2 Corinthians: Understanding the difference between “we” and we

johnworkshopMany commentaries state that 2 Corinthians 1-9 has a theme of reconciliation. In contrast 10-13 is commonly said to be almost the opposite, which has led to partition theories, that these two parts were written at different times and later put together as one book. Some commentators divide/partition 2 Corinthians into as many as five or six books.

Thrall, writing in the International Critical Commentary, divides it into three:

1-8, 13:11-13 (she sees several “digressions” in 1-7)

9

10:1-13:10

The Exegetical Summary of 2 Corinthians, published by SIL, while holding the interpretation that 2 Corinthians is one book, states: “The most serious challenge to the integrity of canonical 2 Corinthians comes from the sudden change of tone from the chapters 1–9 to chapters 10–13.”

Thrall, in the ICC, in her section on the “Arguments for and against the separation of chaps. 10-13 from chaps. 1-9,”on page 5 states the commonly held view that: “Paul’s attitude to his readers here and the general tone of these chapters are incompatible with the tone and attitude of the earlier chapters. In the first seven chapters he has written of reconciliation, and his joy of its achievement. But now, he suddenly bursts out into a torrent of reproaches, sarcastic self-vindication and stern warnings.”

The thesis of this short discussion is that there may not be quite the stark contrast between 1-9 and 10-13 that appears on the surface if one takes into account the interpretation of one concept which occurs over and over in 1-9. The concept is the correct understanding of the first person plural references (“we”) and their purpose in the rhetoric of 2 Corinthians. There are over 200 occurrences of the first person plural pronoun, and so the issue is of great importance.

In A Handbook on Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, published by the United Bible Societies, Roger L. Omanson and John Ellington state on p. 8 that: “For many verses the context is so very ambiguous that it is not possible to be certain. In languages that use separate forms for inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns, the translation will involve a certain amount of guesswork.”

It is important to keep in mind that this issue is not only important for languages which distinguish between we inclusive and we exclusive, where the language forces the translator to one interpretation or the other. It also has an impact on languages without this distinction, since how the translator understands who Paul is referring to will affect the translation of these verses, as well as the overall rhetoric of the book.

The Mixtec language I work in does distinguishes between first personal plural inclusive and first person plural exclusive. The pronoun “yo” is inclusive, and “ndu” is exclusive. This concept was hard from me to grasp at the beginning since English does not have separate pronouns to make this distinction. In English, we can only go by the context. So if my wife and I are speaking to a church and saying “We are going to Mexico January 7”, then the people listening know that we are only talking about the two of us, and we are not including them. In Mixtec, we would have used the pronoun “ndu”, “we exclusive” to say that sentence. But if, in that same church, I say, “Today we are going to look at the 3rd chapter of John’s Gospel,” then people know the “we” includes everyone. we are all going to talk and think about it. In that instance, in Mixtec, I would have said “yo”, “we inclusive.”

Bible scholars have mostly dealt with this issue in the Bible when trying and decide if Paul sometimes uses “we” to talk about “we Jews” as opposed to “you Gentiles.” There are a number of verses where it is hard to know which he is referring to.  But the issue is vitally important in trying to understand 2 Corinthians, since the word “we” appears in this book over 200 times, much more than any other book in the New Testament.

As the Mixtec translation team worked through 2 Corinthians, the context led us to translate almost all of the first person plurals “we”, as exclusive, either referring to Paul himself, or to himself and Timothy. In Mixtec, when it is read this way, the tone is not reconciliatory. Paul is defending his ministry, urging the Corinthians to accept his apostleship and authority as God’s calling, and to quit listening to false teachers. We felt these decisions fit the overall context of the book, and brought unity to the book.

Later on, further research showed that SIL Mexico Branch member Velma Pickett wrote in the first and sixth Notes on Translation back in 1962 that almost all of the first person plurals of 2 Corinthians are probably exclusive. A number of other translators have come to the same conclusion. In each of these cases, the language they worked in required them to make an inclusive/exclusive decision.

Almost none of these earlier studies say what impact such an interpretation has on the rhetoric of the book. In Mixtec, the use of we exclusive helps to reflect Paul’s jealousy for God’s glory, the gospel and the believers. If one rejects the messenger, they end up rejecting the message.

This was further confirmed by an article in The Bible Translator, Vol 54, No 4, published in 2006, by Paul Ellingworth , where he sates that Paul “is concerned to defend his own and his companions’ ministry against harmful attacks, so the great majority of the occurrences of we in this letter exclude the Corinthians. Only occasionally does he appeal to deep convictions which he and his readers hold in common: e.g., when he writes “our Lord Jesus Christ” (1.3; 6.16); “we all…are being transformed into [Christ’s] likeness” (3.18); or “we are the temple of the living God” (6.16). These cases would use inclusive “we.”” I would also add 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ….”

Philip Hughes, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, written in 1962, also saw how the argument of Paul defending his apostleship brought unity to the entire book of 2 Corinthians, stating that: “The difficulty of the change of tone and content of the final four chapters is more imaginary than real. As we have shown, they fit in with the scheme of the epistle. But, what is more, it can be demonstrated that they harmonize with the pervading theme of the epistle–the theme, namely, of strength through weakness. In this theme is bound up the whole argument for the genuineness of Paul’s apostolic authority, which has been impugned by his adversaries in Corinth.”

While Hughes focuses on the theme of “strength through weakness” as tying the book together, I advocate that understanding almost all of the we’s as we exclusive, which give further evidence Paul is defending his apostleship, is further and even stronger evidence of the unity of the book, and which lessens the assumed change of tone between 1-9 and 10-13.

The following Scripture is well known, and fairly representative of chapters 1-9. Here, as in many passages in 2 Corinthians, Paul contrasts “we” and “you.” He is also validating his ministry, thus the Gospel, by telling how he has risked his life so that they might have life. In other passages he freely interchanges “we” and “I.” These and other cases add to the evidence that the majority of the first person plurals are exclusive.

7 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” 4:7-12 (NIV)

We can, and should, of course, apply these verses to our own lives, but it is also very important to understand what Paul is trying to do in the context of his writings. What was the impact on the original readers? I would challenge you to some day soon sit down and read 2 Corinthians, and each time you come across “we, our, etc.,” replace them with “I, my, etc.” As you do this, ask yourself what impact this has on the rhetoric and purpose of what Paul is writing. Also note how the reading flows better into the arguments found in chapters 10-13, where Paul does use “I” almost exclusively.

(I have written a much more detailed (unpublished) paper on this topic, where I deal with all the passages of 2 Corinthians and explain the reasons why I conclude Paul is using we exclusive. I, along with another colleague, led a workshop on 2 Corinthians in Spanish in 2012 where we went into even more detail.)

References:

Abernathy, David. 2003. An Exegetical Summary of 2 Corinthians. Dallas: SIL International.

Ellingworth, Paul. 2006 “We” in Paul, The Bible Translator, Vol 54, No. 4. United Bible Societies.

Hughes, Philip E. 1962. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Thrall, Margaret E. 1994. The International Critical Commentary, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Vol. I. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Tuti yóꞌo kúú tôꞌon Ndios, ta xíꞌo ña kuenda saꞌâ Jesus. The New Testament in Tezoatlán Mixtec. 2006. Mexico, D.F.: La Liga Bíblica, A.C.

What the Corinthians teach us about how NOT to love

seb-group00The following is part of a presentation I gave at Bible Translation 2009, a conference held in Dallas, Texas. My next entry will be the other part of that presentation, on 2 Corinthians. The full paper can be found here.

Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is commonly understood as a love poem, but I believe it to be more of a strong rebuke and summary of their already mentioned shortcomings, especially in regards to spiritual gifts. Most people have probably never thought of chapter 13 as a “summary of shortcomings” but let’s look a little closer at the book and try to see what Paul is doing, through the eyes of the Mixtec language.

The Mixtec language I work with, like many languages of the world, does not have abstract nouns. As a result, the language requires a translation of love in its verb form. The verb love requires a subject, as well as a direct object. Mixtec must state who is loving whom. The translation team at first thought it could be God loving us, but we saw that after saying love is patient, love is kind, the next eight statements say what love is not. So we determined the focus is more on how the Corinthians Christians should love one another. Looking at the immediate context of chapter 12 and 14, as well as the context of the rest of the book led us to conclude that 1 Corinthians 13 is not a love poem, but more of a rebuke to the Corinthians, showing how they were not loving one another. This fresh understanding, to me at least, came as a result of Mixtec requiring us to look at the passage through new eyes. If this chapter is read as a rebuke, and since so many verses in the previous chapters have “rebuke” as the focus, when read in Mixtec, the entire book of I Corinthians sounds very much like a “severe” letter. (2 Cor. 2:4)

As I studied this list of the characteristics of love from the Mixtec language perspective, it brought to my mind previous verses in the book where Paul relates how the Corinthians did almost the opposite of what he is advocating here in chapter 13. I soon found verses stating how the Corinthians were not kind, how they were proud, boastful, envious, rejoiced in evil, etc. I soon developed a devotional to share this new discovery with my Mexico Branch colleagues during chapel times at the linguistic centers in Oaxaca and Tucson. (I think it is important that as translators make such new discoveries, that they share them with others.)

In preparation for this present study, I discovered a book by Michael Gorman called, Cruciformity: Paul’s narrative, Spirituality of the cross, where he has a very similar list. The following is a combination of his list and mine. The underlined words in the verses below either contain the Greek word found in the chapter 13 phrase indicated or a synonym of it (according to Gorman), while verses without underlines reflect a similar thought.

4Love is patient, (makrothumei)

20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not! 33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat wait for each other. ―11:20-22, 33

love is kind. (crēsteuetai)

Gorman says there is no direct parallel, but a possible play on words with Christ. I think there are many verses which state how unkind the Corinthians believers could be to one another, such as:

6But instead, one brother goes to law against another―and this in front of unbelievers!

7The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. ―6:6-8

is not envious/jealous, (zēloi)

3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? ―3:3

15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. ―12:15-16.

This is the first of quite a few of the characteristics of love in chapter 13 dealing with the misuse of the spiritual gifts. God gave these gifts to mature and edify the believers, but, on the contrary, they began getting either proud or, as stated here, envious of the gifts they didn’t have. The attitude seems to be, “Too bad God didn’t make me to be a head or to be an ear. Those would have been much better gifts than the gift I have now.”

is not boastful, (perpereuetai)

29so that no one may boast before him. 30It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” ―1:29-31 ((kauchēsētai)

“The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours…. ―3:20-21 (kauchasthō)

What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? ―4:7

6Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? ―5:6

In relationship to the gifts, a common attitude seemed to be: “My gift’s better than your gift,” from verses we find in both chapters 12 & 14.

it is not proud/arrogant. (phusioutai)

6Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. 18Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, ―4:6, 18,19

1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? ―5:1-2

1Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. ―8:1

5It is not rude, (ouk aschēmonei)

20As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” ―12:20-21

It does not insist on its own way, (ou zētei ta heautēs)

24Don’t seek out trying to live well yourselves, instead seek out that others live well. ―10:24 (heautou)

31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God– 33even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. ―10:31-33

The main teaching of both chapters 8 and 10 deals with meat sacrificed to idols, and how, though they may have had the “right” to eat such meat, they must give up this right since it may cause a weaker Christian to fall into sin. By doing this they would show love for others. By insisting on their own way, they were not showing love toward their brothers and sisters.

it is not irritable, (paroxunetai)

3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? ―3:3 (Gorman says it could refer to divisions and rivalries)

it keeps no record of wrongs/is not resentful. (ou logizetai to kakon)

5Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. ―4:5 (Gorman says it could possibly refer to lawsuits)

6Love does not delight in evil/rejoice in wrongdoing, (ou chairei epi tē adikia)

7The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. 9Do you not know that the wicked/wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? ―6:7-9b

A man has his father’s wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? ―5:1b-2

What others are saying

The vast majority of commentaries, especially older ones, and most sermons do not take this view of what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 13. However, after some research I did find a few statements which confirmed that at least some others share this view of chapter 13. William D. [Bill] Mounce, who served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, wrote the following as he was sharing about the work his committee did on chapter 13: “I can hear Paul punctuate his words as they are being written down. Good grief, Corinthians. Love is patient. It is kind. Do you know anything about love? You are full of envy and boasting and arrogance and rudeness. You know nothing of love; all you know is self-serving resentment that works against the true meaning of love when you rejoice in wrongdoing. You think you are so important, but all the gifts you treasure will one day be gone, and you will be left with nothing because you have neither faith, hope, or love. Poetry? I don’t think so. Rhetoric? Powerful condemnation appropriate to a people who rejoice in their acceptance of the worse kinds of sexual immorality? Yes. I am glad that 1 Cor 13 was not read at my wedding. I am sorry that translations treat apostolic condemnation as pretty words.”

I want to emphasis again that the idea is not that we shouldn’t apply these verses to our own lives, as well as the lives of others. The point here is to discover what is Paul’s purpose, in the context, for writing the way he did, and how does that affect our understanding, not only of this chapter, but of the book as a whole.

John MacArthur, in his messages on Speaking in Tongues, The Permanence of Love–Part 1, gives this list of sins Paul has referred to in the book leading up to chapter 13: “…the Christians there resented each other, argued with each other, and shut each other out from their private little groups. They sexually violated each other, sued each other, boasted against each other, deprived each other in marriage, divorced each other, perverted the proper place of women within the church meeting, withheld food from the poor at the love feast, turned the Lord’s Table into a drunken orgy, offended each other, and fought each other for prominence in the use of their spiritual gifts.”

The issue as to whether 1 Corinthians is the “severe letter”, which used to be the prevailing view, is now rejected by most contemporary scholars because, as the Word Biblical Commentary notes on pg. xlvii, “Paul’s language describing his state of mind while writing it (2 Cor 2:4) is thought to be extravagant if 1 Corinthians is in his mind.” But looking at MacArthur’s list, and taking into account that chapter 13 can be considered apostolic condemnation, as well as chapters 12 & 14, I think this is further evidence that 1 Corinthians is the “severe letter”.

Gorman’s comments on chapter 13 summarize what I am advocating: “verses 4-8a provide a kind of “anti-description” of the Corinthians.” “As a corrective device, the text urges the Corinthians to reshape their communal narrative….” “…despite English translations and usage, Paul uses not a single adjective in his description of love; all the “characteristics of love” are expressed as verbs.”

Even if one may think that Mounce goes a little overboard in calling chapter 13 “apostolic condemnation”, it seems pretty clear that, at the very least Paul is unhappy with the Corinthians and what he writes here is “corrective”, as Gorman states. Earlier commentators even suggested that Paul wrote chapter 13 at some other time, and just kind of “stuck” it here. But chapter 13 is an integral part of the arguments of chapters 12 and 14, as well, as I advocate, of the book as a whole.

If you have Facebook, here is the link to my video on this post: 1 Cor. 13

References

Gorman, Michael. 2001. Cruciformity: Paul’s narrative, Spirituality of the cross. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

MacArthur, John. Speaking in Tongues, The Permanence of Love–Part 1, as found at: http://www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/sg1868.htm

Mounce, William D. 2009. http://www.koinoniablog.net/2009/06/is-1-cor-13-poetrywe-had-an-interesting-experience-on-the-esv-translation-committee-when-we-were-doing-1-cor-13-we-were-wor.html

The ACTS of Prayer

The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Taken by Stephen Payne

The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Taken by Stephen Payne

Prayer. For many, the word prayer is practically equivalent to ask for something, plead, request, petition, supplicate, etc. But in this post I would like to give a more global definition of prayer. A number of years ago I heard someone talk about using the acronym ACTS to guide us in praying. I have found through my intensive Bible studies via translating the Scripture into Mixtec that this is a way which is very much in line with what the Bible teaches about prayer.

The acronym ACTS stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. Perhaps you have heard the comment, “Why pray at all if God is in control?” The problem with this and other similar objections to prayer is that they focus only on the “supplication” aspect of it. God is worthy of our adoration all the time. We need to continually confess our sins, and be thankful in all things, even if we don’t have a long lists of requests. God commands us to pray and Jesus teaches how to pray and leads by example by praying a lot during His time on earth. It is a privilege to stand before the throne of the Almighty, all-powerful God of the Universe and know that He is paying attention to us. Since He is all-knowing and wise, He may say yes, no or wait to our humble requests.

In fact the one who benefits the most from prayer is us, as Philippians 4:6-7 says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Let’s take a closer look at these four parts of prayer.

Adoration: To pray, we need to continually keep in mind Who we are praying to. He is the God who is in control, who is over all, and we need to recognize and acknowledge that. He is worthy of all praise and honor. We need to remember who is the Lord and who is the servant. I find it unbiblical when I hear people praying as if they are giving orders to God. “Heal this man now!!!” “Give me this and that thing!!! Our role is to bow humbly before our God and, when we have a request, to present it to Him, knowing He knows better than we do. We can rebuke the devil in the name of Jesus, but when it comes to talking to God, let us come as servants, not as one either ordering Him what to do or coming before him like He is Santa Claus and we are just there to ask, and ask and ask.

Revelation 4:11 declares why God is worthy: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Since this is true, He is always worthy of our adoration, no matter the circumstances.

Praying the Psalms is good too. Psalms is full of praise.

Another way people of the Bible exalt God in prayer is remembering all the great things He has done in the past, His faithfulness, and so He can be trusted to do something special now. Psalms 105, 106, 136, Neh. 9:6ff, Acts 7, Acts 13:16ff, to name just a few, are all classic examples of God’s people remembering the absolute faithfulness of God in the past. So as you come to God to pray, or are facing a difficult situation, take time first to remember all the ways He has helped you in the past.

Confession. Jesus said that if you are about to offer a sacrifice to God, and remember that you have an unresolved conflict with someone, go and seek reconciliation before going before God. I think we all know that it is hard to have a good relationship with someone if there is that elephant in the room of an unresolved issue. We need to clean the slate before God as we come before Him so we can have that open whole-hearted communication with Him. And when we sin, it is best to confess it as soon as we are aware of it. It is like getting a speck of dirt in our eye. Do we say to ourselves, “This really bothers me, but I think I’ll wait until tonight or tomorrow to try and remove it”? No, we start rubbing our eye or putting water it in right then. Many times it is easy to justify ourselves or rationalize things we have done, but we need to realize that we are coming before a holy God, and nothing with sin can enter into His presence. 1 John 1:8-2:1 states it well: If we say we have no sin, His truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us. But if we do sin, we have an advocate before the Father, Jesus. So there is really no reason not to confess our sins before God. It is not like we can hide anything from Him. David tried to hide his sin for a while, but then finally expresses his deep repentance in Psalm 51. Romans 3 proclaims no one is good and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Thanksgiving: It seems the anti-thesis of gratitude is pride. I did it. But thanksgiving acknowledges that God did it. Sometimes He does things using me, but in the end He did it. Everything comes from God. Our health, our very breath to accomplish anything. Any money we have comes because He provided a job, strength to do it, provision to finish our studies, etc. We can be thanking Him for His great salvation, Hs mercy, His protection, His Word, and the list goes on and on. One thing I learned, for example, was that it was good to thank Him when I get safely to a destination, and not to think, I got here fine since I’m such a great driver. I have a mechanic friend who has told me that on a number of occasions a car has come in that he thought he could fix in just a few minutes, but after a few hours of frustration finally asked God to help him, and he was able to fix it in the next few minutes. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Some good thanksgiving passages are: 1 Thes. 5:16-18, Philippians 4:6, Colossians 3:7, Psalms 7:17 and 100:4.

Supplication: I won’t say much about this one, since this is the most talked about aspect of prayer. I do remind you of what I mentioned above under adoration. He is Lord and we are the servants. We ask him, then let Him do as He wills. I think the best Scripture to guide us in this part of prayer is to model what Jesus said in Matthew 26:39: “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Not my will, but Yours. May that be our attitude as we go before God with the needs on our hearts. Another great verse to remember when we are going through trying times and come before God, after we adore Him, acknowledging His power, confess and get things right with Him, and we thank him for His care, we can remember Romans 8:26-27: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”

In Jesus’ name

Many end their prayers with, “in Jesus’ name.” But what does this mean? It is not a “formula” and it definitely is not an “abra kadabra” to cause it to happen, “order” God to do it or to “make” Him do it. When we pray in Jesus’ name, we are praying by His power, His authority, asking that things be done as He wants, for His glory, and because of what He has done on the cross.

As we finish our prayer, and pray in Jesus’ name, let us remember that we are asking that things be done as He wants, in His timing, for His glory, by His power, that He will use us. It is the ultimate way to say, “It is not about me, it is all about You.”

We know we are in a spiritual warfare. Things will many times not happen when nor the way we want. We in ourselves are weak, but Jesus is powerful, He has authority. But because the devil is the “god” of this world, he has a certain right to deceive the people of this world and to cause all kinds of chaos. But Jesus said He will never leave nor forsake us. We can be content whatever our circumstances because we can go through all things through Him who gives us strength.  We have hope, peace and joy. We can trust Him! All the faithful people of the Bible faced hardships, sufferings and “unanswered” prayers. It takes more faith to persevere and remain strong with Jesus in these times than when all is going well and easy.

Because of what Jesus has done, He has the victory. But He will do things in His timing, for His glory and ultimately, because of His love, for our good. Reading Revelation, we know that God wins. Then He will wipe away all tears because the fact is, we will have tears and hard times in this world.

I hope this simple ACTS formula can help you better understand some of the more important aspects of it, and to dispel the too common myth that prayer is almost synonymous with asking. And when we do pray, may it all be for His glory.

We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God

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.

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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.

The miracle of Sebastian’s translation

In my first blog post I mentioned a Mixtec man named Sebastian. The featured image of the blog has him sitting with me way back in the late 80’s, before I had a computer, translating with him near the door of the small village church. The story of Sebastian is, in my opinion, one of the most inspiring in the recent history of Bible translation, and maybe one of the least known. Back in 1987, one year after I met Sebastian, his story was featured in the Wycliffe publication, “In Other Words.” A number of years later I wrote a short story of Sebastian for a Writers Digest contest, and it made the top 25. A missionary translated that into Spanish and it was published in the Christian magazine Prisma. Wycliffe president Bob Creson’s staff later found the story in 2009, and below I am copying his well written summary of it. (March 2016 update: I just found out that a version of the story of Sebastian is on pages 61-64 of the book by Bob Creson called The Finish Line.)

To set this account up even more, you need to know that in the mid 80’s it was very hard to get a visa to go to Mexico and spend time in small villages. You could only go to tourist spots on your tourist visa. So the question was being asked, “How can we reach all the villages and help them translate the Bible into their languages if we cannot get a visa to go there for more than very short visits?”  It was during this difficult time that I left for a very short trip to try and visit a Mixtec language area. I had permission to spend one night there. In the large market town of the region, I met a missionary who introduced me to a man selling ice cream who was a Mixtec speaker. He agreed to go with me to his village several hours away.

When we got there, a small church service was in progress. We went in and the man who had accompanied us stood up and said, “Brother John has come to learn our language and help us translate the Bible, but he needs someone to go with him to the big city to work with him. Now, if my father can’t go, maybe someone else can.” He had not mentioned anything to me about his father, nor had he spoken to anyone else during the service. But as it was ending, an elderly man came up to me and, well, you can read the rest in the account below.

Notebook cover

Sebastian was 50 years old, an alcoholic with a second grade education, when he trusted Christ as his Savior.  He was 55 – quite elderly for his small Mexican community — when he began translating the Scriptures into his Tezoatlan Mixtec language.  He had no training, no help, not even an alphabet beyond the Spanish one he’d learned in school, but he saw a need.  While he could understand a fair amount of what he read in his Spanish Bible, his wife could not, nor could many others who attended the Bible study in their village.  His heart burned to help them.

Finally one day he decided he had to try. He bought a notebook and set out to translate the resurrection story in Luke 24. It was hard to spell Mixtec words using only Spanish letters. It was even harder to understand the biblical concepts and express them in his own language. It made his usual work plowing rocky fields and hauling firewood down mountain trails seem easy. Nevertheless he kept at it.

He took his beloved notebook to every Bible study, but he didn’t read from it out of fear that he might have mistranslated the precious Word of God.  Then one night as he watched his neighbors sleeping, wiggling or whispering to each other through an unintelligible service, he knew he couldn’t wait any longer.  He slowly stood up, and moved to a position underneath the only light bulb in the room. With trembling hands, he opened his notebook, took a deep breath and began to read. Slowly, haltingly at first, he read those words from Scripture, gaining strength and confidence as he read on.

Several people gasped as they realized that he was reading in Mixtec, their heart language. Then the room grew quiet.  No one moved or spoke or slept. Tears rolled down a few cheeks. The light of understanding shone in their eyes. Sebastian read on for a long time, and when he stopped, he knew that no one present would ever be the same again.

Time passed and Sebastian’s notebook filled up.  His farming suffered, as did his weaving of palm fronds into baskets and hats for extra income.  Money grew tighter, but God always provided for his needs.  He kept translating, and he kept on sharing those newly translated verses with his wife and neighbors. He read at four or five services each week, and the walls began to come down.  God was no longer a “foreigner.” God spoke Mixtec, and the words went straight to Mixtec hearts.

Four years after Sebastian began translating, Wycliffe member John Williams came to Sebastian’s village, looking for someone willing to move six hours away and teach John his language so they could make books and translate the Scriptures.  John could only stay in the village one night, but God led him straight to Sebastian, who asked just one question: “Do you want to leave tonight or in the morning?”

As Sebastian and John worked together, Sebastian eagerly appropriated the new alphabet symbols that made his language easier to write. He just as eagerly contributed to every aspect of their translation and literacy work. Thirteen years later, with joy and thankfulness, Sebastian held in his hands a draft of the whole New Testament in Tezoatlan Mixtec.

Not long after that, God took Sebastian home, his task completed.  The New Testament was joyfully dedicated in 2008 and is now being used by Sebastian’s people in both written and oral forms. Watch the Celebration here.

If you or I had been choosing a mother tongue translator for the Mixtecs, we might have overlooked Sebastian.  He was too old, we might have said, and his health was compromised by his former addiction to alcohol.  He didn’t have a good enough education or knowledge of Spanish.  He didn’t know how to develop an alphabet for a language that had never been written, and certainly he couldn’t translate without one!

But God knew better.  He changed Sebastian’s life first, and then He gave him the vision, endurance and ability he needed to translate many chapters of His Word for his neighbors, providing for his physical needs along the way.  Then He graciously sent John and Judy Williams to help him complete the task.

In the same way, God knows how He plans to reach the rest of the last language communities around the world.  I can’t wait to see how He does it!

Warmly, Bob Creson, President, Wycliffe USA

Why this blog?

I have been involved in helping with the translation of the New Testament into the language of Mixtec, in southern Mexico, since 1986. That was when I first met Sebastian, whose amazing story I will share in a future blog post.

Being involved in the translation of the Scriptures into another language has presented me with a unique and exciting opportunity: a window into seeing Scripture in ways I might have missed when only looking at it through the eyes and worldview of our my language and culture. I feel especially blessed that my “work” involves intensive Bible studies, pouring over verses with people who speak a different language and who are looking at the Scripture through new eyes, as well as with a different worldview. As we discuss each verse, I gain new insights which I had not gleaned in my previous Bible training, both from seeing it from their fresh perspectives, as well as dealing with the semantic and linguistic requirements of their language which the Hebrew and Greek languages, and in my case, English, do not have.

In fact, the name of this blog is also the name of a paper I gave at the 2009 Bible Translation Conference in Dallas, Texas. In that presentation, I shared what I consider are some really interesting insights into the use of “we” in 2 Corinthians and also a different perspective on 1 Corinthians 13. These insights came as a direct result of seeing the text “through the eyes of Mixtec.” In future blogs I will share what those insights are, as well as new ways of looking at many other Scripture passages.

Please note that my “seeing anew” these passages will be my own personal reflections, and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization I have ever worked with. I invite you to look with me at different Scripture passages over the coming months and see if there is something new about that passage which we have never thought of before when reading it just in English, or even Greek. God bless.