The miraculous gifts of God’s spirit will be used again by the believers in order to change this present world into God’s Kingdom, after the return of Christ. The gifts are therefore called “the powers of the world (age) to come” (Heb. 6:4,5); and Joel 2:26-29 describes a great outpouring of the spirit gifts after the repentance of Israel. The very fact that these gifts will be given to the believers on Christ’s return is proof enough that they are not possessed now - seeing that to any Christian with eyes open to both Scripture and world events, the Lord’s return must surely be soon. Mic. 3:6 prophesied that there would come a day when ‘the sun would go down over the prophets’, i.e. the Spirit gift of prophecy would be taken away. Jesus appears to have alluded to this idea when He said that He had to do miracles whilst He had the opportunity, “while it is day: the night comes, when no man can work” miracles (Jn. 9:4). It was as if Jesus foresaw that soon there would be no more open manifestation of the Spirit gifts- until the dawning of the glorious day of His Kingdom at His second coming.
From all the Biblical records of the use of spirit gifts, it is clear that they were given at particular times for particular purposes and were withdrawn by God when His purpose was accomplished.
“If there be prophecies, they shall fail; if there be tongues, they shall cease; if there be (the gift of) knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect [complete] is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (1 Cor. 13:8-10). The gifts “are temporary” (G.N.B.). Eph. 4:8-14 helps us understand this further. “When he (Jesus) ascended up on high (to heaven), he...gave (spirit) gifts unto men...for the building up of the body of Christ: until we all come in (unto) the unity of the faith (i.e. the one faith), and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man...That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and thrown about with every wind of doctrine.”
The gifts of the first century were to be given until the perfect, or mature, man was reached. Note how Eph. 4:14 likens being under the ministry of the miraculous gifts, to spiritual childhood; and, in the context of prophesying, how the miraculous gifts were to be taken away. 1 Cor. 13:11 says the same. Making the claim of possessing the miraculous spirit gifts is therefore not a sign of spiritual maturity. The progress each reader of these words should now make is towards a deeper appreciation of the written Word of God, to rejoice in the completeness of God’s basic revelation of Himself to us through it, and to respond to it in humble obedience. 2 Tim. 3:16,17 teach that response to “all scripture” enables the man of God to be “perfect”, complete, mature. So once all scripture was inspired, the gifts were no longer needed; they had achieved their purpose, of guiding the early church up to the point where God’s written revelation had been completed. The gifts were to enable the church to become “fully equipped” (Eph. 4:8 Weymouth). When the Bible was completed, they were.
Closer study of 1 Cor. 13 suggests that the time of the withdrawal of the gifts was in fact at the time when the Mosaic sacrifices ceased to be offered. There was an interim period between the death of the Lord Jesus and the destruction of the temple in AD70. During this time, various concessions were made to the Jewish believers; they were permitted to obey Mosaic regulations for the time being, even though the Spirit through Paul made it clear that they were unable to give salvation, and were in comparison to Christ “the weak and beggarly elements”. The early believers were guided through this period by the presence of the miraculous Holy Spirit gifts amongst them, pronouncing, prophesying, enabling preaching in new areas through the gift of languages, organizing the ecclesias etc. But once the ecclesia came to maturity, the written word replaced the gifts. Most if not all the New Testament was completed by AD70, and this was around the time the gifts were withdrawn. Paul uses the same Greek word several times in 1 Cor. 13, even though it is somewhat masked in the translations. The following words in italics all translate the same Greek word: “Prophecies…shall fail…[the gift of] knowledge shall vanish away…that which is in part shall be done away…when I became a man, I put away childish things” (:8,10,11). Paul is predicting how the gifts of the Spirit would be withdrawn once the church reached the point of maturity; but he says that he himself has already matured, and he has “put away” the things of his immaturity- i.e. he no longer exercised the gifts for himself. He presents himself, as he often does, as the pattern for the church to follow. Thus the gifts “shall be done away” in the future for the church as a whole when they are perfect / mature, but for him, he has already ‘done them away’ as he has himself reached maturity. In the same language as Ephesians 4, he is no longer a child, tossed to and fro and needing the support of the Spirit gifts. He laments that the believers were still children (1 Cor. 3:1; Heb. 5:13)- yet, using the same Greek word, he says that he is no longer a child, but is mature. In Gal. 4:3, Paul speaks about how he had once been a child in the sense that he was under the Mosaic Law. But now, he has put that behind him. He is mature; and yet here in 1 Cor. 13:10 he associates being mature with putting away the gifts of the Spirit.
The same Greek word translated “fail…be done away….vanish away” is used in many other places concerning the passing away of the Mosaic Law:
Summing up, the Spirit gifts were given until the church became “perfect” or mature. This cannot refer to the second coming of Christ because the word is repeatedly used about how the believers in the first century ought to be become “mature”. The ‘passing away’ of the gifts is related to the ‘passing away’ of the Jewish and Mosaic system in AD70. This was in any case moving into the second generation after Christ; and it seems that the miraculous gifts were largely obtained by the laying on of hands of the Apostles. As that generation died out, and the more mature ones like Paul stopped using the gifts widely, then the posession of the gifts would have declined in any case. The Spirit gifts were to be withdrawn, according to 1 Cor. 13:10. Yet Joel 2 says that they will be poured out around the time of the Lord’s return. It therefore follows that they would not been possessed in the church for a certain period of time.
Present Claims of Spirit Possession
A number of other points have to be made concerning the repeated claims of those who think they now possess the miraculous gifts. Whatever one makes of the above arguments for the withdrawal of the gifts, the reality is that the present claims to Spirit gift possession are sadly in conflict with the nature of the gifts as recorded in the New Testament. Whatever is being done today is different to that which happened in the early church.
Present “speaking in tongues” tends to repeat the same short syllables over and over again, e.g. “Lala, lala, lala, shama, shama. Jesus, Jesus...”. This is not in the syntax associated with any language; when one hears someone speak in a foreign tongue, it is usually possible to discern that they are communicating something by the pattern of words they use, although we may not understand those words. Yet modern tongue-speaking does not feature this, underlining the fact that it is not providing edification, which was the purpose of the first century gifts.
Some Pentecostals claim that speaking in tongues is a sign of being “saved” and will therefore accompany every true conversion. This claim runs into serious difficulty with the description of the early churches as a body, in which those possessing different gifts were like the different parts. Not everyone was an arm or leg, and so likewise not everyone possessed any one gift, e.g. tongues. 1 Cor. 12:17, 27-30 makes this clear.
“If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling?... Now you are the body of Christ, and members comprising many parts. And God has set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?”
The same point was made earlier in that chapter. “For to one is given by the spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same spirit; To another faith by the same spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another various kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But through all these works that one and the same spirit, dividing to every man individually as he wills. For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:8-12).
Such emphasis cannot just be disregarded. We can’t say that every New Testament passage has equal application to every believer (consider Mt. 10:9,10; Mk. 16:17; Lk. 10:4; Acts 15:23-29); so it is surely reasonable to place the references to the fact that some spoke in tongues in the early church in this same category.
Another problem for the Pentecostal argument is that Philip converted many people in Samaria - i.e. they were baptised in water after understanding the Gospel, but they did not receive the spirit gifts; because after this, Peter and John came to them: “Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit...then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit...Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given” (Acts 8:4-18). It is possible that the passing on of the Spirit gifts was only by this laying on of hands, which is not frequently practised by modern claimants. Thus Paul wanted to visit the Romans in order to give them the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:11 cf. Eph. 4:12). It would therefore follow that once the generation who had this power passed away, there was no way of continuing the gifts. If indeed they are obtainable purely by prayer, it is difficult to understand why Paul had to visit Rome to transfer the gifts to them there, or why “through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given”.
Other Pentecostals say that tongue-speaking is not a proof of having been saved. This highlights the fact that there are major doctrinal differences between those claiming to possess the gifts. Thus some ‘charismatics’ believe that God’s Kingdom will be on earth, while others say it is in heaven. Catholic ‘charismatics’ claim that the Holy Spirit tells them to worship Mary and the Pope, whilst some Pentecostal ‘charismatics’ say that their possession of the Holy Spirit orders them to denounce the Pope as antichrist, and to condemn Catholic doctrine. Yet Jesus stated beyond doubt that those possessing the Comforter, “which is the Holy Spirit”, would be guided “into all truth...in that day you shall (need to) ask me nothing...the Comforter...shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatever I have said unto you” (Jn. 16:13,23; 14:26).
There should not be any split in fundamental doctrine amongst those who possess the Comforter - the fact that there is, indicates that those claiming its possession just cannot be taken seriously. The marked inability of some of these claimants to Biblically justify their beliefs indicates that they have not been guided into all truth and total knowledge by the Comforter.
The great importance attached by some to speaking in tongues is mismatched with the Biblical record. The list of spirit gifts in Eph. 4:11 does not even mention it, and it occurs at the bottom of a similar list in 1 Cor. 12:28-30. Indeed, there are only three occasions recorded in the New Testament where the gift was used (Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6).
The claims of tongue-speaking and miracles being achieved by modern charismatic Christians must be weighed against the considerable information which we have presented in this study concerning the work of God’s spirit. The fundamental point to make is that whatever such people claim to achieve, it cannot be as a result of their possession of the Holy Spirit. Whoever argues that they do possess the gifts, has a hefty homework to do in answering the Biblical arguments which we have presented.
However, it is reasonable to
expect some explanation of why the phenomena of partial healings and
‘tongues’ (in the sense of unintelligible speaking) occur.
It has been realised that human beings only use a fraction of their brain-power - as low as 1%, according to some estimates. It is also recognised that the mind can have an almost ‘physical’ control over the body; thus through psyching themselves to believe that fire cannot burn, Hindus have walked on fire barefoot without being burnt. In times of stimulus, it is possible for us to use a far greater percentage of our brain-power than usual, and therefore to have the capacity to achieve physical effects with, and upon, our body which are outside of normal experience. Thus, in the excitement of battle, a soldier may be quite unaware that he has been injured until afterwards.
In conditions of fervent religious belief and the stimulation of certain music, with the influence of a charismatic leader, it is quite possible that things outside the realm of normal human experience will occur. The ‘miracles’ claimed by Christians of today are of the same order of exceptionality as the paranormal experiences of other religions; thus voodoo worshippers experience the same phenomena of ‘mumbo-jumbo’ speaking, and Muslims can also testify to ‘miracles’ of a similar order to those claimed by some Christians today. Yet the whole point of the spirit gifts being possessed in the first century was to show the obvious supremacy of true Christianity over all other religions; the fact that the ‘miracles’ claimed today are of a similar order to those of other religions, shows that the Holy Spirit gifts of the first century are not now possessed.
Much significant information in this area is presented in William Campbell’s ‘Pentecostalism’ (The Churches of Christ, 1967). He shows that many pagan religions have this same feature of ‘tongue’ speaking. Thus in Kawaii, the priests of the god Oro supposedly reveal his will with indistinct sounds which are interpreted by other priests. Exactly the same occurs in Pentecostal meetings. In the first century, the pagan priests seem to have had frenzies during which they proclaimed Christ as accursed. Paul uses this in criticising how some in the Corinth ecclesia were only imitating the frenzy of pagans in their use of the spirit gifts - is there a clearer proof that ecstasy doesn’t mean we have spirit possession? It must also be remembered that possession of the gifts doesn’t mean that we are acceptable with God, and they are therefore not a sign of salvation being presently possessed (Ps. 68:18 cf. Eph. 4:8, and consider how Saul of Israel possessed the gifts but wasn’t saved). Even answered prayer, much gloried in by our Pentecostal friends, is no proof of itself that we have a relationship with God, in that He can answer the prayers of some in order to answer a man according to his folly and thus confirm him in the wrong way he has chosen (Ez. 14:4).
The continuing triumph of Islam over Christianity in much of Africa would surely not be seen if popular ‘Christianity’ were doing real miracles of the scale and convicting power of those in the first century. And those who truly possess the “Comforter” of the Holy Spirit gifts will do even “greater works” than those Jesus did (Jn. 14:12,16). The excuse that Christians could do such miracles if they had more faith, meets big problems here. Either they possess the miraculous gifts of the Comforter, or they do not, and if they claim that they do - “greater works than these shall you do” (Jn. 14:12) - not ‘you might do’!
First century use of the gifts
didn’t require physical contact with the one who was healed - miracles could
be done from a distance. Moreover, they didn’t always require the faith of
those who were healed (Lk. 22:51). There were no failed attempts at
performing miracles in the first century - whereas there are many today.
Also, it was possible to predict the miracles accurately - which simply
cannot be done today. We leave this subject with a question: Who are those
false teachers who do false miracles, posing as Christians (Mt. 7:22,23;
24:24; 2 Thes. 2:9,10)?