Speaking for Understanding

But now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching? Even things without life, giving a voice, whether pipe or harp, if they give not a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain voice, who shall prepare himself for war? So also ye, unless ye utter by the tongue speech easy to understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye will be speaking into the air (1 Corinthians 14:6-9).

There are times when people practice something so long or in such depth that the basic point and purpose has been forgotten. This seemed to plague the Christians of Corinth in terms of the assembly.

Difficulties abound in 1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40. From the text we can tell that God has poured His Spirit out upon the Corinthians and they are able to exercise spiritual gifts. God gave those gifts with one specific purpose: to build up the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16). In order to build up the church, the Body of Christ, those gifts would have to be used in love primarily for the benefit and encouragement of others. Yet it seems that the Corinthians were much more excited about the ability to use and manifest spiritual gifts than to exercise them for profitable functions. Christians would speak in tongues, that is, foreign languages, with none to interpret. More than one would do so at the same time. Perhaps some people were trying to prophesy at the same time as well. It seemed like madness!

Thus Paul is attempting to set the Corinthians straight about how the gifts should be exercised in an orderly and profitable manner. Love for one another should inform everything they do, especially the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). Yet Paul feels compelled to spend much time in 1 Corinthians 14:1-26 on one primary point: all things must be done for building up. The only way that such building up can take place is when those who hear actually understand what is being said.

Part of this argument is seen in 1 Corinthians 14:6-9. Paul wants to know: if he comes speaking in a tongue (e.g. German, Scythian, or the like), what benefit will they gain (1 Corinthians 14:6)? He would have to come with some specific message from God which they could understand in their own language. He then provides parallels with instruments: how can one know what a pipe or horn is playing if there is no distinction in the notes? If a trumpet is not sounded out boldly, who will get ready for war (the trumpet being a summons for an army; 1 Corinthians 14:7-8)? The point is emphasized in 1 Corinthians 14:9: the Corinthians need to speak in comprehensible language. They must speak so as to be understood or they are just speaking into the air. Speaking into the air is not edifying.

In their zeal for the exercise of spiritual gifts the Corinthians missed out on the core purpose of what they had come together to do: build one another up. God had not given them spiritual gifts merely for the purpose of using them haphazardly. He certainly did not grant them for them to speak so as to not be understood. He gave them so that Christians could encourage and build one another up. Edification demands understanding.

It is lamentable that many who would claim these gifts remain for the church persist in the same distortion of God’s purposes as the Corinthians did. Nevertheless, Paul envisions the day when that which was prophesied “in part” would be subsumed in its completion and thus see the end of prophecy and speaking in tongues, and so it occurred with the demise of the Apostles (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Nevertheless there is much for us to gain from this passage; edification and understanding remain high priorities for God’s people to this day!

Even though “speaking in tongues” through supernatural means empowered by the Holy Spirit may be a in the past, many are essentially “speaking in tongues” in the assembly. Some speak in the “tongue” of unnecessarily complicated language or over-reliance on Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, seemingly more interested in impressing fellow Christians with their studiousness, Bible knowledge, or fancy speaking than in actually facilitating comprehension and thus edification. Frequently well-meaning Christians also speak in the “tongue” of “Christianese,” using jargon understood only by their fellow Christians. Who else knows what a “gospel meeting” is? How does the “watery grave of baptism” sound to someone who is not well-versed in the language of the church? It might sound to them like a horror film! Granted, there are times when it is best to use very precise words, refer to Hebrew or Greek, or use “church language,” but whenever we do so we must make sure to explain what we mean so there might be understanding.

Edification demands comprehension: this is the theologically compelling aspect to 1 Corinthians 14:1-25. Far too often “edification” is defined as “a warm fuzzy spiritual feeling received when going through some kind of spiritual experience.” That seems to be the very definition the Corinthians are using, and for that Paul chastises them. True edification demands actual comprehension of God’s message; when God’s message in Christ of salvation, redemption, righteousness, and hope is understood, it builds up to strengthen faith not just in the assembly but throughout life. An experience may feel great on Sunday, but what will sustain your faith on Monday? God intends for us to know Jesus His Son so as to believe in Him and do what He says (John 20:31, 1 John 1:1-2:6); thus, to build one another up demands that we instruct and exhort in His truth.

Paul’s presupposition remains profound: since edification demands comprehension, and all things we do in the assembly are to be unto edification (1 Corinthians 14:3-5, 9, 26), it is clear that God intends for His message to be communicated in comprehensible ways, and thus that all men should understand the truth about God in Christ. This truth must never be taken for granted; far too often in human history some have attempted to keep others from having a full knowledge of what God has made known. In the past people would assemble to hear God’s message proclaimed in a foreign tongue, Latin, and none to truly interpret. To this day some demand Scripture to be understood only in the straitjacket of antiquated language, according to a church tradition, or assume that since they are just “regular” people that the message of Scripture cannot be understood by them but only by specially religiously trained or called individuals. 1 Corinthians 14:6-9 proves that none of this ought to be! God has always intended for His message to be understood. He wants it to be communicated so that the people hearing can understand it and put it to work in their own lives. He communicated to people in the language of their time in ways familiar to them. We do well to take this message to heart, seek to communicate the Gospel to one another and those outside of Christ in ways they are able to understand so that all can be built up in Christ. Let us speak so as to be understood to the glory of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Reading with Understanding

And they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading (Nehemiah 8:8).

Christianity is designed to be about Jesus the Christ, the means by which a person can become more like Him (Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20, 1 John 2:6). Yet our knowledge regarding Jesus comes from the revelations given within the New Testament (John 20:30-31, John 21:24-25, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Our understanding of the context of who Jesus was, why He came, and the story of God’s people before Jesus comes from the revelations contained within the Old Testament (Romans 15:4, Galatians 3:19-25, 2 Peter 1:19-21). Therefore, while our faith must be in Jesus the Christ, we must work diligently to understand the revelations contained in both the Old and New Testaments so that we may know what we believe and be better equipped to accomplish the will of our Lord (2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17, 2 Peter 3:18)!

An important part of our faith, therefore, involves reading the Bible. Yet, as is made evident in the days of Nehemiah, it is not enough just to read the Bible. The message of the Bible must also be understood and applied to the reader’s day!

About a thousand years had passed between Moses’ receiving the Law from God and Ezra’s reading of the Law before the assembled congregation of Israel. In those intervening years Israel had entered the land of Canaan, lived under judges and kings, were exiled from the land, and had returned to it. While we do not know the extent of the differences, there is little doubt that the precise language and terminology of the 1000-year-old law would be somewhat unfamiliar to its “new” audience, just as 500 and 1000 year old books use words and terminology unfamiliar to us.

Therefore, according to the commandment, the Law was read before the people (Deuteronomy 30:10-11). Yet, in order for the people to completely understand what was written, Ezra and his associates gave the sense of the reading (Nehemiah 8:7-8). Unclear words would be explained. Contexts would be clarified. Direct applications might have been provided. Thanks to the hard work of Ezra and his associates, the people were able to walk away with a better understanding of what God commanded than they had before!

We believe that God provided the message of the Bible for people of all generations and nations to understand what He has accomplished in His eternal plan regarding Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Ephesians 3:11). Yet the Bible is a book written between 1900-3500 years ago describing events that happened between 1900 and at least 8000 years ago in languages different from what we speak and in vastly different cultures than our own.

Therefore, the question of the eunuch remains apt: how can I understand what I read, except some one shall guide me? (Acts 8:30-31). In order to understand the Scriptures, we must understand a little bit about the people and places regarding whom and to whom they are written. Some must spend much time learning and studying the original languages to provide meaningful and acceptable translations of the texts, rendering them in the language of people today so that it can be understood. Much can be gained from the diligent study of others who have gained insights regarding the contexts, cultures, languages, and other circumstances that frame the Biblical world.

In all these matters, as before, the text of Scripture must stand above all others. In the end, the Bible reveals the words of God, and the commentaries and studies of men remain uninspired (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Nevertheless, it is a good work to not just read the Scriptures, but to diligently strive to understand the meaning and to apply the message appropriately to the present day. Let us learn more of Jesus Christ and of God’s people in the Scriptures so that we can become better disciples of Christ and citizens of His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry