Today, after centuries of mission work and Bible translation, an estimated 1.5 billion people still don’t have the full counsel of God in their own language. There are over 4,200 languages without even a New Testament. Another 1,534 language groups have a New Testament, but will they ever have a complete Bible?
For the over 100 organizations involved in translation, the fact that only 9% of the world’s languages have a complete Bible weighs heavy on their hearts.
With such need and what may seem as indifference on the part of those with Bibles in their own languages, it isn’t surprising that someone would tweet a statement to move us to think more deeply about the value of translation.
Jesus as first translation
For a couple decades, those close to the task of Bible translation have seen a decline in interest in the United States and Europe in the ministry of Bible translation.
How could the value of translation be lifted? Some have attempted to underscore the importance of Bible translation by linking it with Jesus and, specifically, with His incarnation. The incarnation, God the Son becoming the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, seems for many to be a motivation for translating the Word so that others might have God’s Word among them in a language they understand.
He is worthy of our faltering efforts to make His infinite greatness known in the finite languages of His redeemed
It is only a small step to move from Jesus the Incarnate Word to Jesus the translated Word.
In a recent tweet from a major organization involved in Bible translation, Jesus Christ was pronounced the first translation. The tweet continues to speak of the importance of the Scriptures for knowing God and the light of Jesus Christ.
Yet is it truly meaningful and motivating to call Jesus a translation?
Jesus as second translation
It’s noteworthy that Jesus could not have been the first translation. If He was a translation at all, He would have to be the second.
In the third century before the birth of Christ, a group of Jewish scholars gathered in Alexandria, Egypt, and translated the first books of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. This translation, which came to be known as the Septuagint, was the first and, arguably, the most influential translation ever known. In fact, it is still in use today, being considered authoritative and inspired by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
It’s possible that the Jewish community in Jerusalem during the time of Nehemiah faced the challenge of teaching the Hebrew Bible to Jews who had grown up in Babylon and only spoke Aramaic. In Nehemiah 8:8, Ezra and the priests and Levites read the Scriptures in Hebrew and then explained them, making the meaning clear, and no doubt conveying the truth in the Aramaic language. With time, these verbal explanations and commentaries in Aramaic were written down.
No doubt, the tweeted claim that Jesus was the first translation was figurative, not historical. It was a metaphorical attempt to highlight the critical importance of the Word.
Jesus as word made flesh
In the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, the apostle John describes Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh (John 1:8). John’s description of his Savior is key to understanding how God the Son became flesh, truths that are concisely distilled in the doctrine of the Incarnation.
The doctrine of the Incarnation was first linked to Bible translation by Andrew Walls, a historian of missions. In his book, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, he wrote, “Incarnation is translation. When God in Christ became man, Divinity was translated into humanity, as though humanity were a receptor language.”
Walls suggested the following analogy: The Son is incarnate as the Incarnate Word, unique to His cultural and linguistic context, to make truth about God accessible to others. Likewise, the Bible is translated into a new language, unique to its cultural and linguistic context, to make truth about God accessible to others.
For Walls, the Incarnation was a powerful rationale for the ongoing ministry of Bible translation. However, there is an even more compelling reason to translate the Scriptures—a reason based not in what Jesus resembles, but who Jesus is.
Jesus as Lord of translation
The Apostle John had another divine revelation about his Lord and Savior. In Revelation 4-5, the apostle John is taken in a vision to the throne room of God. He sees worship around the throne, with angels, elders, and mysterious creatures continually praising God the Father.
In Rev 5:9, Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, is praised because He purchased for God people from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” and made them a kingdom and priests. For the church and for each believer committed to the Great Commission and taking the Gospel to the nations, this is the culmination. This is where all is leading – the redeemed nations worshipping around the throne.
And here we find the ultimate reason, the most compelling reason for translation: we translate the Word not because Jesus was the first translation, but because He is the Lord of translation.
And the Lord of translation is worthy! Worthy of our praise! Worthy of lives lived in obedience to His purpose! Worthy of our faltering efforts to make His infinite greatness known in the finite languages of His redeemed!