In this series on a theology of Bible translation, we are setting forth foundational propositions about God, the Scriptures, and the languages of the world.
As we explore these topics, I hope you will come away with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the task of translating the Scriptures, especially in all the languages of the redeemed (Revelation 5:9).
1. God Reigns
We began our discussion of translation with the Author and Sustainer of the task.
Throughout the Scriptures, we read the refrain, “The LORD 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.”
When we consider these verses and many similar passages, we see that God reigns, and He reigns by His word.
Some have proposed that we begin our theology by focusing on the fact that God communicates. However, I prefer to focus on His sovereignty because God 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.
2. God Reveals Himself by His Word
God 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 multiple.
When God spoke to them, He was revealing Himself to them as their God while communicating to them that they were His people and that they were to live under His blessing and according to His will.
From Eden to the new heaven and earth of Revelation 21, we see in Scripture that God reveals Himself to His covenant people by the spoken word. Yet God intended to give His people something more than His spoken Word.
3. God Entrusted His Written Word to His People by His Prophets
For centuries God was pleased to communicate directly with his people. When God called Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, for instance, He spoke from the burning bush.
When Moses and the Israelites reached Mount Sinai, God spoke to them directly from the mountain. Then Moses wrote down God’s instructions for the sake of the people.
When Moses ascended the mountain the next time, God supernaturally inscribed the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone. Moses referred to the inscription as being written “by the finger of God” (Deuteronomy 9:10).
It’s noteworthy that the writings of Moses were not only for the people of Israel in the wilderness but also for future people of God. In 1 Corinthians 10:11, the apostle Paul wrote: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” Paul asserts that the Scriptures are for all of God’s people, even those living at the end of the age.
From Moses at Mount Sinai to John on the isle of Patmos, the Scriptures reveal that God instructed His prophets to write His Word for the people of God.
4. God Commands His People to Read, Preach, and Teach the Scriptures in Their Own Languages
Moses wrote the first Scriptures for the sake of the people of Israel. No sooner had he written down the instructions of God, he read it to the people at the foot of Mount Sinai. And he exhorted and taught them as well.
The public reading of the Scriptures followed by exhortation and instruction continued through the centuries. In fact, in 1 Timothy 4:13, the apostle Paul exhorts Timothy to be devoted to this practice at the church in Ephesus. He wrote, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”
From the first century churches until today, God’s people have read the Scriptures corporately, followed by preaching and teach.
Furthermore, the command to read the Scriptures aloud as part of corporate worship is the scriptural imperative behind translation. When believers gather for worship, they need the Scriptures in their own language if they are to read them aloud for the edification of their church.
5. God Commands His People to Proclaim the Gospel to the Nations in Their Own Languages
Let’s now consider the fifth and final proposition.
In Mark 16:15, Jesus told his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”
When Jesus met with His disciples in Galilee, He commissioned them, pronouncing what has become known as the Great Commission. We read in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
When speaking about the Holy Spirit, Jesus mentioned again that His disciples were to proclaim the gospel as His witnesses in Acts 1:8, where we read: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus commanded His disciple to proclaim the gospel, but he didn’t specifically address the issue of language. Should they proclaim the gospel in Aramaic and Greek? Should they also proclaim it in other languages.
When the promised Holy Spirit descended as recorded in Acts 2, the disciples were empowered to speak in different languages. In Acts 2:1-13, the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples in Jerusalem at Pentecost. The disciples were given the miraculous ability to proclaim the mighty works of God in the languages of the various pilgrim groups visiting Jerusalem.
From that day until today, the gospel has been proclaimed to the “nations”, that is, to the distinct ethnic and linguistic groups across the globe, in their respective languages.
It follows that for the gospel to be faithfully and accurately proclaimed and for the believers to grow in their faith through the public reading of Scripture followed by exhortation and teaching, the Scriptures must be translated.
I would contend that the public reading of Scripture is the foundational reason for translation. The Great Commission and the task of reaching all language groups defines the scope of translation.
Unfortunately, looking across the history of the church, a significant obstacle to Bible translation has been the view that one translation was sufficient for various language groups and, consequently, those languages had no need of their own translations.
In our own time, it is not uncommon for some to still suggest that one translation, usually their own, would suffice for those without a translation. (I address this topic in more depth in An Open Letter on Behalf of the Bibleless.)
It is important to recognize the scope of the task of translation, extending to all believers in all languages. Furthermore, it is essential to distinguish the scope of the task from the purpose of the task. As noted above, the purpose of translation is to equip the believers in a given language to read, exhort, and teach in their own language and cultural context, in their own generation and subsequent ones.
These five propositions drawn from the Scriptures provide a framework for understanding the importance of Bible translation and its place in the purposes of God for His people.
God reigns over His people through His Word, spoken and written. Furthermore, 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 His Scriptures—reading, preaching, and teaching them.
It is essential to bear in mind that God’s purposes are greater than our own language and our preferred version of the Bible. Jesus Christ has redeemed a people for God from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9). He is building them into his people, his bride, the church.
It follows that the proclamation of the gospel to the nations should be accompanied by the translation of the Scriptures, so that the believers can know the Scriptures and live in obedience to them, regularly reading, exhorting, and teaching them in their corporate worship.
Yet Bible translation is not just a part of missions.
The people of God in every language group, from English and other world languages to the most marginalized people groups, have a need for a translation of Scripture. Furthermore, every translation should be regularly revised.
So, translation is a ministry on behalf of the church in every language and every generation.
Ultimately, we translate for the good of God’s people and for the glory of our God, advancing His reign, a reign that extends even to the depths of our hearts as He speaks by the Holy Spirit and builds up those redeemed by the Lamb.