Has it ever surprised you that Christians incorporate ancient Hebrew words into their singing and praying? Amen and hallelujah occur in the Old Testament so it makes sense that Christians use them in worship. But what about the Aramaic word maranatha — “Our Lord, come!” — in 1 Corinthians 16:22?
Aramaic was the common language of the people groups east of Jerusalem and was spoken in Palestine during the time of Jesus. But Paul uses it in his letter to Corinth without explanation as if his readers should know what it means. This is surprising because the Corinthian church was comprised of Greek-speaking, Jewish and Gentile Christians. And yet Paul anticipates that this word will have meaning and become part of the culture of the Christians in Corinth. The ESV Bible translates maranatha as “Our Lord, come!”, but the first readers would have seen a word as foreign to them as it is to us.
The use of an Aramaic word struck me while serving in Vietnam. The church there sings a praise chorus expressing longing for Christ’s return centered on maranatha. In a beautiful example of globalization, the song is originally from Korea and translated into Vietnamese. As we sang it, I wondered why they left the word untranslated. My instinct as a cross-cultural worker would be to put the song into the local language so that its meaning would be easier to grasp. But that misses the point. Singing maranatha ties our songs to the longing of Christians throughout the centuries, beginning in Corinth.
The untranslated word from the Bible also grants great dignity to Vietnamese Christianity. Translating maranatha would be denying another culture the particular blessing of the transcultural faith that is Christianity. We take this for granted in our own culture. For instance, while growing up, I never thought twice about the name of the church we attended — “Maranatha Baptist Church.” Who told those dear people that they could use a foreign word for the name of their church? Apparently, meditating on Scripture and some knowledge of the original languages of Scripture led these Christians to sing “Our Lord, come!” in perfect harmony with their ancient Aramaic and Greek-speaking brothers and sisters in Corinth.
Missiologist Andrew Walls has said that Bible translation makes every culture “equidistant” from the gospel. There is no culture that has the inside scoop, the upper hand, a closer connection to Christ if we all hear the gospel in the Bible. We all encounter Jesus in the Scriptures and respond in worship. God in the gospel invites and calls every culture to be transformed in Christ through his word.
And when he does so, he adds to the tapestry of humanity worshiping in spirit and in truth. Each culture participates in the deep channels of gospel grace revealed in Scripture and adds a unique strand of discipleship to Jesus colored by their place and context. Each culture both sings maranatha and gives it an original melody.
In order to think globally about God’s work in the world, we ought to ask what we can learn from the global church. I suggest we consider how other churches and cultures blend old and new in order to live faithfully as Christ’s disciples in their particular context.
Jon Hoglund, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Theology and Global Studies
- Pray that the Lord would stir us to pray for the Church and increase our love for and learning from them as we worship our Savior.
- Pray that the Lord would bring and encourage the pastors who attend Serious Joy: The 35th Bethlehem Conference for Pastors.
- Pray that our students and faculty would launch into the spring semester well.
- Pray for the students considering where God would have them attend school.