The Powerful and Permanent Tool of Language :: Gospel Fellowship Association Missions

The Powerful and Permanent Tool of Language

Forrest McPhail
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From Creation until the Tower of Babel incident recorded in Genesis 11 (around 2200 B.C.), mankind had one language and culture. When God confused mankind’s language, it meant that He created the beginnings of the major language families. Some studies list 14 major language families.1 Others identify between 75 and 150 language families as the criteria get more specific.2 The bottom line is that in order to obey the Great Commission, God’s people must often master communication tools in tongues that are not originally their own.

Language and culture are intertwined.

Differing languages tend to separate people groups according to their own habits, ideas, and worldviews. To know a language is usually associated with a general knowledge of the people who speak that language. To know that language is to be acquainted with the culture.3

The division of mankind into people groups that multiplied over time was both an act of judgment and an act of mercy. It was an act of judgment in that God kept mankind from a unified total rebellion, forcing them to accept the opposite of their sinful ambitions and thus fulfilling His plan.

It was an act of mercy because individual groups and cultures would now place checks upon one another. Satan could no longer incite sinful mankind to unite against God as one body. Of course, Satan will go all-out in the last days to accomplish his goals through the Antichrist but will ultimately fail (see Revelation 6-20).

Jesus commands us to overcome the limitations of Babel.

Until the tribulation begins, the Church of Jesus Christ is given a clear command which we call the Great Commission:

“As the Father has sent Me, so I send you. Go therefore into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature so that they repent and know forgiveness of sins. Make disciples of all nations in Christ’s name, 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” (see Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:25; Luke 24:47; and John 17:18; 20:21). 

To accomplish this command of making disciples of all nations and preaching Christ to every creature, God’s people must bridge cultures. They must leave their own cultural settings and languages or dialects and go to other peoples they don’t already understand. This means followers of Jesus must learn foreign languages.

To know a people well enough to make disciples among them and teach them to observe the ways of Jesus, we must be able to communicate with them well. We must be able to understand them. Jesus commands His people to overcome the limitations that have resulted from the confusion of language at Babel. He sent His Spirit to help us do this for His glory!

Practical conclusions about language and missions

How do these truths affect our understanding of missions and our attitude and outlook about language and ministry?

1. Learning languages is part of the Great Commission.

This is a part of the job description of those who engage in cross-cultural missions for Jesus’ sake. While it may be difficult, it is a privilege to give our minds and hearts to acquiring the means of communicating eternal truth.

2. Learning languages is key to effective disciple-making.

In most situations in cross-cultural ministry, learning a second or third language is necessary to “declare the mystery of Christ … to make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:3-4). Speaking through translators has its uses, and God works through this means at times, but in genuine disciple-making, the norm needs to be mastering language so that we have the ability to understand and speak eternal truth with the greatest clarity.

3. Jesus expects us to exercise self-denial and maintain the self-discipline necessary to master a foreign language.

Few people are “naturals” at language acquisition. Most have to be determined and disciplined by God’s grace to make it happen. This is another application of the Great Commission principle of 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.

4. Jesus promised to give us the grace that we need to accomplish language acquisition.

Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit to empower us to accomplish the Great Commission. This enablement includes the discipline of mind and heart to learn language sufficiently well to explain Christ where He leads us to go (Luke 24:49).

5. We must embrace language acquisition as crucial to our ministry, a key permanent ministry tool.

Once we learn a language, that language and the culture embodied in it become part of us. It is no small thing to be enabled long-term for ministry to another people group through language!

6. All believers need to see the potential for ministry that language acquisition can have, no matter where we live and serve.

Think of all the ethnic minorities (and majorities!) in the world. What if you were able to speak freely with one or more of these people who would otherwise be cut off because of their inability in English?

Many of us live in places that are quite cosmopolitan. Some of us live where multiple languages can be heard in normal life each day. Opportunities abound, and language is the means!

Can you imagine what God might do if 10,000 non-Spanish-speaking American Christians learned Spanish for the sole purpose of being witnesses among Spanish-speaking immigrants? What if thousands of Americans learned Hindi, Urdu, or Arabic and strategically lived among or near pockets of these peoples?

And no! Google Translate and AI technology will never allow us to bypass the need. The fulfillment of the Great Commission requires God’s people to overcome language barriers for His Name’s sake.;;