1 Corinthians 14:12-19
12 Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.
13 Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.
14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.
15 What 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.
16 Otherwise, 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?
17 For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified.
18 I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all;
19 yet 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.
When Theodor Geisel–a.k.a. “Dr. Seuss”–set out to write his great classic “The Cat in the Hat”, he set a goal for himself to use only words that a first grade student was likely to know or need to learn. At the time in 1954, first-graders were supposed to be able to read most of a list of around 300 words, but Dr. Seuss limited himself to just 223 from that list, and another 13 simple words that they could learn in context. Limiting himself to so few words made the task of writing the book quite difficult, but at the end of nine months, Dr. Seuss had written a classic primer for young readers that is still used today.
Ted Geisel’s goal in writing “The Cat in the Hat” was essentially the same as the apostle Paul’s goal in writing his many letters to the churches he had helped start throughout Asia Minor and Greece: the building up of people new to what they were doing. Look at Paul’s letters to the Romans and Corinthians, and you will see how he builds little by little upon basic precepts, adding to what he had already spoken to them in person, admonishing them when they seemed to have gone astray, and teaching them by word and example. But in his letters, Paul is not so concerned with winning new converts as he is with edifying existing believers, helping them move beyond the milk of first belief to the bread and meat of mature faith.
In the passage above, Paul is reminding the Corinthians that while they should indeed seek the spiritual gifts he has mentioned earlier (1 Corinthians 12), they should do so with a desire to build up their brethren, not simply to get spiritual gifts and show them off in the congregation. In fact, after talking about the spiritual gifts, Paul told the Corinthians that the key to getting and using the spiritual gifts is Love:
1 Corinthians 13:1-3
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.
2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
The Holy Spirit of God indwells believers because God loves us. And if God so loves us, then we must express that love to Him and to others unselfishly, humbly, and with a desire for the blessing of others. The spiritual gifts are not meant to simply be signs for unbelievers but to be used to benefit the church and the communities around us. And, more importantly, we SHOULD desire the spiritual gifts, if for no other reason than they help us understand how to love others.
I have had long-time Christian believers say to me “I long to rest in Jesus” or “I am so caught up in His embrace” and similar metaphors for resting and relaxing and metaphors for what is commonly called a “close personal relationship with Jesus.” Those sentiments are well and good, but if that rest is all we seek, then we will not grow spiritually. We will be infants in our understanding of the gospel and of Scripture, infants in how we react to the ways of the world. Seeking only God and not a relationship with others is the path of the hermit, and it does nothing to build up the church body of Jesus Christ.
Look at verse 12 above, where Paul reminds us that the excellence of our spiritual gifts is not for ourselves but for the edification–building up–of the church itself. Our “close personal relationship” needs to bear fruit that benefits others! It is not enough to want to speak with the tongues of men and angels, not enough to seek to prophecy, not enough to have wisdom and spiritual discernment, not enough to be able to heal. We must do all those things with a heart of love for God and for others. And when we speak in tongues–whether praying in the spirit or speaking a word of wisdom from on high–then we must have interpretation for others, or else our speech is useless. I love the way Paul put it in a preceding verse:
1 Corinthians 14:9
So 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.
In other words, unless we seek the spiritual gifts in order to benefit others, we might just as well be talking to the wind.
But if we must say something to others to build them up, what would it be? When I read this passage several years ago, I went through a word game to try to find five words that would be easily understood and that would edify listeners. Here are a few examples (and relevant Scripture):
• Jesus died for our sins. (Romans 5:6-8)
• While we sinned, God forgave. (Romans 5:8)
• Repent. Believe in the gospel. (Mark 1:15)
We can play word games all day long, but the point is that we are not to remain silent. I find that the close relationship that I have with Jesus COMPELS me to write and to speak, compels me to reach out in love and with a heart to teach others. So whether I speak five words or ten thousand, it is necessary for my speech to impart something to the hearers, or else it is all for naught.
The wonderful example of Ted Geisel limiting himself to just 236 words for a classic primer ought to remind us that it is not simply that we need to speak, but that we need to speak the right words at the right time with the right heart. So, whether I write hundreds of pages or only a few, my desire is that others come to understand and know God’s Word better. I am no theologian, no scholar, not even an evangelist or apostle. I am simply a believer who seeks to know God better through His Word, and as I learn, I reach out to let others know Him more. I don’t think I could limit myself to five words, but if I had to limit myself to just a few, they would be these:
God’s MERCY is shown through how He loves us even in our sin and sent Jesus to die for us.
God’s GRACE is shown in how He has promised us eternal life through Christ Jesus.
Our FAITH is founded upon Jesus Christ, who perfects our faith by His example.
Our HOPE is that we and others will come to know Jesus and thus gain eternal life.
1 John 4:10-11
10 In this is LOVE, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to LOVE one another.
On one side of the Cross is our SIN, and on the other side SALVATION, and at the center of it all–Mercy, Grace, Faith, Hope, Love, Sin, Salvation–is Jesus Christ.
Those are the words I would speak. How about you?
Merciful, Gracious, and Loving God, we thank You for sending Your Son, Jesus Christ. We thank You that You have chosen to show Your love and righteousness through our justification in Jesus. And now that we have Your Holy Spirit, help us to grow in our giftings, to grow in our faith, so that we may help others inside and outside the church body of Christ. And may we do so always to Your glory alone. Amen.
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