When the greatest missionary of all time won the second greatest missionary of all time to the Lord, He spoke his language.
“And as [Saul] journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.”
— Acts 9:3-5
For most students of the Bible, this is a very familiar passage of Scripture. In it, we see the greatest missionary of all, Jesus Christ, winning who would become the second greatest missionary of all, Saul, to faith in Himself.
I know what you’re thinking. What does this have to do with missionaries learning to speak the local language of their field?
I’m glad you asked.
We see the answer later on in Acts when Paul (Saul) recounts his conversion story before king Agrippa in Acts 26:
“At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, about the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. And when we were fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me? It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
— Acts 26:13-14
When Paul gives his testimony before Agrippa, notice that he mentions that Christ spoke to him “in the Hebrew tongue.” This is significant. Paul was fluent in at least two languages – Hebrew and Greek. His upbringing as a Jew and education as a Pharisee would have all been done in the Hebrew language while his secular affairs and eventual missionary journeys would have seen him speak more Greek.
It is interesting then that the Lord Jesus uses the Hebrew language when He confronts Paul on the road to Damascus. Why didn’t He use Greek? Paul spoke Greek and spoke it quite fluently. After all, Paul eventually wrote about half of the New Testament, and all of that was written in Greek.
It is clear that Jesus wanted to speak to Paul in the language of his youth – the language he grew up speaking. Why? Because the Lord wanted to speak to his heart!
That is why it is of utmost importance for missionaries to endeavor to learn to speak the “heart language” of the people they try to reach. Doing so communicates with them on a level that their second language just can’t communicate on.
So why spend time learning the language? Because it pays great dividends and opens many doors that would otherwise be shut. If you are considering becoming a missionary or if you are already a missionary, let me encourage you to take time learning the language of the people. If you are not a missionary yourself but are looking for missionaries to partner with, let me encourage you to find and partner with missionaries that make ministry in the language of the people their focus. You’ll be glad you did.