God's Working Through Our Speaking
We’ve all heard someone say something like: “Something I heard the other day just really stuck with me...”
“I don’t know why, but though I’d heard that same truth many times before, for some reason it really hit me that day.”
We all know that feeling, don’t we? For some reason, something someone says just seems to hit home. Perhaps someone reminds you of a truth you’ve long known and it finally “becomes real” to you. Perhaps it’s some bit of encouragement that seems to stick. Whatever it is, the experience is universal—we have all been impacted by words spoken from another person.
Of course, words can do more than encourage. Tragically, we all know the feeling of being deeply wounded by the tongue of another. Perhaps the stinging shout of a parent? Maybe a schoolmate’s ridicule and jeering? Perhaps, even all these years later, you can still feel the burn of those words.
Yet, for the moment, let us consider the positive side of the matter—let us consider the good that words can do and why it is that they are sometimes so effective.
Let us begin here: “Why do words have the power that they do?”
No other created being utilizes language. The animal kingdom makes a lot of noise, but they don’t use words. A dog can be trained to respond to certain sounds said in a particular order and tone of voice, but he will never communicate via real language. He won’t ever amount to much of a conversation partner (sorry dog lovers!). The difference? Human beings are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27). God is a speaking, language-using God— “Then God said...” (Gen. 1:3). Our ability to utilize words is one of the unique characteristics possessed by human beings as those made in the image of God. Because He speaks, we speak. Because He hears, we hear. This is why words, for human beings, have the power that they do.
And, so it is that each of us can easily dial up memories in which we were deeply affected by words, either for good or for harm.
Does the Bible have anything to say about our words and their effects?
Reader, please allow me to introduce Ephesians 4. In this passage, Paul has a lot to say about words.
Earlier in the Ephesians, Paul has described the way that Jesus is creating a new humanity, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, reconciling them all to God through His cross-death (Eph. 2:16).
But, here, in chapter four, he begins to lay out the practical implications of this salvation—being reconciled to the living God has, of course, a tremendous effect on one’s life!
First, in vv. 1–6, it’s all about unity (“...being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit...”). Also, note the repetition of the word “one” (“one body...one Spirit...one hope...one Lord...one faith...one baptism...one God...”). God’s people are unified as one.
That said, in v.7, Paul pivots.
Without compromising unity, Paul introduces diversity. Yes, God’s people are one, but Jesus has given a variety of gifts to the individuals in the church. Indeed, Paul goes on to list some of them: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers (v.11). What do each of these gifts have in common?
They’re all about words.
Each of the five listed gifts are largely speaking gifts. These individuals in the church are gifted by God to speak in one capacity or another. While this is not the place to get bogged down with the temporary role of apostles or the ongoing nature of prophecy, it is at least clear that evangelists, pastors, and teachers remain active today in the Church.
The text teaches that they’re placed in the church by Jesus Christ Himself, and they’re placed there to speak.
Now, the sorts of God-fueled results that Paul attaches in the following verses to these speaking gifts are remarkable: building up of the body (v.12), a unity characterized by faith and by a knowledge of the Son of God (v.13), maturation beyond spiritual childhood (v.14), and solid grounding in the faith and resistance to being led astray (v.14). The role of those who speak/teach/preach in the local church are, judging by their intended results, vital for the health of any local church.
Now, it’s precisely at this point that you might be wondering what this has to do with your words—“I’m not a pastor!” Indeed, Jesus has not given the same gifts to all the members. “Sure, someone has to do the speaking, but not this gal!”
I think Paul’s answer to this objection is both yes and no. Yes, Jesus has given some members a unique speaking job in the church that He has not given to others (public, authoritative teaching).
However, this does not imply that God has zero intention for the mouths of the other 99% of Christians in local churches.
This is where we’ll spend the rest of our time together: what is God’s design for those mouths which aren’t owned and operated by teachers or preachers in the church?
What about the rest of us?
Consider out vv.15–16, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
Rather than being led astray by the world’s lies, we are to “speak the truth in love.” Having described the organization of the church, Paul turns to the Ephesian congregation as a whole: “...we are to grow up...” Now he’s talking to the rest of us: “when each part is working properly.” This is for the 43-year-old man with a phobia of public speaking. This is for the lady who has vowed never lead a Bible study. It is the whole congregation that is to speak the truth in love.
As a brief aside to assuage some fears, Paul does not imply that we must find novel, flashy ideas that others may not have considered in just that right way in order to be effective in encouragement.
Don’t buy that lie. You need not be novel. In fact, please don’t be novel. Rather, he gives two criteria for how Christians should encourage one another: 1) the truth, and 2) in love. Speak what you know from God’s word, and speak it in love.
Anything else, Paul?
Later in the chapter Paul says, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” (4:25) Don’t lie. Rather, speak the truth.
Though there’s plenty to be said about the verse, don’t miss the positive instructions: speak the truth to each other. That is, it isn’t only that we are to avoid deception—the mouth must do more than avoid saying certain things. Rather, we are to replace deception with truth-telling. We are, positively, to open our mouths. This is God’s design for “each one” of us.
Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, Paul says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” (4:29) Don’t let anything that tears down exit your mouth.
Rather, let words that build up, words through which God gives grace, be characteristic of your tongue. It’s hard to find a verse in the Bible that more clearly describes the effective power of the words of normal Christians. Notice the effects that Paul says words have: edification and giving grace. That is, God intends to give grace to the other members of your church through your tongue.
This is astounding. When the average Christian speaks the truth in love to another saint, edification happens, and people are changed. Take note, this is not about public teaching. Instead, when Gina and Susan catch up after church, talking about life, praying for each other and discussing God’s word, God uses this simple thing to give supernatural grace. When Rick and Joe grab coffee and talk about what they’ve been reading in the Bible, God “gives grace to those who hear.” This is God’s way. Though He could have designed a million other ways, God has decided to use the simple words of His people to give others of His people grace.
So, start small. Prayerfully consider one person with whom you can “speak the truth in love” after church or while grabbing coffee this week. It is God’s way to use even words as simple as ours for the growth of the body.
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