Summary: When the gospel is preached – if there is going to be a harvest – it is vital that people understand what is being said.

First Presbyterian Church

Wichita Falls, Texas

June 12, 2011


Isaac Butterworth

Acts 2:1-12 (NIV)

1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Back in 1991, I went on a mission trip to the former Soviet Union. Twenty-or-so of us arrived on a snowy November day in Samara, a city of more than a million people located on the Volga River. We were there for about ten days, and our mission was to help start a church.

During the day, we would go door-to-door, visiting people in their flats. Each of us went with two other people: one of them, a local church member, and the other, an interpreter. My partners were an older man named Nicolai and a younger woman named Irené. As we met people, we invited them to an evening rally at a nearby theater, or cultural center, as it was called – kind of a hold over from the days of Communism.

There were three pastors on the team, and all three of us were Presbyterians. We would take turns speaking at the nightly gatherings.

I remember the feeling of looking out from the stage and seeing the theater filled with people, most of whom had never heard the gospel before. In the middle of the auditorium were two huge pillars, supporting the roof. On each of them was emblazoned a hammer-and-sickle, the graphic emblem of the now deposed Soviet regime.

Since I did not speak Russian, I needed an interpreter when I preached. I no longer remember the name of the woman who translated my words into the language of the people, but I do recall that she was very skilled. I would say a line or two, and she would render it in Russian. Imagine: sermons preached in a setting like that take twice as long! But no one squirmed or yawned. People were spiritually hungry, and they listened as we shared the Good News.

I remember preaching one night, and, of course, I was talking about Jesus. And I wanted to stress the fact that, as a man, he was the template of true humanity. He embodied what the Father intended when he created us. So, the way I was going to do this was to say: ‘Jesus was not just a man; he was the man.’

Guess what! You can’t do that in Russian! There I was, up on the stage of the cultural center, and I was preaching away. And my interpreter was following me phrase by phrase. Then I came to this part. I said, ‘Jesus was not just a man,’ and she gave her translation. Then I came back with my ‘two-punch:’ ‘He was the man.’ And then there was silence.

I looked over at my interpreter to see why she wasn’t saying anything. She was staring at me with a confused look on her face. I gestured for her to tell the people what I had just said. But she just stood there, perplexed and frustrated. And then it dawned on me. My little verbal subtlety, meant to emphasize a point I wanted to make, was useless in the language of this people. It was a very humbling moment.

Of course, even when preachers speak the same language as those who are listening to them, they often fail to connect. I shudder to think how many times I may as well have been speaking in another tongue – not because my listeners weren’t intelligent but because I was inept, unable for whatever reason to communicate.

That’s why it’s always helpful for me to go back to Acts, chapter 2. Here we have an account of the first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection. Pentecost, a word which simply means ‘fifty,’ was a Jewish celebration that occurred fifty days after Passover. In Hebrew, the festival was called Shavuot, and its significance was twofold. First, it marked the dedication of the first fruits of the harvest to God. Second, it called to mind the giving of the Torah, the Law of God, on Mount Sinai.

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