Many Languages, One God (or why I love Pentecost Sunday)
This Sunday in the liturgical church calendar is the Feast of Pentecost - generally celebrated 50 days after Easter and remembering the account in Acts 2 of the coming of the Holy Spirit:
On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.
At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers.
They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!”
--Acts 2:1-11, New Living Translation
The American church tends to make a big deal of Christmas - the coming of Christ to earth as a baby - and rightly so. God's incarnation is definitely something to celebrate with joy! But when I read this account from Acts 2, it makes me wonder why we don't rejoice with equal fervor for the coming of the Holy Spirit! Where are all the Pentecost carolers, cookies, and cards?? (Note: I have taken matters into my own hands and am making this a thing, so if you've signed up for ministry mailings, you will be receiving a Pentecost greeting card!)
So, what is so amazing about this overlooked feast day? Why does it matter that the Holy Spirit came to the believers and, as his first action, endowed them with the ability to speak every language in their [known] world?
The Holy Spirit No One Expected
The Holy Spirit is not a new character making his dramatic appearance halfway through the New Testament. He's there in Genesis 1, hovering over the primordial deep before creation. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit of God moves in mighty ways, but doesn't say very much. In fact, the Hebrew word for "spirit" can also be translated "wind" or "breath" - a force of life, gentle or powerful, who can't be seen but whose effects are undeniable.
In the beginning of Acts, the group of believers (who haven't even decided yet to call themselves 'Christians') is scared. They've seen their Messiah, whom they believed would overthrow the Roman Empire and restore Israel, brutally executed. Shortly thereafter, they saw him resurrected! But he still didn't lead a host of Heaven's armies to Rome - he taught the Scriptures, ate some fish, and then told them all to wait in Jerusalem until he sends the Spirit. Okay...
The believers have one question: "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" I can imagine their anxious hearts thinking, we've been waiting this whole time! If you're not going to rule the world for Israel, is this Holy Spirit going to do it?
But true to form, the Holy Spirit comes with a mighty wind instead of battle trumpets. He fills their room and rests on each person, instead of riling them out to war. And instead of furnishing them with weapons of conquest, he furnishes them with the last thing anyone expected: languages.
The very first thing God's Spirit does is speak to everyone present "in their own languages." He doesn't preach in Hebrew, which is notable because the people present were all "devout Jews." They were probably used to reading and hearing the Scriptures in Hebrew - that was their 'normal' mode of experiencing God's Word. But we're also told that they were not native Hebrew speakers. They're from 16 different regions of the ancient world!
Accordingly, this Spirit speaks in each person's own heart language. So to be clear: numerous people groups are present with nominal knowledge of Hebrew, but God chooses to speak to them in the languages they know best.
The Amazing Effects of Bible Translation
This may not be the first instance of Bible translation in Scripture (the human authors themselves have been translators all along), but it's a powerful testimony of God's plan. Though it wasn't what the new believers were expecting, the Spirit came to fulfill his promise from the beginning: that Israel would bless the other nations by showing and telling the wonderful works of God.
Only this time, it isn't just Israel. Jesus' great commission is for everyone who believes in him. This is where the Church begins, reaching worldwide not with conquest but with translation!!
Even more amazing: the Holy Spirit did not do this alone. He used believers - regular people - to speak. Jesus said then and now: "Go and make disciples of all nations." Not, "I will go," or "My Spirit will go," but imperative, to his followers: "GO."
What happens when people hear about God's mighty works in their heart language? "They were completely amazed" at first. And in the end, they "were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all."
On Pentecost Sunday, we remember where it started. The effort to tell others of God's mighty works in their own languages continues today, and the Holy Spirit is still using regular people like you and me to do it. I hope in reading the stories from FoundinTranslation you catch of a glimpse of what the Spirit is doing through Bible translation. But mostly, I hope you are completely amazed at the wonderful works God has done.