A Word Common to Many Languages
In most languages of the world where Christianity has taken root the word “Amen” has been taken over untranslated. Listen to a person pray in Chinese or Japanese or Swahili or Maninka or German or French or Russian or Arabic, and very likely there is at least one word you will understand: “Amen” — pronounced differently perhaps, but discernible. One of the reasons for this is that the Greek New Testament took it over from the Hebrew Old Testament untranslated (even though the Greek Old Testament [the Septuagint, LXX] rarely did, using “let it be” [genoito] instead of “amen” [amen]).
So what we have, all over the world today, is a word, “Amen” that is a direct transliteration — not translation — of the Hebrew “Amen”. Now we see from our text that the word was taken to Corinth, a Greek city speaking the Greek language which did not have a word “amen.” And, within a matter of weeks or months, Paul and the other missionaries had already begun to transform the Corinthian culture by grafting a brand new word onto their great Greek language. It wasn’t the only one. Paul also taught them the Aramaic words “marana tha” (1 Corinthians 16:22: marana tha) — “Lord, come.” And, of course, he taught them a vision of reality that exploded many of their preconceptions.
Bringing the word “Amen” to Greece is a little microcosm of what happens spiritually and intellectually and culturally wherever Christianity comes to a new culture. It brings a vision of God and the world that keeps some things in the culture, rejects other things in the culture, and touches everything in the culture. There are no pure cultures, especially ours.
“Edification comes not by amazement at miracles, but by the understanding of God.”
Every culture needs more words and more concepts and more ways of viewing the world and deeper combinations of emotions and different patterns of behaving than is native to itself. So one of the things that this little word “amen” means as it intrudes itself all over the world into every culture is that no culture, no language, no worship is complete in itself. There is always more to see and know and feel than is possible with our limited vocabulary and thought patterns and customary feelings.
But let’s be more specific. What did the word “amen” come to Corinth to do? What did this Hebrew word mean as it grafted itself onto the Greek vocabulary of Corinthian Christians?
“Amen” in the Old Testament
Well, let’s make sure we get a glimpse of its Old Testament background before we answer that. In the Old Testament, the word “amen” was mainly a congregational response to give a strong affirmation or agreement — to a curse or a word of praise to God. For example, in Deuteronomy 27:16 the Levites say, “‘Cursed is he who dishonors his father or mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” That is, we agree with that curse, so let it be. Or consider this beautiful scene of reverence and worship from Nehemiah 8:5–6:
Ezra opened the book [the word of God] in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord the great God. And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
The “amen” meant, “Yes, we agree with your blessing! We join in your blessing! All that you have said of God’s greatness we let it echo in our Amen. We say, “True, and firm and reliable is what you have said.”
Or take Psalm 72:19, “Blessed be his glorious name forever; and may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen, and Amen.” Here the psalmist speaks his own “Amen,” and doubles it for doubled certainty. But he almost certainly means for the people to join him in saying the Amen. As in Psalm 106:48, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting even to everlasting. And let all the people say, ‘Amen.’ Praise the Lord!”
Amen is the congregational way of affirming the leader’s blessing. When great things are being spoken to God or about God in a public assembly, the fitting thing to do is to express agreement and affirmation. That seems to be the implication of these texts.
“Amen” in the New Testament
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.
“Christ is God’s ‘Amen’ to all that he has spoken.”
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.
Christ Is God’s “Amen!”
He says first that Christ is God’s “Yes” to all the promises of the Bible: “As many are the promises of God, in him they are Yes.” Christ is God’s “Amen” to all that he has spoken. Christ affirms them and even secures them by his blood. The fact that you don’t deserve God’s promise to pursue you with goodness and mercy all your days, is now no obstacle. Christ has taken your ill-desert on him, and put his righteousness on you. He is God’s yes to all the promises in your life. For his sake, you will get them if you trust him.
Then he says, in verse 20b, “therefore, also through him is our ‘Amen’ to the glory of God.” In other words, the reason we say “Amen” through Christ when we hear the promises of God preached or hear a prayer of longing for the promises of God to be fulfilled, is that Christ has said “Amen” to us. He is God’s “Amen” to us. God says “Amen” to us through Christ in the cross, and we respond with “Amen” to God through Christ in preaching and prayer. So that’s one more reason we should make more of this echo of agreement than we do in corporate worship and prayer.
“Amen” Is Part of the Exaltation of God
The other reason is found in Revelation. John interrupts his own preaching with “Amen.” And when we see the final worship in heaven, one of the main forms it takes is the form of “Amen.”
Look at Revelation 1:7: “Behold, he [Christ] is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over him. So it is to be [literally: Yes]. Amen.”
Here is John’s intrusion on his own preaching when something is said that is so wonderful that he can scarcely contain himself. Christ is coming. Everyone will see him — everyone. Even those who pierced him. And there will be global weeping among those who have not repented. And John breaks into his own sermon and says, in Greek, Nai!, and in Hebrew, Amen! — Yes, Amen, let it be, come, Lord Jesus.
The book ends with the same connection. In Revelation 22:20 John says, “He who testifies to these things [namely, Christ] says, “Yes [= Amen], I am coming quickly,” to which John cries, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” John responds to Jesus’ “Yes” with his own “yes”: Amen! Come!
Finally, look at Revelation 5:14 to see how central “Amen” is to the eternal acts of worship in heaven. Starting in verse 13b John describes the heavenly worship. All creation says, “‘To him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.’ And the four living creatures kept saying, ‘Amen.’ And the elders fell down and worshiped.”
In other words, when worshipful beings — like we should be all the time — hear God exalted, they want to enter into the exaltation, and they do it with “Amen.”
Well, what shall we say? What shall we do?
“Amen” When We Pray Together
The main thing I would say is: let’s be natural and healthy. Here’s what I mean: When you are talking to someone, or even in the presence of someone, about things that are extremely precious to you, or painful to you, or frightening to you, and they give you no feedback that signals a sharing of your values or your hurt or your fear, there is no possibility of a natural and healthy relationship. Now that is the way many prayer meetings happen, and it’s the way much preaching happens. And it is unnatural and unhealthy. And I fear we have come to accept it as normal. But dysfunctional worship dishonors God in ways that healthy worship doesn’t.
“Dysfunctional worship dishonors God in ways that healthy worship doesn’t.”
A person pours out his heart to God in a circle of prayer and there is complete silence. What does that mean? Well, you could probably tell me fifteen things that it may mean. But let me simply plead for another way, a more Biblical way. As others pray, you whisper, “Amen.” Whisper, “Yes, yes.” Whisper, “Umhm.” Whisper, “Do it, Lord.” I say whisper, partly because I want to make it easy for you, and partly because you’re not supposed to take over or draw attention to yourself. The murmur of quiet “Amens” and “Yes” and “Umhm” is like background music that supports the one who’s praying and joins him in the prayer. And at the end of a prayer, a deeply felt “Amen” in unison is a powerful moment before the throne of grace.
The deep question is really: When you listen to someone pray, are you longing for what they are praying? Are you aching for God to work? Are you glorying in the God they praise? If so, make that moment a corporate moment the way Paul calls us to do it, not just an isolated, private, individualistic experience.
“Amen” When We Hear the Word Preached
And so with preaching. For me, preaching is expository exultation. It is a kind of prayer, a kind of exultation before God. I’m going to talk about this next week — why is preaching central in our corporate worship services? But today I will simply say, preaching is worship. It is the heralding of good news about God in Christ by a person who is called, sent and anointed by God to make biblical truth plain, beautiful and powerful.
Now when that happens in worship, it is a marvelous thing. And if it happens regularly without an echo or a reverberation in the mouths of God’s people it is unnatural and unhealthy. It’s as if a wife should come home thrilled at the sunset she saw, and as she describes it, her husband and children just look at her and don’t say anything. That makes a natural and healthy relationship impossible. It also minimizes the beauty of the sunset.
God knows this about worship and preaching. That is why for 4,000 years he has made it simple for us: he has prepared a word. “Amen.” There is no talk here about shouting or dominating or distracting. This is simply the call to make preaching and praying a corporate exultation in the supremacy of God. It is a call for authentic heartfelt expressions of “Yes” and “Amen.”