Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why We're Going Where English is a Second (or third or fourth) Language

If you wanted to know what the Bible had to say about multiple languages and all you had to go on was the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible, you'd probably think the multitude of languages in the world is a very bad thing. If you want a refresher on the story found in the first nine verses of Genesis 11 (Genesis, which means beginnings, is the first book of the Bible), here's a summary: There was a time when only one language was spoken on earth. But a group of people decided to build a great tower to the heavens. God wasn't pleased with this plan, and He decided to stop it. So He "confused their language" so they couldn't work together. And they spread throughout the earth.

One could easily take from that story the idea that the multiple languages on earth are a punishment from God. Therefore one would assume that if God is going to redeem the earth, part of that plan would be to bring everyone back to one language. Surely, the New Heaven and New Earth would be a place a little like Star Trek: The Original Series, wherein everywhere Captain Kirk went in the universe, English was spoken by every species.

But Babel isn't God's last word on language. To begin with, note that the Bible itself isn't a one language book. The Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew, but sections of Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek with a few Aramaic quotes. So God choose not to use just one language for His book.

In Acts 2: 4, Luke records the first miracle of the new Church; "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues at the Spirit enabled them." The disciples went out and shared the Gospel in the very languages of the foreigners visiting Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. God could have performed a very different miracle. He could have enabled the foreign visitors to understand the language of the disciples.

So perhaps the tale of Babel isn't just a story of punishment. As the writer of the book of Hebrews explained, "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."*

Discipline for sin was a part of the story of Babel, but that wasn't all God had in mind. As one reads the story of Scripture, one sees that God didn't just mean to punish with those languages. It caused people to spread throughout the earth, which was a good thing. But that isn't all that He had in mind. It seems He really likes all those languages.

That's why it's called the "gift" of tongues. In Scripture we see God's Spirit giving both conventional and "heavenly" languages. The multitude of languages is a part of the wonder and good of His creation, and the creation to come. In Revelation 9:7, the last book of the Bible, John writes of heaven, "'I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne.'"

Mindy and I decided we'd rather not wait for heaven to worship with those other languages. So for the month of February, we'll be going to churches where languages other than English are used for worship. Because we disagree with the title of that old Warren Beatty movie. This month, anyway, heaven can't wait.

*Hebrews 12:11 (all Bible references in this post are from the New International Version, but there are a lot of different English language translations of the Bible. Check out to take a look at some of them.)

- Dean