“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
– Matthew 1:23, New International Version
God with us.
How profound. The birth of Jesus tells us the Creator and Sustainer of the universe wanted to be known by us so badly, he willingly set aside his kingly position with the Father and took on human flesh (Philippians 2:6-7). It’s what theologians call the Incarnation—God taking on flesh.
Think of it this way: God took on the limitations of being human. He had physical needs. He was hungry. He cried. He sweated as he worked and needed to bathe afterward.
He also took on language. He spoke the language of the people around him, Aramaic. And when interacting with the religious and political leaders of his day, he spoke Hebrew and Greek. In taking on the language of his day, Jesus used the idioms and cultural references that were second nature to his audience. By speaking the language of the people, Jesus conveyed the heart of his message in a way they could understand. He became a God who was with them—the Truth dwelling personally among them (John 1:14).
The mission Jesus gave his first followers was to share his message of love with everyone they met. That mission is still ours today. The Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus at the well told her fellow villagers, “Come meet a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” In the same way, our stories about Jesus need to be embedded in the culture and language of those we interact with (John 4:29).This drives our work here at Jesus Film Project. It’s the heart behind every new film we create and every new translation of our flagship film, JESUS.
Right now, we’re celebrating an exciting milestone––the film JESUS is available in more than 2,000 languages. That means millions can say, “Jesus speaks my language.” It’s an incredibly personal way to experience Jesus as “with us.”
People Behind the Milestone
Through my role at Jesus Film Project, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with some of the people who do the hard work of producing the new language versions of our films. I’ve come to see just how deeply language matters.
I recently met Elly Gudo, a Kenyan living and working in Nairobi as a script consultant with Jesus Film Project. He’s been working in the field of Bible translation since 2005. In 2019, he began working exclusively with Jesus Film Project to adapt the script of JESUS into “smaller languages”––languages coming out of minority groups around the world. The languages often get overlooked by broader translation efforts.
I asked him why it matters that we translate and dub our films in these minority languages. Elly said people who speak minority languages are “cut off.” He shared: “Either their language isn’t documented by the national government, or they are fewer in numbers, or they are cut off by infrastructure or terrain. When they hear that their language will be documented in scripture or in something like the JESUS film, there is so much self-esteem which comes and says, ‘You mean Jesus can speak our language?’”
It’s that simple. The very act of translating and dubbing the JESUS film into a person’s heart language can open the door for them to become curious and eventually receive the gospel message as their own.
Truth Conveyed in Language
I’m thankful that I didn’t have to learn Aramaic to hear the simple message that God loves me. Generations of Christians before me completed the hard work of translating the Bible into English so I could grow up in a loving Christian home. I was taught to trust God as my heavenly Father. But most people in the world don’t have that experience. Most people don’t grow up knowing a God who is “with us”.
The first time I had a personal experience with heart language was 1993. I was on a mission trip with high school students to Kiev, Ukraine. We spent the days speaking in the local high schools about life in America. In the evenings, we invited the students to come to “youth group” where we shared the gospel. Many came to hang out with the Americans and practice their English.
Olga was one student who expressed a desire to follow Jesus. I sat with her over several evenings to mentor her in her new faith.
The materials we were using were translated side by side, English and Russian. We arrived at 2 Corinthians 5:17. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (English Standard Version). I asked Olga to read the words in her language and tell me in English what it meant. When she did, a warm smile spread across her face. She said, “It says, I’m new! Jesus makes me new!”
I still remember the sheer delight in her voice as that truth sank in. The Holy Spirit conveyed this eternal truth to Olga in her heart language.
Power of Heart Language
In my conversations with Elly, we talked much about the power of heart language and the Incarnation.
He shared, “When I meet a person who speaks in my own language, that makes me love the person, to identify with him.” And when Jesus speaks a person’s language, it’s easier for that person to identify with “His suffering, His joys, His crucifixion, His resurrection.”
When people hear the actor playing Jesus speak their language, they are drawn to the person of Jesus. They are drawn to the love and grace in Him. They experience Him as a God who is with them.
It’s Worth It
Every Christmas as we celebrate the miracle of God taking on human flesh, it means we can recognize Him as one of us. It’s easy for English speakers to imagine that Jesus speaks our language. The Bible is widely available in English—in numerous versions. That’s not the case for billions of people around the world.
This reality is what motivates people like Elly. “I do this work because there are so many people right now in Kenya who will not hear the gospel (if it is) in foreign languages like English or Swahili,” he says.
I want to keep playing my part in helping fulfill the Great Commission too, as long as God allows, to be sure that everyone has a way to hear Jesus say “I love you; you are Mine” in a language they understand. Don’t you?