Martin Luther faced much skepticism in his day. He was critiqued for his view of Scripture, the church, and the sacraments, to name just several points of contention. But, interestingly enough, he was critiqued even for his belief that men and women should learn to read Scripture in its original languages.
Do you inquire what use there is in learning the languages? Do you say, 'We can read the Bible very well in German?' Without the languages we could not have received the Gospel. Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit; they are the casket which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought; they are the vessel that holds the wine.
If the Word of God is the “Sword of the Spirit” (cf. Ephesians 6:17), then, as Luther said, the original languages of the Bible (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) are the scabbard of that sword. In other words, God not only revealed Himself in human history, but He did so originally through His Word in actual historic languages—in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; and His Word has been preserved for us in those languages.
The implication is inescapable: at some level we should all care about the original languages of the Bible, and if possible, we should know them, use them, and love them – at least, that’s the way Martin Luther felt about it.
The original languages of the Bible are not just important, they are necessary and indispensable—for both pastors and congregation members in different ways. All prospective pastors, if possible, should learn them thoroughly, use them daily, and love them passionately. And congregation members should desire to see those leading them spiritually have at least some degree of appreciation and knowledge for these languages.
Reading this article right now are at least two different types of people (although I recognize there are many, many more): (1) those contemplating a seminary education in preparation for future ministry; and (2) congregation members who sit under the preaching of their pastor. This is written to both of you.
And so, for the future seminarians, I want to give you four reasons why you should spend your efforts learning and loving the biblical languages; and for the non-pastors attending and serving in local churches, I want to help you understand why you should want your pastor to own and use a Hebrew and Greek text daily.
A deep knowledge of the biblical languages helps preserve doctrinal purity—both for the pastor and for the church. In fact, Luther himself credited the entire Reformation to the rediscovery of the biblical languages!
If we neglect the [the languages] we shall eventually lose the Gospel…No sooner did men cease to cultivate the languages, then Christendom declined, even until it fell under the undisputed dominion of the pope. But no sooner was this torch relighted, then this papal owl fled with a shriek into congenial gloom.
If the languages had not made me positive as to the true meaning of the Word, I might have still remained a chained monk, engaged in quietly preaching Romish errors in the obscurity of a cloister; the pope, the sophists, and their anti-Christian empire would have remained unshaken.
This is astonishing—Luther attributes the breakthrough of the Reformation to the use of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Learning these languages is not some cushy, ivory tower pursuit for those with too much time or too few friendships; this is about the purity of the gospel.
The English Bibles we have been given are both phenomenal and trustworthy. We can read from our English translations and confidently say, This is the Word of the living God. But if the central aspect of a pastor’s duty is to wrestle the meaning from a book and carefully apply it to his own life and that of his congregation, then we should want every tool at his disposal to engage and accurately handle that text (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15).
Total dependence upon English translations can often hinder the careful exegesis required in sermon preparation. Without intimate knowledge of the languages, the preacher often has to content himself with the general flavor of the text, and the result can be that his exposition will lack the precision and clarity that would have been his had he known the original languages.
When it comes to the languages, the issue is not superiority over those who don’t know them, but specificity on their behalf.
This is not to be a pride issue, but one of precision
John Piper writes: “Where the languages are not prized and pursued, care in biblical observation and biblical thinking and concern for truth decreases. It has to, because the tools to think otherwise are not present.”
And by this, I mean power in preaching. Where pastors lack the tools and confidence to determine the precise meaning of the text, the power of biblical preaching diminishes. It is difficult to preach with depth and power, week after week, verse after verse, if you are plagued with uncertainty when deciding between two competing interpretations as presented by commentators.
Again, Luther raises his voice: “When the preacher is versed in the languages, his discourse has freshness and force, the whole of Scripture is treated, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words.”
Our aim in preaching is not to impress our people, but to inflame them; our purpose is not to win fans, but to win souls! And the languages are a means to preach with a kind of power, clarity, and authority not likely to be ours apart from them.
And by pleasure, I mean devotional delight in the soul. In other words, why learn the languages only well enough that they are painful to use? Why not strive to learn them so well that they become pleasurable to the soul? Why not know them so intimately as to do our devotions in them? Shouldn’t our exposition on a Sunday morning be an overflow of our own glad-hearted affections for God?
What I’m arguing is this—knowing the languages affords us opportunities to behold breathtaking vistas of God in the text that can often otherwise be missed.
George Muller, famous for his life of prayer and orphanage ministry in London, said this as a 24-year old man:
I now studied much, about 12 hours a day, chiefly Hebrew…[and] committed portions of the Hebrew Old Testament to memory; and this I did with prayer, often falling on my knees…I looked up to the Lord even whilst turning over the leaves of my Hebrew dictionary.
Oh for the day more men would have these kinds of encounters with the living God – on their knees, Hebrew text in hand, looking to the Lord, tasting the unfiltered honey of the Word (cf. Psalm 19:10)! Oh to see men who yearn to know what the Word means so desperately that they are searching through Hebrew lexicons on their knees—these needy men will have a markedly dependent posture and tone to their ministry and preaching.
Our preaching should be tough as iron, precise as a laser, profound as a poet, and warm like the sun – and the languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are one of the many ways to make this a reality. More than anything, learning the languages is a tangible way of expressing our neediness to hear from the very mouth of God—it is leaning in just a bit closer to hear the words of a loved one.
To the Non-Pastors
But what about the non-pastors reading this who are sitting under biblical preaching each Sunday? Why should senior saints, stay-at-home moms, college students, and people with full-time careers care what language their pastor reads from in his devotional time? There are so many answers to give, but I will leave you with one word: confidence.
Confidence that what your pastor is feeding you is not secondhand food borrowed from a commentary. He will likely still use the commentaries, but he will have the ability to agree or disagree with them, and he will be able to articulate why.
Confidence that the sermons you hear were forged in the furnace of backbreaking labor and study—remember George Muller upon his knees, Hebrew dictionary in hand.
Confidence that your pastor will hold the line in sound doctrine and not be driven by the fads and gimmicks of the culture.
Confidence that your pastor will be less likely to give in to traditionalism, soap boxes, or hobby-horses. A man who spends his mental capacities understanding the actual wording of the text so as to grasp its meaning will likely spend less time trying to place his own agenda upon it.
Confidence that the kind of exegetical meal your pastor is serving you will, over time, equip you at a level of depth that enables you to more effectively make disciples for the Great Commission.
Confidence that your pastor is making every effort to lean in just a bit closer to hear the mind of God expressed in the Word of God.
Praise the Lord for such men.
Therefore, pray weekly for your pastor—that he would prize Christ, that he would pursue holiness, and that he would read and preach the Bible with precision, clarity, and power.
Yes, it’s true the languages of the Bible are considered “dead.” But to learn the dead languages of the Bible is not to sift through the debris of the ancient past, but rather to enter into the treasure-laden sepulchers of holy joy. Reading the Bible in its “dead” languages does something to quicken the soul.
It is true that there have been and are many faithful, Christ-exalting pastors who have not known Greek or Hebrew. My intent is not to in any way discredit their ministry or labor. Praise the Lord for such men.
But if you are given the privilege to learn them, why would you not? You don’t even necessarily have to attend seminary to learn them—William Carey taught himself Greek while cobbling shoes.
May God raise up a generation of men and women who are characterized as being needy to hear His voice—as closely, accurately, and intimately as possible.
If you feel called to ministry, see our free resource: To Those Who Aspire.
 John Piper, “Martin Luther: lessons from his life and labor”; https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/martin-luther-lessons-from-his-life-and-labor.
 George Mueller, Autobiography of George Mueller (London: J. Nisbet and Co., 1906), 31.