Now here comes Paul into Greek-speaking Corinth, and he teaches them about this word “Amen,” – just as if he were to come to us today with a new Hebrew word we didn’t know. What did he teach them? Well, we can see behind 1 Corinthians 14. Paul is concerned that the gift of tongues is being abused in public so that people are speaking what nobody can understand. He is not rejecting the gift of tongues. But he is putting something way above it in the Christian assembly. He is saying that edification comes not by amazement at miracles, but edification comes by the understanding of God. That’s why verse 19 says that five intelligible words that help you understand God are better than a thousand unintelligible words that make you tremble with amazement.
Paul is extremely zealous that public speaking (whether prayer or preaching) be an event of group understanding and group agreement – not one person doing his own thing and others boggled. Not even one person doing his own thing and others understanding and silent. What then? His answer is just beneath the surface in verses 15-16:
What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying?
Paul assumes something here. He assumes that when a public prayer is made, other people besides the one praying say, “Amen.” Let’s not miss this. It seems to matter to Paul. He could have just said: don’t pray in tongues because nobody can understand you and so nobody is built up in their faith, because faith comes by an understood word of Christ. Or he could have said always have an interpretation. But he said more. He said (verse 16): If you pray so people can’t understand you, how will they say “Amen”?
“Amen” Affirms Others in the Body
What if someone says to Paul, “I don’t care if people say “Amen” to my prayers”? Or what if someone says, “That’s not my tradition or my personality to say anything out loud in a group”? What would Paul say? I think he would say, This is not about personal taste. It’s not about traditions of high church or low church. It’s not about culture, say, African-American culture versus Swedish-American culture. It’s about God’s will for corporate worship, rooted in age-old Biblical patterns of prayer and preaching, and captured in a word that crosses all cultures.
I think he would say, God is calling us not to be isolated, silent, encapsulated individuals in worship. Privately coming, privately hearing, privately going, with no one able to tell what we love and cherish and long for, because we haven’t expressed resonance – an echo, an empathy – with anything. I think he would say that God is calling us out of our cocoons of emotional isolation and invisible, inaudible, unshared responsiveness. I think he would say, it’s God’s will that we echo the excellence of God in preaching and prayer – that we express our affirmation of the truth of God in the Word, and that we resonate verbally with Godward longings and yearnings in prayer.
Let me mention two more reasons for making more of this than we do, and then close with some practical suggestions. Consider 2 Corinthians 1:20. This is the passage that gives “Amen” its clearest and deepest meaning. “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him [that is, in Christ] they are yes [which is a translation of “amen”]; therefore, also through Him is our ‘Amen’ to the glory of God through us.”
Now what Paul is doing here is precisely what I am trying to do this morning. He is taking the familiar word “Amen,” and trying to fill it back up with the theological freight that words so quickly lose, so that it has meaning and weight and power to it when we use it.