The Power of Language, Rightly Applied
1 Corinthians 14
The power of any language is two-fold: (1) the ability of the speaker to learn it well enough to speak it effectively, and (2) the ability of the listener to learn it well enough to understand it. This applies to any language in whatever form: spoken, musical, written or sign.
In the very early years after Jesus' Resurrection (let's call it the apostolic era), there was a divine solution to the problem of language barriers. The Holy Spirit miraculously and directly endowed the apostles and certain Christians with the supernatural ability to speak in a language they had not learned. That means, bypassing the ordinary learning process, various ones were given the sudden ability to preach and teach in a foreign tongue. (For good definition of this, see Acts 2:1-11 and 1 Cor. 14).
One of the problems in the church at Corinth was the absence of a wise use of the gift of tongues. Some with this miraculous ability applied it without good purpose and order. Moving outside the original purposes (confirmation and edification), some used the gift in carnal, competitive ways.
Addressing this problem, Paul places great stress on Clarity of Communication.
6But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? 7Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? 8For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? 9So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 10There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. 11Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. 12Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.
13Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. 15What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. 16Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say "Amen" at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? 17For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified.
18I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; 19yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
20Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature. 1 Cor. 14:6-20
According to one source (ethnologue.com), there are 6,809 distinct languages in the modern world. In apostolic times there were hundreds of languages (Paul says, "many kinds of languages").
Even if someone learned how to speak every known language, in addressing an assembly to impart God's Word to the audience, the speaker should use the language understood by the people present. Otherwise, there is no edifying outcome.
If we are talking about the miraculous gifts in the apostolic era and in the church at Corinth, OR the non-miraculous things we engage in when assembled, what Paul said should find good application. Everything we do in the assembly should be presented so that people can understand.
We should diligently seek clarity in every song, every prayer and every sermon, so that everybody in the audience can understand everything all the time!
Preachers and teachers need to get this. Your purpose is to take people into the text of Scripture and challenge them to learn and apply it. In order to do this, you must speak so as to be understood.
"Paul says that it is not the mere sound of speaking that is important, but whether the sounds can be understood by the hearers," (p.#273, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, W. Harold Mare).
By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 13.10; October 2006