Many people in North America only speak one language, while people in other parts of the world learn several at a young age. Other people learn languages later in life out of academic or cultural curiosity. Language is a fascinating part of humanity. God created human beings in his image - and one element of this image is human intelligence, thought, and expression. Human beings are unlike any other creature on earth because of our use of language to communicate complex ideas.
Here is a fun video detailing some of the most difficult languages to learn in the world today:
While learning a new language may seem like a daunting task, people have done it all throughout history. The New Testament was written by people who were multilingual, speaking at least two, or sometimes three or four languages. A Jewish person living in Israel would have spoken Aramaic - a semitic language related to Hebrew - as their native Afroasiatic language, as well as Greek, the lingua franca of the world after the Greek empire, and possibly a bit of Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire. (See John 19:19-21) Beyond that, Jewish people in the first century still knew many songs and phrases in Hebrew, though few besides their intellectual leaders really spoke Hebrew regularly by this time. In this context, the early disciples were able to begin their work of spreading Jesus' message while already being familiar with languages that could be understood all across the mediterranean and middle-eastern world!
While language is a tool that God uses to reach humanity and bring help to our world, language can also unfortunately divide us. In Genesis, the powerful people in the city of Babel tried to built a tower into the sky, to set themselves up as gods and intimidate the other towns around them (Genesis 11:1-9). They used their newfound technology - bricks and mortar, a step up from awkwardly shaped and hard to cut stones - to begin building a massive tower. Doing this would intimidate the nations and people groups around them, bring them a good amount of fame and reputation, and would ultimately help them centralize a society around the tower. It was the beginnings of empire building - something that the people of Babylon would again attempt to do later in their history, but more successfully. God stepped in to confuse their language - preventing the people from finishing the project and forcing people groups to spread out away from each other.
This may seem like a strange story to us. Languages are beautiful things with long histories of development and change. But we don't have to let the tower of Babel story make us think of languages as a bad thing or as the result of evil. Languages have always evolved and adapted, sometimes morphing into entirely new languages over time. We can accept this Biblical story while also recognizing the beauty and inherent value in all languages. And there is more to the Biblical story about language than just that.
Thousands of years later, God would step in again and reverse the effects of Babel. In Jerusalem (Acts 2), the small group of followers who had seen Jesus return from the dead were praying, waiting for their next instructions. God the Holy Spirit came to them and gave them the ability to speak in tongues that they had never known before. Visitors in Jerusalem from all over the world heard the message of Jesus in their own languages for the first time, and 3000 people decided to follow Jesus that day. This was the beginning of a world-wide mission, to reach all people and every language.
God has always accommodated many languages. The Bible itself was written in three - Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek - and has since been translated into over 670 languages, while the New Testament on its own has been translated into 1521. These numbers are growing as Bible translators work tirelessly to increase the accessibility of God's word.
You may also notice that this blog often redirects links to BibleGateway.com, which offers free access to the Bible in many, many languages, often with multiple options for different translation philosophies in just one language! The internet has greatly increased multi-lingual accessibility to God's word and made that access easy and user-friendly.
But whlie these facts are amazing, there are still a staggering number of languages without God's word. While our video (above) cited about 6500, other sources like Ethnologue posit about 7111. And while only 23 languages can cover about half of the world's population, there are still people who are members of much smaller language groups. Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God would be for all peoples of the world, but there are many people today who cannot easily learn about Jesus in their own language.
God may again give the gift of other tongues to his followers in order to spread the message of Jesus. But right now, Christians who have mastered their native language, speak more than one language, or who are able to learn a new language have valuable gifts for reaching the world with the gospel. The discipline of Linguistics may be an important and desirable field of study for people who want to take the mission of global Christianity and contextually-appropriate missions seriously.
Language will always be a crucial part of the mission of God. How do you see God using language to reach the world?
- How many languages do you know? No matter your answer - is there any language you have always wanted to learn?
- Do you now anyone who is fluent in sign language?
- Read Genesis 11:1-9. What interesting change in technology takes place in verse 3? What effect would this have had on Babel's influence among other societies? How would it affect their building abilities? And how would doing this prevent them from being "scattered" over the earth?
- Read Genesis 10:8-12. What other name for Babel - a city built by Nimrod - do we see here?
- Briefly look over the rest of chatper 10: What is being described here? Describe the relationship between Genesis 10 and 11.
- Read Acts 2:1-21. What happens among these Israelites that begins to reverse the effect of Babel?
- Note the many places that the travellers in Jerusalem came from. Knowing that this group of people remains in Jerusalem, forms a church, and is later chased away from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) what does it imply about the reach the gospel could have now?
- Look closely at verses 4, 7, 8, and 11. Does it seem like this gift of tongues is a miracle of speaking (i.e. the disciples suddenly could speak new languages) or a miracle of hearing (i.e. the disciples simply spoke normally and the people around them heard them in different languages)?
- Is there anything in the context here that suggests that the disciples were speaking in a "heavenly" language that no one could understand?
- Check this experience in Acts 2 against 1 Corinthians 14:1-25. What does Paul say about the use of "tongues" or other languages in Church services? What about if this is given as a supernatural gift?
- Read Acts 21:27-22:29. How did language factor into this story? How did Paul use his knowledge of multiple languages to manage a difficult situation?
- Read Revelation 14:6-7. In this passage, who does the Gospel get preached to?
- Read Revelation 5:1-10. Based on the description given by the heavenly beings, how does language factor into the number of people Jesus died for?
- Reflect on the connection between these ideas: Jesus died for the sins of people in every language group. And yet, there are some people groups who still have no access to the gospel of Jesus in their own language. What are the implications of this? What actions might that motivate us towards?