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It’s Greek (and Hebrew) to Me: The Missionary and Biblical Languages, Part 3

In our first article in this series, I shared some of my own journey in the biblical languages, and included some resources that have helped me along the way. The second article focused on the personal and ministerial benefits of studying Greek and Hebrew.

To conclude this series, I want to share how I have approached the use of biblical languages in my teaching ministry.

Back in July the pastor of one of our local churches went on vacation, and I was asked to teach his Sunday School class for four weeks. I decided to bring some studies in James chapter 1 (focusing on verses 1-18), loosely based on the James series we’ve been publishing here on this site. That particular text deals with a subject that is of great importance to our context here in Brazil – a theology of suffering.

I also decided test a theory of mine: that it is possible to make extensive use of the original languages in a church setting without losing the attention of your listeners.

The result was one of the most gratifying teaching experiences I have had to date. Many students came and told me how much they appreciated the lesson. When the pastor returned from vacation he told me some had expressed a desire to continue the study.

To be clear, none of the students (all adults) had been to Bible college. Most of them have the equivalent of a High School education. There was not one person among them who had the least background in Greek, and most of them could not cite a single letter of the Greek alphabet, with the possible exception of “alpha” and “omega”.

So, how did we make Greek interesting to the class? Here are a few steps we took that, in my opinion, made a big difference.

1. I told them what I was doing.

When we began our study I let them know up front that I was going to be making extensive use of the Greek. I asked them how many of them tended to “tune out” when a pastor used the phrase “in the Greek it says”. Virtually all of them confessed to this tendency. I then told them that one of my goals was to “demystify” Greek for them, and help them to see how the original languages help our understanding of Scripture. I presented it in terms of a challenge, and the students readily accepted it.

2. I related Greek to their mother tongue.

Throughout the lesson I brought Greek back to Portuguese, showing them how much Greek they already know. So, for example, in James 1:5, which begins “If any of you lack wisdom…” the Greek reads “Εἰ δέ τις ὑμῶν λείπεται σοφίας…” That last word is “sofias” – wisdom. Here in Brazil “Sofia” is a common name for girls. Throughout the four-lesson series there were many, many opportunities to make connections, and I saw people’s eyes light up at the realization that they knew more Greek than they previously thought. This had the effect, I think, of removing some of the fear of Greek that people normally have. It’s a language, just like our language, and in fact a lot of our language comes from it.

Admittedly, this step is only possible in Western, Indo-European languages in which Greek exerts a heavy influence.

3. I only brought out the Greek when it was relevant to the meaning.

It is very tempting to say “look at this interesting fact about the Greek here” when said interesting fact has nothing to do with what the text is trying to teach. Remember that my primary goal was to teach the text, and an understanding of the Greek was a means, not an end. I felt like it was important not to overload them with trivial information, but to point to the relevance of the Greek to an understanding of the text.

4. I used visuals.

Explaining the Greek is one thing, showing it is quite another. I made extensive use of Power Point slides, showing relationships between words, detailing parts of speech, and breaking down words into their individual elements. Here are a few examples:

Highlighting the word “sofias” (see above), and showing how the participles “giving” and “not scorning” describe qualities of God, not just things that He does (or does not) do.
Showing the relationship between the “poor”, and “made poor” in the original. Even if you know no Greek, it is easy to see how these words are related.
We even got into noun declensions. Here we explained how the us of the genitive in the phrase phrase “στέφανον τῆς ζωῆς” – crown of life – carries the idea of “the crown, which is life”.
It’s not just that God does not temp us to evil, He is also “un-temptable”, as this breakdown of the Greek word shows.

As you can see, all of these forays into Greek were with the intent of bringing out the meaning of the text, with very practical applications in mind. And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

This brings this series on The Missionary and Biblical Languages to a close. I want to reiterate something I mentioned in the first post: my own knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is a work in progress. I have much to learn, and eagerly look forward to the process. My purpose in these posts has been to encourage my fellow missionaries – and other believers as well – to embark on the same journey I did back in 2019. Dust of Machen, fire up YouTube, and reap the benefits.

I’ll leave you with this quote from John Wesley:

Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake (as every minister does), not only to explain books which are written therein, but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of every one who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original?

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