Seven Weeks of Biblical Greek: How A Dead Language Is Saving Me From Hell
After finishing my first year at Regent College for my M.Div., I spent April, May and June working on the first draft of my book. Then at the end of June, a long awaited adventure began: Summer Greek. A year of Biblical Greek crammed into your system in just seven weeks. And next week is the end.
On the third night of the course, I dreamed in Greek. On the fourth night, I had a nightmare regarding the infamous daily Greek quiz. I walked in, sat down, and to my horror, didn’t know a single thing on the paper. As they say, “It was all Greek to me.” If you’re doing one thing for 10-12 hours a day, it can get to you.
But I’m not here to tell gag jokes. I’m writing to address a question that I’ve had in my mind for years and was curious to see if an answer could emerge from taking this course. It’s pretty simple: Is it worth it?
The hundreds of hours that I’ve poured into learning a dead language…
The time spent learning paradigms instead of being with my wife…
The mental exhaustion from defamiliarizing myself with the very book that governs my life…
Is it worth it?
Laboring at something that is quite tempting to view as irrelevant and impractical…
Getting bags under my eyes from all the studying, day and night and night and day for 7 weeks…
Spending five, ten even twenty times as long with a single verse as I would in English, moving so…very…slowly, just panting for a copy of the English Standard Version…
Is it worth it?
Will I be able to keep the languages as a pastor?
Will this be valuable for my future ministry, or is this something we all just “have to get through”?
With tools like Logos and other online language programs, is it really necessary to go through all the pain to learn it?
Is it worth it?
I think it is. And here’s why.
1. I’ve rediscovered the Gospel. When I totally defamiliarized myself from the text that I have based my life upon, it disoriented me. I was no longer in the position of a master who lords over the Bible I “know so well,” but a servant who kneels in submission under the text. I’m still getting my bearings on finding my way around the Greek New Testament, which has been unsettling, frustrating and humbling. All of this turmoil, however, has set the stage for my rediscovery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the message of the Christian Scriptures. This process, I found, was similar to how it is in marriage. Sometimes, one has to defamiliarize himself with his spouse in order to discover her and delight in her once again.
Slowly, as I have translated verses, I have been uncovering the message of the Gospel for what feels like the first time. It feels like I’ve begun all over again. It’s thrilling to discover worn texts in their original form and then let them wash over you and speak to you in fresh ways. It’s hard work to preach the Gospel to yourself and keep the Gospel fresh in our hearts. Learning Greek has been one way to do that. Difficult, yes. Excruciating, and makes you cry because it’s so hard on the mind, spirit, and body—Yes. But the reward is savoring the fresh bread of Jesus. It is tasting his new wine on my tongue. It’s finding the treasure of the Kingdom in a field and celebrating my discovery.
2. I’ve quit hurrying. I’ll never forget when I came across something Eugene Peterson wrote: “Pastors need to quit being in such a damn big hurry.” The article is about taking time with Scripture. Not rushing through. Engaging in methods like lectio divina in order to soak in the text.
Peterson’s words caught me in a snare. Not only was I trying to read gobs and gobs of the Bible in one sitting, but I was also in the same “damn big hurry” to read his article! I knew I needed to slow down. To slow way down. To slow down so much it would be painful. And that’s exactly what Greek has been doing for me.
Now, everyone needs to know themselves before they heed the advice of others. Some people need to read more of the Bible at a time, not less. And some people need to read less, not more. Know yourself. I am an achiever by nature, and so I like to read large chunks of Scripture. It’s hard for me to slow down and only read a little bit. Learning Greek has forced me to smash my idols of productivity, speed and achievement and exchange it for the slow, toilsome work of dealing with God’s weighty and holy words, one by one.
That said, I have benefitted from incredible people like Dr. Fred Sanders who taught me how to immerse myself in one book of the Bible and read it over, and over, and over, and over again until the book is in your bones. We did this during three weeks in Cambridge together with some other students. He got the method from James Gray’s book, How to Master the English Bible. So that summer, he had us dwell in Galatians. We read it all the way through in one sitting. And we repeated that for about 20 days. By the 8th time, you want to knock your head against the wall. But by about the 14th or 15th time through, the book was opening itself up to me. I started to see connections that I didn’t see when focusing on a verse at a time. Focusing on large portions has its place. And I think it’s quite a necessary place that many lack in their own interaction with Scripture.
In sum, I don’t think the answer is to just read the Greek text slowly. And I don’t think the answer is to just read large portions so that you can get the big picture. Like most theological conundrums, your best bet is to say that it’s “both.” And in the case of how to engage with God’s word, I believe we need a magnifying glass and binoculars in our backpack. I talk about this more in my forthcoming book. It’s not one or the other. But in the mean time, I personally knew that I needed to stop being in such a damn big hurry with the Bible.
I don’t use that phrase lightly. I think hurry is our demise. I’ve certainly proven it to myself by the way I live. And I’m sure you have, too. We all have. (For help on this, see Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Really helpful.) We see it in pastors all the time. Hurry, hurry, hurry, downfall. And we see it in ourselves: hustle, hustle, hustle, burnout. It was C.S. Lewis who once wrote that “the safest road to hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (The Screwtape Letters). We need to recover a sustainable pace, or else we’re just going to run faster and faster into hell, because when we hurry, we miss the signposts in life. We lose touch on reality, unable to make judgments or to heed warnings.
3. I’ve got more confidence in God’s Word. Never did I think grammar would lead me to worship. But it’s true. And I’m tearing up right now thinking of the things I’ve seen so far. God’s Word is so beautifully and masterfully constructed. I’ve been with the English text all my life. But reading the Greek text for the first time showed me that every tense, every case ending, every emphatic placement of a word—I could go on for pages—it all was intelligently designed. It is tightly constructed and everything is in its right place.
What I mean is that when I started to discover the different uses of the different tenses in the Greek (Present, Imperfect, Aorist, Perfect, Etc. Etc. Etc.), it all lined up and supported the message—even illuminated the message to be more crystal clear than it sometimes is in English. There are many grammatical functions that a Greek writer can employ to make his sentence clear that an English writer just cannot do. Can we try? Of course we can. But we would butcher the beauty of the English language by doing so. We would all be reading an awkward set of writings if we tried to translate the text “word-for-word” or “literally.” It just doesn’t work that way. In the first place, Greek doesn’t even pay much attention to word order like English does.
Don’t believe me? Try John 3:16. Literally, it reads something like this: “In this manner for loved the God the world, that the Son the only he gave, that all who believe in him not perish but have life eternal.” How you figure out the order is by knowing the forms or the inflections of each word, and from there, deducing the subject of the sentence (God) the object (the word), the verb (loved), and so on.
We’ve all heard it said that a word “just doesn’t translate into English.” It could be from German, French, Spanish, Chinese, you name it. Language is not math. It is not 1:1. Not only do we not have English equivalents for some Greek words, but the whole Greek Perfect tense doesn’t have an exact translation into English! This tense describes a completed action in the past which has implications and effects spilling into the writer’s present. Woah. Very cool.
William Mounce uses a great example in his textbook. When Jesus, on the cross, says, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30) the verb is in the perfect tense. Hmm. This should make us pause. The English makes it seem like he’s just saying, “I’m done now”—as in, a simple past tense. “I did it.” But since it is in the perfect tense, it means that Jesus’ death has once and for all time defeated the effects of sin. The offer of eternal life stands today because of an act that was brought to completion on the cross. It’s like someone drew a dot (the action) on the left side of the page and out from that dot comes an arrow shooting to the right (the effect). Friend, this is incredible. The perfect tense has life-changing implications. And the perfect tense is all over the New Testament, just waiting for us to sink into its theological significance for our daily lives. I can live in freedom today and not in bondage because Christ has completed the work long ago. He was the last sacrifice that appeased God the Father for all time, liberating us from the weight of sin.
4. I’ve been captivated by Christ. Jesus shocked his contemporaries, but many Christians are somehow lulled by the very same words that turned others away in the first century. How does this happen?
For example, how is it that the Beatitudes start to sound normal, as if the very structures of the world and how we understand life weren’t being turned upside down and shaken violently?
Happy are the sad?
The meek ones will get the keys to the whole earth?
If we hunger for righteousness, we’ll be “stuffed” as if we just ate a giant supper?
Do we really believe that? And if so, what are the implications? This takes me back to my first point, in which I discussed how learning Greek has defamiliarized the text. One effect this has had is helping me re-encounter the Jesus I thought I knew so well. The words he preaches in the Sermon on the Mount are not normal. But we’re all falling asleep.
I find myself challenged by Christ. Do I really believe what he is saying? I find myself confronted by Christ, offended by Christ, seen by Christ—as in, pierced to the marrow with his gaze. In all of this, I have experienced the love of Christ to such a deep level that it makes me wonder with Paul if we could ever know the depth, the height, the breadth, of God’s great love for us. We are known by Christ, every part of us that is seen and every part that we hide.
I am not trying to tell you that if you don’t learn Greek, you’re going to hell. But please, for your sake, do whatever you can to stay awake and not drift off to sleep. Any amount of pain we go through is nothing compared to the joy we’ll experience in paradise with Him. Putting yourself through the pain is worth it if it means salvation. Matthew tells us that if we endure to the end we will be saved. Peter tells us to grow up into salvation and that our faith must be tested by fire to be proven genuine. Salvation, then, seems to be much more a process than an event: more of a walk than a leap.
So for myself, I praise God for Greek. It is saving me (in an continuous sense of the word). Praise God the Father for His love for us in Jesus Christ our Savior, and for sending His Spirit to live in us, comfort us, encourage us, and call out to us, all that we may follow in the narrow path that leads to life everlasting. Amen and Amen.