God’s Word in Every Language

In many churches around the world, Christians gather to hear the Word of God preached in a language they know and understand best. In most of these churches, Bibles in that language are available. Thus, people can easily access God’s Word and follow along with the pastor to verify if what is being taught is actually in God’s Word. However, for more than sixteen hundred language communities around the world, that is not a possibility because no one has translated the Bible into those languages. If a church exists at all in these communities, it is using a language other than the language the people speak in their homes and understand at the heart level.

Christians around the world who speak the world’s major languages have been blessed for hundreds of years with God’s Word. Since the major languages of the world comprise such a large number of speakers, the assumption is that God’s Word is available in all the world’s languages. However, that is not the case. While it is surprising to learn that so many languages do not have one verse of Scripture translated, it is even more astonishing to learn that out of the world’s 7,097 living languages1 only 670 languages have access to the 670 languages have access to the complete canon of Scripture.2

When we in the Western world study God’s Word, we have access to dozens of translations. We have libraries full of commentaries, Bible concordances, and Bible handbooks. Even many of our Bibles are known as study Bibles because they are full of helpful study notes, cross references, glossaries, and maps. Yet, for millions of people who speak the world’s lesser known or minority languages, the Bible does not exist, and if it is available, it is available only in part.

For the more than sixteen hundred language communities who have no Bible translation work started, it is because resources are not yet in place to begin the work. To accomplish the task, more people, prayer, and finances are needed. The work of building vision and capacity and providing appropriate training in these communities is also necessary so that the ownership and resources are at the community level. What used to be the translators going to a community to do the translation work themselves has become one where language communities are being empowered to take on this task themselves with the Western church becoming facilitators and partners in that process by sharing the abilities and gifts God has given them.

While many church members know about Bible translation work going on in the world because of groups like Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Bible Societies, it often comes as a surprise for people to learn that the trail of Bible translation started hundreds of years before Christ was born. We have much to learn from what has been done in the past.

Jews living in the second century before Christ had begun to learn and eventually exclusively use the Greek language. Some had abandoned their Jewish faith, but many did not, and they wanted access to the Hebrew Scriptures. This translation into the Greek is the Septuagint (Latin for seventy, which was approximately the number of translators who worked on it). Thus, the Greeks began to hear God speaking their language for the first time.

In the first century before Christ, many Jews also spoke the Aramaic language, and so the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into an Aramaic version of the Bible known as the Targums (also known as the Tanakh). Eventually, around AD 400, the biblical scholar Jerome translated the Bible into an authorized version of Latin. While a number of confusing and inaccurate versions of the Scriptures existed previously in Latin, this majestic Bible translation achievement by Jerome was one that would serve the church for almost a thousand years.

The Latin Bible is of particular interest because of the terminology of its title. That Bible is known as the Latin Vulgate, using the Latin word vulgare, which is understood to mean “the common speech of the people.” It was Jerome’s desire to create not only an accurate but also a readable and understandable translation for the man on the street. That was the same desire of the sixteenth-century English Bible translator William Tyndale, who remarked, “I defy the pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do.”

That focus of making Bible translations accurate, natural (beautiful), and clear as well as accessible is a hallmark of the work of translation from its beginning until today. Our Reformed church fathers also note this importance.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1646 and used in Presbyterian and Reformed churches throughout the world, makes it very clear what the responsibility of the church is when it comes to translating God’s Word into every language when it states in chapter 1, section 8.3

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.

But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated in to the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.4

I began to do Wycliffe’s recruitment work on college campuses when we returned from our fifteen years of service in Papua New Guinea. I was surprised to see how little knowledge there was in some colleges and seminaries about the need for Bible translation. I also discovered that there were limited opportunities for training in this area. While I found training tracks in colleges for all types of vocational work and in Bible colleges and seminaries for pastoral studies, youth ministries, music ministries, Jewish ministries, women’s ministries, and even in one seminary a sports ministry option, few had any training track for Bible translation.

Why is this the case? First, I think it is because the need for Bible translation is unknown. Many people in the church are like I was before I became aware of the work and assume that every language has a full Bible. Second, the world of linguistics, needed to do Bible translation work, is often associated with a vocation with little opportunity for employment and so does not get the exposure or promotion as do other educational training options. What can do you with a linguistics degree? The options seem limited. Third, the task of Bible translation can and often does seem daunting. Taking unwritten languages and creating writing systems might seem too difficult, and when combined with the complexity of all the scripts in which languages are written, it might seem impossible. Fourth, Bibleless communities are often in difficult-to-reach places, and some are places that have perceived dangers associated with them. Last, sometimes people consider the actual work of translating Bibles too sacred a task to even attempt to do.

While all these things are important to consider, God has poured out his Spirit on the church to enable it to bring his whole Word to the whole world. Today we have the greatest resources available that the world has ever had and people with great abilities. We are also blessed in the West with a large number of colleges and universities that offer biblical studies and some that even offer linguistic training. However, there are very few schools that offer a complete Bible translation degree program consisting of biblical studies, biblical languages, and linguistics.

There are a few specialized linguistic schools such as the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics and the Canada Institute of Linguistics, which have been established to provide all the linguistic training needed for Bible translation work. A few Bible colleges and seminaries have cooperative Bible translation degree programs. However, the promotion of these schools in the church is very limited and needs to increase. Certainly, many more Bible colleges and seminaries, especially in the Reformed world, need to either establish full Bible translation training degree programs or form cooperative agreements with these linguistic schools noted which will allow more students to go into Bible translation work.

Before my wife and I joined Wycliffe in 1985, we were informed that twice as many support personnel were needed for every Bible translation team established. Thus, flying missionary planes, fixing computers, teaching missionary children, managing finances, providing administrative oversight, and a host of other activities are as urgently needed as those who do the Bible translation work. That means that in order to begin the remaining translation projects, not only are thousands of Bible translators need, but many more thousands of support people are needed as well.

So, will the remaining Bible translation work be started and even finished in our lifetime? The answers are found in the Bible and in the instruction Jesus left to the church in Matthew 9:37–38: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”5

Could it be that in our lifetime we could see the last language on earth have Bible translation work started as people earnestly pray? What an amazing thought!

God has raised up a growing church of the East and the South which is looking to partner with the church of the West. As the church prepares a larger number of cross-cultural workers in every part of the world and educational institutions create a larger number of focused Bible translation degree programs that combine with the best of the linguistic schools already in existence, the number of languages needing Bible translation work will fall rapidly.

The challenge before the church in North America is whether it will participate in the work of blessing the nations, as God spoke to Abraham in Genesis 12:2: “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” God will bless the nations and all who are elect will be saved. Revelation 7:9–10 gives us that assurance: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

The two questions we in the church are left with are

Will we do as the Westminster Confession says and translate the Bible into every “vulgar language of every nation unto which they come”?

Will we do what our Lord and Savior commands in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19–20? “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

May the Lord find us obedient and faithful in our generation.




4. Matthew 5:18; Isaiah 8:20; Acts 15:15; John 5:39, 46; 1 Corinthians 14: 6, 9, 11, 12, 24, 27, 28; Colossians 3:16; Romans 15:4.

5. Scripture references are from the English Standard Version.

Photo credits:

The Urat photo is taken by Susan Frey and is from this page:

The 60 Years photo is taken by Kathy Husk from this page:

The Smiles and Scripture photo is taken by Rachel Greco from this page:

Chuck Micheals is currently the Director for Management and Professional Recruitment for Wycliffe Bible Translators. Previously he served 6 years as Wycliffe’s Vice President for Recruitment Ministries. He is a member at Saint Andrews’s Chapel in Sanford, FL, where he serves as an elder.