Uniform 05.24.2015: The Gift of Interpretation

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Acts 2:1-7, 12; 1 Corinthians 14:13-19

One of my favorite television series is the BBC’s Doctor Who. This long-running show features the Doctor, a time-traveling alien who looks like you and me but has an exceptional police public call box called the TARDIS (for “time and relative dimension in space”). It functions as a time machine and a spaceship. Often, he flips switches and gears on the TARDIS with the goal of taking a friend to some fascinating place or time—like the dream vacation of a lifetime. Once they arrive, though, there is almost always an individual or group that needs the Doctor’s help. And he and his companion usually offer that help. The TARDIS is one of the most interesting aspects of the show, with lots of unique features.

In the episode “The Fires of Pompeii” (2008), the Doctor and his friend Donna travel to Pompeii at the worst time in the Italian city’s history—the day before Mt. Vesuvius erupts. Before they realize when they are, though, Donna is confused by something she sees.

“Hold on a minute,” she says. “That sign over there’s in English. Are you having me on? Are we in EPCOT?”

“No, no, no,” the Doctor assures her. “That’s the TARDIS translation circuits. It just makes it look like English. Speech as well. You’re talking Latin right now.”

“Seriously? I just said ‘seriously’ in Latin.”

“Oh, yeah.”

The feature of language translation benefits the Doctor and his friends over and over again. They are able to travel anywhere (and anywhen) and establish instant communication with the natives they encounter.

Imagine having that ability. Think of the barriers it would remove. Consider the possibilities for sharing your faith if language were not a hindrance. Even with issues of culture remaining, it would be easier to understand differences if you could comprehend what the other person says.

A time may come when someone invents a magical translator that will allow us to read signs and at least see a translation of foreign languages on a screen as we converse. But I don’t think such a device would bring the kind of understanding and connection that happened on the day of Pentecost. On that day, the Holy Spirit “amazed and astonished” people from different places when they could suddenly understand each other (Acts 2:7). It was a true miracle of God that shattered impossible barriers, allowing the movement of the Spirit in and among those who were present.

Later, Paul wrote about the gift of speaking in tongues, but he coupled it with the greater gift of interpretation. If we have something beautiful and miraculous to share but cover it with phrases and concepts that our listeners don’t understand, what is the point of sharing (see 1 Cor 14:16)? May we strive to draw ever closer to God, to be sensitive to opportunities to share Christ’s love, and to prepare ourselves to communicate with clarity so that others may know God too.

Source: “The Fires of Pompeii,” Doctor Who, series 4, written by James Moran, directed by Colin Teaque, 12 April 2008.

Discussion

1. Have you ever spent time in a foreign culture where you didn’t understand the language? If so, what was that like?
2. If you had been able to use a device (or a spaceship like the TARDIS) to help you interpret what others said, how do you think your experience would have been different?
3. How do you feel when you overhear conversations in other languages?
4. What do you think it was like for the people gathered on the day of Pentecost? Can you imagine standing among others who speak in different tongues when you suddenly hear each other in a language you understand? What would that experience tell you about the power of God?
5. Paul says that communication is important for the church. How might this idea go beyond the issue of foreign languages to encompass common phrases and ideas we use in church? What can our church do to make sure that people understand our message about God?

Reference Shelf

Luke describes the coming of the Spirit in something of an objective manner (cf. Luke 3:22). There is a sound like the rush of a mighty wind. “Wind” was a useful image for Luke, for the Greek word (pnoē) is formed from the same stem as the Greek word for spirit (pneuma). There appeared tongues as of fire. What is happening is something heard and seen, even if the narrator is compelled to use similes to offer a picture. What is happening has its origins in God, for it all came from “out of heaven” (v. 2). The heavenly origin and the precise similes place readers in the world of the biblical language of theophany (“appearance of the deity”). Wind or God’s “breath” could be used in the Bible to represent the divine presence (e.g., 2 Sam 22:16; Job 37:10; Isa 66:15). Compare also the storm language of God’s appearance at Sinai (Exod 19:16-19). Fire was a more common phenomenon to denote the divine presence (e.g., Exod 3:2 [the burning bush]; 13:21-22 [the pillar of fire in the wilderness]; 19:16-19 [Sinai]).

Luke’s use of the word “tongues” to describe the fire foreshadows the “speaking in tongues” that comes in vv. 4-12. Philo, the first-century AD Jewish philosopher, combines in his discussion of Sinai the image of fire and the phenomenon of language. Assuming such connections to be valid, Luke may be encouraging readers to compare Christian Pentecost with Israel’s being given the law at Sinai. Just as the law was central to Jewish identity as God’s people, the Spirit is central to Christians’ identity as God’s people of the new covenant (cf. Luke 22:20).

The narrator shifts attention away from a description of what was happening around those gathered in the room to what happened to the people themselves. First, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” Endowments with the Spirit empower God’s people for the tasks to which they have been called (cf. Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). Second, they spoke in other tongues. Only rarely are endowments by the Spirit accompanied by the phenomenon of “tongues” (10:46; 19:6). In this context, “tongues” likely means other human languages, representing the universal character of the gospel message.

Reference

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007) 48-49.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters (ages 10 and 8), and watching television shows on Netflix. Her goal for 2015 is to tackle the bass clef on the piano.

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