When The Word Is Not Enough

When The Word Is Not Enough

The sending of this message is a sending, not of words only, but of messengers.

Bethany Moore

Is God’s Word insufficient for building His kingdom? Of course not! Is it insufficient for raising my youngest child? No…unless I leave it on the kitchen table to watch him while I run to the store. This situation sounds ridiculous, but in our family’s Bible translation work, I’ve sometimes found myself so focused on getting the content right that I was distracted from the proper function of the Word in the more extensive work of missions. This experience has sent me back to consider the biblical pattern of how God builds His church through the Word. 


It will soon be a year since our family returned to the United Sates. We didn’t expect this mid-career interlude after more than a decade overseas. We also didn’t expect the ease with which we’ve been able to continue working on the Bible translation project we’ve been serving. In fact, this remote model fits Bible translation: text travels particularly well over wires and airwaves. What’s more, it’s efficient. As we’ve weighed the financial, educational, organizational, and legal realities of transitioning our family of six back overseas, we’ve wondered if this situation couldn’t continue indefinitely. 


This turns out to be a trick question, though, relying on the assumption that our work ends with a “Scripture product.” People do need the Bible, but how will they learn the value of the Word? How can a church grow up to treasure, to depend on, and to seek the authority of the Word of Life? If the Word is foolishness to those who are perishing, then the fuller task of the translator who imparts the message of life is to make disciples who will receive it.


As much as I love it, formal translation work is a necessary but secondary part of delivering God’s Word. If we treat it as primary, for all the richness and beauty of Scripture, we haven’t done the work Christ commanded the Church to do. History reveals that without in-person discipleship, we leave the body vulnerable to syncretism, heresy, and many of the same dangers she faces without the Word. Because the Word alone is not God’s plan for reaching the nations, His people are.

This doesn’t mean there should be no specialization in missions, only that a portion of the task should never be mistaken for the whole. It certainly doesn’t mean that the Spirit can’t work in marvelous ways: God’s people have often been moved to extraordinary and holy creativity in the face of obstacles. Last year, I read with awe of a man in Albania who came to faith after reading portions of a Bible parachuted into his totalitarian nation by American soldiers at the close of WW2. Today, there’s an eager discussion about how technology can accelerate Bible translation and distribution, from Bible apps to AI drafting. It is right and fitting to look into all means available to get the Word to those who don’t have it. But what must not get lost in the discussion about getting the Word into people’s hands is getting it into their hearts. 


This is where Scripture gives us a clear pattern to follow: When God’s Word comes into new places, it moves by the old-fashioned method that’s sometimes called “mouth to ear.” Our Father set this example for us. The Scriptures were not left in a cave for us to find; they were written personally by “men moved by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21). When Yahweh speaks into the world, He speaks directly to—and through—people.


God spoke personally with Adam, Noah, and Abraham. When he delivered the law to Israel, He did it through Moses, speaking “just as a man speaks to his friend.” When the prophets were instructed to speak to kings or peoples, they wept, labored, appealed, and argued with God and men. Their habits, diets, clothing, and even, at times, their marriages and the birth of their children were dictated by their sacred role as purveyors of God’s words.


And when the crowning mystery of creation, the Gospel, was revealed, God did it personally, in Christ: the Word made flesh, the Truth from heaven who came and lived among us. According to the Father’s will, the message continues to spread by direct appeal: “God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (emphasis added). “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?” The sending of this message is a sending, not of words only, but of messengers.


Even when supernatural means are involved, and they often are, the personal appeal remains. Cornelius was converted with the aid of a vision, but the content of the vision was to seek out Peter, who came and preached in his living room. Philip was transported miraculously by the Spirit to have a Bible study with the Ethiopian eunuch. This pattern matches anecdotal evidence of dreams and visions occurring worldwide today: the content is almost invariably reported to be an instruction of where to find a truth-teller who will impart the message of salvation.


When Paul picks up the missionary calling, he does not aim to inform the Gentiles but to win them. Note the passion, the pleading: “Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men…;” “My children with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you…;” “We beg you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 


The biblical pattern is clear, and I think it’s why we continue to feel unsettled here in the United States, even while the translation work progresses on the other side of the world. The personal appeal, the gentle, patient teaching, and the sharing of not only the gospel of God but our lives as well are the calling of those who would press the Gospel into new areas and new lives. There is usually someone(or a voice in my own head) suggesting an alternative because this incarnational work is costly, time-consuming, and often countercultural. And it’s essential because the church is not tasked ultimately with making accessible, relevant Scripture products. She is tasked with making disciples, and that, much like raising five-year-olds, is personal work. 

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