Do You Have To Know Greek And Hebrew To Preach Effectively?

I often get the question, “Do you have to know the original languages to preach effective sermons?” Often the question comes either from someone who knows the languages and thinks that if you don’t know them you are hurting your congregation, or from individuals who don’t know them and don’t think they are important at all. I think that both mindsets are problematic for preachers. Let me tell you why.

Are They Unimportant

Some preachers tell me that knowing the original languages are unimportant. I would ask, have you attempted to learn the original languages? Do you seek to use them as much as you can? It is problematic when preachers know everything about their favorite football team and yet feel it is unimportant to put forth as much effort as possible to improve their preaching. If you can look at 2 hours of tv a day, what would happen if you used 30 minutes a day simply on improving your preaching through learning as much as you can. Don’t tell me you can’t do it unless you have tried. Don’t tell me it is unimportant. No it is important to use as many tools as you have or can have.

So I think it is important. I think it is valuable. I think it is important to add Hebrew and Greek to your exegesis of the text. The mindset of saying “I can’t do it, or it ain’t important leads to sloth. If you don’t know the languages, use whatever means you have to add language study into your preaching. It will help it and make it more powerful.

Another Vehicle For The Spirit’s Help

After having said that, I do realize that great preaching requires the Spirit and the written word and the preacher to come together to determine what will be presented and how it will be presented. Note that you don’t necessarily have to have the original. It does open up avenues of understanding. It can be something that the spirit can use to help you, but a preacher enlightened by the Spirit, reading a translation can come to a solid exegesis that will bring a powerful preaching event.

In short, knowing the languages are not a requirement for powerful and effective proclamation, but if you are a preacher, you will avail yourself of every opportunity to learn the word better and that does include learning and making use of Greek and Hebrew in your sermon preparation process.

Comments

comments

Sherman Haywood Cox II is the director of Soul Preaching. He holds the M.Div with an emphasis in Homiletics and a M.S. in Computer Science.

Posted in Preaching
31 comments on “Do You Have To Know Greek And Hebrew To Preach Effectively?
  1. Vernetia Miller says:

    Kudos! Though I have not yet learned Greek or Hebrew, I find using the lexicons in th back of my Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance to be a wonderful primer in these languages. Sometimes I spend hours looking up the individual words in a passage of scripture, and usually after doing so I garner a new understanding of the text.

  2. Charles King says:

    The original texts were written in Hebrew and Greek. In my experience, understanding the variations of meaning in just one word can radically enrich a sermon. Example is the word ‘compassion’ in Greek. If one does not know its root from splagchnizomai and the variations of meaning in this word, one will simply gloss over it without giving the text the richness it deserves. In my view, some knowledge of these languages is important.

  3. I think it is absolutely necessary. I have seen where people have “jacked up” a message because the context in which something was noted in the Word of God was so off. When I finally decided to yield to the call, God revealed to me that I could not read the bible like a novel but must study it, rightly dividing each word. For me using the Hebrew and Greek and understanding the culture/traditions during that time truly sheds the LIGHT on the message. Oh yeah…let me explain my “jack up” comment. I think a message is “jacked up” when it is taken out of context and people listening take it and run with it.

  4. Darren Lucas says:

    I agree with the latter part of this article,knowing the languages are not a requirement but as a preacher,we are to use every opportunity to learn the word better to improve to deliver effective spirit drawing power from heaven above.

  5. Wm David Tillman says:

    I agree that using the original languages when exegeting a text is essential. The original languages allow the preacher to squeeze rich meaning from the text. English may provide a basic understanding of the word but the original languages give not just tense but voice (active, passive, middle deponent, etc.) and mood. The specificity in the original languages also give the preacher the ability to speak directly to the intent of the writer. I will also say that using the original languages is not the same as speaking the original languages. for the most part the original has been lost to us and the languages spoken (Hebrew and Greek) in society are not the ones used in the days of the Bible. This is especially true of Aramaic (a dead language) and Hebrew (an evolved language). Real exegesis involves interpreting scripture by bridging today with the bible days through language, culture and context.

  6. Sherman Haywood Cox II says:

    Your discussion of tense, voice, mood is important. Most of the benefit of the original languages are not in “word studies” but in dealing with these aspects of syntax and verbal characteristics.

    But I do wish to emphasize that a spirit led preacher without the languages can see further than the preacher who has not the same connection to the spirit but does know the languages.

    However, the spirit led preacher who knows the languages can see further than them both by God’s grace…

  7. Sam says:

    I have three years of Greek and a year of Hebrew, and I don’t ever use it in preaching.

    There are a few unspoken things about preaching to consider:

    1. It should be plain to the people how you came to the conclusion you’re making. They should be able to look at their Bible and say “oh, wow, look at that!” This serves a secondary purpose of teaching them how to study and learn God’s word on their own. Using foreign languages places Bible study in the realm of scholars, not regular folk.

    2. Using foreign languages may erode people’s faith in the only Bible they know how to read. “the English doesn’t really do justice to the original meaning” might make listeners leave being more impressed with their speaker, and less impressed with the Book in their hand.

    3. It can be dangerous. Even after three years of Greek, I don’t know the language- or textual criticism- well enough to change or “add meaning to” the text. In other words, we are dabbling in something we know little about, and could be wrong about. We would not be qualified to teach a class full of students the “deeper meaning” of an old French phrase just because we bought a French dictionary, but we do the same thing with our congregations. Once again, this is coming from someone who spent many hours studying the “penault and the antipenault” – and I still don’t feel comfortable teaching it.

    4. It is unnecessary. God has faithfully given the English speaking people his words in our own language, easy to undersand! We should teach Bible study by comparing scripture with scripture, being aware of context and speaker, and other solid Bible study principles. Greek and Hebrew is shaky ground for Bible study, and we don’t even need to go there. If you’re trying to get home, why walk on the thin ice when there’s a good solid path right next to it?

  8. Sherman Haywood Cox II says:

    Hello,
    Thank you for your presentation. WE are in more agreement than might first appear. I do wish to say that I am not speaking of “correcting” the text. Thank you for bringing this up. I often say to laypeople…”If a preacher tells you that in the English it means this but in the original it means something totally different” be careful, they are probably wrong…So I think you have a point here. But this is incorrect use of the languages, in my opinion…

    But it is valuable and necessary for our people to know that there is no one perfect way to translate one language into another one. And yes it is not wrong…but there are added shades that are missing when you translate. Using more than one translation with different translation philosophies can help here, but I think it helps to inform your people of these issues instead of just ignoring the issue.

    Is it unnecessary? Let me put it this way…is it unnecessary to read the Bible in 5 translations? why not just read it in one? Why? A workman is going to use every tool in her or his toolbox that the workman knows how to use…the languages are another of these…

    Please note also, I am talking about “preparation” and not “presentation.” 9 times out of 10 there is no reason to quote the word in the presentation….but in preparation…just as I say use as many trnalsations as you can get your hand on…I would also argue that you should add the original as soon as you can…

    God bless and keep on commenting…

  9. Sam says:

    I don’t mean to be harsh- what I’m saying is this: we sometimes forget that our congregation hears us week after week, and they learn things from us in many more ways than just the points in the outline.

    If, week after week, a person hears their preacher get richer meaning from the Greek, what message is that sending? Maybe, possibly, this:

    1. I can’t really understand the Bible unless I understand Greek.

    2. I’ll never be as smart as my pastor.

    3. I can’t check what he says against the words of God, like the Bereans did, I just have to take his word for it (dangerous!).

    4. My Bible, the one my grandma gave me when I got saved, has mistakes and errors in it that I can’t even tell are there.

    I know this all may sound crazy from our side of the pulpit, but I encourage you to sit in a pew by yourself for a while, pretend you’re not a preacher, and prayerfully consider if these messages may be inadvertently coming across from the use of foreign languages.

  10. Sherman Haywood Cox II says:

    Again…

    I am not talking about “presentation” but “preparation.”

    you can use the benefits of your reading without downplaying what they are reading…

    And it is not crazy, it is just that you are discussing “presentation” and I am discussing “preparation”

  11. Sam says:

    Bro Cox,

    Thank you for your reply. I understand what you mean more clearly now. I have just heard so many preachers say “a better translation is…” and it makes me cringe.

    If you’re not using it in the pulpit, and the congregation can see, from their Bible, where you’re getting your point from, that’s great, and much different than I was picturing.

    Thanks for your great site! Keep it up!

  12. Sherman Haywood Cox II says:

    I would go one step further…often when preachers use “in the greek it says” they are on an ego trip…”I know this and you don’t know that.” This is why I say that in the vast majority of cases don’t quote a greek word and don’t appeal to resources that your people don’t have…

    However, again, if I know Greek, I think I would be remiss if I didn’t at least read it before preachign on a text…even if 99% of the time I never quote it. I use a ton of resources in preparation that do not filter into the presentation…

    Your point is valid…it does not “sound crazy” to me…we agree on your point in in most cases not referring to it in “presentation”

  13. Sherman Haywood Cox II says:

    Sam,

    Now that is true…I did not have in mind at all the “A better translation is” kind of preacher. As I tell people…if a preacher takes it upon himself to correct your translation…watch out….They are probably wrong…If none of your translations say what she or he says…you better sho nuff watch out…

  14. Rev. Kelly says:

    Elder Cox,

    I think you hit the nail on the head, but I would add a few observations from my own experience. I took two semesters of Greek in seminary (haven’t finished my masters yet though) and I found that my understanding of Greek helped me gain a better understanding of some texts, but not all. A very good translation, or as you have said in the past, at least four (NIV, KJV, NRSV, NASB [I personally like to add the New Jerusalem Bible to my preparation])used in preparation will help address many translation and interpretation dilemmas. However, there are times when understanding how Greek verb tenses work is undeniable. Consider Jesus’ statement, “It is finished.” There is a big difference between the aorist form of the verb and the perfect form. When I understand how important those differences were, I could better explain to people the power of the Cross, Right Now!

    Rev. D. Kelly, Miami

  15. Sherman Haywood Cox II says:

    Yes,

    But I do wish to affirm the valid point that was brought up…be careful not to remove the Bible from your hearers in “presentation.”

  16. David A. Jones says:

    Brother Sherman,
    Love your site. It is so helpful. I have used original language references judiciously in my preaching career. I try to create an environment of communal learning, where the congregation is involved in my discovery of the text. I read from the KJV, which most of the congregation is familiar with, but I present other translations and paraphrases as well. I point out things in the English translations that they themselves can take notice of through careful observation. I think Gk. and Heb. are essential for the serious preacher, but agree that we must be creative and judicious in our presentation.

  17. Shelia Graves says:

    I agree. Knowing some of the language helps to clarify the text, but also adds a different texture to English translations and definitions of words. As an example, the word, “forgotten” in the text of Hebrew 12:5 translates to a need to be reminded, but the Hebrew word in the lexicon is utterly oblivious to. When I asked in prayer how to best present this in a teaching, the Spirit gave me the words, “no clue.” With this, I say we need to put forth every effort to elucidate, educate, and enlighten the people of God. That includes using as many tools as is availabe to understand the language of the original text.

    Rev. Dr. Shelia Graves

  18. Pastor Frederick D. Harris says:

    Very good dialogue between Rev Cox and Sam, I believe that this discussion could be revisited for awhile. What I’m most concern about is when I hear Hebrew and Greek exegesis of the text by the preacher is when it’s used to impress, rather than to give clarity to his/her message.

  19. @Rev. Dr. Sheila Graves I totally agree. Great post.I have a question for the panel. Do you think it is important to emphasize in preaching/teaching how the bible became into existence (written/printed word/various translation, etc)as well as make lay people aware of what was not in the original text but is in the current translations? (I hope I asked that right).I have heard messages where preachers mentioned that a passage that was in KJV was added later and that it was not in the original text/manuscript. To be quite honest it blew my mind. I am curious to get some feedback on it.

  20. Sherman Haywood Cox II says:

    Hey Seed Planter,

    I think there is a time for that kind of discussion…but I would say it is probably not the worship service sermon. Maybe on Wednesday Bible Study…or perhaps during an advanced class.

    I would also say that preachers must be careful when “correcting” the KJV or any other version. It is true that textual criticism demonstrates that some verses in the KJV were probably not in the original. However there are some differences of opinion on that point…And preachers must be careful, as Sam noted, not to take the Bible away from people and make it seem that you must be an expert to read or understand it.

    Don’t get up in the pulpit and say…”Your KJV (NIV…etc) is wrong…I know the truth because I went to seminary and know Greek…here is the correct truth…take my word for it…”

  21. Sherri says:

    I wouldn’t dream of preaching without first digging into the original languages. Of course, it is crazy to throw out Greek and Hebrew words throughout the sermon because most congregants do not care.
    However, the richness that the language brings to the sermon is without question the best. Sometimes, I shout to myself when God opens up His word to me as I am studying.
    Sure, it is not a requirement, but doing so for me is necessary.
    As stated earlier, one word can alter the entire sermon.
    Currently, I’m working on 3 John 2 and the word “prosper,” which is a word that is taken out of context. Knowing the Greek word and the context for which it is used makes all of the difference in the world.
    As a preacher, who is a journalist, I know that words can make or break anything.

  22. Thanks for your feedback. I wouldn’t dare…..

  23. Bennett Yancey says:

    This is a very good discussion. I think studying the Greek and Hebrew meaning of words is good as far as preparation in understanding the original context of the writer. But I also feel like when it’s all said and done, the average lay person who comes to a worship service (particularly in our African-American context) will not care about what the Greek and Hebrew say as far as a particular word or phrase is concerned. I think it is highly possible that studying Greek and Hebrew words gives a better understanding of what the writer intended, but most people (in my view) want to know “how does this Word apply to me.” When it’s all said and done, many (not all) want to only hear the application aspect of the message.

    What I would caution is preachers who know Greek and Hebrew having an elitist attitude against preachers who might not be as knowledgeable on resources that could help them look at Greek and Hebrew meaning of words/phrases. Sometimes (this is getting off topic) I feel like in the black church we created this elitist attitude between preachers, lay people, etc. Let’s help each other out instead of trying to be elite.

  24. Sherman Haywood Cox II says:

    Preacher Yancey,

    You ain’t lying…we got our caste system set up…the bishop is better than the pastor who is better than the reverend who is better than the lay person. I actually heard some remarks given by a retired pastor who was giving a charge to some newly appointed associate ministers. The pastor told the people “Even though they ain’t nothing but associates, who knows, one day they may get a church of their own.” Mind you this was giving a charge to these associates who were about to engage in ministry for the church. I don’t think the retired minister meant any harm, but his comments demonstrated this system we have set up.

    We have got to get past this elitism and “I am better than you” mindset. Ministry is about service not about status. When it becomes about status..then we lose something and we hurt our people and ourselves…

    And you are right…both of us are getting a little off the topic…lol…God bless…

  25. Sylvester Warsaw, Jr. says:

    Good discussion, but, I think what’s missing from the discussion is that the mindset of the writers of the Biblical text were writing out of their culture which is Eastern in thought. Eastern thought patterns are different then Western thought. With that said because God is who He is and we have the gift of the Holy Ghost living inside and God speaks to the hearts of man and the hearts of men are the same regardless of where they may dwell, God, through the power of the Holy Ghost is able to address the issues of the heart as long as Jesus our risen Lord and Savior is proclaimed and Him only!! As long as you’re studying and praying seeking God’s wisdom and while in prayer you’re wrestling with the text and the concepts of the text God will give you the wisdom, the knowledge and the understanding needed to feed His children a healthy and wholesome diet. Proclamation of God’s Word isn’t an academic exercise, but, an encounter with the living Lord.

  26. Anthony Wilkinson says:

    I do believe that knowing the Greek and Hebrew languages is important in our sermon preparation. Knowing the original language can make a world of difference in what we as ministers convey in the message.

    On the flip side. I hear many preachers stating in their sermons what what the Greek one is for a particular English word. I sometimes feel that the preacher is just puffing himself/herself up to show the congregation how knowledgeable they are.

    I believe that those of us who are called upon to bring the word that its important to keep the message simple so that the people understand the message. Using the other languages in sermon preparation most definitely. But not in the delivery of the message.

  27. Michael Gallant says:

    As previously stated, there is more to Hebrew and Greek than word study. When using Hebrew or Greek in a sermon it is best to use it from a cultural as well as a wholistic context. In other words, how is the meaning of the verse, passage or chapter affected by not only the meaning of a few Hebrew or Greek words but also its syntax and grammatical structure.

    For example there is an important insight that can be gain from understanding not only a few important words but also the grammatical structure of John 1:1.

    Knowledge of Hebrew and Greek (again, not just words but also grammar and syntax) is very important for proper exegesis which itself, of course, is vital for sound preaching.

  28. Lic. A.Scott Campbell says:

    I’m a young minster(16yrs)I believe it’s important to use greek and hebrew.You dont have to know them as a second lang. however; it’s important to have,due to word meanings changing in translation.

  29. Minister L Rabb says:

    It is another powerfull weapon in this spiritual warfare!

  30. John says:

    What is the point of having an english translation if we still have to know the original languages to (according to some), really appreciate the true meaning of scripture? Where in the bible does it say we have to have a Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic lexicon in addition to our bible. Also, doesn’t this contradict what the Lord Jesus said? Jesus said in Matthew 11:25, “thou has hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” It seems to me that the intellectuals have taken an academic approach to God’s word which are to be interpreted by born again spirit filled christians. Many pastors are now doing the same. Just because you know a tiny bit of the original languages doesn’t mean that you can enrich the scriptures even more. It is the Holy Spirit that gives us wisdom and understanding of the things of God, not some seminary created by man. I am not opposed to seminaries, but I don’t believe they are necessary to become a pastor or understand scripture. The pharisee where scholars and could not understand neither did they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of the best and insightful preaching that I have ever heard has come from men with absolutely no seminary education. And some of the worst interpretations I have heard has come from so call experts in the original languages and bible scholars. Prayer, fasting, studying the word and obedience to God is all one needs to be a great preacher for God.

  31. Terry says:

    John,

    Amen and Amen!

    There is absolutely no need for pastors or the flock to know or use the Hebrew or Greek. You read in context in the surrounding verses, chapters and books and also compare scripture against scripture. God inspired the Holy Bible and in the Psalms he promised to preserve his word forever(at least the KJV has that promise). That does not mean in the original manuscripts either. It was written to men and available to us today. God tells us his word is as pure silver tried 7 times. Jesus name is the Word of God. Jesus responds to Satan…”It is written.” He tells us heaven and earth will pass away but these words will never pass away.

    The word was meant to be read by common people and understood under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. A person on an deserted island with resonable intelligence should be able to read and understand the basics of the book. Further knowledge (without the Greek or Hebrew) would come from continued reading/studying coupled with prayer. God chose the dominant language of this generation in which to put his word (English). He did so at the height of its beauty during the 1600s and has been passed down to us today as the KJV. Other versions outright pervert God’s word, and yet some pastors (not all) promote these bibles – some through ignorance and others willfully. Those bibles aren’t swords, instead they are butter knives. Pastors should be telling their flock to flee from wicked versions that attack the deity of Christ, omit verses etc.

    It’s amazing that Christians believe Christ rose from the dead, God created the heavens and the earth and formed man from the dust of the earth, but dont have enough faith to believe you have the pure word of God that needs no correction by previous languages. God inspired it and said he would preserve it. Nothing is impossible for an Almighty God. Again, he is all-powerful. He said he would preserve it for us and I believe him. Let God be true and every man a liar. I believe he ensured each English word in the KJV was the one he wanted the reader to read.

    The “a better translation is…” or “in the Greek it says…” crowd casts doubt on the word of God since many of the flock don’t know if the bible can be truly be believed as written. This is the same tactic they face when confronting non-believers and especially Atheists. Atheists say there is no God and the bible is a fable that can’t be trusted because it was written by man not God. They say what you think it means, it doesn’t mean because it is corrupt and based on lies. For a believer, this can be devastating to the faith because the doubt cast on the truth and reliability of scripture is coming from both within and without the church. Remember, in the Garden of Eden when Satan said, “hath God said…” We shouldn’t help Satan detroy a person’s belief. God’s word gets corrected and attacked enough outside of the church. Inside the church, believers should be assured that their word is trustworthy and true.

    Last point, Seminaries are good in most instances and turn out wonderful preachers and teachers. However, just as many turn out heretics. Sometimes the church has the idea that unless you are a seminarian, you don’t truly understand the scriptures. This was the attitude of the Jews who questioned the credentials of Jesus. The church needs to get away from exalting those who give them Greek or Hebrew “nuggets” and rely on the fact that God already gave you the best translation of the word, verse etc because the bible is his words and not mans’ word. The Bereans searched the scriptures to verify the word. How would the Bereans do that today having to verify scriptures through a language they don’t speak or understand? Remember, the bible is not just for pastors with education in Greek or Hebrew. It is for everyone, the rich, poor, young, old, learned and unlearned. It is truth.

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Revised Common Lectionary
Proper 14 (February 26, 2017)
  • OT: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
  • Psalm: Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
  • Epistle: Romans 10:5-15
  • Gospel: Matthew 14:22-33
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