Dr. Lanning is Assistant Professor of Cellular and Molecular Biology in California State University, LA and a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Redlands, California.
It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.
Living organisms communicate in numerous ways. Humans and animals communicate through spoken language or audible sounds, gestures, postures, and physical contact. Some animals, as well as plants and single-celled organisms, even communicate through secreted chemicals. From a cell biologist’s perspective, the individual cells of our bodies are also constantly engaging in communication. In fact, ‘cell communication’ is a major discipline within the biological sciences, such that tens of millions of dollars are spent each year in the United States alone in order to gain a better understanding of how cells communicate with each other and their environments.
Cell communication can be defined as the cell activity of sending and receiving signals among themselves and their environment. All of us are already familiar with certain forms of cell communication. The warm sensation of wrapping your fingers around a cup of coffee or the icy sting of cold raindrops when you are caught outside without an umbrella are both manifestations of cells communicating with each other. In both cases, your nerve cells are sending information (communicating) in the form of chemically-created electrical impulses at rates of up to 100 meters per second from cells in your skin to your brain cells. In this manner, cell communication between our nerves provides us with our physical feelings of pleasure or pain.
Some of us are intimately familiar with cells communicating through the hormone insulin. Normally, when we eat a meal, the glucose concentration in our bloodstream increases. This is a signal to a special type of cell in the pancreas to release insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin then communicates to the other cells of our body, essentially telling them to allow the glucose in the blood to come inside. In this way, a small group of cells in the pancreas communicates with a huge portion of the body’s other cells informing them when to take in their main source of energy (glucose).
At the very beginning of human life, during embryo development, cells are communicating with each other in a complex but highly regulated fashion. Almost every cell is secreting chemicals or other molecules to let neighboring cells know what kind of cell it is and where it is located. Through this cacophony of cellular communication, the intricate processes of development occur. Some cells respond to this communication by changing into another cell type with new functions; some respond by multiplying over and over again. Others respond by beginning long migratory journeys to distant regions within the embryo, while still others respond by remaining exactly as they are and exactly where they are for the duration of the person’s life (these are what we call stem cells).
One of the most important principles of cell communication is that cells need communication in order to remain alive. Cells can only remain alive if they continue to carry out metabolism and, in many cases, cells must also continually repress an internal system that will trigger its own death. One form of cell communication activates a group of ‘survival’ enzymes whose function is both to maintain cell metabolism and to repress the cell death program. Thus, in the absence of this signal, cells will quickly perish.
In order to study cells, scientists take cells out of their natural environment (the body) and place them in artificial environments (typically a plastic dish) more suitable for manipulation and observation. The scientist can provide these cells with their preferred mixture of nutrients along with the temperature, pH level, and concentrations of salts and dissolved gasses that replicate those of the human body. However, even with all of these conditions precisely engineered to mimic the cells’ natural environment, the cells will rapidly die in the absence of the abovementioned, life-giving communication that comes in the form of chemical and protein signals from other cells. To keep the cells alive, the scientist must take the place of the other cells in the body, providing the necessary communicative signals—essentially telling the cells to live.
One of the most exciting and at the same time tedious tasks for a cell biologist studying a new type of cell is to determine exactly what communication signals that particular type of cell requires in order to stay alive. Discoveries related to this life-sustaining communication between cells have profound implications in the biomedical sciences. For example, one goal of scientists studying neurodegenerative diseases is to identify communication signals that will extend the lifespan of neurons, while a major goal of cancer biologists is to identify how to disrupt this type of communication in cancer cells.
In many respects, cellular life-giving communication can be viewed as a reflection of a spiritual reality. Communication is absolutely required for the initiation and maintenance of a healthy spiritual life. As mentioned at the outset of this article, people communicate with each other in numerous ways. However, only communication from and with our Creator and Father can provide and sustain spiritual life. Holy Scripture frequently describes this spiritual life-giving communication. At the earliest possible moment in human history, God was already providing life by communicating with man. The first recorded instance of communication between God and man reveals God providing Adam with the commandment of life (; Belgic Confession [BC], Art. 14). This commandment, while instructing Adam as to how his physical life would be maintained, also clearly laid out God’s will for the maintenance of man’s spiritual life. We read later that God and man were accustomed to walking and talking with each other in the Garden of Eden ( ). How wonderful and rich this life of communication must have been! Surely, no human in our fallen state has experienced such quickening communication.
We now are fallen, and the perfect relationship enjoyed between our first parents and our Creator is no longer a possibility on this earth. However, our Father revealed His graceful, merciful, and faithful nature during His first conversation with Adam and Eve after the Fall.records the first gospel—through Christ, God’s chosen people will achieve victory over Satan and his kingdom. Following these events recorded in the beginning of Genesis, God continued to reveal His faithful nature by way of communicating His covenant to His chosen people. Throughout the Old Testament, we find Jehovah constantly speaking His covenant to Noah ( and Gen. 9), Abraham ( ), Moses and the children of Israel (Ex. 20), David (II Sam. 7), and others, directly or through His servants.
One of the great benefits of being in God’s covenant is His continual communication with us, His redeemed friends. Psalm 25 tells us that, as we confess our sins and petition God for mercy, we are comforted that He will speak His secret, or His counsel and doctrines, to His covenant people. He speaks the peace of salvation to His people (), and promises that He will guide our steps along the path of life by speaking directions into our ears ( ). It is through this communication that true life is provided. The great Shepherd speaks, and we hear and recognize His voice, obtaining eternal life ( ). The Word that He speaks to us is the revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the true Bread of life, through which we obtain spiritual life ( ).
These Scriptures expressly instruct us about the importance of God speaking to us. However, we know that the entire Scriptures are the real and true Word of God. The same Word that spoke the creation into existence also communicates life to us (John 1). The life-giving Word of the Scriptures is now primarily communicated to us through preaching (; Canons of Dordt [CD], Head III/IV, Art. 6-11). Through faithful ministers of the Word, the Holy Spirit speaks directly to us (), working life-giving faith in the hearts of the elect who hear this Word communicated to them (). This communication also fulfills the promise of Christ, who told His disciples that after His death the Holy Spirit would speak, and in doing so, would more clearly reveal God’s plan of salvation (). Truly, we are blessed through this Spirit worked, life-giving communication.
When cells communicate with each other, an amazing flurry of activity commences inside them. Typically, only a small handful of communication molecules is required to reach a cell for it to be able to respond to the signal. However, while the initial communication signal may begin with the activation of only a few molecules, within seconds a huge network of molecules becomes active through a series of molecular chain reactions. These reactions, called signaling cascades, can amplify the initial communication signal by up to 1,000 times.1 The amplified signals inside cells result in hundreds of enzymes becoming active and thousands of molecules being modified, changed, or moved. In response, cells are called into action. The cells of a developing embryo may initiate the restructuring of their internal skeleton, so that they can begin to crawl to a new location. The cells of a taste bud may release millions of calcium ions from internal storehouses in order to stimulate a nearby neuron and communicate that something sweet is being tasted. Immune cells may begin to synthesize biological molecules at a breakneck pace so that they can rapidly reproduce and mount an attack against an intruder. Stomach cells may alter their internal ion concentrations in order to pump acid into the stomach to begin digesting food. Therefore, it is the internal result of cell communication that induces each particular cell in our body to act as it does. Without cell communication, no cells would be active or carry out their particular function. Consequently, in addition to keeping individual cells alive, the process of cell communication is also required for the life of an entire organism.
These life-giving aspects of cell communication are again reflections of a spiritual reality. When God communicates to us through the preaching of the Word, profound changes occur within us. Saving faith is kindled and strengthened (). When God communicates to the unregenerate elect through the preaching of the gospel, He causes a spiritually dead person to become alive through faith (BC, Art. 24; CD, III/IV, Arts. 10- 12). This faith, then, keeps us in constant communion with Christ and His benefits, allowing us to grow in sanctification (BC, Art. 22, 24; CD, V). This powerful faith calls regenerated believers into action, exciting them to perform all those good works that God commands in His Word (BC, Art. 24; CD, III/IV, Art. 12; ; ). The powerful, life-giving communication from our Father never fails to evoke sanctified action in His covenant children.
It must also be mentioned that a primary response to this life-giving communication is that the believer desires to communicate back to God. Our lives, therefore, are characterized by continual praise and prayer (I Thess. 5:16-18) to the One who has transformed us from a spiritually dead state into spiritually thriving beings. The Psalms are replete with calls to communicate praise with our mouths and our hearts to our Maker and Redeemer. There is real joy for believers who make the praise of the Psalms a regular part of their life. Prayer is engaging in a holy conversation with God, communicating to Him our praise, thankfulness, and petitions. Prayer is the most intimate of communication activities that can be performed on the earth and is a cherished mark of a healthy spiritual life (CD, V, Art. 12).
When we consider the cell communication and its absolute necessity for life, we can reflect on our Father’s grace and mercy, thanking Him for His spiritual life-giving communication to us. We can also meditate on the coming joy of communicating with Him face to face. Our lives in heaven will not be an existence of silence; rather, our great God will be speaking His everlasting love to us () and we will join in an innumerable throng returning praise to His worthy Name ( ).
1 Take a moment to consider the sovereignty of God from the perspective of a cell: The average-sized human consists of about 25 trillion cells. Each of these 25 trillion cells receives dozens of communication signals, resulting in thousands of molecules being activated every moment of every day. The activation of each of these molecules must be precisely regulated in order for each cell to stay alive. Now consider how many living organisms are on the earth, including all the cells of vegetation as well as the single-celled microbes which communicate in the same manner. The number of molecular details that must be coordinated for all the current life on earth to exist for even one second is completely incomprehensible to the human mind. Our God is truly an awesome God!