Imagine if you will a bridge. The bridge is not especially dangerous, but it does span a deep, dark chasm. On one side of the chasm you stand. On your side of the chasm things are just swell. You’re happy, comfortable, well fed. The streets are smooth and the air is clear. Life, in a nutshell, is very good.
On the other side of the chasm live many people who suffer daily. They don’t have enough to eat, and the weather is terrible. They are cold, and where there are streets, they’re nothing but muddy ruts in the ground. Not like that matters, because they have to walk everywhere. The people suffer, yes, but they have always lived like this. They think this is the best life has to offer.
They can see the bridge from their side, but they have no idea what life is like on the other side. Perhaps they hear the occasional peal of laughter from your side, or the smell of fresh baked bread. We might shout across the chasm to tell them how they can live as happily as we do. But the chasm is wide, and they never hear everything we have to say. They always miss part of the message, so they never really understand the deeper meaning of what we’re trying to tell them.
On your side, you find yourself feeling bad for the poor people across the bridge. You want to reach them with your words, but the chasm gets in the way. And as long as they live in ignorance of a better life, they will continue to suffer. If only you could tell them how great things are – and how they can live a happy life themselves – in a way they would truly, deeply understand.
This is a very clear way of understanding the complex issue of Bible translation. You, on the nice side of the bridge, are able to read the Word of God in the language you grew up speaking, and therefore you can enjoy the blessings that scripture can bring in a very personal way. In short, you can hear God speaking in your own native language, your “heart” language. But those on the other side of the bridge cannot and, what’s worse, they don’t even know what they are missing. Life for them, as bad as it may be, is all they know. How can you expect them to change the way they live if they don’t really understand why they should do it? But that’s what we do when we provide Bibles in a language that isn’t their native tongue. They may understand it clearly enough, but it lacks the personal impact that it would have in their heart language. We can’t ask them to learn another language just to read the Bible. We can’t ask them to cross the bridge.
We must go to them. We must cross that bridge ourselves. There is no other way.
If you were to propose marriage to someone, you would not speak a foreign language. You would speak their language. If you wanted to tell your child you loved them, it would be in their native tongue. So it is when God speaks to us, when he tells us he loves us. We must hear it in our own language.
But there are thousands of languages on the Earth. True, God could have simply created His word in every language, but instead He chose to leave that task to us. Jesus’s commandment in Luke 10:27 “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” means we must care for those on the other side of the chasm. And in the real world, that means we must translate the Bible for them.
The Bible is full of examples where God spoke to people, and in their native language, and I believe this is no accident. He was trying to drive a point home, that you will hear His word best if you hear it in your native language. God is very clear on this point. For example;
- God spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
- God spoke to Moses, and later Joshua, as the Jews fled Egypt.
- God spoke to many prophets throughout the Old Testament.
- When Jesus was born, God sent angels to tell us the good news.
- At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit spoke to everyone in their own language.
- God spoke to the apostle Paul in his native tongue of Aramaic. Paul spoke Greek and Latin, but God chose his heart language.
There are more examples if you look for them. The main point, however, is that God wants to communicate with us. There is no point where God speaks to people and needs a translator.
When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He left the task to us to spread the Good News. Later, at Pentecost, the disciples were given the power to speak in tongues, and with that they went into the world to spread the message.
A man approached me once at a book signing and told me how he had gone to Wycliffe’s linguistic school, but chose not to complete the program because it was too much work. He decided he would go overseas and help people directly. I told him that he might have some success at first but, like the parable of the seeds in Matthew 13, much of his seed would be eaten by birds and choked by weeds and die on the rocks because he didn’t have good soil to plant in.
If we go into the mission field only to dig wells, build churches, erect schools and provide food, we’re missing the basic point. In effect, we’re giving the people fish, but not teaching them how to fish. They don’t have that “good soil”, and so what we do for them has no deeper meaning. But if they have the Good News in a language that speaks to their hearts, then they can hear God’s voice themselves. They can discover what God has always been trying to tell us through the majesty of creation, through His prophets, and through His holy word.
In Revelation 14:6, John says “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language and people.”
I’m not sure how God could be more clear!