I’m trying to teach myself Japanese.
For some time, I have been interested in the land of the rising sun because of its cuisine and culture, so I decided that if I was ever to visit Japan, I would like to know a little about the language. I got myself a couple of books and some handy teaching apps.
It turns out that Japanese is one of the harder languages to learn. As opposed to our English alphabet of 26 letters, written Japanese is constructed using two syllabaries. Each of them has around 46 characters, and in addition, there are thousands of individual kanji to learn, which are logographic pictures with different meanings. The US Foreign Service Institute has the role of teaching foreign languages to US government employees posted overseas, and according to it, the hardest languages to learn for an English speaker are Arabic, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin Chinese. (If you were wondering, the easiest are Danish, French, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish.)1 For Japanese, the average time to learn the language, as taught by the professionals in the Foreign Service Institute, is 88 weeks. I’m worried that my apps and I might take a little longer. This experience reminds me of a story in the Bible.
Some believers are sitting around feeling uncertain. Jesus has been resurrected, but He is now gone, taken up into the clouds, and there’s a feeling of “Now what?” in the room. Suddenly, everyone hears a noise like that of a loud wind, and as they are sitting there, something like a flame appears and then splits into little flames, resting on each one of those present. They are on fire for Jesus when they leave that room, and the world soon learns that something extraordinary has happened to them. As they preach to the people in the streets, they speak in many languages! They are telling the people about Jesus in the native tongues of their listeners. There are no language barriers. They speak freely to people they could never communicate with before. I wish I could get something like that to learn Japanese!
The Gospel writer Luke uses similes and analogies to describe what happened in that room—it was “like” a wind and “like” a flame. This is the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the early church and giving the believers what they needed to share the message of Jesus. The language Luke uses in the book of Acts is as close as he can get to describing what happened. When God moves in our world, it can be hard to describe, but what is not in doubt is that God is present!
Often, it seems that the Holy Spirit is elusive and hard to define. The Spirit of God is written about everywhere throughout the Bible, but for many, He seems harder to connect with than a heavenly Father or a saving Son. But Jesus had told His disciples, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16, 17).
When Jesus left His disciples, He made sure they knew they were not going to be alone and assured them that the Holy Spirit would always be with them. The Holy Spirit is the actual presence of God that dwells within the followers of God. Jesus also said that the Holy Spirit was a person, using the pronoun Him rather than It.
So, when Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit, He wasn’t referring to some ineffable, intangible spirit but instead intended that the presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit would be given to believers after He was gone. That’s what we see happening in that room with the disciples—the Holy Spirit arriving in a powerful way! So what was the Holy Spirit up to in there?
When the Holy Spirit gave the gift of languages to the disciples, they didn’t stay in the room. They went out to tell people about Jesus. The Spirit gives us gifts for a purpose. That purpose is to do the work God has given us and to build His church. That’s not to say it means the gift of tongues is the only gift given. There are a few places in the Bible that talk about the gifts of the Spirit. First Corinthians 12 says that some of the gifts include wisdom and strong faith. Healing is mentioned, too, as well as miracles and giving prophecy from God. It even says that each of us will receive our own unique gift. Also, each of us will be given different gifts. The Bible says, “There are different ways the Spirit works. But the same God is working in all these ways and in all people” (1 Corinthians 12:6, NIrV2).
The gifts of the Holy Spirit allow us to help other people along the way. At the same time, they change us in meaningful ways. Jesus says, “The Father will send the Friend in my name to help you. The Friend is the Holy Spirit. He will teach you all things. He will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26, NIrV).
I didn’t really understand what that meant until one day when I was driving home from work. There, on the side of the road, was someone slowly pushing his car along, then suddenly jumping in the car and trying to start it. He hadn’t gotten it started by the time I came alongside, so I rolled down my window and offered to help. Soon the two of us were pushing his car as fast as possible, and he quickly got it started and running because of my help. I was relieved but also a little proud that I had done a good thing and helped someone in need.
As I drove the rest of the way home, I realized I was looking forward to telling my wife about the encounter so I could impress her and show off my good behavior a little. Then a few forgotten lines from the Bible popped into my head. “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). I knew exactly what the Holy Spirit was telling me. I shouldn’t show off in front of my wife. In fact, I should keep my mouth shut and never talk about it. If I boasted, it meant that I had my reward for it, and in my heart, I knew it would be better to do a good deed for the right reasons, not just to show off.
Once I got home, it took about 15 minutes before I buckled and told my wife about the man I had helped. I thought I was going to feel good, but instead, I realized I had let myself down. I determined from then on to keep my good works quiet and not to do them for praise but for the sake of doing good in the world alone. The Spirit had reminded me how to act, and I chose not to heed His prompting! If you hear that voice inside telling you the right thing to do, I encourage you to listen to it; it could be the Spirit of God.
As well as gifting and guiding, the Spirit is called the Comforter. Jesus also calls the Spirit our Friend or Companion—someone who will always be with us and never leave us. This year is my twentieth wedding anniversary, and knowing that my wife is my constant companion gives me a sense of security. Often, it seems like we can read each other’s thoughts, and like most couples, it only takes a word, a nod, or an expression. We can say volumes to each other without speaking because we know each other so well.
The Holy Spirit is also my Companion and, remarkably, knows me even better than my wife. It is an enormous comfort knowing that God is interested in my life and wants to be a daily companion in my journey.
Today I left my watch at home. I’m in the habit of wearing it, so when I was halfway to work, I noticed that my wrist felt funny. I was too far from home to return for it, so all day I’ve been looking at my wrist, expecting to see my watch.
In the same way, I think the Holy Spirit can sometimes escape our notice until He isn’t there anymore. Maybe you don’t feel He is with you, but the good news is that you can ask for His presence in your life. “You are sinful and you know how to give good things to your children. How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” (Luke 11:13, NLV3).
Although the Holy Spirit has yet to give me the gift of languages, I know He has given me many other gifts that will enhance my life and grow God’s kingdom. He is ready to give you amazing gifts as well. Just ask Him!
1. Michelle Bryner, “What’s the Hardest Language to Learn?” LiveScience, June 11, 2010, https://www.livescience.com/32644-what-is-the-hardest-language-to-learn.html.
2. Scripture quotations marked NIrV are from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL READER’S VERSION®. Copyright © 1996, 1998, 2014, Biblica. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of Biblica.
3. Scripture quotations marked NLV are from the New Life Version, copyright © 1969 and 2003. Used by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc., Uhrichsville, Ohio, 44683. All rights reserved.
Justin Bone supports and trains pastors and congregations around Victoria, Australia, for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He is passionate about helping people understand the Bible better.