Lessons from the Bible translation movement
The Mogaris people of West Asia have been plagued by terrorism and civil war for more than four decades. For more than 25 years, James* and his fellow Mogaris translators have worked to bring the Word of God into the Mogaris language. After completing Proverbs, Psalms, the New Testament, and the Pentateuch, he and a Mogari believer named Abdul began work on Deuteronomy. Recently, James asked Abdul to read aloud Deuteronomy 6the Schema. Abdul read in an exemplary way with a beautiful intonation, as if he was teaching members of his own family.
At the end of the reading, Abdul prayed for his family and the families of other believers, for his country, and for God’s mercy to help them learn more about his commandments. Miraculously, just weeks before major civil unrest led to terrorists taking over the government, the team completed Deuteronomy!
The Shema is the prayer found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your strength. For those of ancient Israel, these words were the equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer for believers today. But this East Asian story reminds us that the Old Testament is central to our understanding of who God is and how he works today.
Revision of the Old Testament?
In the American context, pastors and individuals sometimes avoid the Old Testament because the context seems so removed from contemporary culture, especially in an individualistic society like ours. We must work hard to understand the messages and stories of the Old Testament and tell them to our skeptical friends. It may seem easier to stay focused on the New Testament, which seems more directly applicable to our daily lives.
However, when we look only at the New Testament, we miss crucial elements of our faith and the gospel story. For example, in Genesis, we find God’s purpose for us as stewards of creation, how God created us to relate to him and each other, and how God cares for his chosen people. In the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations, we see real people expressing their hope and lamentations as they navigate the realities of life. And the lives of people like Jacob, Ruth, David, Job, Daniel and others help us reconcile joy and sorrow as we grapple with our own feelings and failures. They also allow us to express them to God, who listens to us and loves us in spite of everything.
More than 10% of New Testament verses are either direct quotations or allusions to the Old Testament. When we don’t link the two testaments together, we fail to fully understand why Jesus’ coming was so important.
Old Testament preference?
I am sometimes asked which Old Testament books are most in demand by minority language church leaders, to which I respond that the cultural context of a particular language community often dictates which parts of Scripture have a special meaning. Here are a few ways this happens:
- Old Testament scriptures that show the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians or the rebuilding of Jerusalem can provide a story that both reinforces Christian claims and also builds toward the coming of Christ.
- In some cultures, a high value for local proverbs can make the book of Proverbs quite compelling.
- The emotional content of the book of Psalms brings comfort in some cultures where emotional expression feels limited.
- In places where women are not valued equally, Esther and Ruth can show God’s perspective on their worth.
Time and time again we see how God uses every part of his Word to reach people today, both inside and outside the Church.
A new way of thinking and reading
In the Bible translation movement, we are delighted when the Gospels and the New Testament are completed in one language. But we never see the work as truly done until each group of people has the full Word of God in a language they can clearly understand. We have seen why it is important that we embrace the Old Testament as an essential tool for understanding both God and the fulness of the gospel as demonstrated in Jesus. Here are three things for church leaders to consider when rightly teaching all of God’s Word:
First, Jesus viewed the Old Testament as important.
In the Gospels, Jesus refers to 14 different books of the Old Testament and takes the stories in them seriously (for example, John 7:22 on circumcision and John 6:31 on manna). He believed they were essential to understanding the character and nature of God. Moreover, in several places Jesus says that he came to fulfill the law (for example, Mast. 5:17). How can we know what this means if we haven’t studied the Old Testament? The very reason Jesus came was based on what God had been doing for generations among his people. It was not possible to have a new alliance (for example, Luke 22:20; Heb. 9:15) without an old covenant.