Sunday, 25 January 2015
Therefore, 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. 1 Corinthians 14:11
“Therefore” is given for us to look back and consider what was said in order to understand what will now be conveyed. Paul has written about different instruments, each which conveys its own distinct sound. He then discussed the individual tunes which an instrument can make. He also noted that there are many languages in the world. Each has its own voice which is unique and which can be comprehended by anyone who understands that voice. Chinese is not Russian; Navaho is not Spanish; English is not Vietnamese; etc. Unless one understands the voice of the language, it is simply unintelligible noise without meaning or cohesion.
However, to a person who understands the language, each word identifies something which can be described by the word – nouns, verbs, conjunctions, etc all begin to form a cohesive thought which conveys a reasonable, understandable message to those who know that language. Based on this, Paul gives his “therefore” by saying, “If I do not know the meaning of the language…” The word “voice” is used here. It literally says, “the power of the voice.” The “power” is its meaning, and the “voice” is what is being relayed. If one doesn’t know the meaning behind what is being relayed (think of the battle trumpet that sounds out a tune you have never heard), then “I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks.”
This term “foreigner” is the Greek word barbaros (barbarian, hence a foreigner). Here it is not intended as a deprecatory phrase as it often is, but rather it is indicating unintelligible words. The Greeks viewed any foreign language as harsh or rude in comparison to their language. Thus they applied the term “bar bar” to them. It indicated any language that wasn’t Greek; known languages which to them seemed like unintelligible sounds. This is what Paul is conveying here. He is saying that even though the language is a real language with an actual “voice,” it is simply a confused sound if it isn’t understood by the hearer.
Paul is not speaking of made up, incoherent sounds without meaning behind them. He is speaking about the perception of those sounds by the hearer who doesn’t understand them. Thus, he is not speaking of a personal “prayer language” or a supposedly “Spirit-inspired” language that only God knows. He is speaking of a real language spoken by another group which is not understood by the hearer. To confirm this, he completes his sentence with “and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me.” Just as the sounds of the speaker are unintelligible to the hearer, even though the speaker obviously understands them (because they are the “voice” of the speaker; meaning an understandable concept put into real words), the hearer will interpret the speaker as a barbaros (foreigner) for failing to understand the words.
This occurs around the world about 10 jillion times a day. People get frustrated at others who don’t speak their own language, and hearers get frustrated at those they don’t understand. For particular emphasis, go to France and test this concept there. They have a special knack for treating foreign speakers, particularly English speakers, in a most frustrating way.
Again as has been noted, Paul has consistently spoken of real languages that are spoken by real people groups and which have real meaning. Nobody in their right mind would speak unintelligible garble at the office among their coworkers. Nor would they do it while at a city council meeting. They would be both humiliating and humiliated. As this is so, why would you act in such a manner in the holy congregation of the saints?
Life application: When you are in church, speak words which have meaning and which edify the congregation or don’t speak at all.
Lord, it isn’t easy to see the trials my friends face. I often wish I could help more than I do, or that I could take their place in those difficult times. But You have given each of us our own course and direction. At the same time, You have given us one another to at least share in the burdens. We can say a kind word, help with the bills, or gather in prayer to show our unity with them. Help me to be such a person Lord. Give me a heart to know when to step forward and offer myself to them. I pray for such wisdom. Amen.