Using the Original Languages in Preaching

“Why do I need to? After all, there was no time in the history of preaching when there were more good translations than now.”

The argument sounds good; but the objector misses the obvious fact that the more translation possibilities that he has to choose from, the more one needs to know (at least something about) the original languages; otherwise, when they differ (and they do), how does he know which is correct? From which should he preach? Which more faithfully represents the original text of the writers? This is a special problem today, when so many translators have determined to become interpretive in their renderings. The very wealth of modern options itself should (all the more) point up the need for an acquaintance with the original languages.

“Where can I get this knowledge?” Self-help books and typed language courses in both Greek and Hebrew exist. There are several good training opportunities offered on the internet these days. But (easiest) many Bible colleges, all conservative seminaries and a number of other schools provide courses in the original languages. Any pastor who has never had Greek or Hebrew (even if he doesn’t ever complete a seminary education) ought to take these courses.

“Why?” Well, not only to decide between translations, but:

  1. To be able to “get the feel” of a passage. English translations tend to trowel off the original tone of the writers. Only by becoming acquainted with the original can one restore this. This “feel” is essential to good preaching.
  2. To be able to use the best commentaries and read the better Bible helps (most of which refer to the original text. Without some knowledge of the languages, one cannot follow the reasoning behind the renderings suggested.
  3. To be able to evaluate other books that (again, not using the original) may be far afield in their interpretations and/or uses of many passages.
  4. Preaching that flows from the study of a passage in the original moves forward with a more sure-footed stride; other preaching often limps. A certain confidence derives from having examined the text for one’s self.

“But I’ll never be a Greek or Hebrew scholar.” Right! That is true of most pastors. And right there lies the problem. Many good men who could have profited from a sensible use of the original languages were turned off by seminary teachers who taught them the study of languages as if their life occupation would be to teach Classics or Semitics in a university. They never recommended short cuts (e.g., like forgetting all about the rules for Greek accents—learning these is an almost totally unnecessary chore. One can get along well with learning only those distinguishing accents that count). They tried to build up a conscience against using analytical lexicons and interlinear translations (two very valuable helps that no one should feel guilty about using freely). They talk negatively about such books as Kubo’s Reader’s Lexicon and don’t tell students about Spiros Zodhiates’ crib for Machen’s grammar. All such “purism” is sheer nonsense. Who cares if a pastor leans on some Bagster help? Who cares how a person learns to get the right answers to his exegetical questions concerning the original languages so long as he gets them? Of course one should use the Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance if he finds it helpful. Why not?

With all that a busy pastor must do, it is only right for him to employ every available aid that he can afford, to keep his hand into the continued use of Hebrew and Greek. He would be a poor steward of time and energy if he did not. Many men have lost any language ability they once had because they believed (what they were told, or strongly led to think) that it was wrong to use anything but the naked text and the standard grammars and lexicons. Sheer, unadulterated nonsense! Pastor, if using an interlinear will help you get back to the Greek and Hebrew, use it—let me emancipate you from the chains of guilt forged in the hops of language teachers who never had to face the everyday problems of the pastorate. Use it! Use whatever is available. Indeed, every teacher of Hebrew and Greek in a theological seminary ought to take the time to compare and contrast these helps, giving his opinion about which is best (and why) and instructing pastors in the most effective and intelligent use of each.

Preach; preach from a study of the original text, and you will preach with confidence and joy.

 

Stories

Stories—Their use in preaching, SS classes, etc. can be good or bad, depending . . .

When they are used instead of going to the Bible as the source of belief and action, they are a real detriment. They become a source that may or may not be in accord with God’s Word. And when they are simply accepted as authoritative, exemplary, etc., people are usually led astray. If they are interesting, compelling or otherwise seemingly helpful, they are especially dangerous.

On the other hand, if they are used to illustrate some text that has just been faithfully exegeted they can clarify, they can illustrate, they can show how to follow its teaching, they can demonstrate how something is possible, or (sometimes) even prove something to be true.

Most speakers use stories (illustrations)—but how do you do so?????

Preaching Isn’t Counseling!

Unfortunately, some fail to recognize the fact. Or, at least they seem to do so from the way in which they write about the two.

When they utter or write the old worn-out phrase “The primacy of preaching,” for instance (as indeed some still do in spite of all that’s been said to refute that foolish notion), they betray their misunderstanding of the difference between the two ministerial activities.

What these traditional old-line pulpit orators are saying—whether they realize it or not—is that preaching is more important than other ministries of the Word—including counseling. Is not all ministry of equal importance?

Some of these “thinkers” have gone so far as to declare that their people don’t need counseling because of the excellence of their preaching which adequately deals with all of their problems! One would have thought that Paul would not have spent so much time counseling if that ever could be true. Yet, he tells us that he counseled each one of the Ephesians during his pastoral ministry there in Ephesus, and that he engaged in the activity day and night (Acts 20:20). Do they think his preaching was so poor that he had to make up for it by counseling? Do they think their preaching superior to the apostle’s?

Away with this talk! Counseling and preaching are distinct activities. One ministers the same Word, it is true, but I quite different ways. Let young preachers understand this and take heed. They should learn how to counsel—not merely learn to preach. The preacher, for instance, knows (or ought to) what he is going to talk about when he preaches. His knowledge quotient need be less than the counselor’s who never knows what issue may arise in any session, and so must be prepared for everything!

Windbags

A windbag comes and invents lies:
’I will preach to you about wine and beer,’
He would be just the preacher for this people.  (Micah 2:11)

Well, well, well—–there’s nothing new under the sun: for sure!

People like to hear preachers talk about the things in which they are interested rather than what God wants them to hear. Especially, when a preacher makes it easy to sin by the garbage that he spews forth!

The preachers that Micah referred to didn’t actually preach about these subjects; what Micah was saying is that they might as well have done so, because they were not interested in the Word of God—but only in carousing.

Today, many congregations are interested in almost everything else but what God has to say. So, instead of preaching what they ought, contemporary windbags get up and air their trite little essays on all sorts of subjects that they think will interest them.

Paul also knew about this tendency in his day and warned Timothy

For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will accumulate teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new.   (2 Tim 4:3)

Do you have a preacher like this? Then if he can’t be helped, if the denomination won’t censure him, you probably ought to look elsewhere for a solid church that teaches “sound doctrine.” There are too many of the sort Micah describes around!

Thump the Tub!

It’s time for some to begin to thump the tub!

“What on earth are you talking about?”

Well, in the 17th Century the pulpit of nonconformist preachers was called a “tub.” And, so, preachers were designated “tub thumpers!” The problem is that we don’t have enough tub thumpers today.

“Oh . . . but why do you want them to “pound the pulpit” as the expression seems to be today?”

There is too little preaching with conviction. So many preachers have lost all the authority of the office. No wonder people see no urgency in doing what God says. I know there are some who overdo the matter of hitting the pulpit with their fists. I’m not talking about that. What I have in mind is more preachers who will unequivocally state biblical truth with all of the authority of the Scriptures themselves.

“I see. But what do they do instead?”

All sorts of other things.

“Such as?”

Using weak words like “share.” When you share, you only give people a part of what is shared. If I share my pie, you only get a slice, not the whole thing. So, too, weak preachers convey the idea that it is not only they who have e something to say, but that the members of the congregation will also have something to contribute (share) as well.

“Is that bad?”

Yes, when it comes to preaching. In the pulpit a man is to set forth God’s truth—the whole truth—and not add either his ideas or those of others. People today are getting thin, watered down, stuff instead of the thick beef noodle soup that they deserve. Listen to Paul: “I didn’t hold back in declaring anything that was beneficial to you” (Acts 20:20). Some preachers need to get an Acts 20/20 vision of preaching!

“Are you talking about the lack of authority in preaching?’”

Yes. We must proclaim the truth of God as such—and when we do, we must do so with all the authority that it possesses. Nobody ever nailed a preacher to the door for “sharing.” It is when he declares, proclaims, and so on, that they go after him! Preachers are afraid to take such a stand for fear they might be criticized for doing so.

“Do you think they ought to literally . . .uh . . .thump the tub?”

Not too often—but their preaching should be powerful, and as authoritative as is the truth of God that they ought to be preaching.

“Doesn’t that mean they will always go about insisting on negative things?”

Absolutely not! They should authoritatively proclaim the wonderful, comfortable, truths of the Bible with as much vigor and conviction as they do when preaching about the need for repentance. No wonder the pulpit has lost its authority when preachers “share” instead of proclaiming. They are in the tub (I guess you could say) as God’s representatives, ordained to confront people with truth that will change their lives.

“If they stop using the word ‘share’ will that solve the problem?”

No. That’s just one example of weak preaching. It is symbolic of the larger problem.

“So, they need to change their pulpit practices across the board?’

Yes, if they are caught up in the attitude conveyed by the word “share.”

“And preach with authority what God’s Word teaches.”

Yes. It would make quite a difference in many congregations.

Provision Needed

The modern church, while excelling in every other convenience, has overlooked one that ought surely be supplied. A cloakroom for brains. Many people like to check their brains at the door when they enter a church.

This is understandable, of course. All week long they have been stretching their brains at work and home and its time they found a place where they could rest them. Since the average sermon preached today requires little or no thought, this is the ideal place to give your brain an hour’s rest once a week.

Unfortunately, there are those old fogies who want the preacher to stretch their brains even more, when everyone knows that isn’t the reason for the sermon. The smooth little essays, or the repetitious Gospel message wrung out of every passage preached from, is designed to relax and sooth the brainless.

Moreover, the songs sung are not composed for brains to tackle. Having but three or four notes, and messaging-like words that were chosen for rhyme rather than sense, they help lull one into unconsciousness. After all if emotion is the order of the day, every part of the service should aptly contribute to this end.

It is most disconcerting to go to church and discover that there is no place to park the brain, that there are others also looking for such a place. It disturbs the entire purpose of the service when one has to stuff his brain into the pew rack, and keep picking it up when it falls out! Brain rooms aid composure.

The invitation at the end of the service can be disrupting too, unless it is carefully orchestrated. The preacher must use it carefully to determine how well he is doing. But the church officers will use it too, to determine how long they want him to remain. If he doesn’t want to undergo the inconvenience of leaving every three years, he must encourage them to leave their brains home (in the absence of a cloakroom). But, if he is truly wise, he will lobby for the cloakroom, and then urge them to set a good example for the congregation by checking their brains there.

Apophthengomai

The sermon brought people to faith in Christ. Why? Because it was biblical, it was timely, it was personal, it was used by the Holy Spirit Who empowered Peter to preach it. That’s the reason why you should study it. In Acts 2:4, 14 the word apophthengomai occurs. If you don’t know Greek, don’t try to pronounce it! This rare word means “to speak revelatory words by inspiration” (usually loudly and with authority). Peter, himself, lets us in on the fact that without this assistance, he would not have been able to preach as he did, the fact that his words were given by the Spirit of God.

“Since I can’t expect to get such revelatory help when I preach, I can’t see why I should study it.”

Ah! But that’s precisely the reason to do so.

“Can’t see it.”

The point is that this sermon demonstrates some of the ways that the Holy Spirit wanted a preacher to preach. From examining it in that light, you can learn a lot!

“Oh.”

Yep. Indeed, you can learn how to raise and answer questions, how to speak to people who are curious, how to deal with opposition, how to present the Gospel, how to . . . I could go on, and on, and on.

“Glad you didn’t. I’m curious enough to dig in and find out what I can for myself.”

Great. And when you’re through doing so (shameless plug alert), you might want to check out my book, Preaching According to the Holy Spirit for more suggestions about how to learn to preach from analyzing the Apostles’ inspired sermons.

Always Alliterate Accurately

If you must alliterate (and this seems now to have become a perpetual pastoral problem dating back at least as far as the ministry of Morgan), then for Heaven’s sake (literally) be careful about one thing: accuracy.

Apart from the ‘cutesy’ qualities of carelessly crafted clauses, curiously cultivated by conceited curates, there seems to be no earthly reason for passionately pursuing ponderous pairs of preaching points partially proclaiming previously plain propositions.

We are told, however, that this confusing custom is calculated carefully to cause congregations more readily to collect, consider, and contemplate correctly cogent concepts of conscientious clergy than common colloquialisms. In my opinion, however, the practice, perennially pursued by prattling preachers, potentially promotes parishioner passivity and pastoral pride.

One of the greatest dangers of dangling dazzling declarations before dazed disciples desiring decisive definitions of duties is to draw distinctions dimly, distort duties decidedly, and dismiss differences deftly. At the same time alliteration allows alteration, abuse, or absolute abolition of truth by adverting attention from arguments, answers, and admonishments to astonishing articulations and artificial adornments, alternately amazing or amusing, aggravating, or alarming audiences, but rarely accurately attesting to apostolic articles. The fact is, acceptable accounts, accurately aligned with and according to actualities, arouse to action; but announcements appealing to arrant attitudes lead astray, are of no advantage, create antipathy and avail only to put people asleep.

So, in conclusion let me call on you to:

  1. Correct your Custom
  2. Consider the Consequences
  3. Convert to Colloquialism

Then, rather than disobeying due to disgusting, deceiving drivel that defeats, deprives, denies, and distorts dependable doctrine, you and your congregation will delight in doing desirable deeds!

Some Neglected Subjects

The efforts that I have exerted in trying to get pastors of Bible believing churches to become practical in their use of the Scriptures, and in attempting to get them to speak about subjects that in a previous period were neglected, may have had some influence in turning the preaching of the pulpit around. It is incumbent on me, therefore, to do whatever I can to stop what I perceive to be an unwarranted retreat from the doctrinal teaching that is also a necessary part of the Christian’s weekly pulpit diet.

It has been a long time, for instance, since I have heard sermons on the Bible’s teaching about hell, judgment, wrath, and other such themes. “You travel in the wrong circles,” you may reply. Well, perhaps. But my circles are rather wide, and I hear a lot of preaching. I did not say that it was extinct, but I do think that preaching on these topics is being neglected. The dark side of things is taking a back seat to many of the brighter truths of Scripture. While it is wrong to neglect the latter as a previous generation did, it is also wrong to neglect the former. The biblical balance between the two must always be maintained.

The problem in the church historically has been a problem of balance. The problem is not in the Scriptures—there you will find a perfect balance in every area that is treated by its divinely inspired authors. No, the problem isn’t in the Bible; it is in the church. The history of the church could almost be written in terms of swings from one unbiblical extreme to the other. In one era love is emphasized over truth to the extent that truth is lost and love becomes nothing more than sticky sentimental nonsense. In another era, the opposite problem appears—usually as a reaction to the overemphasis of the former age: truth becomes the great concern, so great that love is stamped out in the pursuit of error. In the attempt to flush out every vestige of error hiding in the bushes, theological bloodhounds usurp the authority of the judgment angels whose appointed task is to separate the wheat from the tares. Certainly error must be dealt with—but in biblical ways; we do not have any right to invent novel ways of doing so.

The problem today seems to be a turning from the sterner teachings of the Scriptures to the more encouraging and happier ones. This is proceeding apace; preachers like to preach positively; people like to hear it. While teaching the latter, it is essential to maintain the former as well. Mount Gerazim, with its blessings, was paired in balance with Mount Ebal and its cursings; the tree of life was set over against the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God is the God of perfect balance; we must seek to approximate Him in this in all our preaching.

Along with extremes comes another problem. When a generation plummets headlong in one direction, heedless of the balancing truths in the other direction, all sorts of false ideas, imported from the outside, seemingly (but not really) saying the same thing are bought and sold as if they were the genuine biblical article. It is easy to do this because the correctives inherent in the neglected balancing truths are missing. That is why the increased concern for teaching about the image of God in man (to the exclusion of preaching about man’s sinful nature and propensities) by so many has been wedded to many false concepts gleaned from psychologists like Maslow and others concerning self-image and self-worth. In discussions of the area, the doctrine of sanctification has been eclipsed by the doctrine of justification.

“Surely I’m not guilty of an overemphasis on the happy side of the faith to the near exclusion of the grim side,” you may reply. Don’t be too sure. Check out your preaching for the past three years; you may be surprised at what you find. You may discover that the emphasis of the era in which you are living has had a greater impact on your ministry than you realize. At any rate, even if you are one of those rare, balanced persons who preaches away year after year, unaffected by the changing extremes all around him, it will not hurt you to do the examination anyway, since it will give you a greater perspective on the sort of emphases that you need to make over the next year or two. It is a good policy to plan broad sweeps of preaching anyway, so that you may stay in balance. And, even you, balanced as you may be, are a sinner who—if you are honest—must admit that you tend to ride your own hobbies to the neglect of biblical truths that balance. I dare you to try doing a three-year study without finding some!

Where’s Your Edge?

Lasso any ten seminary students and ask them, “What do you plan to do when you graduate?” Chances are at least four or five will say something like this:

“Oh, I’m not quite sure. Maybe I’ll take a graduate course. Perhaps I’ll work as an assistant pastor for a while. Possibly I’ll do some youth work. I really don’t know.”

Whatever the answer, it likely is to be spoken quite casually. Many students today have very much of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward the Gospel ministry. For them it seems the ministry of the Word has become merely another profession like business, dentistry, law, etc. There is no compelling passion motivating them.

That isn’t how it used to be. Most of my fellow seminarians and I were ‘chomping at the bit’ to get out and get into the pastorate; we couldn’t wait to preach. We didn’t even consider the idea of an assistantship after graduation; most of us had already been working in that capacity while going to seminary.

“Adams is getting old and has started to reminisce,” you say. Perhaps. But even that isn’t always bad. Continuity with the past can help today’s young men gain a little perspective. And frankly, there has been a definite, discernable change in attitude that is easily detected by any observer who has lived through the last five decades. It began in the 50’s and grew throughout the 60’s, probably reaching its nadir during the Vietnam war. At that time, one suspects, there were numbers who went to seminary to escape the draft; that was when the big shift in attitude occurred. While there has been some improvement since, we have never recovered fully from the effects of that period.

The strong modern emphasis on grades rather than on competence as the goal of studying, fostered not only by public education but also by Christian schools with their near-fanatical emphasis on “academic excellence,” also has had an impact. Far too many Christian college students as well cannot tell you what they plan to do upon graduation. Many students no longer prepare for some specific life-work but simply “go to college.” Thus persists this spirit of getting good grades to get into the college or seminary of one’s choice. Then comes graduation, when one holds in his clammy little hand a transcript more-or-less filled with high grades but has no purpose in his life!

This change in attitude has had its effect on the church. Ministers, reared in such an easy-going milieu, have carried this casual approach over to their tasks in the local congregation. While zeal can be overdone so that it supercedes solid study for reasoned ministry, the problem today is not that scholarship has overtaken practical work but that there seems to be less passioned devotion to theology and exegesis. Many ministers today are too laid back about ministry, seemingly unacquainted with the drive that compelled Paul to write:

Woe is me if I preach not the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)

No wonder so many who do enter the pastorate quit when the going gets mildly difficult—certainly before it gets tough! Years of learning and instruction are wasted on men who leave the ministry to sell insurance. If the apostle Paul had acted like that, he probably would have given up in Damascus when he found himself in humiliation, escaping from the city in a smelly fish basket! But he didn’t. What made the difference? What motivated Paul so that he was able and willing to go on in spite of the trials enumerated in 2 Corinthians 6 and 11? He tells us:

Therefore, since we have this ministry to perform as the result of mercy, we don’t give up. (2 Corinthians 4:1)

Ministers who must minister the Word in preaching and counseling are motivated like Paul by gratitude. They remember God’s mercy and see their calling as a gracious privilege that overwhelms them. Even the plight of the lost does not motivate men to ministry as powerfully as the amazing, unbelievable goodness of God in choosing them for this task.

Pastor, what motivates you? When Mrs. Jones objects to your prophetic viewpoint, when Mr. Smith wants to know why you won’t remarry his improperly divorced son, and when the Greens are sitting there week after week with pencil in hand, waiting to catch you in some misstatement, what keeps you faithful to the ministry of the Word? When half the congregation doesn’t seem to care about much else and yet expects you to visit every other day in each of their homes, what drives you on? Nothing will—nothing less than a sense of debt and gratitude similar to Paul’s. It was that, and that alone, that carried him from one triumphant tragedy to the next!

If you have lost your sense of mission (or never really had one) take the time to ask why. Do you really belong in the ministry? Doubtless there are many who don’t, and it is no disgrace to leave if that is the case. If, however, you know that God has called you, then spend time properly set aside for the purpose to kindle the fire you once had (or should have had). How? Reflect on God’s mercy and goodness in you and His putting you into the ministry, beginning perhaps with a consideration of 1 Timothy 1:16. When you get hold of the reality of mercy and grace that has been lavished on you, it will make the difference; it will give you an edge!