In the first article in this series, I proposed that the importance of the ministry of Bible translation cannot be fully appreciated unless we grasp its relationship to the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit ministers in each and every language, both through the spoken and written Word of God.
It follows that the translators of Scripture have a critical part in the greater work of the Spirit, equipping the Church for the ministry of the written Word in response to the Spirit and to advance the work of the Spirit.
In this article, we will continue to reflect on the Holy Spirit and the translation of the Bible in the languages of the nations.
1. The Holy Spirit empowers for ministry in the languages of the nations
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit miraculously empowered the disciples to declare the mighty deeds of God in the languages of the pilgrims in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-12). Furthermore, when Peter stepped forward to preach the gospel to the crowds, he spoke in Greek, not Aramaic.
Peter could have preached easily in Aramaic, the primary language of the Jews. It was, no doubt, the principal language which Jesus used with Peter and the disciples, and the language in which Jesus did most of his teaching.
To put this in more context, remember that when Jesus spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus, he spoke in the “Hebrew dialect”, which refers to either Aramaic or Hebrew (Acts 26:14 NASB). Furthermore, when Paul spoke to the angry crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 21:40), he also spoke in the same “Hebrew dialect” in order to highlight the fact that he was a member of the Jewish community, one with credibility and worthy of being heard after allegedly desecrated the Temple.
The fact that Jesus and his apostles would use one language among themselves, such as Aramaic, and then Greek with those outside their community reveals that they did not view their own language as the only appropriate language for proclaiming the gospel. And as the believers in Jerusalem traveled into the Greek-speaking world, they preached and taught more and more in Greek.
Over the next few generations, as the Church continued to spread, the preaching of the gospel led to Christian communities in areas where Greek was not well known. The believers in these areas began to the translate the Scriptures into such languages as Latin, Syriac, Gothic, Armenian, and Sahidic Coptic in Egypt.
The miraculous outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, leading to praise and proclamation in the languages of the pilgrims in Jerusalem, eventually lead to countless churches across the known world, churches that preached the Word and eventually translated the Scriptures in those languages and more.
2. The Holy Spirit guides the translation of the Word
From Pentecost to today, the Spirit works in and through the Church to proclaim the gospel in the languages of the nations. Furthermore, the Spirit moves in the hearts of believers to enable them to both believe spiritual truths and teach them to others. Even at the translation table, the Spirit has a critical role in the hearts of translators as they work at his prompting.
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus encouraged his disciples with the promise that he was sending the Holy Spirit. He explained that the Spirit would convict the world of their sinfulness (John 16:8). The Spirit confronts us with an overwhelming realization of our guilt before a righteous Judge and the inescapability of our judgment. As noted in our first article, the Spirit does this work in every heart and in every language.
Jesus also explained to the disciples that the Spirit would be a Helper, reminding them of what they had heard and teaching them what they would need to know (John 14:26). Several decades later, the apostle John extended the encouragement he and the other disciples had received, noting that the Holy Spirit continues to teach all believers (1 John 2:27).
The apostle Paul also noted that the Holy Spirit enables believers to understand the gospel and even gives them the words to speak so that they explain “spiritual truths” (1 Cor 2:12-13).
Finally, Jesus also told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would give them the words they need to say (Luke 12:12). Paul may have had this work of the Spirit in mind when he asked for prayer that he might be given the words to say as he proclaimed the gospel (Eph 6:19).
It follows that the Spirit that works to brings believers to a profound knowledge of the truths of God and guides them to the words to express the glorious gospel of Christ, would also answer the simple prayers of translators as they seek to make the mysteries of the Word shine forth in a new language and community.
3. The Holy Spirit builds up the Church through the translated Word
As the Church grew and the gospel spread beyond Jerusalem, the Christians began to translate the words of Christ so they could declare his wonderous works and the salvation found in him.
As noted earlier, when Jesus spoke to Saul on the road to Damascus, he spoke in Aramaic. Paul later recounted his encounter with his risen Savior in Greek (Acts 22:7; 26:14-15). In Gal 1:10-17, Paul also explains that he received further revelation from Jesus, which formed the basis of what he taught. This revelation may also have been in Aramaic, but Paul communicated what he learned in Greek.
Similarly, the apostles Matthew and John were Aramaic-speaking Jews. They probably interacted with Jesus primarily in Aramaic. However, the Holy Spirit moved them and Mark as well to write their gospel accounts in Greek, with only an occasional Aramaic word or phrase.
We don’t know why the Holy Spirit moved the writers of the New Testament to write primarily in Greek. However, Paul’s teaching in his first letter to the Corinthians may provide some insights.
In 1 Cor 14, Paul rebuked the believers in Corinth because of how they spent their time in corporate worship. He noted that some of the believers spoke in languages that no one else understood, without any attempt to interpret what they said for the rest of the congregation. He condemned this practice, saying he would rather speak five words that were understood than ten thousand words that no one understood, because he might be able to teach with those five words (1 Cor 14:19).
The apostle insisted that everything should be interpreted for the benefit of those present. He specifically mentioned that believers were edified when they comprehended the message. Furthermore, any unbelievers who might be attending would also comprehend the gospel and come to faith in Christ. On the contrary, if no one interpreted what was said, the congregation would not be edified and those who were visiting would consider the group out of their minds.
Hence, the Spirit builds the Church through the translated Word because the Spirit works in our hearts as we comprehend and, based on that comprehension, respond in faith to spiritual truth.
God reigns in the hearts of his redeemed as the Holy Spirit works through the Word—the spoken Word, the written Word, and the translated Word.
The Spirit moves in the hearts of a given ethnicity and ministers to them in their own language, bringing them to faith and placing a desire in their hearts for the written Word.
When someone desires to have the Scriptures in their language, shouldn’t we encourage them and pray for their efforts, recognizing that the Holy Spirit puts a love for the Word in our hearts?
Let us remember to pray for those translating God’s Word. May God the Father work in and through them by the power of the Spirit, allowing them to grasp more fully and communicate more powerfully the glorious truths of the Word.
May they find comfort and strength to persevere as they remember that the Spirit can use their efforts to accomplish more than they could ever hope or image to the glory of our triune God.
May we all be encouraged by the power of the Holy Spirit to communicate and transform hearts, even our own, with spiritual truths to the glory of God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.