Twitter, the soul of brevity, limits messages to 140 characters. Often we live on sound bites: “You did a great job.” “Daughter, I love you.” “Mom, thanks.” Scripture also often speaks to us in sound bites. Think Proverbs! “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov 25:11).
In 94 characters the Apostle Paul wrote: “In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:19). Many debate whether these “tongues” refer to some heavenly language or unlearned earthly languages. We’ll not take up that debate now. Instead, we’ll proceed to the core of Paul’s message – 31 characters: “five intelligible words to instruct.” Five.
What can a mere five words do?
Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Wild Geese,” prompts imagination and faith. “Harvest over,” tasting “persimmon and wild grape, sharp sweet of summer’s end” – naming “names that went west from here…Geese appear high over us, pass…Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way, clear, in the ancient faith: what we need is here. What we need is here.”
Nine years ago, that five-word-repeated-last-line brought us added comfort as we embarked from our 18-year sojourn in North Carolina to the unknowns of Helena, Montana. “What we need is here.” God will provide for us. Five intelligible words.
An Appeal to our Minds
With “five-intelligible-words-to-instruct” Paul is appealing to our minds. He follows Jesus who calls each of us to: “Love the Lord your God with…all your ‘mind.’” When the risen Christ met two men on the road to Emmaus “He opened their ‘minds’ so they could understand the Scriptures” (Lk 24:45).
So Paul writes: “In your ‘thinking’ be adults” (1 Cor 14:20). While Paul recognizes that mere knowledge puffs up some with pride, clearly, right thinking is part of love that builds up.
Again and again, Paul points us in this direction. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your ‘mind’ (Rom 12:2). “Be renewed in the spirit of your ‘mind’” (Eph. 4:23). “We have the ‘mind’ of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).
As a result, the pulpit is central in our churches. We invest more time during worship in the sermon because God regularly draws near to us through our understanding. True words, built on the foundation of Scripture, bridge a gap between us and God and our neighbor – even people in far away places and from times long ago.
Still, we can complicate loving God with our minds. When we want to be distant from God and others, our vocabulary can become complex – our sentences unnecessarily verbose. Similarly, when we tolerate such shallowness, even sharp proverbs become dull clichés.
What we aim at is engagement – whether sentences are long or short. In the bible we find a dynamic range from long run-on sentences to pithy proverbs. For example, in Ephesians 1:3-14 Paul has one LONG sentence with 213 Greek (280 English) words. Still he knows that five words can connect.
The Power of Five Words
It is refreshing to have Paul say: “In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others.” Profound thoughts can be expressed in five words. Chew on these.
“God so loved the world” (Jn 3:16). Five powerful words.
“This is my beloved Son” (Mt 3:17). Amazing words.
“I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). Five powerful words.
“I believe, help my unbelief ” (Mk. (9:24). Honest, humble words.
“It is God who justifies” (Rom. 8:33). The Gospel is grand!
“Be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). Here is an unheard of passive imperative made possible only by the Gospel.
“Speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Aha.
“Go into all the world” (Mt 28:19). Five more powerful words.
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20).
And then there are powerful sound bites from sources other than Scripture. “Loved by God in Christ.” Five. “Glorify and enjoy God forever.” Five. “Preach the gospel to yourself.” Five.
Brevity even in Sorrow
I preached this sermon the Sunday after a 21-year old soldier from our church had been killed by an IED in Iraq. What do we say when great sorrow comes? Sometimes, we simply weep – as Jesus did. The Jews who saw Jesus weep after Lazarus died spoke five words: “See how he loved him” (John 11:36).
Sometimes we say five intelligible words – words like: “Underneath are the everlasting arms” (Dt. 32:27). These words, when met with faith, are words we need.
The Bigger Picture
Sometimes we say more. For example, Dt. 32:27 begins: “The eternal God is your refuge” (what a grand collection of 6 words!), and continues: “underneath are the everlasting arms.” Then these eight words: “He will drive out your enemy before you.”
In the world, the “flesh” and the devil, we have enemies who hate five words that focus our lives: “Love God and your neighbor.” Who will triumph?
Even as David selected five smooth stones before battling Goliath, God may prompt us to choose five powerful words to defeat our enemy. David wrote: “The LORD is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). David chose “the” – not “a” or “some.” He pointed us to a specific Person. “LORD” – the great “I AM” – the favorite Hebrew name for the covenant making/covenant keeping God – used in the Old Testament 6824 times. “Is” – not “used to be” or “perhaps may be” – but, “is.” “My” – not someone else’s. “Shepherd” – David, a shepherd himself, trusted the Good Shepherd to care for him.
God Is Really Among You
David implicitly asks us a five-word question: “Is the LORD your shepherd?” When Jesus looked at the crowds and saw that they were harassed, like sheep without a shepherd, he had compassion on them. That gut-wrenching compassion can be expressed in words.
Paul had seen such words “lay bare the secrets of the heart” (1 Cor 14:25). Someone previously distant from God could now “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Cor 14:25). Five remarkable words!