On May 28, 2004, high in the Finisterre Mountains of Papua New Guinea, Luke Ketenu wrote a letter requesting a wokman ‘worker’ come to his community, referring to a missionary who could translate and teach God’s Word. Luke had written before, and he would no doubt write again.
But Luke spoke the national language. Why then translate a Bible into his own language when he could read and explain the Bible in the national language to his people himself?
Far too often people groups receive the Gospel message but never the written Word. What happens to these believers who have no Scripture? Why is it so important to translate for these seemingly forgotten groups? When a group of believers does not have God’s Word in their own language, three challenges emerge that could extinguish any young church.
Limited Preaching of the Gospel
Believers who lack the Scriptures in their own language struggle to preach and teach the Gospel in a language that neither moves their hearts nor is as readily understandable as their first language.
Pastor Aarav pastors a small congregation in India.1 He used to teach and preach from the Scriptures in the national language, Hindi. However, Hindi is not his own language, nor the language of his congregation. During this period, his ministry gradually became a lifeless routine. He even started to question his own relationship with the Lord.
Then Pastor Aarav was appointed to serve as a translator to help bring the Scriptures into his own people’s language. He took this responsibility seriously, praying earnestly for the Lord’s help. He found translation challenging, but he often considered the plight of those who lived without the Scriptures for motivation. Now with the Word in the language of his heart, he has a deeper understanding and renewed commitment to preaching the Gospel
With time, he found himself praying more. His passion for the Lord and His Word was growing. He so enjoyed translating and studying the Bible that he lost track of time while in the Word.
Pastor Aavar has recently become deeply concerned that he had never rightly understood many passages of Scripture. He had even preached erroneous interpretations of many passages. He was moved to pray for forgiveness and recommit himself to the faithful exposition of the Word.
“Now I deliver good and dynamic sermons,” he wrote. “It happened only by this translation experience. I give all the glory and honor to Jesus.”
With only a Bible in the national language, Pastor Aavar was hindered in his ministry to his own soul and flock. Now with the Word in the language of his heart, he has a deeper understanding and renewed commitment to preaching the Gospel.
Limited Understanding of the Gospel
The second struggle that churches without the Word in their own language face is a limited ability to grow in their understanding of the Gospel.
When the Gospel came to the Kekeme people of Cameroon, they recognized their need to be reconciled to their Creator and to place their faith in Christ.2 The Kekeme were familiar with confessing sins and making amends for wrongs by offering sacrifices to their ancestral gods. They have an expression for appeasing such a wrong: law vohna ‘cooling of the heart.’
Although the first Kekeme believers used the expression law vohna in their churches in the context of forgiveness, the concept of law vohna differs significantly from biblical forgiveness. When Kekemes seek law vohna, they acknowledge their wrongdoing and offer a sacrifice, but neither remorse nor turning from wrong plays any role in this ‘cooling of the heart.’
Many Kekeme Christians now have an unbiblical view of forgiveness and repentance. They believe that in response to their confession, God will bear with their offense (similar to how their ancestral spirits and gods do), but He does not release them from their wrongs. They erroneously believe that after confessing a wrongdoing, they are free to do the same thing again.
This traditional view of God’s forbearance of sin has taken a deep hold in the Kekeme church, as it has in the culture. Law vohna eventually became ‘forgiveness’ for most in the church. Few understand the biblical teaching of repentance and forgiveness.
With the beginning of Bible translation in the Kekeme language in the 1990’s, missionary translators began to grasp that most church-goers held a syncretistic view of forgiveness.
The missionaries and the Kekeme translators started using the expression mbi law tul suya ma fal ‘take one’s heart off of the bad’ to more accurately convey the concept of biblical repentance, and they utilized a more precise expression for forgiveness, sel nzuk ‘release someone.’
The Kekeme New Testament is now nearly completed. With the Word in the Kekeme language, the people will be better equipped to grow in their understanding and faith in Christ. Without the work of translation, the faith of the Kekeme church would remain obscured by unbiblical concepts of forgiveness and repentance–and ultimately a skewed understanding of the Gospel.
Limited Faith in the Gospel
The third struggle that churches without the Word in their language face is that their children may grow up in the church, but without any saving faith in Christ. With limited preaching and syncretistic views unchecked by the Scriptures, the next generation may not truly follow the faith of their parents.
Yanti grew up in the church in Manado, Indonesia.3 She was accustomed to hearing the services in the national language, Bahasa Indonesian, not her heart language, Manado Malay. She did not understand the Gospel message, yet she did recognize that social prestige came with church leadership. So, as she grew older, she decided to become a pastor. She noted, “I thought that if I went into theology school, that all my sins would be forgiven.”4
Yanti studied in a theological school where she learned the Scriptures in the national language. She graduated and began serving in a church, yet she had not submitted her life to Christ. Then one day, she heard the preaching of the Gospel in her own language for the first time. She understood that everyone had to surrender their lives to Christ, and she was moved in her spirit. She knelt down and put her faith in Christ right there.
In the early 2000’s, the work of translating the Bible into Manado Malay began. For over ten years, Yanti has been serving on the translation team. She said, “The Manado Malay translation really opens [the Scriptures] up for the Manado people to understand what God is saying to them.”5
The Scriptures, when translated into the language of a people, bring spiritual life through faith in Jesus Christ. Without the Word in the local language, the faith of the people often stagnates, and churches die.
“Now I realize how important it is, and I can’t be separated from this work,” Yanti shared.6
A Call to Translate the Word
It has been years since Luke Ketenu wrote from his small village in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. For him and fellow believers to grow in their faith, they need a Bible in their heart language.
Luke and his small community are not alone. There are 2,658 translation projects in progress, working verse-by-verse to bring God’s Word to communities across the globe.7 Yet an estimated 1,879 languages still have no Scripture and no translation underway.8
Though the number of languages and communities without the Scriptures is staggering, another number is greater still.
In the fifth chapter of Revelation, Jesus appears before the throne as the Lamb that was slain. By His death He has ransomed a people for God from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev 5:9). And for all eternity this multitude of the redeemed will declare that Jesus Christ is worthy of all honor and praise.
With this exalted plan of Christ in mind, with the multitudes of heaven announcing all that Christ has accomplished, what greater response to His sacrificial death than to spend our lives for those He redeemed, giving them His Word.
1 To protect his privacy, this pastor’s name has been changed.
2 To protect the privacy of certain individuals, this people group’s name has been changed.
3 Katie Kuykendall, “TOGETHER AS ONE: UNITED BY AN UNEXPECTED CALLING,” Wycliffe, N.D., accessed January 11, 2019, https://www.wycliffe.org/together/from-prestigious-to-personal.
7 “2018 Bible Translation Statistics FAQ: Going Deeper,” Wycliffe Global Alliance, November 2018, accessed January 11, 2019, http://resources.wycliffe.net/statistics/2018_Statistics_FAQs_EN.pdf