About 530 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Daniel had a vision of the coming kingdom of Christ. He described what he saw this way:
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Dan 7:13-14 NIV).
God always planned to have a kingdom that included people of all nations and every language. The “eternal gospel” is to be proclaimed to “those who live on the earth — to every nation, tribe, language and people.” (Rev 14:6b NIV). Even on the Day of Pentecost when the resurrection of Christ was first preached in Jerusalem there were Jews present to hear the message from all over the Roman and Mediterranean world, with more than a dozen native languages represented (Acts 2:1-12). Most remarkably, by the Spirit’s power, every person there heard the gospel message in their own language (Acts 2:4-12). On that day, Peter proclaimed from the writings of the prophet Joel that the gift of the Spirit was for “all people” and that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:17, 21). Peter also stated that the promise was for “you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:39 NIV). Even though Peter and the other Jewish believers did not yet completely understand their own Spirit given message, they were affirming that God wanted the message of Christ to go to everyone, everywhere, of every nationality and language.
The early church grew fast in Jerusalem, and all of the first Christians were Jews or converts to Judaism. Yet, even with common Jewish roots, the multi-cultural challenge of having believers from all over the Roman world proved difficult. One of the early problems in the young Jerusalem church involved language and culture, a lapse in communication between the Aramaic speaking local community and the transplanted Jews whose primary language was Greek (Acts 6:1). The problem was unintentional, and was resolved with a good will, but many more difficulties over language and culture lay ahead.
Despite the fact Peter had preached a universal gospel from the very beginning he was quite shocked when the Lord explicitly sent him to share the word of Christ with a non-Jew, the gentile Cornelius. At that time Peter said he finally realized “how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35 NIV). Peter wasn’t the only one who was slow to embrace people who were not just Jews of different cultural flavors, but people who didn’t even share in Judaism. This adjustment to really accepting “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord” as God intended was a real struggle for the church (see Acts 11:1-3). Much of Paul’s writing, especially in Romans and Galatians, dealt with the problem of being able to accept cultural differences that were immaterial to the faith, and not requiring the gentiles to conform to Jewish preferences.
The challenges of reaching across cultural boundaries and dealing with different languages have never gone away. The nature of the gospel is still universal, it is still for all people, and the nature of God is also unchanged, he wants people of every language to hear the message in an understandable way so that they too can call on the name of the Lord. On that first day of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, Peter and the others didn’t have to go anywhere to reach a multi-cultural and multi-lingual crowd. The crowd was right there in Jerusalem. Likewise today, most Christians in America don’t have to travel to foreign nations to find people of other languages and other cultures, many of them have already come here.
America’s most recent immigrants are from nations in Asia, and the Middle East, and Africa, and some from Europe, but most of all from Mexico. No matter what one’s political views may be regarding the nation and immigration policies, the Bible speaks clearly to God’s desire for his message to go to people of every language from every nation. First and foremost, like Paul, we should be willing to set aside all personal and cultural preferences and “become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Cor 9:22-23 NIV).
Sadly, in many communities of the West and Southwest, there are English speaking churches of all types that are shrinking away in the midst of an increasingly Spanish speaking population. In too many instances there is not only no plan for reaching the newer arrivals with the gospel, there is little desire to do so. The desire to share the gospel with all must come first and foremost, or cultural and linguistic boundaries will be not just difficult but insurmountable.
Many times I have experienced personal frustration with the limitations imposed by not speaking someone else’s language. It is certainly difficult to teach or counsel someone if you don’t have a real command of their language. In some settings, as for example visiting believers in the Philippines or Africa or elsewhere, it may be possible to teach groups of people with the assistance of a translator (see 1 Corinthians 14:27-28). However, that is always an accommodation and far from ideal. Teaching on a personal level in a language one hasn’t mastered is even more difficult. For most of us high school Spanish, even if we have that, is not sufficient to understand and teach Spanish speakers in a comprehensible way. Again, while not ideal, enlisting the aid of someone else who does speak the language of the student(s) as a translator may be necessary.
Over the years I have from place to place seen a number of people in congregations who really couldn’t understand what was going on around them, because they didn’t speak English or weren’t proficient in it. In some cases someone else in the congregation, perhaps a relative, or perhaps an American who had some modicum of knowing a second language, might offer extra encouragement in a class or serving as a translator from time to time, but how challenging it is to sit in a congregation and seek the knowledge of God with people you can’t really talk to! There is a real need for us to seek ways to encourage and teach believers among us who are not proficient in English, and to reach the lost who speak other languages as well (again, see 1 Corinthians 14).
In order to reach immigrant populations we need to learn to value and take advantage of bilingual members, and those who are bilingual among us need to be apt students of the scriptures and ready to teach others. Congregations need to be ready to use bilingual members to teach classes to non-native students, in their own language. There may be times and places where it is appropriate to share facilities for more than one Lord’s Day meeting, having assemblies that feature lessons in languages other than English. Sometimes congregations may need to have a lesson that is interpreted for the benefit of non-English speaking members, or vice versa.
In some of our American communities there might be as potentially fruitful a work among Filipinos as in the villages of the island nation itself, but language and cultural differences make it difficult to reach many of the first generation arrivals. Even when they come as believers, too often they are essentially asked to be still and be quiet because of communication difficulties. The same can be said of people from a long list of nations who have come here for better opportunities, some of them already members of churches of Christ due to overseas preaching activities. If we do believe in God’s plan, we are challenged to work out ways of communicating the gospel to the multitudes of different nationalities and languages that surround many of us locally, as well as supporting the preaching of the message in other lands. Thankfully, in many cases, there are native language Bibles available, and in some cases even parallel text bilingual Bibles, as well as in some languages translations of tracts and other study materials.
The Bible has (as of 2002) been translated into 392 languages, the New Testament into 1012 more.(according to the International Bible Society). When smaller portions of Bible translation are included, at least some portion of the scriptures has been translated into 2287 languages (again, as of 2002). Meanwhile, ethnologue.com currently catalogues 6912 known living languages. Even at this time, there are literally thousands of languages representing millions of people who do not have a single text of scripture printed in their own language. For most of us though, the challenge isn’t to get the gospel into the language of an Indonesian ethnic group, the challenge is to deal with languages and cultures already heavily represented in our own midst.
According to the Census Bureau, today there are more than 44 million people of hispanic origin in the U.S. and of course the number is growing faster than the population at large. There are about 15 million people of Asian origin in the U.S., and again that number is growing. As Peter learned with Cornelius, some of these people would call on the name of the Lord if given an understandable opportunity to do so, and God wants them to have the opportunity.
The very real difficulty of crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries is aptly demonstrated in several of the stories of Paul’s travels, but none more so than the Lycaonian incident in Lystra, that resulted in Paul first being hailed as a deity and then being stoned (Acts 14:11-19). Nevertheless, despite some language issues and a vast cultural divide, a healthy church was started among those people, and later they contributed a young worker named Timothy to the gospel cause. As we turn our attention to the unsaved of other cultures that surround us, others like Timothy may step up to fill the gap and take on some of the work, becoming faithful servants who will in turn encourage brethren, instruct churches, and do the work of an evangelist across the linguistic and cultural divide. Crossing the barriers of language and culture can be hard, embarrassing, and frustrating, but the gospel imperative demands that the church reaches out to everyone, of every nation and every language, that by all means some may be saved.Share this article: