Bible translation is about far more than choosing a version. With so many Bible translations in English, it is not surprising that our first question about translations is which is best. Yet so many ethnic groups don’t even have their first translation in their language.
For many the thought of Bible translation brings images of missionaries in a remote corner of the world. But the translation of the Scriptures is about more than accomplishing the Great Commission.
I would like for us to step back and see the translation of the Bible in a larger light. And to do that we have to set aside questions about versions and statistics about the numbers of languages in the world. Instead, we need to thoughtfully examine the Scriptures themselves.
Let’s consider what the Scriptures say about God, his word, and his gospel. I have five propositions drawn from the Scriptures to guide us in our study. In this post, I will present the first two and then explore the others in subsequent posts.
These propositions lead us to see that as the Word of God is translated in a new language and cultural context, it is another advance in God’s eternal design to reign in the hearts and lives of his people through his word for their good and his glory.
In short, God reigns, and through translation his reign advances.
1. God Reigns
Let’s begin with God and his relationship with us and all of creation.
Throughout the Scriptures, we read the refrain, “The LORD reigns!” In Psalm 93:1, we read: “The LORD reigns! He is robed in majesty; The LORD has clothed and armed Himself with strength. The world indeed is firmly established; it cannot be moved” (ESV).
In Exoduces 15:18, Moses declares in his song of praise, “The LORD will reign forever and ever.”
We also hear that the Lord reigns in the praises around the throne in heaven. In Revelation 19:6, we read: “And I heard a sound like the roar of a great multitude, like the rushing of many waters, and like a mighty rumbling of thunder, crying out: “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.””
God reigns in many ways, but one unique aspect of his reign is expressed through language and specifically his spoken word.
We read in Psalm 33:8-9, “Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.”
The psalmist notes that God reigns, exercising his authority by simply speaking, even creating by a mere command. He just speaks and the heavens and all their stars are made.
The psalmist is calling to our attention that the first recorded words of God were words used in creation. In Genesis 1:3, God says, “Let there be light.” Here, God exercises his ultimate authority over creation by creating light, and he does it by commanding something to come from nothing, and it happened, because God has all power.
And when God speaks to Adam and Eve, he reveals himself to them as their sovereign, who has all authority over their lives. In Genesis 1:28, he speaks to them and commands, ““Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
When we consider these passages, we see that God reigns and he reigns by his word.
2. God Reveals Himself by His Word
God reigns and expresses his reign in various ways, including by his spoken word. Yet God doesn’t speak simply to exercise his authority. God speaks to reveal himself in the context of a covenant relationship.
When God created the first couple, he intended for them to have a unique relationship with him, knowing him and worshiping him as no other part of creation could. In the context of this relationship, we read in Genesis 1:28 that God blessed them and instructed them that they were to be fruitful and multiply.
When God spoke to them, he was revealing himself to them as their God while communicating to them that they were his people who lived under his blessing and according to his purposes.
Similarly, in the days of Noah, God spoke to him and directed him to save himself and his family from the coming judgment. And after the flood, God again spoke to them and established a covenant. In these events from the life of Noah, we see that God communicates in a personal yet powerful and authoritative way with his people, directing them by his word.
In a similar way, God revealed himself by the spoken word to Abram and commanded him to take his family to Canaan.
When God decided to bring his people out of Egypt and establish a new covenant with them, he spoke to Moses through the burning bush. God directed Moses each step, until Moses returned to Mount Sinai with the entire nation of Israel. And then, in Exodus 19, we read that God tells Moses that he wants the whole nation of Israel to hear his voice and hear for themselves that he speaks to Moses.
Then, in chapter 20, God speaks from the Mount Sinai to the people, and declares that he is the Lord their God who brought them out of Egypt.
When they saw the power of God on display, they drew back in fear. Yet Moses reassured them that God’s display of power was for their good by saying in verses 20: “Do not be afraid,” Moses replied. “For God has come to test you, so that the fear of Him may be before you, to keep you from sinning.”
From Sinai to the Isle of Patmos, we see in Scripture that God reveals himself to his covenant people by his word. Yet God wanted to give his people something more than his spoken word. We will take up the topic of the written Scriptures in our third proposition.
Scripture, the Gospel, and Language
In the next post in this series, we will consider the next propositions. We consider what the Scriptures say about how God entrusted his written word, the Scriptures, to his people through his prophets.
Then we will take up the point that God commands his people to read, preach, and teach the Scriptures in their own languages. The final proposition relates to the gospel message in particular: God commands his people to proclaim the gospel to the nations in their own languages.
With these five propositions, we will have a theological grid which allows us to see the place of the translated Scriptures in the purposes of God. This theological grid also allows us to evaluate competing claims about God, Scripture, and the purposes of translation.
God communicates, and he communicates in the context of his sovereign reign over creation. He speaks with the intention of exercising his authority in the lives of his covenant people. In short, God speaks because he reigns.
God reigns, and God reigns in our hearts as he reveals himself and his purposes to us, including calling us to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. He reigns and directs our lives as we live in submission to him and all that he reveals in the Scriptures.
Based on these truths of Scripture, we translate the Scriptures and proclaim the Gospel in the languages of the nations because our God reigns.
Let us rejoice with the multitudes in Revelation 19:6 and declare, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.”