Bible translation is a tremendously rewarding task.
One of my fondest memories serving in Africa has been sitting on a mat with a group of Muslim men on a hot Sunday afternoon. For the first time, we read the story of Joseph in their own language. These men were completely engaged and greatly moved by God’s faithfulness to Joseph. One man even shed tears as he heard these profound truths.
There can hardly be any greater reward for all the hard work of Bible translation!
Despite the incredible difficulties, endless opposition in a Muslim community, and countless prayers made for those uninterested or antagonist to the gospel, seeing people understand God’s Word for the first time in their own language makes it all worth it.
Who wouldn’t want to see the joy on the face of someone reading about God’s love for the first time? Who wouldn’t rejoice to see their friends read their translation, weep over their sins, and turn to Christ?
A Common Pitfall in Translation
However, Bible translators must avoid certain pitfalls if they desire to see lives changed. Too often, well-intentioned translators set out to learn a language and translate Scripture without pursuing any active ministry of evangelism, disciple-making, or church planting.
Finding the right nuances of a verb form, developing an orthography, or any other multitude of tasks––important as they are––become the translator’s primary pursuit.Such translators end up trusting their translation to do what God never intended it to do
Such translators end up trusting their translation to do what God never intended it to do—to be understood and obeyed without any proclamation by local believers.
The unfortunate result is that languages are well-studied and well-documented, Scriptures are translated accurately and faithfully, but after all this hard work, no church exists. The people who speak the language remain in darkness.
No one from the people group reads the translation, and copies of Scripture stay stockpiled in storage, unread and ignored. Bibles are only touched when they must be moved away from the attacks of termites.
These piles of Bibles are a sober reminder that the ministry of Bible translation can never be separated from the church.
The Ultimate Goal is Not a Translation
In Bible translation, as with any ministry, head knowledge without a passionate commitment to Christ will not suffice. What good is linguistic knowledge without theological convictions and a passion to make Christ known?
Translation and linguistic studies must never be separated from their ultimate goal—the glory of Christ.
The ultimate goal of a Bible translator is to promote the glory of Christ through living a holy and obedient life and advancing the gospel by means of the local church.
Bible translators must not live detached from the local community and churches. They must guard against long hours of study in the office and interacting solely with their own colleagues, neglecting God’s only ordained institution in this world—his church.
Bible translators are sent out and supported by the prayers and finances of Christ’s bride. Bible translation is a critical ministry on behalf of the body of Christ. Thus, a Bible translator’s final goal is not language survey, linguistic analysis, language acquisition, mother tongue literacy, or even Bible translation itself.
The Ultimate Goal of Bible Translation
The ultimate goal of a Bible translator is to worship Christ at all times, make Christ known among all nations, and advance the growth and development of Christ’s church.
Any and all language study by a follower of Christ must not lose sight that his goal must always be to make disciples of all nations.
Consider the uniqueness of your opportunity as a Bible translator. Who can make Christ known in the community as you can? Can there be a higher purpose or greater joy than to share about Christ? There are others who might be able to analyze the language and even translate resources for a community.
But the follower of Christ has what no one else in this world has––the ability and privilege of making Christ known.
The Bible contains no explicit commands to document Sino-Tibetan languages. Matthew 28 does not say to go and create syntax trees of Austronesian languages. Nor does it even say to go and translate the Bible into all the world’s languages. It says, “Go and make disciples.”
Now, of course, this does not mean language study and linguistic analysis can be ignored. They are certainly important. How else can disciples be made without God’s Word in their own language?
Yet faithful disciple-making must always be the ultimate goal, not language or translation work for its own sake.
The Hard Question about Translation
Ask yourself the hard question: Are you faithful to the task of missions if your work is simply conducting linguistic analysis or solely translating the Bible?
In order to be a faithful missionary, one must be involved not only in the gospel’s translation, but in its proclamation as well. one must be involved not only in the gospel’s translation, but in its proclamation as well
In the end, the entire task of Bible translation must be about Christ. Everything we do must be for his glory and honor.
So let languages be studied, let Scriptures be translated, and let the gospel be proclaimed, all for the glory and honor of our Savior, Jesus Christ.