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1 Corinthians 14:1-12

 

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

 

Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. (ESV)

The Obscure Clarified

Adam and Eve

19 December 2013

Individual texts of Scripture might be found to be obscure by us. We may be kept from discerning their meaning because we do not understand the cultural context into which they spoke, or perhaps because we cannot fathom their doctrinal basis. The Spirit is often trying to deliver the deep things of God in human words. Sometimes we trip and fall over the simplicity of the divine speech because we are looking the wrong way. It often happens that people are hurt when they step off a curb into oncoming automobile traffic while they are looking up, perhaps to get a glimpse of a tall building, a plane, or an attractive bird. We are distracted from the Word of God by all the high and mighty things that we presume God demands of us humans. We expect glittering and glorious works to be demanded by the divine Word, and we miss the humble weakness of the God who comes not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28). He hides Himself under the signs of weakness and humility; under the cloak of human flesh. Unless we look down where He hides Himself we shall never see Him as He wants to be seen.

 

Sometimes passages are unclear to us because they are figures of speech that we no longer understand or again about things that are beyond our capacity to understand. In any case, the text is not unclear in itself, only to us. When a text is unclear to us, we need to seek clarification from texts that speak of the same subject matter, except in a way that is not figurative, or perhaps do not demand the understanding of cultural details no longer clear to us. Texts obscure to us must be interpreted in the light of texts clearer to us. Standard biblical interpretation always presumes this principle of operation. I was taught this principle of interpretation as a seminary student more than thirty years ago. At the time, this was described as a Protestant interpretive principle. Of course, I wrongly presumed that some bright Protestant thought this up, perhaps Luther or Calvin. How wrong I was!

 

This methodology of interpreting a text, any text, has always been used, even if implicitly, by anyone who read literature. Nor was the principle first enunciated by a Protestant of any kind. Instead, we find it in the literature of the ancient church, hardly "Protestant" in a historical sense. Tertullian (d. ca 220 A.D.) explicitly invoked the principle when he was defending the resurrection of the flesh, when his opponents proposed that passages speaking of the resurrection of the flesh should be taken to be purely spiritual or figurative. First, what would be gained by Scripture speaking of figurative resurrection of the flesh? It would be like speaking of figurative food to the starving. No, Scripture is perfectly clear about a fleshly resurrection in many places. Second, what would be the benefit of the promise of spiritual fleshly resurrection? We would be left in uncertainty about that which is one of the great benefits promised to us by our heavenly Father. Third, God has staked His reputation, His glory, on granting us sinners the boon of the resurrection. This is a grand design on God's part to take so humble a material as our flesh and raising it to eternal fellowship with Him. He is not a God who promises things to us, only to pull away the gift at the last minute, and say, "Oh, oops, I really meant to say that this was a figurative or spiritual fleshly resurrection." This mendacity would be characteristic only of human scheming, not the divine grace.

 

Tertullian

 

"Might the resurrection be spiritually understood? There are several reasons why not. First, the meaning of so many important passages of Holy Scripture, which so obviously attest the resurrection of the body, do not admit even the appearance of a figurative signification. Indeed, (since some passages are more obscure than others), it cannot but be right that uncertain statements should be determined by certain ones, and obscure ones by such as are clear and plain. Otherwise, there is a risk that, in the conflict of certainties and uncertainties, of explicitness and obscurity, the faith may be shattered, truth endangered, and the divine Being Himself be branded as inconstant. Then arises the improbability that the very mystery on which our trust wholly rests, on which also our instruction entirely depends, should have the appearance of being ambiguously announced and obscurely propounded. The hope of the resurrection, unless it is clearly set forth on the sides both of punishment and reward, would fail to persuade any to embrace a religion like ours, exposed as it is to public detestation and the presumption of hostility toward others. There is no certain work where the wage is uncertain. There is no real apprehension when the peril is only doubtful. But both the reward, and the danger of losing it, depend on the issues of the resurrection.

 

"Now, if even those purposes of God against cities, and nations, and kings, which are merely temporal, local, and personal in their character, have been proclaimed so clearly in prophecy, how is it to be supposed that those plans of His which are eternal, and of universal concern to the human race, should be void of all real clarity in themselves? The grander they are, the clearer should be their announcement, in order that their superior greatness might be believed. And I apprehend that God cannot possibly have ascribed to Him either envy, or guile, or inconsistency, or deceit, by help of which evil qualities it is that all schemes of unusual grandeur are promulgated." 
 
Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh. 21
 

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, author and perfecter of our faith, we thank and praise You for continuing among us the preaching of your gospel for our instruction
 and edification. Send Your blessing upon the word spoken to us, and by Your Holy Spirit increase our saving knowledge of You, that day by day we may be strengthened in Your truth and remain steadfast in Your grace. Give us strength to fight the good fight and by faith to overcome all the temptations of Satan, the flesh, and the world so that we may finally receive the salvation of our souls; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

For all those who grieve their losses at this festive time of the year, that they would be encouraged and built up by their holy faith and the support of their loved ones

 

For all church musicians, that they would have joy in the labor they offer during these feast days

 

For all medical researchers, that the Lord Jesus would give success to their labors so that human suffering would be alleviated in anticipation of the world to come 

Art: WEYDEN, Rogier van der  Annunciation Triptych  (c. 1440)

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