In the breadth of Scripture, there are many ways God reveals Himself, each accompanied by a distinct name. These names each carry a revelation of the nature and essence of the Godhead. YHWH, Jehovah Raffa, Elohim.
While each name is potent and deserving of awe, the name has taken on significant meaning for me personally is given to Jesus, “The Word made Flesh” (Jn. 1:14). Jesus is the Word. He is the perfect utterance of the Father to all creation. Everything and anything that needs to be announced about God is articulated in the person of Jesus. He is the essence of all language, and knows how to speak intimately in our native tongue.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking at Vinelife – the local church I have the privilege of serving. We’ve been going through the book of Acts, passage by passage, and exploring the in-breaking of the power of Jesus in the lives of ordinary men and women. It’s a powerful narrative of what happened when Jesus left and the Holy Spirit came. The centerpiece of the book of Acts comes quickly in chapter two when the disciples, who were waiting and praying patiently in the upper room were dramatically blessed with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
On this particular week, while I was recounting this passage, something happened that I didn’t expect. I was moved so deeply, I began to sob. I tried to pull it together, but to no avail. I had to stop speaking and drop to my knees. It took a good 2-3 minutes to regain composure. I can’t quite explain what happened, except to say, I was overwhelmed by the God who knows the language of our hearts.
I’ve read Acts 2 dozens of times in my life. It’s a cornerstone of the faith, especially for those in charismatic traditions. But as I sat with the text again, I noticed something in a new way. As the Spirit of God was poured out, one of the first signs was “tongues of fire” resting on the heads of the disciples. They stumbled like drunken men out of the upper room out into the streets. We know that thousands of world travelers had descended upon Jerusalem to observe Passover. The story continues that the disciples began to speak in tongues, and as they did, men and women from other nations began to hear them speak in their own language.
I’ve always understood that speaking in tongues was supernatural. So I thought the main thrust of this passage had to do with a cool, new comic-book like superpower the disciples could now do by the power of the Holy Spirit. “Wow…do you hear that? Thomas is speaking perfect Spanish. That’s amazing, because he flunked Spanish in high school. Praise God. Miracles DO happen!”
That interpretation may be respectable, but I believe it misses the point. The power of this story has less to do with a new ability the disciples acquired. Rather, it points to the fact that there was someone in the crowd hearing their own language while they were far from home.
Why is this important? This was the first manifestation we read about as the Spirit of God was poured out in a brand new way. It’s as if God wanted the men and women of different nations to know “I know your language. I know the unique expression of your heart.” This was a sign that the heart of God has never been for us to get smart enough, behave well enough, or learn another language in order to relate to him. He loves us enough to show up precisely in our experience of the world. He learns our language and meets us there. He’s the Word made flesh.
Why is this good news? Because the language we speak is our best attempt to make sense of our reality. Language is intimate and fragile. It’s powerful yet incompetent. Think about it. All we have is a collage of nouns and verbs and question marks and semicolons to help us communicate cosmic realities. And I’m not just referring just to English and French and Mandarin Chinese. We each have a limited language that flows from our hearts and mouths to describe what really matters to us. All of our vocabularies are custom-tailored to our unique perspective. How amazing is it that the Holy Spirit knows every language?
As a pastor, I talk to so many people that feel misunderstood. They feel like God doesn’t know them. Much of this narrative is formed because their experience with church people leaves them feeling like they have to learn a new language just to be a part. They feel estranged because they don’t connect with the same music, or expression, or ways of describing the world. And new languages are often really hard to learn, so most of us throw in the towel before we get too far into the journey. There are so many people who have given up on God because they’ve been told they have to meet God where He is.
What we read in Acts 2 seems to be the opposite of that. God in Christ loves us enough to get into our skin. He eats our food, enjoys our music, walks our roads, and speaks the way we do. Yes, a life surrendered to Jesus will always lead to change and transformation. But the starting point is the revelation that the Word made flesh meets us right where we are, in the language of our hearts, and invites us to dine with him.