1st Corinthians – Wayne Barber/Part 96

By: Dr. Wayne Barber; ©1998
Language is to communicate. The fruit of any language is understanding. You say something to someone so that they might hear you and benefit from what you say. But what is the spiritual power of language?

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1 Corinthians 14:5-12

The Spiritual Power of Language

We’re in the thick of the discussion that Paul brings up pointing out the problem at Corinth. He alludes to it in chapter 12, but he really opens it up now in chapter 14. We have been talking about it for months and month. We’re here.

We’re going to pick up in verse 5 and talk about the spiritual power of language. Language is to communicate. The fruit of any language is understanding. You say something to someone so that they might hear you and benefit from what you say. But what is the spiritual power of language? When God speaks, He speaks in words that are understandable. Understand this. Grab it quickly. We covered this very thoroughly in chapter 12. If someone is going to say he’s under the influence of the Holy Spirit of God when he speaks, he must speak a language that can be understood. That’s the way God works. That’s the way God chooses to reveal Himself. So when we speak under the influence of the Holy Spirit of God, we speak in a language that can be understood.

The apostle Paul differentiates between speaking in different languages and speaking in a tongue, which is going on in Corinth. As a matter of fact, the translators of the King James Version added a little word in verse 2 right before the word “tongue.” They call it an “unknown tongue.” Even the translators in the day that the King James was penned knew the problem that was going on in Corinth and they sought to identify it. Paul clearly defines the problem of Corinth as speaking in a gibberish. Of course, it was akin to the Oracles of Delphi 30 miles down the road and this is what was going on in their pagan past. Somehow it had been drug back into the church. But he also gives the solution to the problem. All of this in verses 1-4.

The solution is to pursue love. Look at 14:1. He says, “Pursue love.” Obviously you’d have to be pursuing Christ to pursue love. How do we know that? Because there is no love in our flesh. Christ’s Spirit produces that love in and through us. Galatians 5:22 says the fruit of His Spirit is love. This love, when produced, has an amazing effect upon the believer’s life. It gives a believer a spiritual focus. He begins to look at spiritual things and not fleshly things. The progression is as clear as a bell. He says in verse 1, “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts.” There’s no word “gifts” there. That’s in italics. The word is pneumatikos, and it means spiritual things. Don’t be desirers of fleshly things, be desirers of spiritual things which God’s love produced in you and through you. This will cause you to focus on those kinds of things.

Now, once you’re focusing on spiritual things and experiencing the love of Christ, you will immediately want to seek a release for that love. The greatest release is to share God’s Word with somebody else about Christ, about the gospel, or whatever. It’s in telling others the good news from God’s Word. Paul calls this prophecy. Isn’t it amazing how we make it so intimidating and so mystifying? But it’s not that at all. He says, “but especially that you may prophesy.” That word “prophesy,” propheteuo, is simply the word that means tell forth, declare forth, proclaim the Word of God.

So the progression is clear. He says in the last part of chapter 12, “I’ve got a better way.” He explains that better way and what it produces in a person’s life in chapter 13. And then he comes back in chapter 14 and says, “Come on, guys, quit following after the gifts. Quit attaching yourselves to gifts and experiences. Attach yourself to Christ. Surrender to Him and He’ll produce that love in you. That love will change you from within. You’ll begin to seek spiritual things, and the highest things you can possibly seek in the spiritual realm is to share the word of God with others.” Seek the Giver. That’s been his theme since chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians. Don’t seek the flesh. Don’t seek gifts. Seek the Giver.

The spiritual purpose for all languages

We pick up the thought in verse 5. We start off talking about these languages that are there for the purpose of communicating to other believers the things of God in His Word. First of all, the spiritual purpose for all languages. He says in verse 5, “Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.” I’m overwhelmed at the people in the body of Christ who have the gift, God’s gift. It’s a linguistic gift of speaking in many languages. There are many people who are gifted linguistically in the body of Christ. They can speak and grasp other languages and they are very gifted of God.

If you don’t understand that God gifts people like this, you’ve got some problems. You’re going to be confused in verse 5. In fact, wherever I go, this is one of the verses they bring up on me. They say the word “tongues” in verse 5 refers to an ecstatic experience that one has and they claim to have. But as we’ve shown over and over the word “tongues,” when it’s used in the plural, cannot refer to a gibberish or an ecstatic tongue. It has to refer to known, understandable languages. It’s not mystifying at all if you read it again with that understanding.

He says in verse 5, “Now I wish that you all spoke in [languages, known understandable languages], but even more that you would prophesy [even more that you would declare the Word of God in those languages], and greater is one who prophesies [who proclaims the Word of God], than one who speaks in languages, unless he translates what he is saying so that the church may receive edifying.” What is confusing about that? I’ll tell you what. You throw the word “tongues” in there or the word “prophesying” in there, and it turns the cart upside down. But when you understand what the words mean, it’s not as mystifying as it seems.

Paul, in using the word “tongues” in verse 5, follows the pattern he’s already established back in chapter 12. Now, just for the sake of memory go back to 12:10. Let’s make sure. This pattern was preset. You’ve got to look at chapters 12, 13, and 14 as a unit. You cannot take them separately. They are all tied together. They had no chapters and verses anyway. But in 1 Corinthians 12:10 he says, “and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another [meaning another of the same kind] prophecy, and to another [of the same kind] the distinguishing of spirits.” Then he changes categories, “and to another [heteros, of a totally different kind] various kinds of tongues.” The word “various” is not in the text. It’s in italics. But the word “kinds” is in the text. The Greek word genos is the word for “kinds.” That is the word we get “genealogy” from, families of. Glossa is the word for “tongues,” which means languages. So various kinds, families, of languages.

What kind of families of languages are there? There are Semitic languages. There are Latin languages. There are Hispanic languages. There are Germanic languages. There are all kinds of families of languages that can be known and understood. It’s very clear that tongues, when it’s seen in the plural in chapters 12, 13, and 14, refers to known understandable languages. What’s going on in Corinth is not tongues, plural, it’s a tongue, singular. That’s what he’s dealing with. It’s gibberish that somehow has been equated with these other languages. Paul says that it cannot be equated with other languages. It’s useless noise. Nobody understands what anybody is saying. He says, “Now I wish that you all spoke in languages other than your own.”

Go back to 14:5. He is really saying, “Now I wish that you all spoke in languages other than your own.” All he’s saying is he wishes they had more languages in which to tell others about Christ and his Word. Follow the verse and you’ll see where he’s headed. He says, “but even more that you would prophesy.” In other words, speaking in a language is one thing, but allowing that language to be used to tell forth the Word of God is entirely another thing.

What is any language used for in the spiritual sense? It’s to communicate the Word of God, the things of God. That’s the good news. That’s what we’re all about. The eternal good is only done when it communicates what the Word of God has to say. Basically, he’s saying languages are for the use of edifying the body with the Word of God. He’ll explain that even further.

He says, “Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies.” What does he mean by that? He’s saying, “Okay, so you’re linguistically gifted, but unless you’re using that language to tell the Word of God you haven’t found it yet. The person who is greater, in the sense of accomplishing more in the kingdom of God, is the person who uses his language to edify others by speaking God’s Word.”

Then he clarifies himself, “unless he interprets.” The word is “translate.” In other words, if this guy comes in and speaks in another language, if he translates and if he is telling the Word of God, then he is equal to the person who prophesies in a sense of preaching and telling forth God’s Word. So it doesn’t matter what language you’re speaking in as long as you’re translating it, people can understand it, and you’re teaching the things of the Word of God.

The fact that he’s referring to using language for the good of the church comes up in the next statement. He says, “so that the church may receive edifying.” The word edifying is the word oikodome. It’s the word that is used to build someone up. It’s used to build a house. What is language for? That’s the tool, the vehicle that God has chosen for us to use to share the Word of God which builds the spiritual house that people live in that’s their spiritual life. It builds up spiritually. Nothing else builds them up. The Word of God has got to fuel the building of that person’s life. And what language we use must be used to accomplish that purpose.

Some believers have the gift of being able to speak in many languages. To them Paul would say, “Use that gift in telling others the Word of God. Translate it so that it’s understood. Make sure that whatever language you speak always is for the purpose of the body and builds up the body of Christ.” So the spiritual purpose of language for any believer is to tell forth the Word of God, the gospel, that which builds up, encourages, and edifies a believer. We have Oh, for a Thousand Tongues in our hymn book. Oh, for a thousand languages that we could tell others the marvelous message of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The specific picture to clarify

But secondly, as it continues to go it gets more and more clear. We want to look at the specific picture that Paul uses to clarify his point. I don’t see how anybody can miss it. I honestly do not see how anybody can miss it. You say, “I don’t believe that’s what Paul is saying there. I’m mad at you. You’re not going the direction I want to go with that.” Well, you haven’t read far enough. If you just keep reading it’s amazing how much commentary the Bible is on itself.

Verse 6 reads, “But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?” How do you know that he says using the Word of God, prophecy, is taking the Word of God to edify believers? Here it is. In the context it’s what’s going on in Corinth. Paul says, “If I come to you like others have come to you and I’m speaking in [languages] tongues, what good is that unless that which I say is scripturally bound, that which is scripturally documented?”

Look at verse 6. “But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues [languages], what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation.” He couples four things, revelation and knowledge, and then prophecy and teaching. That’s very key that you see what he’s talking about.

The word “revelation” is the word apokalupsis. It means to uncover something. Here it means to disclose truth that they did not know otherwise. So he says, “If I come to you, I must come to you with a language which takes God’s Word and reveals truth, discloses truth.” No truth can be shared until first of all it’s revealed. Many people think they can intellectually come to the Word of God. You can intellectually understand what the Word says, but you can only have it revealed to your heart what it means. This is what God brings to your heart. This is the word of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. “Whatever language I would come to you with,” Paul says, “it must be for the purpose of sharing revealed truth from God’s Word.” Language is the vehicle through which truth is shared. It is to be used to edify the body of Christ.

Then he adds the word “knowledge,” gnosis. By the way, there is no knowledge until there’s revelation. So you’ve got to marry revelation with knowledge. When a person comes to study God’s Word, God reveals to him what’s in the truth, then he has knowledge. He takes that knowledge and gives it to others by the use of language so that they can understand it and so they can be built up in their faith. This will be beneficial to the whole body of Christ. That’s what language is for, the vehicle we use to take that which has been revealed to us, the knowledge from God’s Word and we share it with someone else.

Next he refers to the means by which he shares this word. He couples “prophecy” and “teaching” together. They are the means by which this revealed knowledge is shared to others. Prophecy is the preaching of God’s Word, confronting you with truth that has been revealed. It confronts you with knowledge that has been gained by revelation that God has given through His Word. That’s what prophecy is.

He didn’t say “the prophet.” He says the gift of prophecy, which is the idea of telling forth, proclaiming the Word of God. But in the true nature of prophets it usually confronts people with the Word of God; not just clarifies, it confronts. But then we have the teaching which is the clarifying of the revealed knowledge of God. Paul says, “If I come to you preaching, proclaiming, confronting you with truth, or if I come to you teaching, clarifying the truth, or both, whatever, you’re being benefited by whatever language I’m using if it’s properly translated and it comes from the Word of God.”

So the bottom line is, whatever language you use must be of spiritual benefit to others as you go forth and as you tell forth the revealed Word of God. That’s what language is for in a spiritual sense in the Christian community.

Remember 12:7? It said there were no gifts that were given to profit ourselves. Gifts or manifestations of the Spirit were to profit the body of Christ. You’ve already seen in chapter 14 that what they were doing was only edifying themselves and that’s part of the problem right there. But if you’re going to speak a language and tag it to the Holy Spirit of God, He’s going to speak in an understandable language, one that can be communicated, one that reveals truth, reveals knowledge to others to help them grow and be edified in the body of Christ. How can we miss that? I don’t see how anybody can miss that. The spiritual purpose of every language, the specific, spiritual, divine, eternal purpose is that it be used to edify the body. The specific example that Paul gives is himself. Evidently he was multilingual. He could speak many languages. He said, “Let me just pick any of them. But if I don’t come to you with revelation or knowledge, either in preaching or teaching or body, if you’re not going to be edified in what I say, it’s nothing more than useless noise.” You say, “How do you know he says that?” Just keep reading. It just gets simpler and simpler.

The subsequent problem

Thirdly, we have the subsequent problem of speaking in an unknown language. Here is where we’re going to spend a little bit more of our time. Here’s the problem in Corinth. When you speak an unknown language, he says, it is useless noise. You follow Paul’s thought. The conclusion I came to was to speak a language that nobody could understand is nothing more than a waste of time, not only for you who is speaking it, but for the people trying to listen to it.

Verse 7 says, “Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning.” How clear does Paul have to be? Let’s just dig in here.

Verse 7 starts off with the word “lifeless.” He’s talking about the flute and the harp. What’s the word? It’s apsuchos. Suchos is the word for soul, without a soul. What’s the soul? The soul is the vital force which animates the human body. He’s saying, “Hey, we’re not talking about a human being now. Let’s move away from a human being who even has a soul within him that animates him. Let’s move over here to an instrument that the only way it’s animated is by the sounds that are blown through it, the breath that comes through it.”

Paul says, “Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp,” he’s talking about sounds that comes through them and whether or not they are recognizable. He says, “Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones,” in other words, if there’s not something recognizable in what’s coming out of them. If you blow into an instrument and you blow intelligently, intelligent sound comes out of it. If you’re going to be influenced by the Holy Spirit of God, intelligent sounds are going to come out of you. A language is going to come out of you. The picture is so clear.

Have you ever heard a flute or a harp that had sounds that were not distinct as they should be? Have you ever heard that? I was in the band in Military School, and we switched instruments one day. You’ve got to understand military school. You do everything by the band. You march here and you march there and the band is always out in front of you. So we just decided one night that everybody had to play an instrument they had never played before in all their life. That was the worst sound. You talk about indistinct sounds, sounds that were not recognizable. We’d always walk around and stop and mark time while the whole corps would go by, and we’d fall in behind them and march. The Drill Sergeants were crying they were laughing so hard. They could not believe we did that.

When I was in Virginia, I was the usher for the Roanoke, Virginia Philharmonic Orchestra. I’ll tell you what. When you go in and you’re watching the orchestra warm up, have you ever heard those indistinct sounds come through those instruments? You’re thinking, “Good grief! What’s going on? Where are these sounds coming from?” They’re not distinct recognizable sounds. So the effort that was being blown into that was useless and lifeless and meant nothing to anybody. But when that conductor walked out there and they picked up those instruments and they started playing sounds like they’re supposed to be playing sounds, suddenly it became recognizable, soothing to the ear and everybody was being blessed by the sound of only one instrument blending with others.

That’s what Paul’s saying. If you’re going to say something and you’re going to say the Holy Spirit of God is initiating it, then it has to be communicable, understandable, intelligible. If it’s in a spiritual sense, it’s going to edify and build the body of Christ. They recognize what you’re saying.

Then he goes on. He doesn’t quit there. Verse 8 reads, “For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” The bugle or the trumpet, even though it’s used in orchestras and bands, it’s also used in the military. When I was in military school we had certain things that made certain sounds that we recognized to cause certain things to be done. Like at night they played “Taps.” That meant, “Go to sleep.” That communicated. I recognized that sound.

Do you understand what Paul is doing here? If God the Holy Spirit is initiating a language in you, then He has a purpose in the body, and if it’s not accomplishing that purpose, something is amiss, particularly if it is an unrecognizable sound. In Paul’s day the trumpet blast was more than what we know. In our day we have radios and communications. But when they would go into battle, the commander would have a certain way of communicating with his troops. It would be through the bugle. There were certain calls that would tell his troops what to do. It was life or death. That’s exactly the illustration he uses. If they chose to blow an uncertain sound, the troops became confused and disaster would be the result.

Paul says, “You need to understand the seriousness of what you’re doing, because if it’s under the influence of the Holy Spirit of God, it’s only given to you for the edification of others, not yourself. If it’s unrecognizable, you’re confusing everybody, including yourself.”

He goes on in verse 9, “So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.” There are different words for “speaking.”

The word for “speech” there is logos. We’re supposed to know what that word means by now because we’ve been over it. It means understandable, intelligent thought through the Word of God. It cannot mean anything else. Look what he says. He says if we utter by the tongue intelligent, understandable speech that is clear.

The word “clear” comes from two words, eu, which means well or good, and sema, which means sign. It’s a good sign. What is a sign for? It points to something. It points to the fact that we’re under the influence of the Spirit of God. If we’re speaking things that are understandable, that are intelligible, that make sense, that are recognizable from God’s Word, that’s a sign. It’s a good sign. It’s clear. How will it be known what is spoken if we don’t do that?

Paul says, “For you will be speaking into the air.” He changes the word “speak.” Remember the word we looked at in verse 3 of chapter 12. He changes the word to laleo. That’s different from logos. Laleo, in its root form, means to make a sound or just make a babbling or make a noise. And he says that if you’re not speaking that which is intelligent and understandable and clear, which is a sign that the Spirit of God is upon you, then all you’re doing is making a bunch of nonsense in the air and it benefits nobody.

Folks, listen. I don’t like going through this any more than some of you like hearing it. But if you’re going to study verse by verse, you just have to take it verse by verse. So you just pray for me.

Verse 10 goes on, “There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind [look here] is without [what?] meaning.” Paul knows that there are many, many languages in the world. Why did he speak in languages more than they do. Because wherever he went he had to speak a different language. This guy was the most intelligent human being in the New Testament other than Jesus. I can’t wait to get to Heaven and one day just to spend a little time after about a million years with Jesus. I want to spend a little time with the apostle Paul. Intelligent, good night, he had an ability in so many languages and he simply says that there are many languages in the world but if it’s a true language, like he’s been speaking, many tongues, many languages, all of them have meaning. So in other words, if you’re speaking in a language it has a meaning. So properly translate and use it for the benefit of others by teaching the Word of God.

Verse 11 reads, “If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.” That word “barbarian” tickled me. It means that I don’t have the culture of the one who’s speaking. The Greeks would use it for people who didn’t have the Greek culture. When I was over in Greece, I was speaking to Greeks. Why would I not understand that? I said, “There are two Greek words for life.” They all perked up. They were so excited that I knew Greek. I didn’t realize why they were so excited. They knew it. I didn’t. I said the two words were zoe and bios, but I didn’t pronounce them right. They died laughing. I was wondering why they were laughing. I didn’t realize they spoke the language. They called me Wayne the Barbarian for the rest of the week. You don’t have our culture. We don’t have a clue what you’re trying to say.

That’s exactly what Paul said. If somebody comes in and speaks a language I don’t know, nobody else knows, then I’m a barbarian to him. If I go in and speak a language that they don’t know, then they become the barbarians. Either way you don’t understand what’s being said. That’s the whole point. What are languages for? To communicate. Communicate what? That which God has revealed, the knowledge He has given to you and me. So what good is another language if you cannot understand what the person is saying?

If you don’t translate a language nobody can understand, what are you doing? It’s useless. Why are you even talking about it? God’s not into secretive things with languages that nobody can understand. God wants to reveal Himself to His people. So make sure it’s a distinct understandable intelligent sound when you speak.

Look at verse 12. He says, “So also you [now he points it back to them], since you are zealous of spiritual gifts [that was an understatement of the year; he says to take all of that energy and turn it over here], seek to abound for the edification of the church.” You tell me what he’s saying. He’s saying that you’re speaking in a tongue. It makes no sense to anybody. Now, if you want to seek something spiritual, turn that energy into seeking that which will edify and build up the body of Christ. “You want to pursue something?” Paul says, “Pursue that which edifies the body.” Gibberish does not edify anybody.

As a matter of fact, it’s rather senseless because even the person who does it doesn’t know what he says, and the only thing it can do is give him an emotional high at the moment. But friend, the Word of God will not back that up. If you’ve had the experience of speaking in another language—or let’s put it this way, in a tongue which is not a language—it’s just something you’re saying. You say, “You can’t deny my experience.” Let me help you to understand. I love you and I would never seek to deny your experience. All I’m trying to tell you is, you’d better take that experience and put it in light of God’s Word. Don’t even come near chapters 12, 13, or 14. It will not fit.

Some people use Romans 8:26 to justify their experience. It says, “The Spirit prays through you with groanings that cannot be uttered.” That is the most ridiculous hermeneutic I have ever heard that that’s a prayer language the Spirit of God gives to you. That’s ridiculous. That doesn’t even fit the context. By the way, the word “uttered” means cannot be expressed by sound or word. This is something that goes on in the godhead we’ll never know. The Spirit of God is helping us in our weakness. He picks up the end of the log that we can’t pick up when we’re going through difficult times and He prays to the Father. We don’t even know it’s going on but we can trust it because we can thank God in all circumstances for this is the will of God concerning us.

Folks, people are throwing verses every which way to try to back up an experience, but it just won’t work. It won’t work. I have heard by people who say, “I don’t care what you say, Wayne, because when I have that experience, I know that was God. You can’t take it away from me.” I’m saying back to you that I love you in Jesus. Hate me until the day you die but, my friend, you’d better take your experience and put it up next to the Word of God. And if it doesn’t meet contextually what the Word of God says, you walk away from that experience.

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