Sometimes, when we see a brother or sister suffering, words fail us. In spite of whatever training and scraps of wisdom we might have, our normal eloquence seems futile. We are overcome with compassion for our fellow human being who is feeling a disease or an injury we would never want to endure.
Language is a powerful thing but there are limits to our normal understanding of words. Ludwig Wittgenstein was a twentieth-century philosopher who, among other things, was very interested in the uses of language and in the human ability to understand the power and limits of meaning. For example, he states:
The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of the discovery. Philosophical Investigations 3rd edition, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Inc.) 1958. Page 48.
In this short paragraph Wittgenstein scorns the value of philosophy even as he expounds it. He uses a humorous metaphor to make the thought-provoking point that language has limits. The "value of the discovery" points to a meaning beyond the normal understanding. Wittgenstein is known to have been deeply influenced by the Christian writings of Leo Tolstoy. See Wittgenstein for Beginners ed. John Heaton and Judy Groves (Cambridge: Icon) 1994. Pages 21, 170-173.
As Christians, we should be humble when considering the potentially powerful and multi-faceted meaning and power of words. When reading the Bible, we know it is not enough simply to read something and say, "There, that's that." Before and after any Bible study we know we should pray, invoking nothing less than the Holy Spirit to help us to understand. Furthermore, we know through intuition and experience how important it is to study the Bible in community with other Christians. And, while the Bible is certainly not the exclusive domain of scholars, there is much to be learned from those who have spent years in advanced study of the Scriptures.
We should be humble, but not intimidated by the quest for meaning. There are little treasures to discover. Let us look, for example, at the word "citizen." A partial dictionary definition is as follows:
A native or naturalized person of either sex who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to reciprocal protection from it and to enjoyment of the rights of citizenship. Webster's Third New International Dictionary.
Our citizenship is an important part of our daily earthly existence. The great historical example of this is of course found in Acts 16: 37-39. Paul proclaims his citizenship as a Roman, oddly enough, in response to an offer to let him go:
But Paul said to them, "They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out. The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. Acts 16: 37-39, ESV.
In ancient Roman culture, where the foundations of Christianity were laid, the concept of citizenship had great power.
What does it mean, however, to be a citizen of God's household? An intensive study of the first two chapters of Ephesians would be in order, for everything that Paul is saying about grace seems to lead to the dramatic statement in 2:19:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.
There is a wealth of meaning here, but for now let us simply note that Paul is speaking in the present tense. He is not saying "you are going to be fellow citizens with the saints, someday," he is saying "you are fellow citizens." This is a powerful and pleasing message.
We can explore a little bit further into the meaning of citizen by reading Philippians 3:20:
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Once again, Paul speaks in the present tense: "our citizenship is in heaven." We all await the day we finally meet the Lord, but we can take comfort in knowing our papers are in order. Paul goes on, in 4:1, to render the most powerful yet gentle and loving exhortation:
Therefore my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
We will discover, finally, the full meaning of a word when we know we are loved by God and accept that love into our hearts.
In faith and fellowship,