The Lost Lessons of Pentecost
In 2007, I joined the United States Army. While serving, I traveled to multiple countries; each with distinct culture and language. For me, South Korea was most enjoyable. I fell in love with Korea’s people, music, culture, and food. Though I’m several years removed from my tour there, my love for the country and its people continue.
A recent renewal of that love spurred me to purchase an online subscription to Rosetta Stone: Korean, the language learning software. My goal was to learn as much as possible within six months. As it happens, learning Korean has provided all the challenges one might expect from learning a foreign language—but also something unexpected: sanctification.
For Protestants, sanctification refers to a believer’s ongoing growth in Christlikeness, culminating in the full and final redemption of his or her body after death. Stated simply, sanctification is, among other things, the process of being made holy as Christ is holy: conformed to His likeness, character and will, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What is the relationship between learning a foreign language and sanctification? I believe Pentecost provides an answer.
On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability . . . [the people] were completely amazed (Acts 2:1-4, 7).
Peter’s subsequent speech to the international community gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Harvests in Acts 2:14-41 provides insight into what might have been shared in other languages by the believers at Pentecost. In verses 32-33, for example, Peter states, “God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this. Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us, just as you see and hear today.” Therefore, per Peter, the presence of the Holy Spirit and the speaking in foreign languages likely was a divine affirmation—to the foreigner—of salvation through Christ. Indeed, the message of the believers at Pentecost was the Gospel with the twist of being delivered in the unknown languages of the foreigners residing in Jerusalem.
The importance of the Holy Spirit directing the believers at Pentecost to deliver the Good News in the languages of the foreigners should be emphasized, because it depicts a beautiful and oft-overlooked Old Testament directive.
What is this divine directive? The answer is found in Leviticus 19:34, which states, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.”
At Pentecost, God reaffirms His Old Testament love and dedication to all peoples, cultures, and languages in a new and special way. He does so by elevating ethnic minorities and, in a sense, subjugating both Himself and the Church to the linguistic limitations of the foreigner (Acts 2:9-11). Notice that God does not demand the foreigner speak the common parlance of the Church, but rather leads the Church to speak the languages of the foreigners. Indeed, God does not demand the outsider move forward, but rather empowers His believers to reach out. The implications are nothing short of profound.
Thus, the lost—or, if not lost, certainly overlooked—lessons of Pentecost are:
(1) God champions diversity over strict cultural assimilation.
(2) God does not allow for an “us first” mentality.
(3) God calls His Church to exist as, among other things, a tool for redeeming the language curse of Babel (Gen 11:1-9).
What does this mean for the modern-day Christian?
It means, in part, learning a foreign language. When we learn a foreign language, we create in ourselves the ability to reenact the events at Pentecost. Indeed, by learning a foreign language, we display not only God’s all-inclusive love for the foreigner but also the Church’s commitment to Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:16-20). Moreover, by learning a foreign language, we become co-laborers with Christ in the pursuit of unity over uniformity (c. f. John 17:20-23). And, in doing so, we become a partial answer to Christ’s High Priestly Prayer by developing a skill that, properly used, moves humanity closer to “becoming one as [Jesus and the Father] are one” (John 17:22).
Stated simply, loving a foreigner means, in part, connecting with them using the language they know well. Christ came to us in a way we could comprehend: The Word became flesh (John 1:14). If Christ loved us in this way, then we should likewise love others in a way they understand best.
For the Christian, growing American diversity is not a problem to be solved but rather an opportunity to embrace. We can either embrace the directive displayed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, or embrace nationalistic self-importance at the cost of the Great Commission, which, as I see it, is Love itself.
“Choose today whom you will serve . . . as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord”
– Joshua 24:15