It is the will of God that the gospel should be preached all over the globe. When the Lord Jesus spoke to His disciples immediately before His resurrection, He outlined a service and a message with an international scope: “Ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The book of the Acts records the obedience of the apostles to Christ’s command, charting the spread of the gospel throughout the world as it was known in that day.
The apostles faced many formidable obstacles to their evangelical work. Natural, human, and infernal powers, hindered their movement and endangered their lives. The propagation of the gospel was often purchased at a great price. But one obstacle to their efforts is notable by its absence from the Scriptural record. Though many missionaries of our own day identify the challenge of the language barrier among their most formidable difficulties, the Acts does not suggest that difficulties in communication often stood in the apostles’ way. This is not because they had the gift of tongues. Scripture makes it clear that the focus of that spectacular and short-lived gift was testimony to Israel, and we seek in vain for any indication of tongues-assisted missionary outreach to Gentiles. Rather, in a remarkable movement of divine providence, God had prepared the way of His servants, and had demolished the language barriers that would otherwise have slowed the spread of the gospel.
That preparation had begun seven and a half centuries before the birth of Christ, as the expansion of Greek colonization began to diffuse Greek culture and language throughout the European world. This process continued until the waning power of the Persian Empire was finally crushed, and the Greek Empire, the kingdom of brass foretold by Daniel, emerged in conquest (Dan 2:39). At the head of this empire stood Alexander the Great, the brilliant military strategist who wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. His empire did not long survive his death in 323 B.C., but its impact on the culture of the then known world was profound. Alexander’s policy of hellenization diffused Greek culture beyond the political boundaries of his empire and with that culture came the Greek language. Thus it is that the Lord Himself spoke Greek, and thus it is that His apostles could move throughout the world, unhindered by linguistic barriers in the spread of the gospel. And, when they came to write the gospels and the epistles, the fact that they wrote in the Koine Greek, commonly spoken by all peoples of the Roman Empire, made the New Testament universally accessible.
But that happened centuries later, for Alexander’s empire had an even greater part to play in the purposes of God. Alexandria, the city which he founded as his imperial capital, was not just a center of political power. It was an important cultural and educational center. Its library was the wonder of the ancient world, and was intended to house the best of Greek learning and to gather important documents from around the world. Among these documents was the Hebrew Bible, the collection of books that we recognize as the Old Testament. And, in keeping with the aims of Alexandria’s great library, it is here that the Old Testament Scriptures were first translated into Greek.
This Greek translation of the Old Testament is known as the Septuagint or LXX (70 in Roman numerals). Both these titles refer to the tradition that the work of translation was carried out by 70 or 72 rabbis. In fact, the translation is likely to have taken a longer time than this legend would indicate. Scholars suggest that, while the translation of the Pentateuch began in the third century before Christ, the translation was most probably not completed for nearly an hundred years. The significance of the Septuagint was enormous. It became the Bible of the Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jewish diaspora, used throughout the classical world. It brought the knowledge of the One true God to a polytheistic Greek religion. It was the Bible used by the Lord Jesus, the disciples, and the early Christians.
In a very remarkable way, God overruled the fate of nations, their armies, and their culture that the world might be prepared to receive the good news concerning the death and resurrection of His Son. But He did not merely smooth the way for the apostles and evangelists to communicate their message. He saw to it that the written Word of God, the Scripture that lent authority and certainty to the messages preached by the apostles, would also be available to every creature in every nation.
But the story of the Septuagint has an even wider significance for the study in hand in these papers. Its use by the Lord Jesus and His disciples does not indicate the wholesale endorsement of what was a somewhat patchy translation. But it does give divine approval to the principle of translating the Scriptures. God intended His Word to be accessible, and He saw to it that the New Testament was not inspired in the elegant but inaccessible Greek of the classical age. Rather, Scripture was written in the Koine Greek spoken by the common people, in a straightforward and unadorned idiom.
It was something of this truth that Paul expressed as he stood in the Areopagus in Athens, the epicenter of Hellenistic learning and culture. Addressing the renowned philosophers of that great city, he pointed them to a God Whom they described as unknown: “God that made the world and all things therein … hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us: For in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:24-27).
There could, perhaps, be no better commentary on the way in which a sovereign and providential God determined the times and bounds of nations to ensure that the gospel message, and the Word of God that embodied it, would come, with an equal lack of linguistic barrier, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16).