The gift of languages (May 24, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Acts 2:1-7,12; 1 Corinthians 14:13-19

There are many different ways human beings communicate with each other. Words spoken and heard are the primary building blocks that make communication possible. From the first syllables uttered by a baby to the barely audible whispers as death approaches, the spoken word links human beings with each other from very early in life until life’s end. The gift of language is certainly an essential part of the gift of life. We can scarcely imagine how difficult life would be if human beings were deprived of the gift of language.

God did not create human beings with the ability to communicate only with each other. God also chose to reveal God’s very self to human beings through the living Word Jesus and through the written words found in sacred Scripture. Language is the means by which God communicates with human beings and human beings commune with God in prayer. As John Calvin taught, the inspired words of Scripture are God’s “baby talk” which make it possible for finite human beings to acquire a saving knowledge of the infinite God.

Like all of God’s gifts, the gift of language can be misused. The playground ditty “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is simply not true. Words can and often do hurt. Words can be used to manipulate, to intimidate, and to defame.

1 Corinthians 14:13-19: Words should strengthen the church
When the Corinthian Christians gathered for worship one could not hope to hear a pin drop, because their worship was such a noisy event. Unlike many Presbyterian worshippers, Corinthian worshippers evidently liked to make a lot of noise. And the noise they made was not only praying and singing songs. They also prophesied, which probably involved interpreting Scripture; they responded to acclamations of thanksgiving with loud Amens.

They also spoke in tongues, Paul says, referring to the ecstatic outpouring of sounds and syllables that cannot be linked to any known human language. Before they became Christians, some of the Corinthians may have experienced such ecstatic outbursts in the worship of the mystery religions or in Bacchanalian celebrations. It is not surprising that their experience of the power of God’s Spirit as Christians could lead to outbursts of speaking in tongues.

But Paul takes a rather nuanced view of their speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is acceptable, he says earlier in this chapter, but prophesying is even better. Speaking in tongues addresses God; prophesying communicates with other people. Properly interpreted and understood, both speaking in tongues and prophesying can contribute to the health of the congregation. However, unintelligible words, particularly speaking in tongues without providing an understandable interpretation, are only meaningless sounds. Rather than building up the congregation, they alienate people from each other.

Paul, the champion tongues-speaker, is not comfortable with the fact that his mind is not active when he speaks in tongues. So he is determined to engage his mind when he is praising God. The point is that he wants to communicate meaningfully with the people who hear him. This is the bottom line for Paul: “In church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

Acts 2:1-7, 12: The Gift of the Holy Spirit
Early in his second volume Luke reports the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that his disciples would “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). In four short and highly dramatic verses, Luke describes the coming of the Holy Spirit at the Jewish feast of Pentecost. That festival had developed into a celebration of God’s theophany when Moses was given the Law on Mt. Sinai. The Jewish philosopher Philo describes that event in terms of fire streaming from heaven and a voice that was heard as “articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience” (On the Decalogue 46).

For Luke the coming of the Holy Spirit reveals God’s presence in the church as the new and expanded Israel. The Spirit speaks in a bewildering variety of human languages miraculously coming from a motley group of Galileans.

For discussion
Do you think the worship you experience on Sunday builds up your congregation? Have you ever spoken in tongues yourself or been present when someone else spoke in tongues? If so, how did it make you feel? Would Paul consider the highly theological language of some Presbyterian preaching or the obscure language of some Presbyterian hymns to be a form of speaking in tongues that requires interpretation to be understandable?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.