God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 14:18-20 Be adults
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, June 14, 2023
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in church I would rather speak five words with my mind understanding in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
In this translation I have said “with my mind understanding” since I have been using “mind” to translate the Greek word nous, but clearly Paul means what his mind actually comprehends or understands here. This is one word in Greek, not two separate words.
Paul’s caution about speaking in tongues comes from his own experience. He says that he has spoken in tongues more than anybody in Corinth, although there are no examples of Paul speaking in tongues in the Book of Acts or in any of his letters apart from this passage. This is an example of the many things we only hear hints about in the Scriptures (others include Paul’s three early shipwrecks, the time he spent “a night and a day on the open sea,” 2 Corinthians 11:25, and being in danger from torrential rivers and in danger from bandits or pirates, 2 Corinthians 11:26). His caution here is once again about how the speaker thinks about others:
9, Isn’t speaking a couple words people understand better than speaking ten thousand words that they don’t? Be adults about this.
The pursuit of love in the Christian life means that even if we’re able to do a thing (especially a thing for worship), if it doesn’t edify the people, will it be useful at all? What if the famous modern painter Bob Ross were in our fellowship? Would we want him to come and “perform” a thirty-minute landscape painting for us, speaking the way he always does about his family, his craft, his artistic techniques, and baby squirrels, as part of our worship? Would our souls be truly edified without any law or gospel, or word of God, or word of Christian encouragement? There would be a place for him, especially among the church’s youth and social groups, but not in worship. Is the same true of some forms of music? The church should be careful not to alienate members by preferring one form of music over another, but this is a difficult tightrope to walk.
The goal of worship is first of all to give glory to God and to be strengthened in our faith (Romans 4:20). Moses prayed, “Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender grass” (Deuteronomy 32:2). So Paul concludes this part of his cautions about speaking in tongues by setting out an implied question: Is what we do edifying? Does it build up faith? Does it focus on Christ? Does our speaking in tongues do better with ten thousand words than with a handful of words in a language people can understand?
We should be careful not to get sidetracked here and wonder, “What would Paul’s ‘five words’ be?” I have seen Bible studies wander off into a pit of shared ignorance and useless opinion over this very question, and the result is not harmless. When we allow ourselves to pursue some question like this that has no real answer (because it’s not Paul’s real point), there can be a person whose opinion is discounted or left behind, and then there will be hard feelings, and the excursion will have done more harm than good.
What we desire is to instruct. In the early church, this word, katechéō (κατηχέω), meant the question-and-answer method of teaching students seated at the teacher’s feet. We get our word “catechism” from this. Luke firmly ties up the connection of instruction and worship when he says: “So that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). Does speaking in the unknown gibberish of tongues (that is, without an interpreter), firm up anybody’s certainty as to what they have been taught? If not, why do it?
20 Brothers, stop thinking like children. Be infants in regard to evil, but in your thinking be adults.
Paul begins a new thought here, closely connected to what has come before. But up to now he has been talking about his concerns with speaking in tongues as it affects Christians in the church. Now he is going to move on to tongues (and other miracles) in relation to unbelievers. Notice how he says in a fatherly way: “Be adults in your thinking. It’s okay to be infants regarding evil (that is, live an innocent life and think innocent thoughts), but when it comes to sharing faith with unbelievers, grow up.”
In verse 20, the word translated “thinking” is unique to this verse in the Bible outside the Greek versions of Proverbs and Daniel (“A man who commits adultery lacks judgment,” Proverbs 6:32, etc.). The Corinthians were not thinking like adults. Jeremiah said: “My people are fools. They do not know me. They are ignorant children. They do not understand. They are experts at doing evil, and they do not know how to do good” (Jeremiah 4:22, EHV). One commentator said: “The Corinthians were more interested in entertainment than in education. They preferred the spectacle of tongue-speaking to the specifics of doctrinal issues. Spiritually, they pretended to be adults but in performance they were children.”
This passage continues to expose sins of selfishness and lovelessness toward brother and sister Christians as well as toward unbelievers. Repentant living (and loving) means patience, humility, kindness, peaceableness, mercy, and a friendly heart in every circumstance. We ask the Holy Spirit to guide us away from all hatred, anger, and bitterness toward any person, even our enemies.
The 49th chapter of Clement’s first epistle (written late the first century by an early pastor in Rome) has volumes to say about love. Permit me to conclude today with my translation of verses 5 and 6:
“Love joins us to God.
‘Love covers over a multitude of sins.’
Love endures all things.
Love is always patient.
There is nothing coarse, nothing arrogant in love.
Love has no divisions, love makes no seditions;
love does all things in concord.
In love were all the elect of God made perfect.
Without love, nothing is pleasing to God.
In love the Master took us to himself.
For the love he had toward us,
Jesus Christ our Lord has given his blood for us
by the will of God;
his flesh for our flesh;
his life for our lives.”
Pastor Timothy Smith