God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 14:10-12 Barbarian!
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, June 9, 2023
10 There are who knows how many languages in the world, but none of them is without meaning. 11 So if I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a barbarian to the speaker, and he is a barbarian to me. 12 So also with you. Since you are eager for spiritual gifts, seek to use them abundantly in ways that build up the church.
The Corinthians were proud of their spectacular gifts, but they did not use them with love. This is the reason for Paul’s stinging words.
Greeks (among them the Corinthians) classified everybody in the world into two language groups: Greeks and barbarians. They never apologized for this; barbarians were a lower class, hardly worthwhile. It didn’t matter to a Greek what happened to a barbarian, and calling a man a barbarian was as cruel an insult as any: “An erring barbarian” would be understood by everyone. So Paul heaves up that word like a whale rising from the deep in his next caution about speaking in tongues:
6, Barbarian! I am one if you speak in tongues, because I cannot understand you. Barbarian! You are one if you speak in tongues, for we cannot understand one another!
No language is without meaning. A language is not a language unless someone understands it. Even a madman muttering to himself in the woods or in the alley has some grasp of what he himself is saying. The complex languages of most nations have a grammar to be learned as well as lists and lists of nouns and verbs. “There are, perhaps, many different languages,” Paul says. The “perhaps” of most translations is a way of being indefinite with a number, which is why I have translated it “who knows how many?” But each one of those languages has meaning. In Paul’s time, the complicated Sanskrit tongue had been described for four hundred years with a work resembling a textbook on algebra by Panini, whose observations helped the Greeks and Romans to better understand the syntax and grammar of their beloved Greek and Latin. By Paul’s time there was a formal Greek, the speech of senators, poets and playwrights, and there was an everyday vulgar (koine) Greek, the speech of the farmers and shopkeepers and ordinary people, and that ordinary Greek was also the speech of the men who wrote the New Testament. Perhaps some of the Corinthians looked down their noses at Paul and his rough tongue on that account.
So Paul’s warning, that they themselves were being barbarians when they spoke in tongues with no one to translate, was meant to sting. It was a matter of pride for a Greek to be a Greek and not a barbarian. Greeks, after all, “seek wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22). They had evidently judged that Paul’s “message and preaching were not with persuasive or wise words” (2:4), and he said: “you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong. You are honored, but we are despised” (4:10). Was it only pride that was the source of their sinful attitude about themselves? No. It was pride compounded by a lack of love. For pride that is based on good and wholesome things, abilities, accomplishments, and well-deserved accolades is to be expected. Pride mixed with humility is a hard lesson to learn. The pride is reduced to a satisfied joy or contentment in a job well done when it is accompanied by humility and love. The humility brings contentment, the love brings joy. When we accomplish something out of love for the sake of Christ, then we know true joy in Christ. For even when our deeds are marked and imperfect on account of our sinfulness, God uses our accomplishments for his kingdom and his gain.
Each of us must set aside whatever becomes sinful pride in our hearts. A man might feel wronged and put upon, but has he not wronged and been in the wrong himself? A man might feel wise and accomplished, but he must not forget God who has given him his gifts, and he must acknowledge the shoulders of other men, shoulders he stands upon on account of their work, their wisdom, and their humble service.
Trust, O sinner, and rely on God’s mercy at all times and in everything you do. Do not honor God only to get some advantage in life, but honor God for the benefit of your immortal soul. Know that there will soon be a time when life’s long labor will come to an end, and you “shall long in the Almighty’s keeping patiently wait,” seek love as the greatest of the Spirit’s gifts to be used, and faith as the greatest of the Spirit’s gifts to be treasured, just as forgiveness from the cross of Jesus stands above them and in the holiest place. The curtain is torn away forever, and these things are given to us with love for our eternal good.
Pastor Timothy Smith