The Significance of Language in the Propagation of the Gospel
“We do hear them speak in our tongues
the wonderful works of God.” — Acts 2:11b
Language is commonly defined as a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings (Merriam Webster). While secular scholars who “specialize” in “pre-history” (a self-contradictory term in and of itself) generally regard graphic language to have preceded vocal language, judging from ancient scribbles and crude pictures found in caves, it is significant for us Christians to observe from God’s own record of what has transpired since the beginning of time — from the Holy Scriptures “given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16a) — that vocalized communication occurred first, and that graphic or written language came along much later.
Before man was created to be the intelligent receptor of language communicated by God, before the sixth day of creation on which “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26), the Book of Genesis records historically the Lord God speaking into outer space, where there were no human ears to hear, saying the words: “Let there be light!” “For the record,” as a matter of fact, for the sake of His own historical record, God condescended to His foremost visible creature by using language which mankind would subsequently comprehend, so that men would know and accept as true the greatness of His creation of all things. On the subsequent five days, God again employed language, “Let there be…,” in the creation of “all things…visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:16). We do not, of course, know what specific language God spoke “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1); but it was communicative; it was meaningful; and it was obeyed to-the-letter, as it were, as each creature called into existence appeared at God’s command (“and it was so”). And so the Psalmist confesses: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth” (33:6). And with the holy writer, we confess: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3). Moreover, Adam and Eve, who were of no nationalistic or linguistic heritage, understood God’s words perfectly well, and He theirs, as they conversed together in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2 and 3).
More specifically with reference to the title of our article, it was in intelligible language that God expressed the single prohibition that He enjoined upon Adam in the garden: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Indeed, it was that same intelligible language which Eve clearly and unmistakably comprehended and was therefore responsible to obey; for she said to the serpent: “Of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden God hath said, ‘Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die’” (Genesis 3:3). Moreover after Adam and Eve, contrary to better knowledge, had disobeyed the Lord’s prohibition and brought sin, death and condemnation upon all mankind after them, the Lord expressed in intelligible language His first promise of a Savior, the propagation of the Gospel, saying to Satan: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her Seed. It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15). That “Seed” of the woman, Eve well knew, was “the Lord,” God’s Christ, His anointed Redeemer (Genesis 4:1b; cf. Galatians 4:4-5; 3:16; etc.).
Over the next two-thousand five-hundred years (approximately), the Lord continued speak to men by word of mouth. He spoke in intelligible language to Noah, directing him to prepare the ark of rescue from the Great Flood; and it was in words that Noah preached for 120 years God’s condemnation of the world and warnings of the wrath to come (Genesis 6:13ff.). It was by word of mouth that the Lord spoke to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, conveying to them vocally both the demands of His Law (e.g., Genesis 17:1) and the promise of His precious Gospel: “In thy Seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18; 26:4; etc.).
Interestingly, no record of written language is found in the Bible until God gave His Law to Moses on two tables of stone (Exodus 24:12). On those tables, the Lord Himself wrote His Ten Commandments (“with the finger of God” — Deuteronomy 9:10) in human language, the record that was preserved by His people in the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 10:2; Hebrews 9:4). And Moses’ writing of detailed additional commands (Exodus 24:4) and his subsequent writing of “the Law,” the rest of the Torah, was also preserved in the Ark (Deuteronomy 31:9, 11, 24-26). From that time onward, until after the establishment of the New Testament Church, the Lord communicated with His people ”by the prophets” through direct vocal revelation “at sundry times and in divers manners,” as He did when He “spake” to them (Hebrews 1:1), and as they then spoke to the people, saying: “Thus saith the Lord!” He also communicated to them through His written Word, “Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:29), “the Scriptures” (John 5:39), which Jesus Himself identified as “the Word of God” (Luke 11:28; cf. also Matthew 4:4, 7 and 10) which was publicly “read every Sabbath day” in the synagogues of the Jews (Acts 13:27). Moreover, as the very Son of God, Jesus equated the written Scriptures with His own Word (John 5:39; 8:31).
All of those writings together —the writings of “the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20), the Old Testament Scriptures written in Hebrew and the New Testament Scriptures in the Koine dialect of Greek —“all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16). We today are not to expect “direct revelations” vocalized by God, nor would we even recognize His voice as did His apostles and prophets; but we have in their God-inspired writings “the Holy Scriptures” (II Timothy 3:15), His Word, His complete revelation of Himself to men, in language that we can hear and learn, read and study, know and understand, grow in ourselves and teach unto our children, believe in regenerate hearts, and follow in humble, childlike faith.
We know from Scripture itself that “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:21). According to the context of this passage, the expression “holy men of God” refers specifically to the prophets of the Old Testament, who spoke the words of the Lord as He Himself provided them by divine, verbal (word-for-word) inspiration (in-breathing). “All the prophets [gave] witness” or testified to the Lord Jesus as God’s Messiah and the Savior of mankind and to “remission of sins” by faith in Him (Acts 10:43). Their inspired words were also recorded in written form (script) for a permanent record — the Holy Scriptures. As to the New Testament evangelists and apostles, St. Paul testified: “We speak not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth…” (I Corinthians 2:13). Some of the prophets, evangelists and apostles who spoke also wrote the words themselves. Moses, for example, wrote the Torah (Deuteronomy 31:9, 24-26; cf. John 5:46-47), the first five books of the Bible; some spoke, but their words were written down by others. Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, was written by Tertius (Romans 16:22); other epistles he wrote himself: “…the things that I write unto you” (I Corinthians 14:37); “…the salutation of me, Paul, with mine own hand” (16:21); “I write these things…” (II Corinthians 13:10); “These things write I unto thee…” (I Timothy 3:14); etc. Nevertheless, in situations wherein a scribe penned the words, writing from dictation, the named author is still regarded as the “writer” of the book.
Thus “all Scripture,” including the Scriptures of the apostles and evangelists (John 17:17 and 20), is “the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17; I Peter 1:23), “the Word of truth” (II Corinthians 6:7), God’s perfectly-preserved written revelation of Himself to men in human language, not one letter of which (“jot”) or even part of a letter (“tittle”) shall pass away “till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18; cf. 24:35; Isaiah 40:8; I Peter 1:25).
The above passages are specially significant because the claim is made by those who deny the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture that, since only the original autographs (the original manuscripts hand-written by the “holy men of God”) were verbally inspired, and since to the best of our knowledge those originals no longer exist (and we wouldn’t be able to recognize them as authentic if they did exist), we are compelled to rely upon “mere” copies which could contain errors and inaccuracies; and that leaves us with only a “fairly close” approximation of what the originals looked like. Such efforts to discredit the Bible and its inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency fly in the face of God’s own guarantee that we shall have His true Word until the end of time (Isaiah 40:8; I Peter 1:25).
Moreover, since translations into other world languages are not verbally inspired, the effort is made by modernists in the service of Satan (“Yea, hath God said?? – Genesis 3:1) to discredit as unreliable and therefore as lacking the authority of God Himself any and every translation of Scripture. “How do we know, for example, that our King James Version of the Bible is the true Word of God??” We could, of course, argue from the standpoint of diligent Christian scholarship that proper textual study of the original languages as we have them in the “best manuscripts,” together with sound Biblical hermeneutics (the principles of proper and reliable Bible interpretation — including the study of the words themselves according to their usual or general meaning, the syntax of the original languages, examination of the near and remote context, and the assumption that no interpretation is valid that conflicts with the analogy of Scripture – the body of prooftexts) gives us a reliable rendering of the text of Scripture in our own language — teachable to OUR people. The very same argument can be used for translations into OTHER languages. And for that reason, the study of the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, and the study of sound Biblical hermeneutics and proper exegesis (Bible interpretation) are important components in the curriculum of our theological training program.
There are, however, two factors — one of which we have already explored on the basis of clear Scripture — that assure us of our Holy Bible’s authority, inerrancy, infallibility, clarity and sufficiency as the Word of God:
1) The first is that, although we do not have (to the best of our knowledge) the original autographs of the Scriptures which were inspired by God; although we have only copies of and editions of original language texts that contain “variants” that are traceable either to unintended copying errors or to deliberate changes that were intended to “clear up” perceived problems — which variants, happily, do not affect even one doctrine of Holy Writ; and although so-called “higher critics” use these circumstances to try to create doubts and misgivings in the minds of “the simple” Christian (Psalm 119:130); nevertheless God Himself assures us that His true Word, “the foundation” of His Church (Ephesians 2:20), will not pass away but will endure forever (Matthew 5:18; Isaiah 40:8; I Peter 1:25).
2) Secondly, since God, according to His universal will of grace, earnestly desires “all men to be saved” and to come to faith through the instrumentality of His Word (I Timothy 2:4; Romans 10:17; John 17:20-21), since Christ Himself commissioned His disciples to preach the Gospel in “all the world” (Mark 16:15) “for a witness unto all nations” (Matthew 24:14), and since the Savior Himself in His revelation to St. John revealed that the innumerable multitude of the saints in glory will include those “of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues” (Revelation 7:9), we observe God’s own operation in bringing this to pass in the prototype of this multi-lingual fellowship of the saints, in the 3,000 souls converted to faith on the Day of Pentecost by the hearing of the Word (Acts 2), in that the Word preached by the disciples — the convicting Word of the Law and the effectual, converting Word of the Gospel — was disseminated among the people, according to the working of the Holy Ghost, in their native languages! “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. …Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together and were confounded because that every man heard them speak in his own language. …‘How hear we every man in our own tongue wherein we were born?? …We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God!’” (Acts 2:4, 6, 8, 11).
Indeed, in the “Great Commission” of the Lord Jesus, in His description of the multi-lingual host of glorified saints in heaven, and in the miracle of Pentecost itself we find wonderful evidence that God Himself assumes the necessity of translation for the propagation of the Gospel “in all the world for a witness unto all nations” (Matthew 24:14). And, inasmuch as the preaching of a perverted Gospel does not hallow God’s Name nor lets His Kingdom come (Luther: First and Second Petitions of the Lord’s Prayer), nor does it accomplish what our gracious God pleases (Isaiah 55:10-11), we can rightly assume that the Word of God in its truth and purity, carefully translated into “other tongues,” is the “incorruptible seed” (I Peter 1:23) whereby poor sinners, languishing in spiritual ignorance and in the outer darkness of unbelief, are “born again” and are called by God Himself “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9; II Corinthians 4:6), even though they neither understand nor speak Hebrew or Greek.
It is indeed a great blessing and a salutary and useful tool for Christian pastors to have a working knowledge of the original languages in which the Holy Scriptures were written aforetime. For it not only permits them to examine the texts underlying our English translation and to engage in proper Bible interpretation (exegesis) on the basis of the rules of Christian hermeneutics, but it also enables them to bring to their hearers the more subtle meaning of words and expressions in Scripture that a lexicon or dictionary may not supply. However, no Christian layman who lacks linguistic training in Hebrew and Greek should ever waver in his confidence that the Bible IS the Word of God — “given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16), “written for [his] learning” (Romans 15:4), “able to make [him] wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15) and to train him in holiness of living (v. 16b), the very “foundation” of faith (Ephesians 2:20), the only source and norm of spiritual “truth” (John 17:17; 8:31-32), “a lamp unto [his] feet and a light unto [his] path” (Psalm 119:105), “the sword of the Spirit” to wield in his battles against Satan (Ephesians 6:17b), and “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16; I Peter 1:5).
The fact that we have God’s Word “in our own tongue wherein we were born” is a great and immeasurable blessing; and it gives us a great duty and privilege, not only with regard to ourselves but also to our children; for the Lord says to US in language that we can readily understand: “These words which I command thee this day shall be in thine heart, and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). The love, reverence and diligent use of His precious Word should be for every Christian a “24/7” joyful duty and responsibility, “lest [we] also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from [our] own steadfastness” in these latter days of sore distress. Rather let us “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. To Him be glory both now and forever!! Amen” (II Peter 3:17-18).
—-D. T. M.