Reflections on the Original Languages in Pastoral Ministry
In May of 2016, two joyful events happened: I graduated from The Expositors Seminary, and my family began serving the Lord together with Girard Bible Church. When I came to TES, I had two immediate goals. First, I wanted to serve Mission Road Bible Church in some way. But second, I wanted to focus as much as I could on learning Greek and Hebrew, because I wanted the ministry God entrusted me with to be driven by the Bible.
When we moved to Girard, I wanted to continue growing in and applying the use of the languages in this ministry as much as I could. This has worked itself out in my day-to-day ministry in several ways. Of course, every week I am working through Sunday’s passage in Greek or Hebrew by way of several observational readings of the text, followed by developing a block diagram (and sometimes a line diagram) of the passage. In addition to this weekly exegesis, I have deliberately made time each month to read through sections of intermediate grammars because I wanted to continue to learn from the experts. I see this time in the grammar books as sharpening my tools that I use for weekly exegesis.
However, I have found one practice to be helpful toward my goal of growth and application of the languages and in informing my weekly exegesis and monthly grammar reading. That practice has been to incorporate reading from my Greek and Hebrew Bible into my daily Bible reading, which is almost always unrelated to Sunday’s passage. Instead, it is purely devotional. I usually have an English Bible nearby and sometimes use a handbook on the text as a reference, so I make no claim to being without help. I began this practice by struggling through a few verses over the course of 15 minutes every day. It has now grown to reading larger chunks in the better part of an hour several times a week. After two years of this (sometimes forced) practice, I have seen encouraging growth in my proficiency with the languages, especially in recognizing vocabulary, verb forms, and some syntactical concepts. More importantly, my love for God’s Word has grown, whether in its original or in a translation.
Beyond this summary of my attempt to grow in my understanding and use of the languages, as I reflect on these two years, my exposure to and engagement with the original languages has served to be a stabilizing tool the Lord has used for growth and maturity in ministry. What follows are five reflections on how Greek and Hebrew have helped me in two years of pastoral ministry.
Precision in Pastoral Practice
Along with dependent prayer, approaching Greek and Hebrew as the first place I turn has yielded precision in pastoral ministry. The clear and sound teaching that are required to feed Christ’s flock the way He intends requires precision in the study. Every week the principles that emerge from the text are fine-tuned by the time spent in the original languages. In turn, these principles inform and guide the various areas of leadership that come with ministry. Whether it is leading my family, prayer, preaching, teaching, evangelism, discipleship, difficult counseling cases, and even wisdom in administration, the original languages bring a level of precision to life and ministry that is difficult to match without them.
No doubt, the languages are not the sole source of this precision. But when matched with humble, dependent prayer and humble, faith-filled obedience to the truths learned, laboring in Greek and Hebrew brings a precision that we need to serve as faithful stewards of God’s Word and people.
Sunday always stands as a peak that must be climbed to its summit every week. The pressures on a pastor’s schedule are unrelenting and the limits of time often mock me. The dangerous temptation is to take shortcuts in the study, especially in the discipline of meditation. Chewing on a text in the study is difficult and time-consuming because it is a contrary practice in today’s fast-paced culture. The world and our own flesh constantly seek to teach us that anything worth doing is worth doing for five minutes or less.
Spending significant time in the original languages seems at first glance to detract from meditation. But I’ve found that opening my Greek and Hebrew texts and laboring over the grammar and syntax slows me down and forces me to observe the text. Through the Holy Spirit’s illuminating ministry, this labor yields the satisfying fruit of both the clear meaning of the text and its clear significance to my life and the lives of those under my care. Clarity in the ancient meaning and its contemporary significance is a large part of what we’re after every week. The original languages are indispensable toward this goal.
This weekly pursuit of precision in the study and the implications that meditation bring are resulting in a growing proficiency in using the languages. The nuts and bolts of grammar and syntax, word studies, and block (even line!) diagrams become part of a growing tool set from which I can use toward understanding whatever passage comes next. What shouldn’t be surprising often is: reading and studying Greek and Hebrew has become simpler over time. What was formerly a difficult word or verb form to remember now comes to mind quicker simply because I have spent regular time in the language.
This growing proficiency has helped me in reading lengthy portions with a relative ease that I did not have even a year ago. In turn, reading lengthy portions has helped me to understand better how the languages work and how different authors used the languages to effectively communicate their message. This has brought anticipation, excitement, and often profundity in my Bible reading that was unknown to me when I was limited to an English translation and dependent upon commentaries for access to the languages.
Perspective in Ministry
Reading Greek and Hebrew regularly reminds me that God has been working out His purposes for millennia longer than the two years I’ve been in ministry. While biblical Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic) have connections to today’s Greek and Hebrew speakers, they are not the same. These are ancient languages that God used and is still using today to reveal Himself to His world. So, when I read and study these languages, the gravity of that knowledge leads me to believe and put into practice a perspective that the Bible itself teaches: God is at work to fulfill His promises and accomplish His purposes for His glory. And He has appointed me to serve in a small way toward His ends. Regularly engaging with the languages is a constant reminder to cultivate this perspective.
In my little corner of the United States, there are still vestiges of the disintegrating Bible belt. Numerous church buildings dot the landscape and church attendance on Sunday is still seen by many to be a cultural necessity. Many of these churches have faithful men serving as pastors, whether in a part-time or full-time capacity. However, of the men I am acquainted with, I know of only one who has been trained to work with the biblical languages to some degree.
This highlights the privilege that I have received to be trained in the languages. I am regularly confronted with how confused and myopic ministry can become partially because Greek and Hebrew are inaccessible. By no means do I intend to say that it is a requirement to work with the languages to be a faithful pastor. However, reading and studying the languages are invaluable as pillars among the countless distractions and substitutes that present themselves as faithful ministry. Of course, the languages are not the only pillars that serve as witnesses against mission drift and distraction. But if you have received the privilege of being trained to work with Greek and Hebrew, then you have received something that is increasingly missing in today’s ministry tool belt.
As I look back for a few moments on these first two years of ministry, I am grateful for the great privilege that the Lord has given me in serving His church with the equipping He has provided. I pray that these reflections are helpful and encouraging to you in your own growth in using the languages for the building-up of the church and the glory of Christ.
Noah Hartmetz is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Girard Bible Church in Girard, KS since 2016.