The Gospel According to Language
The Gospel According to Language
Anja’s encounter with language in the video is one of frustration and opportunity. On the one hand she experienced loneliness and isolation because of language; on the other, she had the thrill of overcoming the barrier and sharing her faith. The world is fragmented. This is the reality we face as the church, seeking to cross cultures to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. But language, its frustrations and opportunities, is not merely and incidental inconvenience to be overcome. The story of language is the story of the Gospel. And the story of every Anja sent from our churches enters into the Gospel story that awaits its ending.
God’s Love Language
In the Garden of Eden there was no communication breakdown like we suffer today. God spoke to Adam and Eve and they spoke to each other. Language was something that united God with humans as they could freely and fully relate together. Intrinsic to God’s good creation is making us communicating creatures, just like he communicates. In Eden, God’s people were united in their language to worship and obey God.
Speaking for Ourselves
After the Fall in Genesis 3, the beauty of a united human language for worship was ruined in the story of Babel Genesis 11. Humans were still united in their language (Gen 11v1), but they were united to sin: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’” (v4) The human heart took the extraordinary ability to speak the same language and used it to defy God. Man used to be united in language to worship. Now they were united in language to sin.
God responded with a new curse for humanity (v7): “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’” Have you ever felt the confusion of not understanding someone’s language? You have experienced Babel. God responded to man’s uniting in language for sin by dividing their language to restrain them. At Babel the course of world history was changed as God divided us in our language.
We know that the rest of the Bible shows us God’s unfolding plan to reverse the curse that sin brought. How did God reverse the curse of Babel? How do we get back to the point where humanity can be united in language to worship again?
One Language, Under God
We don’t have to wait long to find out. In Genesis 12 God spoke to Abram and the beginning of the promise to him is the beginning of the reversal of Babel: “I will make you a great nation.” (Genesis 11v2) At Babel the nations were scattered and in here God promises to create a new nation that will be one in worship.
The Israelite people, as they came to be, would of course speak the same language. They would be united in language to worship, like it was in Eden. Out of the Exodus God gathered his people, he told them how to live, and in their united language they were to put it into practice.
The problem was that Israel didn’t faithfully worship God with their united language. And so God punished them by promising to take them into exile. Why was exile such a terrible thing? One of the curses of exile which we don’t often think about would be the confusion of Babel all over again: Jeremiah 5v15 “I am going to bring upon you a nation from far away… it is an ancient nation, a nation whose language you do not know, nor can you understand what they say.” They would be ruled by a people who would confuse them and who would not worship God. God divided language to punish.
The Lingering Curse
The situation didn’t get any better when they returned from exile. Nehemiah anguished over Israel becaus they had married into all kinds of nations. Nehemiah lamented that “half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples.” (Nehemiah 13v24) How were God’s people going to worship him if they couldn’t understand each other and couldn’t understand the laws of God? The curse of Babel remained. Language was divided in sin.
Whispers about Speaking
During this time there were whispers of hope, and whispers of global worship. Isaiah 66v18: “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and see my glory.” Zepheniah prophesied what God would do to language (3v9): “At that time I will change the speech of the peoples [nations] to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.” The nation’s languages would become pure because they would use them to worship God. God would unite the nations in their language so that the would be united in worship. Babel’s curse would be reversed.
Acts Speaks Loudly of Words
If Jesus is the answer to the curses of Genesis, how is the curse of Babel reversed by him? The big moment came in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Jesus had told his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit to give them power so that they could be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. In Acts 2v4 the Spirit came in power and enabled them to speak in other languages. God was dealing with the curse of Babel by the power of his Spirit through the disciples. God had chosen this day carefully as “there were devout Jews from ever nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” They were amazed because, v8, they were each hearing the disciples proclaim Christ in their own language.
By sending out his disciples to proclaim the gospel in all languages, a task that continues today, Jesus unites the world’s languages in worship.
The Language of the Lamb
And yet, not all languages have heard the gospel of Jesus, yet. Not all can call on the name of the Lord. What is more, the curse of Babel still bothers us. Today, God’s global church is more truly global than at any point in history. But still we are scattered, divided by oceans and political borders and cultures. Cross-cultural missionaries labour against the curse of Babel to share Christ.
The final piece of the puzzle comes in Revelation 7. In v9 John looked and saw a great crowd that no one could count filled with people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Every language is there. Why were they there? At Babel the nations gathered and with one language defied God. Here, the nations gather and with one language worship God (v10).
As we send our missionaries to labour in language study, as we engage in the vital and tireless task of Bible translation, we live out the Gospel of language, and eagerly anticipate the love language of Eden restored.
By Phil Tinker