Martin Luther encouraged the ministers of his time, saying, “Let us zealously hold to the [biblical] languages…The languages are the sheath in which the sword of the Spirit is contained.”1
While not all preachers have learned how to harvest rich insights from the Greek and Hebrew texts, those who have, should. Take advantage of your seminary training so you can exegete Scripture as accurately as possible. The original languages belong in the study, but that does not necessarily mean they belong in the pulpit.
Exploring Greek and Hebrew can clarify and aid your sermon preparation; preaching the Greek and Hebrew, though, can confuse and hinder your sermon delivery. Overload your message with strange-sounding Hebrew vocabulary and you will overwhelm your hearers. Technical Greek parsing information may impress your seminary professors, but it will not build up your congregation.
The expositor’s task is to expose the text clearly, not further obscure it. As Charles Spurgeon humorously commented, “Christ said, ‘Feed My sheep…Feed My lambs.’ Some preachers, however, put the food so high that neither the lambs nor sheep can reach it. They seem to have read the text, ‘Feed my giraffes.'” Be a sheep-feeder, not a giraffe-feeder.
Preach in such a way that people can understand God’s Word more clearly. For starters, keep this simple rule in mind: “Thou shalt not parse in the pulpit.” Recent seminary graduates tend to show off their new-found linguistic skills while preaching. Very few people, if anyone, are able to follow the preacher who rattles off, “This verb is an ‘Aorist, Active, Subjunctive, Second Person, Plural…” To the average church-goer, these details are nothing more than head-spinning gobbledygook. Furthermore, it can leave them with the impression the Bible is beyond their grasp. The preacher might as well have said, “jIH muSHa’ yuch.” (Which is Klingon for “I love chocolate.” See how confusing that is?)
To be clear about this subject, you should not ignore or discard the original languages. Instead, learn how to explain their emphasis and meaning in a way that is understandable to the audience.
Greek scholar (and preacher) David Alan Black warned, “Perhaps the greatest reason technical jargon in preaching is so damaging is because it causes the expositor to lose sight of the main purpose of exegesis: to communicate the meaning of God’s Word as clearly as possible.”2 The best tailor does not painstakingly point out all of the tuxedo seams to his customers. Instead, he focuses on displaying the finished product for all to enjoy. The tailor knows the seams are there. His customers can appreciate their function, but they do not need a crash-course in Tailoring 101.
There is a time and place for discussing complex, academically inclined nuances of the Bible, but Sunday at 11 a.m. in the average church is not the time or the place. How can we accurately and effectively communicate these significant details to our audience? Consider these suggestions.
Mention the Greek word if an English version can be heard in it.
Because English is a distant linguistic cousin of Greek, there are many Greek words which sound familiar to English speakers. Highlighting these specific terms in your sermon are good occasions to speak some Greek in the pulpit. It will give enough insight to reveal one’s deeper study and yet not so much so as to baffle your listeners.
For example, a preacher might explain, “The Greek word for eye recorded in
While there are numerous examples from the New Testament, some of the most common ones include:
|Greek Word||Basic Meaning||English Derivative|
|kardia (cardia)||heart||cardiac, cardiologist|
|o,moj (homos)||another (of the same kind)||homo-sexual|
|e,teroj (heteros)||anotehr (of a different kind)||hetero-sexual|
|grafh (graphe)||to write||graphics|
|monoj (monos)||only||monologue, monopoly|
|porneia (porneia)||sexual sin (fornication)||pornography|
|mega (mega)||great, big||megaphone|
As you read through your Greek New Testament, keep one opthalmos open for these kinds of words and make special note of them for your preaching. If there is no recognizable English derivative in the Greek, omit it.
Explain the significant grammatical details with every-day language, not technical categories.
Proper exegesis will yield a wheel barrow full of nouns, verbs, subjunctives, imperatives, chiasmus, etc. Granted not every particular will make it into the final draft of the sermon, but those that do often need to be decoded so blue-collar workers, gray-haired widows and fidgety fifth graders can grasp its meaning. While these examples are not exhaustive, consider some of these more common features for preaching.
If your text contains a significant present-tense verb, rather than calling it that, explain the action as ongoing, habitual or non-stop. The same force of the verb is conveyed and is done so in a way that people actually understand.
When dealing with an imperative, refer to it as a command or order. Emphasize the sense of either apostolic or divine authority behind it. Obedience to these verbs is not optional; it is expected. (For a present, imperative verb, tell them the action should be habitual, chronic or a regular part of their lives.)
A perfect-tense verb has been called “the most exegetically significant of the Greek tenses.”3 When explaining one, refer to it as an action in the past the results of which continue to the present. For instance, in
English does not have an obviously plural pronoun as do other languages. A simple you in English can refer to one person or 25 in other languages. Greek and Hebrew pronouns, though, clarify whether the subject is singular or plural. Don’t ignore these significant details; but don’t explain them as plural pronouns either. If you’re in the South, explain it as y’all. If you are in the North, “you guys” will do. Seriously—you can avoid the technical lingo of plural pronoun and make sure your hearers know how many people are being discussed.
Biblical writers also stressed their point through repetition, alliteration or assonance. For example, in
Structure and Syntax
The Old and New Testaments utilize intentional literary design such as chiastic structure and parallelism. Identifying these textual cues is a tremendous benefit for the preacher because the passage’s emphasis is made obvious. However, a 10-minute homiletical rabbit trail defining chiastic structure is rarely helpful to your hearers. It is yet another one of those academic ideas which, while important, is unfamiliar to most people. A preacher can waste a lot of time explaining the idea of chiasmus and fail to show why a particular chiasmus exists.
Explain it this way: “When aiming at a target, a marksman concentrates on the obvious bullseye in the center. He zeroes in on that one focal point. Similarly, the words are arranged in this passage to bring your attention to one key thought. You can find it right in the middle.” Explain chiastic structure with everyday language, show them the bullseye in the text, and watch them learn God’s Word in an exciting new way.4 The same can be done with other features such as parallelism, subordinate clauses and discourse structure.
A sentence’s word order, in the original languages, also can reveal a more emphatic idea. Placing a word in the front of a sentence (or out of its typical order) was the literary way in Greek to highlight or stress a concept. (I tell my congregation to think of Yoda from Star Wars.) Preachers should mention this but do so in a relatable way.
Instead of saying, “The syntactical arrangement of
Handle textual variants carefully, and mention them sparingly.
Textual criticism is a vital field to the world of biblical scholarship. While only 1 percent of all textual variants are viable and meaningful, if you are committed to preaching through books of the Bible, you inevitably will come across some of them. However, preaching from the footnotes of your Greek New Testament too often can undermine people’s confidence in the Bible. The first time I mentioned the debatable ending to Mark’s Gospel, I received a torrent of emails the next morning from concerned church members. I had introduced a concept (textual criticism) that was not only unfamiliar to them, but was a bit scary. The preacher has to know if and when his people are ready.
Mention textual variants sparingly. We can, and should, honestly concede some manuscript details vary, but we can do so without giving the impression there are errors or mistakes in the Bible. Highlight the differences as they appear in the most common English versions within your congregation. In other words, as you preach, compare the KJV or NKJV with the NASB or NIV. (Do not compare The Byzantine Text with the Alexandrian!) As you do this, though, be sure you affirm the inspiration, authority, reliability and trustworthiness of God’s Word.
When dealing with
Remember, the preacher’s goal is not to intimidate or confuse listeners, but to edify them. The best expositors not only exegete a passage, but also exegete the congregation, knowing how best to communicate the truth of Scripture. As David Alan Black said, “People aren’t impressed with participles and prepositions. They are not even faintly interested in the aorist passive imperative. People want preaching anchored in the real world, preaching that says, ‘Here is what the text says, and this is what it is calling us to do.'”5
1In an essay titled “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” in Luther’s Works (ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1962), vol. 45, pp. 359-60.
2David Alan Black, Using New Testament Greek in Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), p. 26.
3Ibid., p. 67.
4Yet another way to explain chiastic structure is to give a familiar, modern version such as John F. Kennedy’s famous line: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Show them you is intentionally in the center of that thought; likewise, Scripture often does the same.
5David Alan Black, p. 27.