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Every People, Every Language: Variety, Not Quantity

By David Tan

Missions is more about variety than quantity. Does this statement surprise you? Let us look at God’s plan as revealed in the Bible.

Babel and Abraham’s call

In Genesis 1–11, we read of God’s creation of the world and man’s fall into sin. The Tower of Babel episode in Genesis 11 marked the height of human rebellion against God. However, God in his wonderful way often uses the consequences of sin for his glory. Babel did not change God’s plan significantly; it simply sped up the creation of different ethnic groups and languages, which are ultimately to be redeemed for his glory. This has always been God’s will.

This becomes clear in Genesis 12:1–3, where God launches his plan of redemption with the call of Abraham. He said to Abraham:

“Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

God’s plan, right from the beginning, is revealed here: he wants to bless (i.e. redeem) all the peoples (i.e. people groups) of the earth.

The Great Commission

Jumping forward to the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus commanded us to “go and make disciples of all nations”. In the New Testament, the Greek term translated as “nation” is “ethne” from which the English word “ethnic” is derived. Therefore, the word “nation” does not refer to a country or political entity, but to an ethnic or people group. A modern-day example is the Tibetan people group (ethne) which lives in several (political) nations — China, India, Nepal and Bhutan. It is important to note that the Great Commission does not command us to make disciples of “everyone” but to make disciples of “all nations”. Why?

We need to first understand that the chief purpose of man is to glorify God. In fact, the ultimate goal of missions is increase worship because that brings glory to God. When more people groups (nations) believe in and worship God, the greater the glory to him. Variety is the key, not quantity.

Coke Cans, Pokemon and Lost Sheep

An illustration: most of us have, at one time or another, collected stamps, Coca-Cola cans etc. When you collect stamps, variety increases the value of your collection — the goal is to get stamps from as many countries as possible. If you have multiple copies of a stamp, you try to trade them for stamps that you do not yet have. A recent example is collecting Pokemon. Some people will go to amazing lengths and expense just to collect that one species of Pokemon which can only be found in a single location in the world.

This is the picture of what God is like. God wants to be worshipped by “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev 7:9), and he will do his utmost to achieve his sovereign plan. Our God will leave 99 sheep to find the one lost sheep (Luke 15:3–7), and he calls us to be his partners in this endeavour. It is not about cost or efficiency.

Pentecost: A Foretaste of Heaven

In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, they were “declaring the wonders of God” in languages that they had never learnt. More specifically, Acts 2:5–6 tells us that there were God-fearing Jews from “every nation under heaven” who heard the disciples praise God in their “own language”. Then in Acts 2:47, we read that the new believers praised God (presumably in their own languages) as they met daily. From this we can see that the worship God desires is not just worship in one language or style. God desires to be worshipped by every nation in every language under heaven. The special place of language is very clear in this story.

I believe that Pentecost gives us a vision and foretaste of heaven. Revelation 7:9–10 tells us what it will be like in heaven:

"After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

Heaven will be a wonderful experience where every nation, tribe, people and language will be represented. It will be the most multicultural worship service you will ever attend! To sum up: God gets greater glory when a greater number of different people groups or nations comes to believe in and worship him using their own languages. That is why Wycliffe Singapore and our partners worldwide strive to bring the word of God to all the language communities of the world. Missions is about variety, not quantity!

Dr David Tan is the Executive Director of Wycliffe Singapore. He and his wife, Sharon, served overseas for several years. Pokemon poster©KeyLimePieNinja, Flickr Creative Commons.

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