Teaching the biblical languages to the underground church

J teaches Greek and Hebrew to the growing church in a country that is hostile to the gospel.

I opened the door, took off my helmet (which helped to hide from the neighbours that a foreigner was present) and was taken aback when I saw 20 or so young adults sitting at desks facing the whiteboard. They looked at me expectantly. They had gathered to learn Hebrew from me over the next four days – and I didn’t even know the correct terms for ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’.   

This was only my second experience of teaching Hebrew to adults. Previously I had only taught children in an underground Christian school or friends from the confines of a comfy living room. This was my first invitation to an underground seminary where I would be standing at the front teaching people I didn’t know. Since my Hebrew teaching experience had come mostly through teaching children, we ended up singing songs, playing games and having fun as we learnt. For those adults, Hebrew was no longer the ‘Impossible to Learn Language’[i] but the ‘Fun to Learn Language’ that opened the Bible to a richer and more accurate understanding.

Since that day, teaching the biblical languages has become my main ministry focus. I’ve continued to teach Hebrew and begun to teach Greek. I have learnt the correct terms for masculine and feminine, as well as a good many other terms. Songs, games and fun remain core components of teaching, but the highlights come when we’ve passed beyond the basics and begin to go through a passage or book of the Bible. There’s nothing quite so exciting as reading through the book of Ruth verse by verse in the Hebrew! And since that day, I can now say with confidence that I’m no longer the best Hebrew teacher in the country that I know. One of my former students has deservedly claimed that spot and I suspect that through him many more will grow in their love for the Old Testament.

Why do I teach the Biblical languages? It’s not the first thing we think of when we think of global mission, nor was it on my mind when I first went abroad to serve as a mission partner.  The simplest answer is that I was asked. By God’s grace, the church in the country I am in was established nearly 200 years ago and over the last few decades it has matured significantly. We seek to be genuine partners in the gospel. Rather than assuming, we listen to what they perceive their needs are, and learn to serve where we are needed.

Why do I continue teaching? Because it is vital that the local church stands on scripture as it was given. The long-term health of the church is dependent on faithful teaching. Faithful teaching is ultimately dependent on rightly understanding God’s word, which requires understanding Greek and Hebrew. This is something we often undervalue in the West. In part, this is because our libraries are full of commentaries written by scholars who know the languages and help us overcome our deficiencies. And in part (dare I say this?), we in the West today simply undervalue that which the church, when it has been strong, has always valued.

If we truly believe that God has intentionally given us his word in written form, we ought to be diligent in searching carefully for everything we can know about him since from the very beginning to the final Amen. And of course, as we work hard in the text, God works powerfully in us!

I frequently teach students to sing Psalm 117 in Hebrew. I remember one student being so struck by the way the Hebrew expressed God’s love being ‘strong over us’ that he wanted to give his life to proclaiming that love to the nations. Our ministry appears small and weak in this hostile country, but our God is greater, stronger and far wider reaching than we can possibly imagine. It is encouraging to look back and see how our work is only the latest in a series of ways God is working out his purposes for the good of his people and his glory in this country, and so we commit ourselves to him.

[i] In true NIV footnote style, I can add that ‘Impossible to learn language’ sounds like ‘Hebrew’ in the language we’re working in. No two languages can ever comprehensively communicate everything that’s in one language to another and puns are never effective when they need to be explained.