Early this summer, I stood in a mountainous village in the northern Philippines called Dibagat – not far from where our family lived for nearly 15 years – celebrating a moment 66 years in the making. A moment full of joy and hope, made possible by those who have answered God’s call with a resounding “yes.”
As roosters crowed in the background, a clear blue sky beaming overhead on a humid June morning, three generations gathered under one roof to sing, pray, and praise God for His faithfulness. That day, we dedicated the full Isnag Bible translation, the language of the village of Dibagat. Five hundred copies of God’s Word were distributed to those in the community with thousands more on the way. Decades of obedience brought us there, to a place where the Isnag people could read the entirety of Scripture in the language they understand best.
What a joy it is to witness one more group holding the transformational message of the Gospel—God’s Word in their own heart language. In my work with Wycliffe Bible Translators, we pray that everyone on the face of the earth will have access to all of God’s Word in the languages and forms that best serve them.
But for the people of Dibagat, it hasn’t always been this way. The Isnag translation of the Bible was possible because people said “yes” to God’s call over 50 years ago.
(Photo credit: Rodney Ballard)
The Philippines has over 150 known languages. So, in 1953 when Cameron Townsend, missionary-linguist and founder of Wycliffe, was invited by Ramon Magsaysay, then president of the Philippines, to do Bible translation, he answered with an impactful yes. A year later, it was determined that Dibagat was the ideal location to learn the Isnag language and in 1956, a missionary named Dick Roe arrived to begin learning the language and translating the Gospel of Mark.
Nard Pugyao was seven years old when Dick arrived in Dibagat. But Nard was curious about Dick and his work and began to ask important questions about God. Why would God allow his son to die? Why wouldn’t God rescue Jesus? Through studying the Gospel of Mark–the first book of the Bible translated into Isnag–and learning of God’s sacrificial love and the victorious resurrection of Jesus, five years after Dick’s arrival, Nard’s life was transformed forever.
Nard continued to study God’s Word and felt strongly that others should have this opportunity too. He answered God’s call to become involved in Bible translation through missionary aviation. After his education in the States, he became a missionary airplane and helicopter pilot and served with SIL alongside his wife in the Philippines. He flew in and out of Dibagat, the same village he grew up in, providing air service to the translation team. In 1982—26 years after Dick’s “yes”—Nard was the pilot that delivered the first 500 copies of the New Testament translated into Isnag. Now others could read, learn, and know God in their language, too.
God’s Word began to transform those who encountered it, just as it had for Rudy Barlaan.
Rudy, a Filipino from Pangasinan, came to know Jesus through a classmate during college. Convicted by Romans 10:9, Rudy confessed his belief in Jesus and began to live a life where he felt like everything was new. “I had a desire for God’s Word,” he says, recalling how he read the Gospel of John in one sitting. “The Word of God was drawing me irresistibly.”
Rudy had been studying engineering and, feeling the call of God but not knowing any other way to serve the Lord besides becoming a pastor, began taking seminary classes at night. After graduating and working for a year as an engineer he says, “I felt I was in the wrong place,” and quit his job shortly thereafter.
But soon, without money for seminary tuition, Rudy was directed towards a linguistics job and his training in 1971. He arrived in Dibagat with one suitcase for what he thought would be a one-year assignment, but he learned to love linguistics and soon began preaching and translating hymns into the Isnag language. One year became two, two became three, and Rudy continued alongside Dick in their translation work year after year.
(Photo credit: Rodney Ballard)
The Isnag New Testament was first dedicated in 1982 and a revision, with the addition of Genesis and Exodus, was celebrated in 2006. At that event, Rudy agreed it was time to translate the remainder of the Old Testament and got to work.
More than five decades after his initial move, he still calls Dibagat home. Instead of retiring, Rudy desires to write Bible studies in Isnag that show Christ throughout the Old Testament. He continues to work alongside his “spiritually adopted” nephew, Mark Pugyao, who joined the Isnag translation team in 2009.
Before this, Mark Pugyao—who is also Nard’s nephew—was a Bible school student struggling through his assignments. Having trouble communicating his thoughts and ideas in English, he had to ask for help from classmates. In contrast, as he reflects on reading God’s Word in his own language he says, “My heart language gave me passion to share my experiences, faith, and walk with the Lord. I can communicate with (others) very well.”
In 2009, Mark began working to translate the Old Testament into Isnag while Rudy served as a consultant. “Some of the people don’t really understand the other languages,” Mark says of the other available Bible translations. He can easily get emotional talking about what it means from his own personal experience to read, learn, and know the God of the Bible in the language he grew up speaking. It’s this same power that reflects the changes experienced within the community.
From a generation who lived much of their life without God’s Word, to a generation that has been exposed to a part of it, the Isnag community has been transformed. People who would have previously asked for a shaman to come to their homes when they were sick now ask for a pastor to intercede and pray over them. After someone dies, they call for a minister, whether they are believers or not. The people of Dibagat have left behind their cultural spirituality and embraced the healing power of Jesus. On June 25, 2023, we joined hundreds of our Isnag brothers and sisters in praising God for his faithfulness with a prayer for the next generation—one that won’t know a time when they didn’t have all of God’s Word available in their language.
(Photo credit: Wycliffe Bible Translators USA)
Nard, Rudy, and Mark answered God’s call with an obedient “yes,” devoting their lives to bringing the good news to the Isnag people in the language they understand best. When asked what it means to have the full Bible, Mark says, “My heart is melting when I read it in my own heart language. It’s helped me understand God more, and it makes me want to keep sharing the Word of God with the other Isnag people.”
But Scripture translation is not the end of the journey. In fact, it’s just the beginning. What has been decades in the making now looks forward with expectation and hope. Following the dedication of the Isnag Bible, Mark shared his three-part prayer with me: that more people will come to know the Lord, that the Lord would use them; and for strength and more workers to continue sharing the Word of God.
As the Isnags left the dedication ceremony and began trekking back to their homes with their own copies of the Bible in hand, I couldn’t help but think about Isaiah’s exclamation in the Old Testament: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring the good news!” For many years, the people of the Philippines were on the receiving end of mission work. But now they are on the sending side—the work of evangelism and discipleship belongs to the people of Dibagat, spreading the Gospel using the Isnag Bible.
Dr. John Chesnut is president and CEO of Wycliffe Bible Translators USA.