On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in Jerusalem. They preached fearlessly, and by the end of the day, about three thousand people had been baptized!
In the first article in this series, we looked at how the events that transpired that day reveal much about what the church was and will continue to be until gathered in eternal praise around the throne of God.
In this article, we’ll focus on three implications for today, focusing specifically on the role of language.My hope is that you will also celebrate what happened on the day of Pentecost! And praise the Lord that Pentecost continues!
What was Pentecost?
In the first chapter of Acts, Jesus Christ told his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4). Ten days later, on Pentecost, the disciples were together early in the morning.
As they sat together, a sound like rushing wind came down upon them. Tongues of fire appeared, resting above each of their heads. The Holy Spirit then moved them to speak in languages they didn’t know!
At this moment, it appears that they moved toward the Temple, proclaiming the “mighty deeds of God” in the languages of the Jewish diaspora.
By the time they reached the Temple, there was a great stir and amazement on the part of the pilgrims.
As the crowd grew, Peter stepped forward and launched into a message about Jesus Christ, calling the audience to repent and be baptized in his name. By the end of the day, approximately three thousand have been baptized.
On Pentecost, the church was born by the power of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel.
Observations about the Church and the Gospel
First, note that the church proclaimed the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Before ascending to heaven, Jesus told his disciples that by the power of the Spirit, they would be his witnesses (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8).
On the day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed that he and his fellow disciples had “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured forth this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:33).
Second, the church proclaimed the gospel to the nations.
A few weeks earlier, when Jesus appears to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee, he declared that he had all authority in heaven and on earth. And with that authority, he commissioned his disciples to go to the nations and make disciples from among all of them (Matt 28:18-20).
It is striking that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, a festival when thousands of pilgrims would be in Jerusalem. In so doing, the disciples would be able to proclaim the gospel to pilgrims who would, in turn, take the gospel message home to their respective corners of the Jewish diaspora.
Finally, the church proclaimed the gospel in the languages of the nations.
Among the miraculous events of Pentecost, the most misunderstood is the speaking in the languages of the nations. The disciples spoke in other “tongues” or “languages”, meaning human languages that they didn’t know (Acts 2:4).
Furthermore, in the record of the response of the pilgrims, we learn that they heard the disciples speaking their own languages (Acts 2:6).
To further establish that they were speaking the languages of the visitors to Jerusalem, a pilgrim’s eyewitness testimony is given in which he recounts twice that the disciples spoke in languages associated with various parts of the world but not Galilee (Acts 2:7-11).
Ultimately, the Holy Spirit, working through Peter and the disciples, wanted all those who were assembled to hear the mighty deeds of God in their own languages. It was good news for them to embrace themselves and for them to take with them to their own communities in turn.
3 Implications for Today
The events at Pentecost have implications for today, especially regarding the mission of the church to take the gospel to the nations in their respective languages.
1. The Gospel is to be proclaimed in the languages of the world.
When have you gone to church and heard the pastor read, teach, and preach in Latin?
We accept it as normal that English-speaking churches worship in English. However, there was a time when it was forbidden to use English in church.
John Wycliffe and his associates at Oxford University translated the first Bible in English, an incredible achievement in scholarship and faith. Over a ten-year period, approximately 1380-90, versions of their work appeared and was disseminated, being copied by hand.
However, their work was condemned, and by 1408 it was illegal to own a Wycliffe Bible as well as read, teach, or preach in English.
Wycliffe’s followers, in a pamphlet entitled Wycliffe’s Wicket, argued that have the Scriptures in English couldn’t be heretical because the Holy Spirit moved the apostles to preach in the languages of the nations.
Why then should the Word of God in English be taken from them?
Looking at the events on the day of Pentecost, they saw the clear implication that the gospel should go forth to the nations and in the languages of the nations. In their case, it was English instead of Latin.
Would you consider English a rude or inferior language, unworthy to convey the majestic truths of Scripture?
In the days of William Tyndale, as he translated the New Testament from Greek into English, he encountered this argument from those who loved Latin more than English.
However, the impact of the Bible in English over the centuries reveals that the Holy Spirit works through preaching and translation in English.
Moreover, the Spirit works through any and every language, and so the gospel is to be proclaimed in the languages of the nations!
2. The church is to preach and teach in the language of the church so everyone can fully comprehend the gospel of Christ.
The disciples declared the mighty deeds of the God in the languages of the pilgrims. Then Peter preached powerfully in Greek, calling thousands to repent and believe in Jesus Christ.
The second implication is that the church should continue to preach and teach in the language of the local church and its community, so that everyone might fully comprehend and, thereby, put their faith in Christ and grow in their faith.
Some commentators view the speaking in the languages of the nations as simply the means by which the Spirit gathered the crowds to the disciples. Speaking in their languages was just an effective way to get their attention, but nothing more.
It’s true that speaking to me in English gets my attention, especially if I think that you can’t speak English! And it you stop speaking English once you have my attention, what then? I think I will most definitely stop listening to you!
Rather than a crowd-gathering technique, I think the Spirit moved the disciples to miraculously speak in the languages of the Jewish and Gentile pilgrims to show all that the gospel is for all the nations and is to be preached and taught in their languages!
Furthermore, Peter apparently preached in Greek as he responded specifically to the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea (Act 2:14).
He could have addressed this audience in Aramaic or even Hebrew, if he wanted to emphasis his common Jewish heritage as the Apostle Paul did in Acts 21:40.
However, Peter defended his fellow disciples to the Jews and the pilgrims alike, to the broadest audience. He went on the proclaim the gospel to all those listening, and so it was only appropriate that he used the language that would be the most widely understood—Greek.
It follows from these events that there needs to be consistent, clear, and full teaching in the language of every people group so they can grasp the gospel message and grow in their faith.
3. The proclamation of the gospel is to lead to the translation of the Scriptures.
Millions of Christians meet to worship today, praying to God and singing about their Savior Jesus Christ in their own language. They may even teach and preach in their own language.
But when their pastors or leaders stand up to teach, they hold a Bible in their hand that isn’t in their own language.
As noted earlier, for centuries this was the case in England. The first gatherings of monks and priests would read the Scriptures in Latin and then, as time passed, they began to translate into Old English.
However, it wasn’t until John Wycliffe and his colleagues at Oxford set about translating that we finally had the first English Bible.
One of Wycliffe’s fellow translators was John Trevisa. After being forced to leave Oxford, he wrote about the importance of translation.
He argued simply that if the church is to preach the gospel to the English people, then it should preach in the English language. And if the gospel should be preached in English, then the Scriptures which contain the gospel should be translated into English.
John Trevisa laid out the fullest implication of Pentecost for translation, based on the inevitable progression from gospel proclamation to translation.
Ironically, those who opposed Trevisa and Wycliffe insisted on using Latin. Yet it is unlikely that they realized that the Scriptures in Latin arose from the same desires that were behind Wycliffe and Trevisa’s translations in English!
The Scriptures in Latin didn’t just appear. Latin didn’t have an elevated status alongside Greek and Hebrew because, as some medieval scholars argued, the Latin language was on the sign above Jesus’ head on the cross, with Greek and Hebrew (John 19:20). The presence of Latin on the sign showed it was the language of the Romans, not one of three languages uniquely set apart by God.
In fact, on Pentecost, Latin was one of the many languages spoken, alongside Arabic, Parthian, Egyptian Coptic, and others.
After Pentecost, the gospel spread west to Rome and Carthage, a city situated in modern-day Tunisia. By 200 AD, there was a strong, Latin-speaking church in Carthage.
The best-known leader of the time was Tertullian. He wrote extensively in Latin, defended the Christian faith in Latin, and even quoted from the Scriptures in Latin. All in Latin!
In all likelihood, the first believers in Carthage were Jewish and spoke Greek. They were probably accustomed to reading the Scriptures in Greek. They may have received copies of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and then, in subsequent decades, other portions of the New Testament in Greek.
But from these earliest days, they must have translated their sermons and teaching into Latin for those who didn’t know Greek.
The second generation of the church probably set about writing down their teaching in Latin and even translating the Scriptures. Like other churches in Europe, they may have developed the practice of reading the Scriptures in two languages during their services.
They realized, no doubt, that effective ministry in their context required preaching, teaching, and even translation in the language of Carthage, Latin.
By the third generation of the church in Carthage, the knowledge of Greek appears to be largely in the background, with Latin used as the primary language in the churches.
For example, Tertullian knew of the Bible in Greek and occasionally used a Greek word in his writings, but he was primarily working in Latin.
And being well trained in Latin and understanding the Roman culture, he was able to powerfully defend the church and the gospel in Latin.
So, to build up a group of believers, preach and teaching in their language must lead to translation, whether in Latin in Carthage, in English at Oxford, or in one of the thousands of languages without Scripture today spoken around the world.
Let’s celebrate what happened on the day of Pentecost! And praise the Lord that Pentecost continues!
As the gospel is proclaimed and the mighty deeds of God are declared in the languages of those who don’t know Christ, the power displaced at Pentecost is revealed again!
Celebrating Pentecost should also lead to living with a focus on proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth. What the Spirit began on that day continues until Christ’s return!
Many have yet to hear the gospel, and many who know Christ as their Lord and Savior have yet to see the Scriptures in their language.
Let’s pray for the advance of the gospel, both in preaching and translation, for the establishment of the church among all the peoples! To the glory of God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord!