The following article answers one written by a brother who claims that all the spiritual gifts seen at Pentecost (in the early Acts of the Apostles) are available to us now. This paper seeks, from the scriptures, to show how the Lord dispenses gifts.
The exhortation “Let us not fight against what God is doing in his church today” is good advice if we can distinguish between what the Lord is doing and what man is doing. Many are building with “wood, grass, straw” (1 Cor. 3:13). All except one of the epistles warn against false teachers. Paul describes the conditions that believers can expect in these, the last days. In 2 Timothy 3 he gives an outline and in verse 13 he points out “But wicked men and juggling imposters shall advance in evil [literally ‘to worse’], leading and being led astray”. For this reason we need careful spiritual discernment.
When we approach such a subject it is important to have the whole scope of God’s ways in our minds so that I don’t just quote verses to prove a point. For example, on the subject of prayer, some people take the verse, If ye ask anything in my name, I will do it. They then proceed to present God with a “shopping list” of their wants. When the above was said, the Lord was emphasizing that aspect of prayer. By looking at the whole scope, they would find other verses that indicate: If we ask according to his will, he hears us. So we should stand back and look at the whole scope of God’s ways when we consider the subject of spiritual gifts.
When God took Israel out of Egypt and gave them the law through Moses, such an apostleship was confirmed by great works of power and signs for the world to see. They departed from God as a nation, so God brought them into servitude to others. Then he set them up as a kingdom. At the high point, the inauguration of Solomon’s temple, he blessed it with the symbol of his presence. This is often referred to as the Shekinah glory, a visible thing. After the division between Israel and Judah - Israel was finally carried to Assyria and beyond, and later the glory of God departed from Jerusalem, see Ezekiel 11:23. Judah went to Babylon and on their return after 70 years, the temple was rebuilt. But there was no appearing of the glory – see Ezra 6:16-22. Neither was there any Urim and Thummin [meaning Light and Perfection], see Nehemiah 7:65 and Exodus 28:30, etc. They were greatly limited. The weakness of God’s testimony was such among the dispersed Jews that in the Book of Esther God’s name is not mentioned. However, he never ceased to care for them. No further prophets appeared after Malachi until John the Baptist. Jerusalem was still under gentile domination, to their shame. When the Lord began his ministry, the angel stirring the waters of the pool of Bethesda was the only visible sign of God’s support for Israel. Compare that to the days of glory of their departure from Egypt and the dedication of Solomon’s temple.
Why did I spend time on that? The same sad story has been played out in the time of the church. Those who say that all the gifts are still in full exercise forget that the church, in its public manifestation, is in ruins. Archbishops, popes, cardinals, grand buildings, women in the pulpits, Sodomites in the pulpits, keeping of days, traditions of elders, entertainment in the church, rock and roll music in the church - indeed the world in the church; every conceivable false teaching is permitted somewhere. We could go on at length. The enemy has seen to it that there is a version of Christianity for every natural taste – ceremonial, musical, sedate, emotional, dramatic, you name it, there is more choice than in a Fifth Avenue department store - and all this in the church of God. Some churches even have three services of a different tone and format to cater for each taste on Sunday. In Revelation 18:2, “Great Babylon…has become the habitation of demons, and a hold of every unclean spirit, and a hold of every unclean and hated bird”. Am I misapplying that verse? Go to Matthew 13:31-32, “The kingdom of the heavens … becomes a tree, so that the birds of heaven come and roost in its branches”. Yet we can rejoice that the Lord is still working in blessing despite public failure.
Let us look at some of the gifts. The Lord is able to give whatever gift he chooses, at any time. But he does act consistently. It is for us to learn how.
Apostles and prophets
These gifts were foundational.
Ephesians 2:19-29, “So then ye are no longer strangers and foreigners, but ye are fellow citizens of the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the corner stone, in whom all the building fitted together increases to a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit”.
These persons were given direct revelations from the Lord.
Ephesians 3:3-5, “that by revelation the mystery has been made known to me … which in other generations has not been made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the power of the Holy Spirit”.
These were Christian prophets, because we are told above - and in Colossians - that the church was not the subject of Old Testament prophecy, but part of a previous secret of God, the mystery. This is confirmed in Colossians 1:25-27, and 2:2-3.
Moses in his time had an apostolic commission. [See Hebrews 3:1, where Christ is referred to as “the Apostle and High Priest of our confession” - looking back to Moses and Aaron as types of him.] Moses delivered the mind of God for that period. So in this “dispensation of faith”, the apostles and prophets were given the mind of God for us. The canon of scripture has been finalized. By the time the Revelation was given to John in about 95 A.D. the Lord praised the church at Ephesus – “thou hast tried them who say that themselves are apostles and are not, and hast found them liars”. Further, Paul and Peter knew that there were no apostles to succeed them. When Paul said farewell to the elders at Ephesus, knowing that after his departure grievous “wolves” would come in amongst them and men from among their own selves would rise up and speak perverted things to draw away the disciples after them, he committed them “to God, and to the word of his grace”, not to other apostles – see Acts 20:32. Now the Lord can never be limited; he can raise up any gift at any time, but from the above it seems unlikely in our day. It does not need an apostle to help form a church in an area. In fact, the title of Solomon’s book Ecclesiastes comes from the Greek word “ecclesia”, meaning “assembly” or “church”. An alternative title in good translations is “The Preacher”, from the Hebrew word meaning “a former of assemblies”.
As to prophecy, it is pre-eminently the bringing the word of God to bear on the situation, whether as to the past, the present or the future. When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well in John 4, he spoke to her of her past, and of the present. She immediately said: “Sir, I see that thou art a prophet”. In 1 Corinthians 14:24-5, “But if all prophesy, and some unbeliever or simple person come in, he is judged of all; the secrets of his heart are manifested; and thus, falling on his face, he will do homage to God, reporting that God is indeed amongst you”. Paul had just done saying that we prophesy to believers, not to unbelievers, but then he gives us this amazing scenario relating to an unbeliever or simple person and his/her past! Note that the person is described as falling on their face, the true place for homage – not falling backwards like some modern simulations. The leading issue is that the person is conscious of being in the presence of God. Let us all be concerned to bring in the mind of God as to a situation, and so prophesy. “But he that prophesies speaks to men in edification, and encouragement, and consolation”, 1 Corinthians 14:3. There is nothing there to say that the talk is about the future. Although this can be done without being marked out as a prophet, just as Timothy was told to do “the work of an evangelist” even though he was not one “officially”.
Let us look at the sign gifts - healing, tongues and miraculous powers.
Many assume that what occurred in the early days of the church can be reproduced now. This entirely overlooks the fact that the public profession of Christianity has failed. The church in the hands of man is a testimony to ruin. Of course, what Christ has built is ready to be raptured at any time. Obviously there is no lessening of God’s power now. It is the failure of man that “limits” God’s putting his stamp of approval on it by allowing works of power as at the time of the Acts of the Apostles. God is sovereign, and he can act as he will, when and where he will, but he gives in scripture the pattern of his acting for our instruction.
The gift of healing. God does heal in answer to prayer, but that is a different thing to a person having a gift of healing. When the gospel is being taken to areas where people have been in moral darkness for a long period, I have no doubt that the Lord may support his word with cases of healing, to confirm the word – for a short time. But in the western world, where the gospel has been ignored for so long, it is another story. I give an example - a church nearby advertises a healing meeting in the evening on the first Wednesday of every month. If people were really being healed they would need a meeting every night and people would not be able to get in the door. In these situations some are cured of internal problems such as tumours, headaches, etc., but there are no reports of blind seeing, or paralytics healed. In another instance, a brother claimed that the Lord cured his wife of breast cancer. [She had been medically treated and later died of cancer some years later.] In Mark 7:37 we are reminded that “He does all things well”. This tells me that if the Lord heals a person of cancer, that person will not die of cancer. In an emotionally charged public environment, people can have a temporary healing as the adrenalin flows and they are seen to discard their walking sticks, etc. Are they cured a few weeks later? So many claim cures but are still sick. The Lord healed one at a time, not “en masse”. The ten lepers were a special case because of their social isolation – “the exception that proves the rule”.
It is noteworthy that the apostles never healed one another. Paul refers to Timothy’s “frequent illnesses” and prescribes the use of a little wine in 1 Timothy 5:23. He also left Trophimus behind in Miletus, sick - 2 Tim. 4:20. When the Lord called a person into his service, he never healed him. Earthly blessings were promised to Israel, based upon their obedience to God. Prosperity and good health is a matter of desire, not of promise, in Christianity as in 3 John, verse 2, "Beloved, I desire that in all things thou shouldest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospers”. Of course brotherly love would desire the good health of another.
As to tongues, at Pentecost in Acts 2:4-13 the witness of many nationalities was that “we hear them speaking in our own tongues the great things of God”. I have yet to hear anyone say this in recent times. There is a lot of stuff that is no more than ecstatic speech. I could say more but I am not going to pass judgment on things just because they are outside my own experience. At Corinth “they came short in no gift”, but they were not spiritual. Paul said that they were carnal (fleshly) and therefore he could not open up to them “the whole counsel of God” as he did at Ephesus. They were misusing gifts.
We should not be alarmed that everything is not as it was either in the Lord’s time or in the apostles’ time. He will continue to provide for our spiritual welfare. Despite the outward weakness, in Malachi 3:16-18, “Then they that feared the Lord spoke often one to another; and the Lord observed it, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name”. He even takes account of those that think upon his name! Do we think about what is due to the honour of the Lord’s name? He values that. The returning captives from Babylon showed a spiritual depth that I believe was greater than that found in the much grander days of Solomon’s temple. They could not do all that they would [like to], but they did what they could. This I believe is our lesson. There is no mention of the sign gifts in Romans and Ephesians, nor is there in the later days of John’s Revelation when the churches are under censure in chapters 2 and 3. The address to Philadelphia shows what the Lord appreciates: “I have set before thee an opened door, which no one can shut, because thou hast a little power, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name”, and “because thou hast kept the word of my patience [endurance] I will keep thee out of the hour of trial which is about to come on the whole habitable world”, Rev. 3:7-11. To keep his word and not deny his name is everything to Christ in a time when so many have given up his word and are careless as to the honour of his name.
As brother John says in his Summary, let us use what we have. And let us use it for the glory of God and the building up of the body of Christ, rather than for attracting attention to ourselves. In Romans 12:8, the last gift, but by no means the least is this: “he that shows mercy, with cheerfulness”.
MM November 2007