It is essential to understand the ministry of the Holy Spirit in order to fully appreciate the importance of Bible translation.
God the Father works through the Holy Spirit to minister in each and every human language, communicating his truth in order to transforming the hearts of God’s people.
It follows that the Holy Spirit is the power of the triune God ministering in our hearts through translation.
In this first article, we’ll look at three aspects of the Holy Spirit’s ministry, focusing on language and the Scriptures. In the second part, we’ll look at the events of Pentecost and the continuing work of the Spirit in the languages of the nations.
May you be encouraged by the powerful workings of the Holy Spirit, who goes ahead of us, moving all hearts, despite the multitude of languages, to implant the singular truth of the Gospel.
1. The Holy Spirit works through human language
God’s creation proclaims his glory, and his works reveal his power (Ps 19:1-4).
God reveals his presence to humanity in various ways, from storms and earthquakes to plagues. After the first three plagues, the magicians in Egypt remarked that these events were the “finger of God” (Exod 8:19). They understood that the God of the Israelites was demonstrating his power, and they anticipated that a more powerful display might come.
However, when God works in the lives of his people, he works through the Holy Spirit to communicate propositional truth in their respective languages.
The Spirit communicates the truth of the Gospel, enabling believers to comprehend and learn from God in their own language (1 Cor 2:10-14).
Furthermore, this work of the Spirit is a unique privilege of those who have been saved by grace through faith and have “a new heart” (Ezek 36:26-27; 1 Cor 2:12).
Jesus promised his disciples that, after his death and resurrection, he would send the Holy Spirit to remind them of what he had taught them and to lead them into an even greater understanding of God’s purposes (John 14:26; 16:13-14).
The Spirit works in every believer’s heart, teaching, convicting, and comforting. And this profound ministry to our soul is done through our own language.
2. The Holy Spirit caused the Scriptures to be written in human language
God worked by the Holy Spirit to enable his prophets to preserve his truth in written form. The apostle Peter wrote that the Holy Spirit empowered the prophets to write a message from God (2 Pet 1:21).
In the Epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul adds that the Jewish people were entrusted with “the actual words of God” (Romans 3:2 NASB).
When God directed Moses to write, the Spirit moved in his heart in Hebrew, leading him to write in Hebrew and not Egyptian or Midian, two other languages he knew.
When the Spirit moved Daniel to write, he wrote his prophesies in two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic. The Spirit directed him to write in both languages, presumably because the Jews in Babylon spoke both languages.
Finally, when the Apostle John was on the Isle of Patmos, he was led to write an account of his visions in the Greek language. Greek was the language of the churches that John desired to encouraged with his words.
However, there is one occasion when God communicated in writing, but not in a way that everyone could understand. When God wanted to announce his impending destruction of Babylon in Daniel 5, a hand wrote a message on the wall which the king and his officials could not grasp. It was only Daniel, the prophet with the “spirit of the holy gods”, who could understand the message (Dan 5:11).
When God wants to bless his people, the Spirit guides his prophets to write in their respective languages, for them and their community to clearly comprehend.
3. The Holy Spirit creates a desire to know God and his word
When the Holy Spirit brings individuals to faith, the Spirit creates in the believer a desire to know God and the truths of Scripture.
The prophet Jeremiah recounts God’s testimony to this spiritual rebirth in Jeremiah 24:7, “I will also give them a heart to know Me, for I am the LORD; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me wholeheartedly.”
The psalmist testifies to his longing to know God’s word in Psalm 119:97, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day”
The psalmist is also aware of his inability to fully know and appreciate the Scriptures. In Psalm 119:18, he asks God, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”
The longing of the English people to know God and his word was not met by the Latin Bible. In approximately 1370, John Wycliffe and his colleagues at Oxford University began translating the Bible into English. They eventually produced the first, complete Bible in English around 1380.
In the prologue to their translation, they noted that many who didn’t know Latin were crying out for the Scriptures in their own language. They wrote, “the commoners cry after holy writ, to know it, and keep it, with great cost and peril of their lives.”
I would contend that their longing for the Scriptures in their own language, English, was an expression of the moving of the Spirit in their hearts, producing a desire to know God’s word that could only be satisfied by the translated Scriptures.
The importance of the ministry of Bible translation cannot be fully appreciated unless we grasp its place in the larger work of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit ministers in each and every language, whether through the spoken or written word of God.
The Bible translator has a small but crucial part in the greater work of the Spirit, equipping the Church with the written word in response to the Spirit and to advance the work of the Spirit in the hearts of others.
In the next article, we’ll look at the events of Pentecost and the continuing work of the Spirit in the languages of the nations.
And let me leave you with this encourage thought—the Spirit not only works in our hearts, regardless of our language, but the Spirit also intercedes on our behalf before our heavenly Father, with an intensity to profound to be expressed in human words!