From every language ...
This week I have been privileged to be in Romania (specifically in Transylvania) to help serve a gathering of Christian leaders from across Eastern Europe (Czechia, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia). One national group that was not represented among the leaders was Ukraine - the organisation I was invited with would normally also have Ukrainian leaders present - although we were joined by two young Ukrainian ladies (twin sisters) who are currently refugees in Romania. It has been powerful to hear from them and pray with them. May we see peace in their beautiful homeland soon!
As I have listened to my brothers and sisters this week and learnt something about the needs of churches in their countries, I have been impressed by their dedication in serving the Lord. Many are in full time jobs in so-called secular professions (I have met mechanics and medics, engineers and vets) whilst also giving leadership in small fellowships. Yet they still made time to speand a week together in this beautiful region to learn from one another and to seek the Lord's guidance for the next steps for their churches after COVID and through the conflict in Ukraine. Many of these churches have been mobilised to respond to the practical needs of refugees. All are eager to see the gospel grow in their region. And, most excitingly, they have a deep desire to work in unity of purpose through mutual encouragement, sharing of ideas and, where possible, of resources.
It is, for me a little foretaste of Heaven. Especially in our frequent prayer times. I love languages, although I can't speak any particularly well other than English. To be in a room where there are not only different languages being spoken in prayer to God, but languages from whole different families:
Romanian is a Latin language;
Polish, Czech, Slovakian and Russian (yes some are praying in Russian, including the Ukrainian girls who speak it as their first language) are Slavic languages;
Hungarian is either related to Finnish and Estonian in the so-called Finno-Ugric family or (some argue) a language in a family of one; and
English is a Germanic language with huge Latin contributions and smaller colonial input to its vocabulary.
These aren't all the language families of Europe, let alone the world, but they give a good sense of our diversity that goes all the way back to Babel.
The Scriptures reveal that there will be around the throne of the Lamb "a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (Revelation 7:9). I have heard some people say that this means every human language (or at least family of languages) will be spoken in 'Heaven'. I don't think that's right, though. The verse says there will be people from every language not that they will be speaking these languages. In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit baptised the Church into existence, there was a partial reversal of Babel. The division that came as a judgement from God - to prevent human beings continuing to build a monument to their own glory and to force them to fulfil God's command to fill the earth - was overcome through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. In the Church, people would be reunited into one new humanity, one people, one family. Not a collection of tribes or peoples, but a single people of God.
It is sad that we so often fail to seek and embody this vision. We form ethnic churches. Sometimes that's necessary because people cannot speak the main language of the country they live in, but these ethnic churches must work hard to partner with churches from the majority people group and the churches which are from the majority must also recognise as equal brothers and sisters those ethnic churches. Subsequent generations who speak the dominant language should not allow their fellowships to be ethnically defined. And it is not only on ethnic grounds that we divide. It happens by class and (perhaps especially) by generation too.
Tragically, there is even a whole school of mission thinking - the Church Growth Movement - that argues this approach (working within so-called 'homogeneous units') is the best way to evangelise and to see larger numbers of converts. Whilst we should evangelise in a way that connects with people within their cultural groups and settings, so we might run events or produce resources that connect with a subculture by age or interest, we must disciple people into the fullness of God's intention for His people. If we don't, we are distorting the gospel into something that has no power to break down barriers. But, if the gospel could break barriers between Jew and Gentile, it can overcome all other divisions.
Perhaps even more tragically, we see that believers within a single cultural group divide into new tribes on the basis of secondary theological issues, favourite authors or organisations and styles of worship or spirituality. We need a renewed vision for partnership in the gospel, unity in Christ and cooperation in our differences that values all who are in Christ and refuses to be suspicious of those who differ from us. It may not be possible to have full unity where we differ over important practices like baptism or public use of speaking in tongues without translation, but we can still cooperate in some degree and honour one another in how we speak to and about one another.
So, you might be asking, what language will we be speaking in 'Heaven' when we praise the Lamb or on the new earth when it becomes our ternal home? My answer: I have no idea. Will we speak one heavenly language newly created for us, or the original language we all spoke before Babel, or one of the languages we already know on earth (I really think that last option is unlikely, but if it were true, would it be Hebrew or something else)? If it is a new language, will it take the best bits from each earthly language? If it is back to the original language, will it also contain the best bits that have passed down into modern earthly languages from antiquity? Will we need a whole new vocabulary to describe new things - perhaps new species of plants or animals, new geographical features or new kinds of experience? Will we even need to speak or might we simply understand one another without speech (ok, that's probably more influenced by science fiction than any biblical indicators)?
Whatever the correct answers to these questions (and only time - or eternity - will tell), what I am certain of is that the things that make communication troublesome now will be removed:
Deceit - no one will lie to another and no one will feel the need to hide anything because of shame or guilt.
Misunderstanding - we will have the intellectual capacity to get the full meaning of what people are saying and to connect with their hearts in a deeper way than now.
Impatience - we will have no shortage of time to take to listen to others and no selfish impulses that make us want to get away from others to pursuse what we want.
Nations - the countries of Eastern Europe have odd borders in some places that leave some speakers of some languages as majorities in their own region but minorities within the nation they live in (especially Hungarians in parts of Slovakia, Romania and Ukraine). But there will be no national borders to divide us in the new creation and no conflict between nations over land either!
Cultures - language is a bearer and shaper of culture, but I am certain that in the enw creation there will be a single culture that contains all that is good from earthly cultures (the "glory and the honour of the nations" brought into the eternal city - Revelation 21:26) but is truly shaped by the gospel. The kind of culture the gospel begins to create among God's people now, but which will only be complete when we are completely like Christ.
What an experience that will be. Take time to thank God for it and let your heart long for it. And ask Him how He would have you contribute to His great mission of bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to all peoples, for it is through us that God will bring about that wonderful goal of His single people united in Christ.