Preparing a Sermon from the Original Languages

I think there is a bit of mystique that shrouds a pastor’s study: What exactly is taking place in there? How does he emerge with a sermon to preach every Sunday? And does he have a mini-fridge in there?

Recently, someone asked about my sermon preparation, and I thought I would swing wide the door to my study for any who might be interested to peer in. Though you wouldn’t ever know it from my Sunday sermons, I actually spend most of my study in the original Greek and Hebrew languages. If you are a pastor or seminarian, this might seem daunting–if not impossible. If you are a church member, this might seem like overkill.

Why study the Bible in Greek and Hebrew?

My reasons are pretty simple. First, I want to get my people as close to the original text as possible. If I’m studying in an English translation, I’m once removed from the original text. Then when I preach, my people receive it from me now twice removed from the original. But when I study the original Greek and Hebrew, that means my people are only once removed from the original text.

Second, as a pastor I am the resident expert. I don’t say this to be prideful, but let’s be honest: if I don’t understand Greek and Hebrew, no one else in the church will. After all, that’s why they pay us the big bucks!

Third, American pastors are extremely privileged compared to pastors of almost any other country or era. Most of us have been to seminary. We have had the opportunity and resources to take Greek and Hebrew. Hopefully we will try our best to show our gratitude to the Lord for his astounding grace by putting our education to use. (This is why it irks me to no end when seminarians talk about “just trying to get through Hebrew.”)

So, what does it look like to prepare sermons from the original Greek and Hebrew?

It requires dedication and discipline.

It will not be simple and easy. Depending on your skill level, a preacher could possibly spend the first full day of sermon prep translating the text–for the first couple of years. If that is not suitable to your schedule, or if it is quickly going to seem like a waste of time, I would advise that you avoid the frustration altogether.

Sermon prep from the original languages is not required to be a faithful preacher. We have many accurate English translations, and the Holy Spirit moves mightily through preachers who labor weekly to study and exegete and apply the biblical text in their native tongue.

I begin at the photocopier.

You’re on my blog, so you’re gonna see how I do things. At the beginning of each book that I’m going to preach, I take either my Greek NT or my Hebrew OT to the photocopier and make single-sided copies of every page in the book. I also usually blow up the size to 130% so that the text has wider margins for notes and scribbles.

On Mondays, I work through the selected passage, putting my translation into a Word document. I do not have any electronic lexical tools like Logos or Accordance. While helpful, I think those can quickly become a crutch for novices in the languages, which is why I use my two trusty bad boys–BDAG and BDB. (I do actually have E-Sword, which is a very cheap resource that I find helpful.)

It might sound counter-intuitive, but the goal of translating the passage is to not need the translation when you’re finished. After I’ve done the hard work of translating the passage, I save the document and set the translation aside and work only from my photocopied page of the Greek or Hebrew text.

Then the scribbling commences.

This is where the photocopying is so essential. I go to town on the text. Scribbling, underlining, boxing in, arrows, comments in the margins, on the back. I take that stapled packet into the gym with me, to waiting rooms, in the car. It follows me everywhere throughout the week.

When I’m in my office, I open a second Word document titled “Notes” where I type any and every thought the passage brings to mind. I copy and paste huge chunks of other passages that seem connected or related in some way. (I often draw our Scripture readings for the Sunday worship service from this treasure trove.)

In all of this note-taking, I use the Greek or Hebrew text as my base. Sometimes I forget what a word meant, and I can refer back to my translation to remind me. However, my understanding of the text always improves throughout the week. If I were to write a second translation of the text at the end of the week, it would be a vast improvement on the one I made at the start.

Throughout this whole process, I’m praying, meditating, allowing myself to chase any and every rabbit trail the Spirit might lead me down. Nothing is off-limits.

Forming an Outline.

Some time in the week, the structure of the passage begins to form in my mind. I can see the connecting words in the text, or I recognize shifts in the narrative, or I begin to get a feel for the way the author is structuring his argument. Sometimes this is obvious quickly. Other times I have to work hard at it. I make a third document titled “Outline” and begin to hang notes, illustrations, and important turns of phrase–either from my scribblings or the “Notes” document–on the pegs of the outline.

I try my best to use the language of the passage in my points. I believe that a preacher has done a good job expositing the text if a month later a member would be able to generally replicate his sermon points from the text itself.

The outline phase might be the first time that I begin to interact with the English translation I will be preaching from on Sunday. If I’ve done well on my own, the translations should be pretty close. I hardly every have major discrepancies. Whenever there are, I have the wherewithal to recognize that, even after 12+ years of experience in the original languages, I should almost always defer to the experts.

Almost 😉

Writing the Sermon.

When it comes time to sit down and actually craft the sermon, I have fully transitioned to the English translation (I use ESV). While the original languages have shaped my study, my prayers, my application, my notes, and the structure of my outline, when it comes time to write the sermon, I need to work from the translation the people will have in their hands.

After all this time in the original languages, you might be surprised to know that I can’t think of a single time I pronounced a Greek or Hebrew word from the pulpit. I almost never say, “This word could also be translated…” The congregation needs to experience the Word of God in that preaching moment, not feel like I’m recounting some spiritual experience I had earlier in the week–that they missed out on–when I was reading from the Greek or Hebrew.

It may sound a bit herky-jerky, but after almost 6 years, it has become a very organic process. I write my sermons out in full manuscript, and I begin writing by copying and pasting the entire English translation into the manuscript document. Again, this is a testament to the faithfulness of the English translations we have because I usually never have to make any comments about the original languages in order to make my points. They have all been well communicated by the faithful translators and are there waiting for me to point to during my exposition in the English text.

Drawbacks.

Let’s start with the hard part. There are only so many hours of study in a week. When you choose to devote much of that time to translating the text from Greek and Hebrew, it will mean less time for study in commentaries, listening to other pastors preach the text, and outside research. In my opinion, 95% of most commentaries is stuff I can find myself through study in the original languages. The other 5% will always be there to help you if things get too tough.

It may be a steep learning curve if you only have two semesters of Greek and Hebrew, especially if you didn’t do much translating beyond narrative passages. Although, something like 75% of the Bible is narrative, so you’ve got that going for you! If you have not touched Greek or Hebrew in several years, I would never say never but…well, know your limits, brother.

The good news is, if you make sure to alternate between OT and NT preaching series, your weekly translating should be enough to help you maintain your skills in Greek and Hebrew. There’s always room for improvement if you can find time for vocab review or to thumb through a grammar and syntax textbook every once in a while.

Benefits.

I derive a great amount of satisfaction and edification from doing my own studies in Hebrew and Greek. Dr. Donald Whitney actually expressed my sentiments perfectly in his book Spiritual Disciplines: 

Don’t settle only for spiritual food that’s been ‘predigested’ by others. Experience the joy of discovering biblical insights firsthand through your own Bible study!

At the rate I’m going, and if the Lord tarries, and if the Spirit protects and sustains me in my ministry, I should finish expositing the Bible in the next 30 years. When I do, I’ll also have my own personal translation of the Scriptures. That’s pretty cool. That could be you, too…

Finally, I think one of the greatest benefits of preparing sermons from the original languages is the boldness it gives you when you enter the pulpit. There are no lingering doubts that I am putting too much emphasis on something that seems important in the English translation but is actually not in the Greek or Hebrew. Because I have been there in the text myself, it gives me a great freedom to press hard into my own heart and into the lives of my hearers. With humility, I am able to preach Christ week by week in Spirit-inspired confidence drawn from the Spirit-inspired text.