For those of you who know your Bible, what comes to mind when you think of Acts 2? Especially Acts 2: 1-13? For most folks, it is Pentecost. And when you think of Pentecost, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? For most folks, probably speaking in tongues. You may also think of Pentecostal churches or a large Jewish festival held 50 days after Passover (Easter). Pentecost is also known as the Feast of Weeks, which celebrated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, and occurs 10 days after the ascension of Jesus into the clouds.
Most of us are familiar with the scene. Jesus had risen into heaven. The apostles (less Judas), Mary and other women who were with Jesus for much of His ministry and some others, 120 in all, were in an upper room, praying. Jesus has recently told them to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, but He also told them to wait, saying in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
So there they were, in that upper room, waiting, and praying, and naming a new apostle, Matthias, to replace Judas. Then in Acts 2: 2-4: “suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
It is easy to take the following verses, 5-13, as an “add-on” to this monumental event of the coming of the Holy Spirit. To think, well the most important thing is that the Holy Spirit filled the followers of Jesus and they are speaking in tongues and lots of the close to a million people in Jerusalem for the festival heard them. Then towards the end of the chapter, after Peter’s speech, 3000 of them became believers. Thank God!
I would like to propose here that verses 5-13 are the key to understanding why God had the apostles speak in tongues. Actually, to be more accurate, why they spoke in at least 14 different languages.
When working on the translation of the Bible into another language, it is important to be consistent when translating words and phrases which have the same meaning and context. It is especially important to conserve this consistency since similar phrases in close proximity constitute a theme. If you find the same word or phrase several times in a short passage, you can be sure that it is key to understanding what the passage is about.
In Acts 2:5-13, there is one phrase which occurs 3 times, and which I believe tells us why God gave the followers of Jesus the ability to speak in tongues. It is at the heart of what God wanted to do that day, to begin to transform hearts, and thus the world. It is something that moves Jesus from our head to our heart. Vs. 6 says: “each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Vs. 8 says: “how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” Then, after the list of the 14 or so languages and regions present, vs. 11 says: “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
They (people from “every nation under heaven” vs. 5) heard of the wonderful works of God in their own heart language, in their mother tongue. Most probably just spoke “passable” “tourist” Greek. But now they were hearing it and understanding it, and it was touching them, in their mother tongue.
In my previous post, I spoke of Sebastian’s son trying to verbally translate what the Bible teacher was saying, but since there was no Bible in his language, he was using lots of Spanish loan words. But when Sebastian sat down to translate Scripture into Mixtec then later read it out loud, the women cried, and people were fully attentive.
I remember the story of a linguist helping the people of a remote village translate the Scriptures, and they took over ten years to find a word to communicate forgiveness. But here in Jerusalem, during Pentecost, these thousands of pilgrims, most from far away lands, heard all those words, which are so hard to translate, life-giving words like grace, glory, forgiveness, resurrection, eternal life, God, etc., translated perfectly into their heart languages by God through the mouths of the disciples. Now these people could go home and tell mom, grandma and others, who probably spoke no Greek, about Jesus. They did not have to be an expert to find a word in their language to express the wonderful things they had heard, God had already given them all the key words they needed so others could understand and come to salvation.
Pentecost is called the birthday of the church. It is much more than that. It shows us that God desires that each person hear His Word in their own heart language. Through this miracle, people far, far from Jerusalem heard the message from their friends and relatives who had traveled there, heard it in words that came directly from the heart of God. Through this amazing act of God, Jesus’ desire that people in Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth hear His message began to happen before the apostles actually began to scatter throughout the world. Some of the people groups are listed: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.” Wow!
Think about what your life would be like if you spoke English, and the only Bibles available were in, say, Spanish and French. Or Chinese. Lets suppose you, to be able to buy and sell, learned some Spanish, French or Chinese. Not real well, but enough to get around. Now lets suppose that someone tried to tell you about all that God has done through Jesus in one of those languages. Or gave you a Bible in their language. In your mind, you would be trying to translate it all into English, But there would be so many concepts that you really didn’t grasp or have any idea how one might say them in English. But maybe the worst part would be that you would probably conclude that God, since he doesn’t speak English, is a foreigner. An outsider. Something for others, since he can’t speak to me in any real, intimate way. That is more or less how it was for most of the people who came to the Pentecost festival, and even more so for their relatives back home. But God spoke to their heart that day and the world began to change. But there are still millions of people in Mexico and worldwide who do not yet have the Bible in their mother tongue, their heart language.
There is so much more I could say about this, but I think you are starting to get the idea. Consider what Jesus said in Matthew 9:37-38: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Pray for more people to have the opportunity to hear of God’s wonderful works in their own language, and pray how you might be involved, either by going or helping others to meet this most important challenge. And don’t forget to thank Him that you have His word in English, in fact the language with the most versions of the Bible, and published helps to understand the Bible. So no excuses.