flat. Let us apply this same principle to revelations received during our private study of Greek.
Method Number Four: The “Instant Dictionary” Method
This method veers off course by employing an overly simplistic and improperly hurried tactic for defining Greek words. Pastors of this persuasion consult a Greek/English concordance, locate a particular word, record its definition, and happily announce that “in the Greek this word means…” While often carried out in innocence, this method breaks numerous laws of both linguistics and common sense.
For starters, to truly comprehend the meaning of a word, one must study it from a diachronic (a word’s meaning as developed over time) perspective. For example, tracing the development of the word translated “soul” through the Old Testament, pre-New Testament Greek, and into the New Testament itself affords one a much richer understanding of the term. By following this course of study, one can see that the term expanded in order to accommodate a progressing theology which reaches its zenith in the New Testament. Furthermore, this knowledge allows one to more clearly comprehend the difference between the words translated “soul” and “spirit.”
Next, one must realize that words have different meanings in different contexts. For example, the English word “pot” signifies several concepts in varying settings. To the gardener, it means “a receptacle in which to place plants.” To the chef, it means “a container for cooking lobsters.” The same principles hold true regarding words in the New Testament. Furthermore, different New Testament authors use the same Greek words in slightly different ways. Personal writing styles, cultural backgrounds, and particular audiences all account for such differences. Therefore, before jumping to conclusions regarding word meaning, pastors must investigate all of these factors. For example, one cannot accurately say, “the Greek word sarx means the ‘sin nature.’” Actually, Paul, particularly in Romans, does employ the term in this fashion. However, Matthew frequently uses sarx to signify the human body. In fact, he uses the term to describe a union both orchestrated and blessed by God. According to Jesus, when a man and woman marry, “they are no longer two but one flesh (sarx). Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt 19:6).
Pastors, your love for both your congregations and the Word of God necessitates your careful attention to this matter. The Scripture deserves more than a passing glance at a concordance.