Saturday, August 27, 2016

Making Sense of Tongues

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul has not only commanded believers to pursue love, but he has commanded us to desire what is spiritual, as well. So, we must ask whether human wants and desires can be commanded. Can people be commanded to want or desire a particular thing? Doesn't desire just well up from within a person? Can human desire be imposed by a command? It is an interesting question. Most people believe that they are subject to their desires, rather than their desires being subject to them, subject to their willful control. If Scripture is to be believed and trusted, then the answer must be yes because Paul here commands believers to control their love and desire. Yet Paul was not content to leave it at that, but he adds further clarification. We are not only to chase after love with fervent passion, but we are to want what is spiritual. We are to desire the gift(s) that God has given us. We are to desire our own gifts and not chase after gifts that are not ours. By implication we are not to want or covet someone else's spiritual gifts. We are to want what God has given us. And most especially, said Paul, we should want to prophesy, by which he means to speak meaningfully about Scripture. Believers should especially want and engage this particular gift. The implication is that God has given this particular gift much more widely than most people think. Paul is calling it a common gift among believers, not a rare gift, an ordinary gift, not an extraordinary gift. Sure, some people will do it better than others, but all Christians are called to engage in meaningful explanation about God, Jesus and the Bible. We understand that Paul is teaching that New Testament prophets are to be preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to forth-tell or explain the New Testament and how Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and to foretell the return of Christ in glory. Does this mean that Paul thinks that all Christians should be preachers? Well, yes and no. No, Paul doesn't mean that all Christians must be employed as pastors or professional evangelists. But, yes, Paul agrees with Peter that every Christian needs to be "prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). We all need to speak about Jesus Christ and to be ready to explain Scripture as best we are able to anyone who asks. Is this a realistic expectation? Can ordinary Christians really be expected to explain Scripture? Peter said that Christians are a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you (they, we -- Christians) may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). All Christians are to proclaim the excellencies of Jesus Christ and to explain how they came from darkness to the light of Christ, and how Christ is the fulfillment of Scripture. It's a tall order, but it's not my order. It's Paul's and Peter's, and Jesus' as well. The way this works is that prophesying is an overflowing of teaching, and teaching is an overflowing of learning. Learning leads to teaching, and teaching to prophesying (or preaching). Each builds upon the other and takes the accumulation of wisdom and knowledge to new levels. It's a matter of sanctification, of growth and maturity in the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 14:2 should be pretty straight forward, but there are some interpretive difficulties -- not with the Scripture, but with our understanding and perspective. "For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit" (v. 2). Note the punctuation. As we have seen previously, too many interpreters have brought faulty assumptions to the discussion of tongues. Among those assumptions is the belief that the gifts of tongues and prophesying are extraordinary and miraculous -- even mystical. I contend that they are none of these things. Rather, when they are properly understood and engaged, they are to be common and ordinary among God's people. To get at some of this let's start with the first word of verse 2: for (gar). It appears twice in this verse. Remember also that there is no punctuation in the Greek. I mention this because I believe that the translator's punctuation is wrong because it breaks the flow of what is actually a single thought. The Lexicon says that gar is a conjunction that assigns a reason to something, that it is used in an argument, explanation or intensification, and is usually translated as "for," "and," "as," or "because." So, "for" is a correct translation, but it needs to be understood as supplying a reason or defense, so it really means "because," (i.e., for the purpose of). Verse 2 could then read, "Because one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God because no one understands him, but rather he utters mysteries in the Spirit." Verse 2 is given as a reason for something. Verse 2 is given as an explanation of verse 1, as if to say, "verse 1 because verse 2." The same pattern occurs in the clauses of verse 2. Verse 1 told us to prefer love to the other gifts, and then (next) to prefer prophecy above the other gifts. Among those other gifts are, of course, tongues. There are other gifts, but tongues appears to be a special case that requires some special treatment. We are to prefer prophecy over tongues, according to verse 1. Why? Paul begins verse 2 with "because" and goes on to explain that speaking in a foreign language -- foreign to those to whom one is speaking -- doesn't make sense to anyone, except maybe God. Let's give the benefit of the doubt to the Charismatic understanding here and suggest that Paul may be referring to the practice of mystical glossolalia and not simply to a known foreign language. Regardless of whether it is a foreign language, foreign to those listening or an instance of mystical, angelic glossolalia, Paul's point is the same: no one understands it except maybe God. And therefore, such practices are not helpful to the body of Christ. We are to prefer prophesying -- explaining Scripture, making sense of the Bible -- to speaking in such a way that people do not understand what we are saying. Again, paraphrasing verse 2: because he who speaks in an unknown tongue does not speak to men but to God because no one hears or understands him, he is, then, speaking mysteries in or to the spirit. Paul is pointing to the uselessness of such communication. Language is of no use to people who don't understand what is said or what it means. Maybe it is meaningful to the Spirit, but whether it is or not is a mystery to Paul because he doesn't understand it either. Paul continues, "On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" (1 Corinthians 14:3). He contrasts the practice of saying something to people that they can't understand to saying something to people that they can understand. Whether someone is practicing mystical glossolalia in some special spirit language or just speaking in a foreign language makes no difference to people who don't understand it. So, said Paul, it is better to prophesy, to explain Scripture in a meaningful way, a way that will provide upbuilding (edification), encouragement and consolation for God's people. Remember that to edify means to make someone understand something or to make something understandable to someone. Paul had nothing to say about someone speaking in tongues to God, using tongues for a private prayer language. Because he didn't know the meaning of what such a person was saying he couldn't comment on it. But it would seem out of character for God to be concerned with meaningful communication and not contributing to confusion and chaos, and then recommend that people speak to Him in languages that they themselves don't understand. Rather, it makes more sense for God to recommend that people make their prayer time meaningful. God already knows what we need. So, we are not informing Him. Rather, He is informing us, and meaning is critical to that task.

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