Overcoming the barriers of language and culture
Christianity is for people of all languages and all cultures all over the world. Christ said it Himself: “God so loved the (multicultural) world (of humanity) that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16 NIV). He commissioned His followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19), and this great commission is the basis of all evangelism. Missionaries spend years studying and learning the languages and cultures of other nations, tribes and peoples in order to fulfill our Lord’s command.
Christ’s incarnation – His coming to earth and living as a fellow human being – is the ideal example of how to relate to another culture. He identified very closely with humanity in every way, except for sin. He identified particularly with the common, ordinary people of His day, as He usually spoke their language (Aramaic) rather than Hebrew, the religious language of the Jews, or Greek, the international language of trade and scholarship in the Roman empire. Aramaic was the mother tongue of most of the Jews of first century Palestine; those raised outside of Palestine spoke Greek. Only about 5 percent of the population were literate in Hebrew, so Christ spoke in the vernacular, the language of the people, rather than the scholarly language1.
It is interesting to note that God performed a linguistic miracle when He communicated the gospel to a multicultural crowd in Acts 2: “there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound … each one heard their own language being spoken” (Acts 2:5-6). God wanted these people to hear His message in their own language. And Acts 2:9-11 goes on to mention at least 16 different countries by way of example.
Today, there is often diversity of language and culture in our ever-changing communities, especially as the world population becomes increasingly more mobile. But the body of believers is called to transcend the differences of language and culture: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile … for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). All have the right to approach God, and the responsibility to discover and apply scriptural truths within their own cultural situation.
This should really challenge evangelists and missionaries. This should also challenge church groups – especially those whose roots go back to earlier generations – as they reach out to the lost in their communities.
To apply the above principles, we need to do four things:
1. Have a healthy acceptance of cultural variance, including respect for language preference as much as possible.
2. Take account of people’s language, way of life and culture as we go about the Lord’s business of making disciples in our church gatherings.
3. Encourage expression of biblical truths and practices in appropriate contemporary language, songs and cultural forms. Use everyday language as much as possible, rather than imposing a “foreign” language or one from a previous era.
4. Train fellow believers to apply biblical principles to their cultural context and so enable each generation to come to its own living faith (2 Tim. 2:2).
1. Herbert V. Klen, Oral Communication of Scripture, 1982, William Carey Library, Pasadena, California.
2. Biblical truth transcends language and culture: Christ spoke Aramaic, He read the Old Testament in Hebrew, and His words were recorded in Koine Greek by the writers of the New Testament. The New Testament was not written in a peculiar language, as some medieval scholars believed, but in the everyday language of the era.
Published, June 1997