I am a major advocate for the biblical languages. In fact, my day job involves leading students every semester on the harrowing journey of learning biblical Hebrew. You could say I earn my bread there (אכל שם לחם -Amos 7:12). By the end of Hebrew II, somehow by God’s grace, they make it to the land of promise, being able to open their Hebrew Bibles and, with helps, read God’s Word. We all have our soapboxes and the languages are one of mine. I believe the biblical languages are the greatest gift a seminary or Bible college has to offer students. At no other time will students be forced to grapple with the grammar and syntax of Scripture. Though I have this soapbox, I also have a spiel (don’t we all?), one that often catches students by surprise. Ready for it? Every semester I tell my students, “For the love of God, do not bring your Greek or Hebrew Bible to corporate worship on Sunday.”
There is almost always an audible gasp when I first drop this bomb in class. “Wait,” they say, “we are putting all this time into learning this stuff, and now you are saying do not use it?” Please allow me to clarify. I am not discouraging the use of the biblical languages in personal study, sermon or lesson preparation, private reference, or in more formal academic settings. What I am seeking to dissuade students from doing is strolling into Sunday School with a Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia or NA28 (or, heaven forbid, both) underarm. While I do not presume to know anyone’s heart, I do know my own when I was first learning the languages. I have also had this conversation with scores of others along the way. While I believe you should stop what you are doing (after this post, of course!) and enroll in another biblical language class, I want to give two reasons you should leave your Greek and Hebrew Bible at home when you go to corporate worship.
1. You probably do not know enough anyway. Don’t take this personally. And no, this isn’t a slight against the learning process. We all start somewhere. Even for those of us who have been treading for a little longer, certain sections of Scripture are just plain daunting in the original. But the fact is, if you are in your first few semesters of learning the language, you likely are not in a place to effectively use the text during the sermon productively. What can end up happening is that instead of being present with the people of God, you find yourself parsing verb forms. Most students (though not all) initially struggle to read the text and comprehend it simultaneously. (This is partly due to the way we teach the biblical languages, but that is a post for another day). This leaves readers trailing behind when their pastor has moved on. Rather than decoding a text, we should, with all the saints, be delighting in our God through the preached Word. But you may say, I don’t have a lot of time to do the languages throughout the week, so Sunday morning is my chance. Honestly, if an hour on Sunday morning is all you have to devote to your language skills, odds are you won’t get far in the long run. You would certainly be better off getting a Daily Dose.
2. Strive to be an encouragement, not an obstacle, to worship. This is a big one. I remember during my first year of seminary bringing my Greek New Testament to church because I thought it might actually make me look like I knew what I was doing. Maybe if someone glances over and sees me with an open GNT they will want to be discipled by me. Maybe they will ask me a question, preferably through email so I won’t have to Google the answer under the table. At a bare minimum, they would know that I am an academic-in-waiting. That’s one way to earn street cred. Yet, I came to recognize two things:
First, this was motivated solely by pride. I wanted others to know that I knew stuff. What is the point of learning the languages if no one else knows about it, right? But God help us if we use the Scripture to magnify ourselves instead of our Savior.
Second, over time I saw the subtle effects this kind of prideful presence can have in the life of a local church. I remember once visiting another church and sitting behind a single mom wrestling with her two young children during the service. The preacher was going on and on about the history and background of this and that Greek word and phrase (he was mostly wrong, but we can all appreciate his spunk). Looking around, I saw many, presumably, seminary students with their Greek Bibles open nodding along. All I could think about was this single mom in front of me. Reading her face was easier than reading the text. I have heard many like her say, “Boy, if I could really understand the Bible like you do, then I could finally be of use to the Lord.” But appearing spiritual is not the same as being spiritual. This is not to disparage the use of our gifts in the church. On the contrary, they should be for its upbuilding! Thus, we should orient our worship for the good of those around us every Sunday morning. Beloved first-year language student, remember: corporate worship is not about you. The indwelling of Christ should lead to the worship of Christ with all the saints (Eph 3:18–19). Help your fellow saints to believe that they too can press on to know the Lord.
In sum, my seemingly paradoxical exhortation to seminary students is to devote yourself to the life-long study of the biblical languages as a means of making much of our Triune God. Yet, at the same time, do not broadcast your course enrollment to the dear folks in your church. One of my seminary professors always used to say that the biblical languages are like underwear; they should always be there to provide support, but you should not go around showing them to people in public. That picture has always stuck with me. More than simply providing a curious visual, the analogy revealed my professor’s heart for the church. I came to see that we should be those who are committed to the highest level of study and preparation but also those who are concerned for the hearts of every saint with whom we share a pew. Regardless of how much we know, our task as church members is to cause our fellow heirs to adore Jesus and to forget about us. Though he opposes the proud, our God give much grace to the humble.