1. From Words to Paragraphs

Biblical Greek is either a friend or a foe for ministry. For those afraid of it or ignorant of it, Greek is a foe. The major purpose of this book is to convince you that Greek can become a welcome friend. If you learn to follow a few simple steps, you will be able to handle Greek responsibly.

During my first two years of Greek study, it was hard to see where it was all heading. I was so involved in studying the individual trees that I could see little, if any, of the forest. I was bogged down trying to determine whether this verb was iterative imperfect or that noun was subjective genitive. To know exactly how these distinctions mattered or whether they could help in my sermon preparation was almost impossible.

Many students of Greek never make their way past the individual trees. After finishing formal studies, they use Greek in fits and starts, finally giving up—maybe doing a word study here or there for conscience's sake. Some preachers do study isolated Greek words as a basis for sermon preparation. This is good. A few have labored to understand the sentence structure of a verse selected for a sermon. This is better. Very few, however, have learned to go beyond the sentence level to consider a whole paragraph. This is by far the best.

As we will see, a single word has no meaning until it is put into a sentence context. In the same way, a single sentence only has meaning potential until it is placed in a paragraph context. Few sentences are logically independent. If you want to be a credible preacher, you will learn to think paragraphs.

In this chapter I want to present a sense of perspective for the whole Greek language enterprise. Let us begin by studying how the Greek language flowed. We will start with the smallest unit of the language and move outward.

1.1. The Word

Professional grammarians cannot agree on exactly what a word is, whether for English or Greek. We understand intuitively more or less what is meant by a word. In fact, learning to manage words (correctly applying prefixes, endings, and so on) is what elementary Greek classes are mainly about. You probably never defined what you meant by word in your Greek classes.

1.1.1. Symbol and Meaning

Let's be more specific. First, by word we could mean a specific series of speech sounds or the symbolic representation of speech sounds. For example, a certain speech sequence in English happens to be spelled i-c-e. It could have been spelled some other way: a-i-s or e-y-c-e. As far as we know this speech sequence was spelled ε-ἰ-ς in Greek. Of course εἰς could have been spelled differently: α-ἰ-ς, for instance. Both the sound sequence and the spelling sequence were arbitrary; what matters is the meaning behind the spoken or written word. (Since our interest in New Testament Greek is limited to written words, we can drop discussion of Greek speech at this point.)

By word I might also have in mind the meaning or sense behind the written word. Thus, when I see or hear the English word ice, I think of frozen water. Writers want to communicate meaning. The written marks are arbitrary symbols by which meaning is communicated. When you see the Greek word εἰς, the meaning "into" probably comes to your mind, something quite different than frozen water.

Of course other ideas are also possible for the English noun ice. You might think of a diamond, as in the sentence, "That three-carat piece of ice set me back thirty grand." (A different dictionary word entirely—or lexical entry—is the verb ice, as in "Did you ice that cake?") All this simply reminds us that words often carry more than one meaning. Without a context, ice has a range of possible meanings. (If only one meaning comes to most people's minds when they see a written word with no context, such as "frozen water" for ice, this is called the unmarked meaning.)

The Greek word εἰς has a range of meanings. It does not inherently mean "into," though this is its unmarked meaning. Before an infinitive, εἰς means "in order to", and it also has other meanings. The range of possible meanings for εἰς is extensive. Only when a speaker or writer used εἰς in a specific context did it have a specific meaning. When you first started memorizing Greek vocabulary, you were learning only unmarked meanings and not necessarily the meaning in a given context. (If you want to learn more about this, turn to section 6.5.)

Furthermore, a lexical entry often combines several syntactical words (various spellings). This is true both in Greek and in English. For example, the English verb ice exists as other syntactical words: iced, ices, icing. We are intuitively aware that these are different forms of the same word, but it helps to be reminded of this.

Although we have not defined word from a Greek point of view, we have learned four important things about words.

  1. A word is a spoken or written symbol like εἰς.
  2. At a more important level, a word is the limited set of meaning possibilities connected to a spoken or written symbol. A Greek dictionary alerts us to the range of meanings for a given word.
  3. Even more important, every word has a specific meaning in a specific context. Until we put the word ice into a context—a spoken or written utterance—it only has meaning potential. This observation becomes crucial when we grapple with how to do word studies. (Consider the statement, "That three-carat piece of ice set me back thirty grand." If ice is understood as frozen water, this sentence is absurd.)
  4. A lexical entry often is made up of more than one syntactical word. Our discussion will focus on lexical entries—the words you find listed in a standard Greek lexicon.

1.1.2. Parts of Speech

A good part of English grammar focuses on learning about parts of speech, and traditional Greek grammar has emphasized the same thing. Knowledge of parts of speech is not an end in itself. These simply provide grammatical terms for talking about language.

Again, a bit of review is in order. The verb group. Four parts of speech belong to the Greek verb group. By far the most important part of speech is the verb itself. Basically a verb is an action word, such as ἔρχομαι (I come). A word that describes a verb is an adverb, such as καλῶς (well). A word that joins verbs or other grammatical equals is a conjunction, such as καί (and). Short words that intensify speech in various ways are called particles, such as γέ (indeed). The noun group. Four parts of speech also belong to the noun group. The most important is the noun itself, naming a person, place, or thing, such as πατήρ (father). A word that describes a noun is an adjective, such as πιστός (faithful). The most frequent adjective is the article: , , τό (the). A word that substitutes for a noun is a pronoun, such as ἐμαυτοῦ (myself). (The noun referred to by a pronoun is its antecedent.) A word showing the relationship of a noun or pronoun to the rest of a sentence is a preposition, such as ἀντί (instead of).

1.1.3. Parts of a Word

The basic meaning component of a word has traditionally been called the stem. A meaning component placed before the stem is called the prefix; more than one prefix in a word is possible. A component placed after the stem is the suffix. More than one suffix in a word is frequent. A compound word has two stems pushed together. Modern linguistics refers to a word part as a morpheme; any word or part of a word that conveys some meaning is a morpheme. Consider the following examples.

  1. ἐλπίζω (verb)—stem: ἐλπίζ - (hope) + suffix: (present, active, indicative, first, singular) = I hope.
  2. κακοποιός (noun)—stem: κακο - (bad) + stem: - ποι - (do) + suffix: -ός (masculine, nominative, singular) = evil doer.
  3. ἀνόμως (adverb)—prefix: - (not) + stem: -νομ - (law) + suffix: -ως (adverb) = lawlessly.

To be able to talk about the parts of a word is helpful. Commentators have a habit of doing this. Notice how this fits into our discussion of symbol and meaning. For example, the suffix can mean several different things. Only in the context of a verb stem—and then not always—does it mean present, active, indicative, first, singular. Only in the context of an entire sentence or paragraph can we be sure. On the other hand does not have an unlimited range of meanings. (Just as in English, pro- often means "before," but not in the word pronounce.)

1.2. The Sentence

In English grammar classes, you learned that a sentence is a word or group of words expressing a complete thought. So it is in Greek. One-word sentences are rare in Greek, as in English. As far as we know, first-century Greek was rarely if ever written with punctuation marks, and the sentence breaks we now use are open to question at some points. Printed editions of the Greek Testament include reference information where sentence breaks are debated.

If you have studied intermediate Greek, you will remember that understanding sentences is the traditional concern of second-year Greek, just as elementary Greek focuses on learning about words. Our review of sentences begins with an examination of the three ways that words in Greek sentences can be organized.

1.2.1. Organizing Words in a Sentence

When you learned English sentence structure, you learned about four structural types of sentences: the simple sentence, the compound sentence, the complex sentence, and the compound-complex sentence. Greek sentences may be organized into the same four groups, but it is even more helpful to consider the three major ways that words in a Greek sentence can be arranged. Main clause. A group of words that can stand alone and that contains a verb is a main clause. (Sometimes a "be" verb is only implied in the Greek text.) Any sentence with only one main clause, with or without prepositional phrases, is a simple sentence. Any sentence with two or more main clauses, with or without prepositional phrases, and without dependent clauses, is a compound sentence.

SIMPLE: τὸ λοιπόν, ἀδελφοί μου, χαίρετε ἐν κυρίῳ.

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord (Phil. 3:1).

COMPOUND: εἰς τὰ ἴδια ἦλθεν, καὶ οἱ ἴδιοι αὐτὸν οὐ παρέλαβον.

He came to his own, and his own did not welcome him (John 1:11). Prepositional phrase. This is a group of words preceded by a preposition and without a finite verb. (Greek finite verbs are indicative, subjunctive, optative, and imperative.) Prepositional phrases can be found at the beginning, end, or anywhere else in a clause, whether main or dependent. You are familiar with these from long practice in English. For preaching purposes it is important to identify prepositional phrases and separate them from the clause that they are part of. Dependent clause. A group of words that cannot stand alone and that contains a verb is a dependent clause. In Greek, only four formats exist for dependent clauses. Each of the four formats is dominated by a particular grammatical construction.

  1. A participle clause is a dependent clause beginning with a participle; for example, ὁ βλέπων τοὺς δούλους (the person who sees the slaves).
  2. An infinitive clause is a dependent clause beginning with an infinitive; for example, βλέπειν τοὺς δούλους (to see the slaves).
  3. A subordinate conjunction clause is a dependent clause beginning with a subordinate conjunction; for example, ὅτι βλέπομεν τοὺς δούλους (because we see the slaves). The verb is sometimes implied rather than fully stated.
  4. A relative clause is a dependent clause beginning with a relative pronoun; for example, ὅν βλέπομεν (whom we see).

Any sentence with one main clause and at least one dependent clause is a complex sentence, regardless of the number of prepositional phrases. Any sentence with more than one main clause and at least one dependent clause is a compound-complex sentence.

COMPLEX: εἰ ἔτι ἀνθρώποις ἤρεσκον, Χριστοῦ δοῦλος οὐκ ἄν ἤμην.

If I were still pleasing people, I would not be Christ's slave
(Gal. 1:10).

COMPOUND-COMPLEX: ἐξελθὼν εἶδεν πολὺν ὄχλον καὶ ἐσπλαγχνίσθη.

When he arrived, he saw a great crowd and had compassion
(Mark 6:34).

1.2.2. Grammatical Parts of a Sentence

Many students have never learned the English grammar labels necessary for discussing the parts in a sentence. If you can use the material on phrases and clauses in the previous section (1.2.1), you can identify every part of a Greek sentence by learning only six more labels. Subject. The subject tells who or what a sentence is about. In Greek, the subject is often not a separate word but is implied by the personal ending of the verb. The subject can be modified by adjectives, prepositional phrases, and even dependent clauses. In Greek, the subject is in the nominative case.

ἀσπάζεταί σε Ἐπαφρᾶς.

Epaphras greets you (Philem. 23). Verb. The verb tells what action is done by or to the subject, or discusses a condition (state of being) of the subject. In Greek, verbs may be active or deponent (telling what the subject does); middle (telling what the subject both does and receives); passive (telling what is done to the subject); or without voice (telling a state of being rather than an action).

εἶπεν παραβολὴν αὐτοῖς.

He told them a parable (Luke 21:29).

The predicate is the verb and all the rest of a sentence except the subject and its modifiers; that is, the predicate is everything that is affirmed or denied about the subject. Thinking of the Greek verb alone is more helpful than thinking of an entire predicate. The verb is the single most important word in a Greek sentence. Direct object. The direct object receives the action done by the subject. The direct object defines the limits of the action of the verb. In Greek, direct objects are usually in the accusative case. Also, few Greek passive verbs have an object. (In English, the object of a passive verb is called a retained object.) Some Greek verbs have a genitive or dative direct object.

τίς ὑμᾶς ἐβάσκανεν;

Who bewitched you? (Gal. 3:1). Indirect object. Only sentences with a direct object may have an indirect object. An indirect object tells who or what receives the direct object—usually a person. Indirect objects in Greek are in the dative case. (A dative noun telling for whom the action of the verb is done in a sentence with no direct object is called a dative of advantage. An indirect object means that the sentence already has a direct object.)

εἶπεν παραβολὴν αὐτοῖς.

He told them a parable (Luke 21:29). Subject complement. When the verb describes a condition of the subject (for example, what the subject is or becomes, how the subject feels), it often includes a word or words that complete or complement the subject. In Greek, these words are in the nominative case. There are two varieties of subject complements: (1) a predicate nominative renames the subject; (2) a predicate adjective describes the subject.

PREDICATE NOMINATIVE: ἡ ἁμαρτία ἐστὶν ἡ ἀνομία.

Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4).

PREDICATE ADJECTIVE: δυνατὸς γάρ ὁ θεός.

For God is able (Rom. 11:23). Object complement. Occasionally the direct object is renamed by another accusative noun. This noun is needed to complete the sense of the direct object and is called the object complement.

Δαυὶδ οὖν κύριον αὐτὸν καλεῖ.

Thus David calls him Lord (Luke 20:44).

1.2.3. Major Constructions for a Sentence

When you understand the limited number of parts in a Greek sentence, you can appreciate that only a few patterns are possible for constructing sentences. Prepositional phrases and dependent clauses can extend a Greek sentence indefinitely, but the options for constructing basic sentences are quite limited. Every independent clause (simple sentence) falls into one of four patterns. The verb is the key to distinguishing between these four constructions. The transitive verb pattern. In many Greek sentences verbs transfer their meaning to a direct object. Such verbs are called transitive. Context determines whether a verb is transitive or intransitive. Three varieties of this pattern appear:




The previous section gives an example of each of these (1.2.2). Of course, the subject may not be a separate word in Greek but may be implied by the personal ending of the verb. Each of the parts of the sentence may also be modified by prepositional phrases, dependent clauses, or other modifiers. The intransitive verb pattern. An intransitive verb is any verb with a meaning so clear that it requires no direct object. Many verbs function either transitively or intransitively, depending on their context. Often Greek deponent verbs are exclusively intransitive.


καὶ εὐθέως ἀνέστη.

And immediately he stood up (Acts 9:34).

As with all the patterns, there may be modifiers to the subject or verb. In this example, a simple adverb modifies an intransitive verb. The passive verb pattern. Sentences with a passive Greek verb often include a prepositional phrase expressing the (personal) agent or (impersonal) instrument doing the action. This is called an agent phrase. Thus, two varieties are possible.


ἐβλήθη εἰς τὴν γῆν.

He was thrown onto the earth (Rev. 12:9).


ἐβαπτίζοντο ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ.

They were being baptized by him (Mark 1:5).

In these examples, note the difference in function between the two prepositional phrases. In the first, the prepositional phrase is merely an adverb modifier answering the question where. In the second, an agent phrase answers the question by whom. This is more customary in a sentence with a passive verb. The "be" verb pattern. The main Greek verbs expressing a state of being are εἰμί and γίνομαι. Verbs of being usually have a subject complement. Occasionally some other kind of modifier is used instead of a subject complement.


ὁ πατήρ μου ὁ γεωργός ἐστιν.

My Father is the farmer (John 15:1).


ἐγὼ μέν εἰμι Παύλου.

I am indeed of Paul (1 Cor. 3:4).

1.3. The Paragraph

Suppose you overheard two young people talking. One said, "Wendy's is always a great place for hot potatoes." You might think of fast food. If the next sentence spoken is, "I hear that Wendy hired a great new opening act," you might remember that Wendy's is a dance club for teenagers in your town. The "hot potato" might be the latest rage in dance steps. Specific sentences can only be fully understood within a broader context.

The best preaching portion is almost always a paragraph rather than a sentence, a verse, or a word. Editions of the Greek Testament and most contemporary translations are arranged into paragraphs. You will want to learn to use the fourth edition of the United Bible Societies' The Greek New Testament, with its innovative Discourse Segmentation Apparatus. This carefully identifies all points at which important editions of the Greek Testament and several modern translations differ in paragraph breaks, sentence divisions, and other areas. When your Greek Testament and your preferred English Bible disagree on paragraph divisions, you must discern for yourself where the paragraph breaks ought to fall.

1.3.1. Varieties of Paragraphs

Several types of materials in the Greek New Testament appear to be paragraphs, even though they are not paragraphs in the strictest sense. Poems, for example, are divided into stanzas with a paragraph format (noted in the Discourse Segmentation Apparatus). You should preach from a stanza of poetry as you would preach from a paragraph of prose. See, for example, Luke 1:47-50.

The Gospels and Acts contain more narrative material than instructional (didactic) material. When you preach from a narrative passage you may prefer to use all the paragraphs of the account (see 6.2 and the related subsections). The Gospels and Acts have long been divided into standard pericopes or lections (selections for public reading in Christian worship services). English titles for the pericopes are labeled both in many Greek Testaments and in many English Bibles. One example is the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem in Luke 19:28-44. You should preach from a pericope rather than a single paragraph when your text is narrative.

From now on in this book, the word paragraph will also be used to designate a stanza of poetry or a pericope of narrative. In the exercises at the end of each chapter, you will study both a narrative pericope and a didactic paragraph.

1.3.2. Varieties of Sentences Within a Paragraph

Sentences in the Greek Testament are logically interdependent. Typically a paragraph has three kinds of sentences.

  1. The introductory sentence announces the theme of a paragraph. Usually it does not have an initial coordinate conjunction. (If there is a conjunction, its purpose is to connect the paragraph with the previous paragraph.) The introductory sentence is usually but not always placed first in a paragraph.
  2. The development sentence logically expands the introductory sentence. Usually development sentences begin with a coordinate conjunction. (When there is no such conjunction, grammarians use the term asyndeton, meaning "not bound.") Studying these conjunctions provides a good clue as to how the argument of a paragraph has been developed. Most development sentences exhibit one of the following logical relationships to the introductory sentence.







  3. The summary sentence concludes the matter of a paragraph. It is usually at or near the end of a paragraph and usually begins with a conjunction. Many paragraphs do not have summary sentences.