The Christians at Corinth were blessed in having been given many ‘spiritual gifts’. These were miraculous in nature – they did not have them through their own study or ability.
One of these gifts in particular seems to have caused some problems, possibly in those having it thinking they were greater than other Christians. This gift is often translated as “speaking in tongues”; if we were to translate it into modern English it would be “speaking in other languages”. The ‘tongues’ referred to in the New Testament were not ecstatic syllables which meant nothing, but rather languages. Although unknown to those who did not know them, they were known by those who spoke them.
Another of the spiritual gifts was that of ‘prophecy’. For many that word means predicting the future, but this is not what is usually meant in scripture. To prophesy was simply to declare a message from God given directly to the person – in other words, they didn’t study but God just gave them the message that needed proclaimed. This is the background to what Paul wrote to the Corinthians.
“Pursue love, yet strive for spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. He who speaks in an unrecognizable language speaks to God, not to men. No one understands him; by the Spirit he speaks mysteries. But he who prophesies edifies and encourages and brings good cheer to men. He who speaks in an unrecognizable language edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the assembly. I want all of you to speak in languages, but rather that you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in languages, unless he interprets, that the assembly might be edified.” (1 Corinthians 14:1-5 McCord)
The goal of all Christians should be to edify, to build each other up spiritually. Those who were able to declare God’s word did this – they encouraged others as Christians.
The problem is someone who speaks a language no one else knows. Although the speaker understood it, no one else does, so no one else is receiving encouragement through what he says. Although speaking other languages is needed in taking the good news of Jesus to people who speak a different language, it doesn’t help build anyone up who can’t understand it. The key is being understood.
“Brothers, if I come to you speaking in unrecognizable languages, how will I help you unless I speak either in a revelation, or in knowledge, or in prophecy, or in teaching?…If I pray in an unrecognizable language, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. So, what is it? I will pray with the spirit, and also I will pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and also I will sing with the understanding. Otherwise, how will an uninstructed person say ‘Amen’ at your thanksgiving, since he does not understand what you have said? Indeed, you may give thanks well enough, but the uninstructed person is not edified.” (1 Corinthians 14:6-17)
If you have been in another country and not able to understand the language, you can relate to what Paul is writing. The goal of Christians being together is to understand what they are praying, singing and speaking. If we can understand, then we are built up and instructed.
Although most do not find foreign languages an issue when we get together with Christians, we would do well to make sure that what we are saying in our own language is understandable. Sometimes speakers may use ‘big’ words that show how well they have been educated – but if people are not familiar with the words they cannot be built up and encouraged.
This can also apply to our worship in song. Older hymns sometimes contain words no longer in common usage. If we provide an explanation for the word everyone is able to “sing with the understanding”.
As always, the key is love – treating others as we would want to be treated. Let us always seek to encourage and build each other up.
Readings for next week: 1 Corinthians 12-16