I am reading through the Greek New Testament with my daily Bible reading. I recently entered 1 John, a wonderful book for many reasons, but especially dear to students beginning Greek (I fondly remember parsing and exegeting the entire book in my first year of Greek).
As I read through chapter 2, something stood out to me. It was John’s use of the word κοσμος (world) in 2:2. John writes, “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
I have preached through this book, exegeted it, and recently wrote a paper on John’s use of κοσμος. It was a fascinating and enlightening study. Why do I bring this up, and why did it stand out? Because, as a preacher who listens to preaching, I have found that some pastors should rethink their current usage of Greek in the pulpit.
Preachers have, and probably will, struggle with the question, “How should I use Greek (or, Hebrew/Aramaic) in my preaching?” It is a good question, and the answer will depend on several factors.
- To whom are you preaching?
- What is your current knowledge of Greek grammar and syntax?
- How familiar are you with the author and his writings in the New Testament?
- Is the word, phrase, or passage debated?
I am sure I could come up with many more questions, but these will at least help us understand the framework for answering the question, “How should I use Greek in my preaching?” I mentioned pastors who should probably reconsider their use of Greek in preaching. And perhaps this verse in John will help serve as an example for why this is important. Our questions will form the outline to this discussion.
To whom are you preaching?
Pastors should tailor their preaching to the people in the pews. If the pews are filled with academically minded individuals, using Greek here and there may be beneficial. If, however, the pews are filled with farmers and blue collar works, Greek will probably prove more a hinderance than a help.
What is your current knowledge of Greek grammar and syntax?
This is probably the largest factor to consider. We all have room to grow. I do not doubt that. But, if you are a first year Greek student, you probably want to shy away from saying “in the Greek this means…” or “this Greek word is…” Why? Because Greek is more than simple definitions.
In our example from 1 John 2:2, John uses κοσμος. That word has at least eight potential meanings (according to Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, 447). I have repeatedly heard preachers refer to every possible definition of a word in their preaching, as if the author intended all of those definitions when using that word. Why is this problematic?
For starters, John uses the word κοσμος in different ways. At times he is referring to the system of the world (i.e., that which opposes God, cf. 1 John 2:15). At other times, he refers to humanity in general (cf. 1 John 4:14). In 1 John 2:2, he refers to God’s chosen people. Listing out every definition in the lexicon, while it may make you sound intelligent to your audience, is harmful because it can mar the right interpretation of the passage. John is not referring to the world system in 1 John 2:2. Nor is John referring to humanity in 1 John 2:15. Context and grammar matter.
Another potential issue is knowing how the syntax of the language works. Words function differently, according to their cases and attachments to other words. A pastor with little knowledge of Greek syntax can misinterpret the passage because he simply does not know what a nominative of simple apposition is. Preachers can make connections that are simply not there because they fail to understand the syntax. Likewise, preachers can misinterpret a passage because they fail to see the connection that the author intended.
Of course, there are other issues as well, but these at least give us some food for thought.
How familiar are you with the author and his writings in the New Testament?
We need to be careful here as well. For one, we all know that there is room for growth. Even experts in a particular author’s work still have room to learn. This is not what I mean by this. What I mean is have you compared the author’s use of a word with his other books in the New Testament? At times this is impossible. Jude, for example, only penned one letter. We cannot compare his use of the word κλητος with another book he wrote. But there are many authors who have penned several works in the New Testament. John has written one Gospel account, three epistles, and one prophetic work. (Even within this range, one must consider the genre, but that is a topic for another day!) Thus, with John we can compare his varied use of κοσμος, and usually be able to discern his intended definition with the help of the surrounding context.
Comparing what he wrote with other writings helps us understand the author’s words. We can also compare the word within the New Testament, and even compare it with words found in the Septuagint. One will quickly see that the majority of usages are the same, though an author may use the word for a different shade of meaning.
Why does this matter? Because we can simply spout off words that an author uses and, without giving consideration to his other materials, interpret it wrongly. Our example again provides us with sample material. In 1 John 2:2, one can infer from the context that John is referring to people for whom Christ died. However, if we kept that definition on to verse 15, we would miss his point as well as misinterpret the passage. “Do not love the world,” John writes (1 John 2:15, NKJV). But if we assumed his one definition from 2:2 was consistent in the rest of this letter, we would contradict his later command to love one another (3:10-16).
Is the word, phrase, or passage debated?
The final point a pastor should consider before using Greek in his preaching concerns the differences of opinion. Greek scholars debate on a variety of issues with the Greek New Testament. These range from textual criticism to lexical forms, from syntax to discourse analysis. One scholar may interpret a word one way, while another interprets it differently. How do we navigate these?
We will limit our discussion to preaching, since that is the present focus. In preaching, we aim to present the text of Scripture as it was written to the original audience with present day applications. It is important, then, that we understand what they meant when they wrote their letters. In our exegesis, we must consider the differences in opinions. The Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament is an excellent resource to consider the variety of opinions. The authors of each volume will typically present the major views with the defenses represented by each other. They will conclude with their suggestions, which at times is an acknowledgement that it could be one of many views.
None of this will make it into the sermon, nor should it. While presenting different views is not wrong (I think it is helpful, in fact), it should not resolve around the Greek text. It should revolve around the ideas.
It also helps keep us humble. We realize that there are men and women far more capable of working in Greek than we are. Avoiding a dogmatic position where one does not exist is not a failure to stand for Truth, but a willingness to listen to others.
We began our post with this question, “How should I use Greek in my preaching?” I say, it depends. And it depends on the above issues.