Because God speaks, we speak
Posted on: 21st November 2022
CMS missionaries work hard to learn language and culture, and they never really stop. Why does this long-term, enduring and persevering commitment mean so much? Regional Mission Director (and former CMS missionary in Mexico) Peter Sholl explores this question by pointing us to the nature of God himself.
“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Psalm 33:6
It was the end of a very long day. I’d been teaching at a pastor’s conference in Mexico about the whole story of the Bible. Key to my presentation was the concept of an época, an epoch. Multiple times throughout the day, I’d reinforced what I was saying with reference to the different épocas and the promises God had made during these times.
Over dinner, one pastor said to me “What is this época that you are talking about?” He had no idea what I was saying! Not because he didn’t understand the concept, but because I was saying the word incorrectly! I was saying epoca, not época—which made everything I was saying incomprehensible! Sigh. What a difference emphasis makes.
Language learning can be incredibly hard work—sometimes amusing or embarrassing, sometimes frustrating. It takes a long time and costs a lot of money. So why does CMS place such importance on language learning?
Peter Sholl working with a tutor.
We serve a God who speaks
From the very first page, the Bible introduces us to a speaking God, with the repeated words “And God said” (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11). The psalmist rejoices that “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” (Psalm 33:6) God’s words are powerful enough to bring the whole of creation into being! This is just the beginning of the story.
The Old Testament gives us an ongoing picture of a God who continues to speak in both judgement and grace—unlike the idols who “like a scarecrow in a melon patch…cannot speak.” (Jeremiah 10:5). Sometimes God speaks personally and directly, talking to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” (Exodus 33:11).
At other times he speaks through his written word, handed on to the people (see for example Deuteronomy 32:44-47). “Thus says the Lord” is repeated time and again by Israel’s prophets, for they too are speaking God’s words— even though God’s people repeatedly reject those words, along with rejecting the prophets themselves.
Nevertheless, God’s mighty word continues to do its work, for: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
In Jesus, God speaks fully and completely
Despite his people’s rejection of him, God graciously continues to speak, until his words of promise find their climax in Jesus Christ, who is himself “the Word become flesh…full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Jesus lives and speaks the words of the Father. (John 12:49) But God’s speaking—while it reaches its climax and fulfilment in Christ—is set to continue past the resurrection.
For Jesus promises to send the Spirit who will continue speaking through his servants (John 16:13), a work we see in the Spirit-filled apostles as they move out from Jerusalem even to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), telling the gospel wherever they go.
By God’s Spirit, God’s word continues
At the Day of Pentecost, the most attention-grabbing event is the extraordinary preaching that occurs when the Holy Spirit falls on the assembled disciples (see Acts 2). Jews from across the known world, gathered in Jerusalem, hear the Spirit-filled disciples tell of the wonders of God in their own languages. In a stark and unforgettable way, the curse of humanity’s confused language (see Genesis 11:9) is reversed by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the gospel!
In further explanation, Peter preaches his famous Acts 2 sermon. Declaring the wonders of the crucified and resurrected Jesus, he calls hearers to repent and so receive the forgiveness of sins. (Acts 2:38) As Acts continues, we see the growth of the New Testament church: a church founded upon Jesus, and now crossing borders and cultures through the power of (Holy Spirit-inspired) preaching.
Speaking the gospel really matters. Speaking is the means that our God (the original speaker) uses to grow his church, as people hear and respond to the preached gospel. That preached message is reinforced through the rest of the New Testament, for example as the Apostle Paul emphasises the importance of words given by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:13), and that these words should be understandable (1 Corinthians 14:11)—noting that without understanding, correct response is impossible.
Similarly in 2 Peter, the apostle Peter reminds his audience that they are not following cleverly devised myths. Rather, the words they are hearing are (Spirit-inspired) eyewitness testimony to the majesty of Jesus. Pay attention! Understand! (2 Peter 1:16-21) And the role of gospel preachers, including CMS, is to “make every effort” to help others understand and remember (2 Peter 1:15).
God’s words matter, therefore in CMS…
Where does this leave us? Throughout the Bible we see this consistent truth: God is a God who speaks, and his words matter. It follows that hearing and understanding those words is of critical importance to the work of the kingdom of God, and for that reason, to the mission of CMS.
This means our ability to share those words in a way that is understandable matters. Therefore, as CMS, we believe learning local language is critical. If we can’t speak the language, how will people hear and how will they understand?
CMS missionaries invest in learning languages, so that those who listen can hear God’s deep truths in the language in which they themselves speak about deep things, relate, and dream. In our love for others we long for them to hear God speak to them in their own language—without asking them to cross cultural or linguistic barriers.
We invest time in thinking about communication methods— be it preaching, one-to-one Bible reading, teaching or storytelling. To do this not only requires deep language competency but cultural understanding—something which online translation tools cannot provide! Language and culture are inherently interconnected, and there really is no substitute for long-term commitment to learning both.
We support people involved in making the word of God available to those who have not heard it—through translation projects, through training evangelists, through the development of communication resources and in many other ways. This requires language skills, but also long-term relationships; something CMS is strongly committed to. CMS assists in creating opportunities where God’s word can be spoken—in schools, clinics, universities and churches.
As we learn and speak, we will make mistakes, like my day of saying época without the correct emphasis. But we will persevere, because speaking God’s word matters. Meaningfully communicating God’s word matters. That is our commitment together as a fellowship—so that we might see a world that knows Jesus. Please join me in praying for and supporting those who are involved in this life-giving work across the world.
Learning language and communicating God’s word takes time, effort, perseverance and patience. How could you and your church show support in practical ways for CMS missionaries as they learn language?