Intelligible Language (1 Corinthians 14:6-12)

There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me. Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:10–12, KJV)

In Savannah Georgia, I planted a church that was nestled in a college campus. We had an outreach to the students on the campus and our congregation was essentially all collegians. One summer, one of our parishioners had the opportunity to go to Senegal, a coastal country in Africa to be on mission in one of the villages. Other than a good grounding in the Scriptures, he had no formal training in missions or in speaking a foreign language. I wondered how effective he would be in mingling with the locals while not knowing their language.

After roughly three months, he returned. I asked him what he did while there. He was supposed to go out with the men fishing and witness to them. However, he spent most of his time meeting with them and talking in the village since they went out in their boats very seldom. Then I asked the big question. I asked how he communicated with them in their native language. He stated that he learned it quickly, and found it was very easy. This amazed me. Could he have been given a special endowment of the Spirit to speak and understand a foreign language that he had never spoken before? I’ll leave that up to you to consider. My thought is that he was given a special gift for that three-month assignment.

Paul in writing about the issue the Corinthian church had with tongues, emphasizes the need to speak in a clear and understood language so that people can hear a clear revelation from God (v6). In the passage, he gives several illustrations to make the point. First, he speaks of musical instruments that must give a distinct sound or else those that hear will not understand what is being played. Imagine a symphony beginning to play a famous melody, but it just sounded like the group tuning up their instruments (v7).

Second, he wrote of a person blowing a trumpet as a call to armed conflict. Yet, if the trumpet call was not distinct, he indicated that no one would answer the call (v8).

Then he indicated that if someone spoke to a person in a foreign language that he or she did not know, the hearer would get nothing out of the effort. Conversely if the hearer spoke to the other in a foreign language that the other did not know, there could be no effective communication, only a futile and confusing effort (v10-11).

Paul’s main point was that if the church was so intent in using spiritual gifts, they must be zealous to use those that will build up others. This does not happen unless there is effective communication in tongue, that is a language, that the hearer will understand.

We have a universal application of this. When we communicate with people, we must know our audience and speak in terms that are clearly understood. As a seminary grad, I often find myself using terms that are beyond the capability of anyone who is not a theologian to understand. My wife often pointed this out to me. So, I make an effort to explain these terms to congregations so they will clearly understand. Seek to use spiritual gifts in a ways that will edify the church.

Published by Steve Hankins, Th.D.

Steve has had extensive military, business and ministry experience. He has served for over 16 years in full time vocational ministry and many years of part time ministry in churches. He has led churches through start-up and recasting of vision. Now He resides on the Outer Banks of North Carolina where he is working to help smaller churches and believers to renew their hearts and regain the joy of the Lord.

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