Occasionally, people ask us whether studying Greek and Hebrew is really necessary in preparation for Bible translation. After all, as believers, we have access to the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promises will “guide [us] into all the truth.” (Jn 16:13, ESV) And, we also have unprecedented access to numerous reliable English translations, study Bibles, and commentaries. So is lengthy and expensive theological and biblical language training really necessary? If we’re depending upon the Spirit’s leading, won’t he just guide us to the proper translation choices?
The question is a valid one. In all honesty, I’ve wrestled with it myself. After all, completing a seminary degree takes a long time and during that time the translation project is on hold while we’re away. My heart longs to return to Papua New Guinea (PNG) to resume our work and see lives transformed by God’s Word.
But, there are other verses in Scripture which point to the necessity of careful study in order to mine the depths of God’s Word accurately. To his protege, Timothy, Paul exhorts:
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15 (ESV)
While Paul recognizes the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer, he also recognizes the importance of the hard work of preparing oneself for the ministry. This is especially important because, as Peter himself admits of Paul’s letters,
“There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 3:16–18 (ESV)
We must absolutely rely upon the Spirit, but we must also “Do [our] best…”, “take care,” and “grow in grace and knowledge.” Knowing the prevalence of false teachings in our day and the especially high risk of miscommunication in a foreign culture and language, we must be especially careful that our knowledge of God and his Word is as accurate and complete as possible. You cannot become an effective minister of the gospel through merely gaining knowledge of God. But one certainly cannot become an effective minister of the gospel without gaining knowledge of God.
The fact of the matter is that the Spirit usually works through our efforts, not instead of them. This is self-evident in many areas of life. Does God magically bless your family with food, shelter, and your basic necessities? Does he not rather provide those things through your work? Does the Holy Spirit reach into the heart of your friend and reveal himself to them? Does he not rather lead them to himself through your witness? In the same way, the Holy Spirit doesn’t (usually) just magically reveal the deep spiritual truths of his Word to us–he does that through our careful studying, examining, and praying over his Word. And as we study his Word, we lean into the Spirit and depend upon him and he blesses our efforts by opening our eyes to the truths of his Word.
“I AM, do not be afraid.”
The necessity of solid theological and language training for my work was recently pressed home as I was reading my Greek New Testament. I came to the passage where Jesus is speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well. She says to Jesus,“I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” (Jn. 4:25, ESV)
In most English translations, Jesus’ reply is smoothed out to make for a more natural reading in English:
Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” (ESV)
Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.” (NIV)
Jesus saith unto her, “I that speak unto thee am he.” (KJV)
But in the original Greek, Jesus’ reply to her is literally,
“I am, the one who speaks to you.” (my translation)
Now, the ways that most English translations render this verse are perfectly valid and much more natural sounding than the clumsy “I AM, the one who speaks to you.” There’s a good reason why almost all English versions do this. A literal, word-by-word translation here sounds weird in English.
On the other hand, if all Jesus intended to communicate was a simple acknowledgement that “I am the Messiah,” then he used a particularly awkward way of phrasing that in the original Greek. In other words, there’s a much simpler and more direct way to say “I am he” in Greek than what Jesus has chosen here in this verse. In fact, the structure of the Greek seems to intentionally draw the reader’s attention to the two words at the beginning: “I AM.”
So, I began to suspect as I read that passage that Jesus may have intended more than a simple acknowledgement that he was the Messiah–it seems like Jesus was also identifying himself not only as the Messiah but also as the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14.
In fact, not long after this instance, Jesus has conflict with the religious leaders for “making himself equal with God.” (Jn 5:18) Then, in John chapter 6, as Jesus is walking on the water towards his frightened disciples in their storm battered boat, Jesus speaks these words of assurance to them:
“I AM, do not be afraid.”
John 6:20 (my translation)
Like the first occurrence in John 4:26, this second “I AM” saying of Jesus in 6:20 is a bit obscured in most English versions because it makes for awkward English. But by reading it in the original Greek, I was able to see a profound truth–the basis for Jesus’ encouragement to his disciples to “not fear” is not simply because, “Oh, it’s just Jesus, no need to be afraid.” Rather, the reason they don’t need to fear is because the one walking on the water is none other than the great I AM himself.
The reason they don’t need to fear is because the one walking on the water is none other than the great I AM himself.
So, as you go through life, tossed and battered by its storms, take comfort in the fact that the one who was, is, and always will be–the Great I AM–walks with you through the storm.
Laying a solid foundation
I could list many more “mind-blown” moments that I’ve had as I read God’s Word in the Greek for the first time, but suffice it to say that I’ve been inspired by the depth of the riches of God’s Word and the wisdom of its Author.
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
Romans 11:33 (ESV)
I’ve also come to realize how much I still have to learn about God and his Word! As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” This has instilled in me some much needed humility when it comes to how I approach Scripture because I have had to correct so many of my own misunderstandings about the Bible over the years. Seminary has also opened my eyes to truths in God’s Word that I would not have seen on my own.
Have you ever noticed how it seems that a new subdivision project sits there for months on end with nothing but bulldozers and dirt? Then, the next week you drive by and there’s 20 houses that look almost complete! In our American context, we value efficiency and expediency. We want to get the job done, and do it quickly. But the best homebuilders know the importance of taking time to lay a good foundation first. If the foundation isn’t good, the house won’t stand.
So, as we prepare to help a group of people translate God’s Word into their language and leave a lasting, permanent legacy of faith for years to come, we want to make sure we lay a good foundation first. That takes time, effort, and money, but the results will, Lord willing, be a house that stands the test of time–a translation of God’s Word which will faithfully lead people to Christ for generations to come.
If you would like to help us lay that foundation, why not partner with us in our Wycliffe ministry? We rely upon financial partners and prayer partners to do the work to which God has called us. If you would like to be a part of bringing God’s Word to a bibleless people group, join our team!