Acts 2:6-12 (NLT)
“When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers.
They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!” They stood there amazed and perplexed. “What can this mean?” they asked each other.”
. We hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done! They stood amazed and perplexed, “What can this mean?” they asked each other…”
“What can this mean?” – A great question with a simple, yet profound answer… The Great commission had begun in earnest, powered by the dynamite of the Holy Spirit working within the disciples. The good news of Jesus was going out into all Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth, starting in Jerusalem.
Here the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in different earthly tongues. This powerful sign showed that God was no longer keeping the good news of Jesus to the Hebrew nation; through the languages of the visitors to Jerusalem it was to spread across the whole world. The disciples were enabled to proclaim the message of Jesus in a manner that made it easy for the visitors to understand.
And that’s the key message for today’s church… Clear communication of the good news of Jesus in a language that people can understand is incredibly important, for without being able to hear in their own language, how can people understand and respond to the message?
Why do we create unnecessary stumbling blocks in the words and phrases we use? I believe it’s because it stems from spiritual laziness on our part; it’s easier to use materials produced in another culture because they already exist and are in the marketplace, even if they don’t meet the needs of our context. Either that or it’s because we simply don’t know anything different. In Christendom, it was assumed everyone knew the Christian message. As we are in the transition period between Christendom and Post-Christendom, we are starting to see the effects of generations of people growing up without a working knowledge of Christian themes and messages.
Why the Need for Cultural Tongues?
Language itself is not just about “geographical tongues” such as French, English or Spanish. Language doesn’t have to be that of a different country, for even within a particular “geographical tongue” we have “cultural tongues” which exist in many different forms – the language of the street, the language of the ghetto, that of the various cultural groups / faith paths and so on amongst those who live in our street / village / town and city.
Allow me to expand further on the whole issue of using “cultural tongues”… Imagine I’m a street preacher (I’m not by the way) and someone walks past me. I yell out to them rather loudly, “Have you been washed in the blood of the Lamb?” What would someone raised in a post-Christendom mindset with no understanding of that phrase actually hear?
- That I’m rude for shouting (our mannerisms and body language are part of how we communicate too!)
- That I am some sort of barbaric cult which covers oneself in the blood of a freshly slaughtered sacrifice (something the early church was accused of due to misunderstandings by those in authority)
Both of these show ineffectual communication of the message of Jesus. Yes we may have said the words in a language common to us – English, but they have very different meanings depending upon the hearer.
Or how about this, “Repent of your sins and turn to Jesus and you will be saved”. What does the hearer actually hear?
- Repent? “What’s that then?”
- Syns? “But I’m not on a diet!”
- Sins? “Oh you mean like murder, or those horrible deeds of the great sinners like Jimmy Saville et al. ? Sin’s certainly not something I do.”
- Turn to Jesus … saved? “Sounds like some end of the world cult which I’d better steer clear of those”. Or worse, “I don’t want to be saved if it means going around like you.”
“Gewurþe ðin willa”
I was at a rather large Christian event in Lincoln Showground a few Summers ago and I met a lady at the expo there who was incensed at my writing of liturgy and materials in the language of a people group who are traditionally seen as “enemies” of the Church (sadly). She said I was “mixing light and dark” and that I should just tell them plainly “Jesus is Lord!”. I questioned what she meant by her statement “Jesus is Lord!” and how that would work in a foreign country where they spoke not a word of the English language. She just kept on saying, “You need to tell them, ‘Jesus is Lord!'”. I asked her again what would be heard by those who didn’t speak the language. After a few attempts to get her to listen to what I was trying to get across, the other members of the exhibition stand were chuckling as they understood what I was trying to say. Sadly I had obviously failed to communicate the need for clear communication in the language of the hearer – an own goal if ever!
Any person who is planning on working in a foreign country with a different geographical tongue has to do the hard graft of learning it. People learn new languages by listening not just to the languages but also the customs of the people speaking them. It takes time and effort. Sadly for some Christians, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of the “Little Englander Abroad” is manifested in louder and louder speaking (often with audio amplification equipment), in the vain hope that the message may be understood.
By listening to how God speaks to people outside of the Christian communities (something called “Missio Dei” or “Mission of God” – ), and carefully listening to the words being uses in speak about the Divine, we can tailor our own words to break down language barriers.
Explaining the Christian truths in a way people can understand using the words and “tongue” of the culture in which we are found is the most authentic and Christlike way of sharing the message of Jesus, who came as a Jew into the Jewish culture.
Bible Versions & Christianese Literature
What about the version of the Bible we use? Verily if we chooseth to communicate to modern man using a language that be 400 years old, we showeth ourselves utterly out of touch with modern people, and reinforceth a stereotype that Christianity is past its best. As a result, people are put off by the style and not necessarily by the themes and teachings themselves. With so many modern versions of the Bible out there, why revert to a default setting and put unnecessary stumbling blocks in front of other people, even if we find the language of the KJV poetically comforting. Note: I use the KJV in this example only because of my experience with people who are spiritual seekers who have a Bible at home but it’s “an old language one” – I love the poetry in there and especially the unicorns it discusses.
So much of what comes from the pulpit / our conversations, even modern tracts given out to friends / in the street are written in the language of the church, something I call “Christianese”. Who is edified by this in the end? Only those who understand the language – those “in the know”. Hardly useful materials for people who don’t yet know Jesus. I have quite a bit of experience in working in Mind, Body, Spirit fairs as part of a Christian presence (not confrontational !!!). To find literature written in the language of modern spiritual seekers is very difficult, hence the need for me to write our own materials for the stand we had in the fair. Even then some of the Christians on our stand were worried about the language I used, not that it was theologically wrong, just that they didn’t like the cultural tongue it was written in.
Cultural Tongues as a Spiritual Gift
At Pentecost, it was the Holy Spirit who enabled the disciples to speak the language of the people around them, they hadn’t studied it previously. It was a supernatural event, but not a one-off event. The Holy Spirit can enable us to speak the language of the people around us – not in a vulgar way – but in a way that clearly communicates the message of Jesus in an understandable manner.
If you are a follower of Jesus and haven’t already done so, I invite you to ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of tongues, not necessarily “angelic tongues” which you may already have, but for earthly, “cultural tongues” which I believe are more useful for those who do not know the message of Jesus in their culture.
May we so be challenged to think about how we can be agents of edification and transformation in furthering the Kingdom of Heaven in this world, rather than be stumbling blocks to it.
“How is it that we hear them speaking in our own languages declaring the wonderful things God has done?” – Can that be said by others of us in our conversations about Christ?