How should missionaries best prepare themselves for the field? What do they really need to know in order to serve God overseas? In many places in the world today, the greatest need is basic evangelism and foundational biblical teaching in the local language. So obviously, a growing personal faith in Christ and knowledge of the Bible is necessary. And skills in cross-cultural communication and language are a must.
As a result, many missionary preparation programs (both formal and informal) focus on culture learning, anthropology, communication skills, and some basic Bible courses. And there is often a lot of talk about strategy and methods. But higher level courses in theology, biblical interpretation, and the original languages (Greek & Hebrew) are often left out, either because of time constraints, or because they are thought to be not very useful on the field.
However, I want to make a case for the practical benefits that missionaries gain from learning Greek and Hebrew. Granted, there is no one-size-fits-all missionary preparation program, and different types of missionary work require different types of training. But the missionary I have in mind is the one who is doing evangelism, teaching the Bible, preaching, discipling, and training church leaders. Not all missionaries are directly engaged in that type of work, but many are. Committing serious time to learning the language is not for everyone, but I have found knowing Greek and Hebrew to be beneficial in missionary work for three reasons:
1) Using Bible Translations in Multiple Languages
Sometimes the Thai Bible translation(s) that I use differ from the English translations, so I need to try to figure out which is right. It seems both ethnocentric and academically irresponsible to make English my standard for what is right, so I find myself checking the Greek / Hebrew and sometimes the textual variants / alternative readings to get to the bottom of why the Thai is translated one way, but the English another. Even though my Greek skill or vocabulary may not be fantastic, I can read the script and I know the tools to use to figure out an answer.
2) Understanding Bible Commentaries
Whether you are at home or abroad, a basic knowledge of Greek and Hebrew helps you to understand what the commentaries are talking about when they say stuff like, "this is an aorist verb, therefore it indicates such-and-such in the text". If you know what aorist is, then you have a peg to hang your hat on in understanding the argument and correctly understanding the passage at hand.
3) Respond Knowledgeably to Others Who Use Greek & Hebrew
Both well-meaning Christians as well as false teachers and heretics pull out Greek and Hebrew words sometimes to support their arguments. If we know Greek and Hebrew, we can respond to them and correct or refute as needed. If some preacher says, "The Hebrew word "blah-blah" here means this, therefore such-and-such is true", you are totally at his mercy if you don't know any Hebrew. But when the Jehovah’s Witness cite the Greek in John 1:1 to deny the deity of Christ, or when a well-meaning blogger tells you to watch out for the python spirit, knowing something of the original languages can help you sort out truth from error.
Practically, that is how I use Greek and Hebrew on the mission field. There are many people with Greek and Hebrew skills superior to mine, and I admittedly don’t use my limited knowledge of the biblical languages on a daily basis. But even if I am not a super-scholar who does his devotions in Greek & Hebrew, the foundation that I got at seminary is serving me well.
Learning Greek and Hebrew is not for everyone and I wouldn’t say that ALL missionaries MUST learn the original languages. But, if you do have a chance to study them at seminary or Bible college, they sure do come in handy.