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

Speaking for Understanding

Sight and Blindness

And Jesus said, “For judgment came I into this world, that they that see not may see; and that they that see may become blind.”
Those of the Pharisees who were with him heard these things, and said unto him, “Are we also blind?”
Jesus said unto them, “If ye were blind, ye would have no sin: but now ye say, ‘We see’: your sin remaineth” (John 9:39-41).

All five senses are important, yet we attach great significance to sight. We live in a world full of images, signs, books, and all sorts of material which need to be seen to be understood and/or appreciated. Sure, it is possible to survive without vision, but it is a hard road indeed.

Humans naturally connect vision and sight to “insight” or understanding. How many times, upon figuring out some problem, challenge, or difficulty, have we exclaimed, “I see it now!”? How many times, after having explained something to someone, have we asked them whether they can “see” it? We don’t exclaim that we’ve heard it, or tasted it, touched it, or smelled it; we “see” it.

This tendency to explain understanding in terms of vision is not new to us; we see it presented in the Scriptures as well. Jesus fully exploits this tendency in an exquisite double entendre at the conclusion of John 9.

John 9:39-41 is based on the interactions among Jesus, a physically blind man, and the Pharisees throughout John 9:1-38. Jesus comes upon this man born physically blind and heals him of his blindness (John 9:1-7). This event is made known to the Pharisees, and they bring in the formerly blind man for questioning (John 9:8-15). The Pharisees insist that such a thing could not be of God because it was done upon the Sabbath; others find it hard to deny the obvious evidence before them (John 9:16). The Pharisees question this man’s parents and then the man again: they demand that he give God the glory, since they “knew” that the Man who did this was a “sinner” (John 9:17-27). The Pharisees are “disciples of Moses,” and they know that God spoke to Moses, but they do not know where “this Man,” that is Jesus, is from (John 9:28-29). The formerly blind man stands boldly in faith, logically refuting the Pharisees’ argument: if He was really a sinner, God would not hear Him, and yet until that time there had been no example of anyone’s eyes ever being opened as his eyes were (John 9:30-32). He quite rightly concludes that Jesus could do nothing if He were not of God (John 9:33). The Pharisees were offended at this boldness, declaring that such a man was “altogether born in sins,” and yet dared to try to teach them, and therefore cast him out of the synagogue, in effect banning him from the Jewish community (John 9:34). Jesus then found the man born blind and asked him if he believed in the Son of God (John 9:36); after asking who He is and being informed that Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God, he declared his belief in Jesus and prostrated before Him (John 9:36-37).

The conclusion of the matter is found in John 9:39-41. The whole situation has provided evidence for His claim: He came for judgment, allowing the blind to see and blinding those who see. It is not as if the statement is to be taken literally; as far as we can tell, Jesus never caused anyone who could physically see to become physically blind (although Paul does in Acts 13:4-12). Yes, Jesus heals this blind man’s eyes, and he now can physically see. Jesus’ emphasis, however, is not on his physical vision but his spiritual insight: he now believes that Jesus is the Son of God. He now “sees” in a way he did not “see” while blind. He, once a blind man in the midst of those who could see, now finds himself as one who sees in the midst of blind men.

Jesus does not blind those who “see” physically, nor does He even really intend to do so spiritually. The problem is not with Him; the problem is in those who claim to “see,” evidently the Pharisees from John 9:41. Jesus’ statement there is stark: if they admitted their blindness, they would be without sin, but since they say they see, their sin remains. This again has less to do with physical sight and more to do with internal insight: the Pharisees are convinced they know Moses, they know what Moses taught, they know what Sabbath observance looks like, and they certainly know what Sabbath violations look like. They are blinded by their complete conviction of their vision! They find themselves declaring that the work of God really did not come from God because it did not happen in the way they would have expected it to according to their understanding of the Law.

Let us not be deceived into thinking that the Pharisees’ views come from some kind of humble conservatism: it is based in their claim of being Moses’ disciples and separated from the “sinners.” They refuse to listen to anything which goes against their understanding; if it contradicts their tradition or the way they’ve always been taught, it clearly must be wrong. They find themselves denying the obvious to attempt to maintain their control through tradition and dogma. Jesus is right: they are blind. They refuse to see; they do not want to see; they do not want to be in the awkward place of having to admit that they do not understand what they think they understand and are wrong.

People have not changed much in two thousand years. Plenty of blind men have great insight; plenty of people who physically see are blind to their condition. Most people are aware that they have deficiencies and readily admit to many of them, yet how many recognize that even in their strengths they have weaknesses, or they do not fully understand even that in which they have the most confidence?

We should not walk away from this text without coming to terms with its most powerful message: the “sinner” was physically blind but was willing to gain the insight regarding who Jesus was and what that meant, while the religious authorities, the “righteous ones,” were blinded by their own dogma. They did not challenge Jesus on the basis of some questionable aspect of the Law but on a matter on which they assumed their opinions and interpretations were exactly in line with God’s intentions beyond a shadow of a doubt. They proved unwilling to subject their confidence to any form of critical insight based on the evidence Jesus provided them; thus they were declared blind. Notice the way Jesus puts it: “but now ye say, ‘We see’: your sin remaineth” (John 9:41).

There is much we can learn about God based on His revelation in the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We should diligently apply ourselves to that end. Yet, in doing so, we must never become like the Pharisees and assume that once we have come to some level of understanding that we now fully “see.” At this time we see as in a mirror dimly (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12); the ways of God are beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9). If we learn in wisdom, the more we learn, the more we recognize we really do not know! For every question that can be answered we can discover many more unanswered and unanswerable questions; the greater depths of knowledge which we plumb shows us how incomprehensibly deep that ocean really is. Therefore, even in that which we are to believe with complete conviction as true, there remains depth which we cannot plumb. We never have and never will be able to have perfect understanding; there is always more to learn, and always better ways to see.

On the other hand, we should not be like a blind man leading the blind into a pit (cf. Matthew 15:14)! We are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). But our knowledge must be in faith, and whatever is lacking in our knowledge must be filled by faith. The blind man, above all else, learned to trust Jesus; that is what he learned to see. Let us find true spiritual insight in Jesus, never trusting in our own understanding but in what He has revealed, always examining His truth, and in humility recognizing our blindness and limitations in the flesh, and glorify and honor God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sight and Blindness

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

Reading with Understanding