The New Testament provides historic examples of prophetic gifts and apostolic miracles. As such, there are many who contend that the early church model of revelatory gifts should continue on today. In response, we offer pertinent questions and answers. These aren’t exhaustive but trust they’ll guide your personal study on this important matter.
Question: How should we understand the NT example of miracles? Throughout the book of Acts, whenever the Spirit is “poured out” on new believers it seems they experience the manifestation of his charismata. Shouldn’t we?
Answer: Proper bible study demands we look at each text individually. Although not comprehensive, note: (1) The Gospels represent a “kingdom at hand” offered by Christ and specific to the Jews. This is why Jesus specifies, “Don’t go to the Gentiles” cf. Matt. 10:5. After the Jewish rejection, Jesus changes the commission to “Go into all the world…baptizing” cf. Matt. 28:19-20. Clearly, we don’t currently live with Jesus on earth offering a literal geo-political kingdom to the Jews. (2) It is consensus among many evangelical scholars that the Book of Acts was written by Luke as historiography (inc. charismatic commentators such as Craig S. Keener). Thus, to push historiography aggressively into modern application prompts a “flattening” of the text, and forces the reader to pick and choose which texts are directly applicable. This is often why preachers will mistakingly elevate positive miracles while ignoring negative miracles (e.g. No one wants to be Ananias and Sapphira and “fall dead” for giving a bad offering)! (3) In Galatians 3:5, Paul describes his own “miracles” from Acts 14:3 in S. Galatia but in no way suggests the Galatians should be attempting them. (4) 1 Cor. 14:29 and 1 Thess. 5:20 are commonly used as proof-texts of “prophecy examined.” However, those texts are no different than many OT declarations to assess what a prophet says to determine if, in fact, he’s a true or false prophet (cf. Deut. 18:15-22), something which was vital before the Bible was written.
Question: What of the non-apostles who did signs and wonders? There were 70 commissioned in Luke 10:9-20, others in the upper room at Pentecost, Stephen, Philip, and even church members in Antioch (Acts 13). Seems like a lot of people doing miraculous ministry?
Answer: Proper response demands we look at each person individually. Clearly God did remarkable things during the first generation of Christianity. But, did God intend for subsequent generations to do likewise? Note: (1) The 70 mentioned above, were proclaiming the literal kingdom of Christ as “near.” To this point, note in Luke 10:9-19 the non-normative context to which they were sent out. Jesus was literally coming to that town preaching, no one carried any money, Satan fell from heaven, and nothing could injure them etc. This was a succinctly Jewish, geo-political, special point-in-time event. Quite different from the current Gentile church age. (2) The Book of Acts identifies a group of apostles appointed by Christ and their direct appointees (e.g. 6:5). For example, the risen Christ personally directed Ananias via vision (e.g. 9:7). Later, Antiochene believers were commissioning an apostle for his very first missionary venture (e.g. 13:3). All of these are non-normative events. This explains why Paul’s epistles to 2nd generation churches dealt with typical day-to-day issues. Much like today they incurred internal strife, laziness, governance issues, struggling pastors, etc. Following the first generation signs and wonders, Christianity “normalized” away from signs and wonders quickly.
Question: What about the edification of 1 Corinthians 12:7, 14:3, 26? If charismata were important for edification of the early church, shouldn’t it be today also?
Answer: In 1 Corinthians 13 & 14, Paul highlights that it is the gift of “teaching and prophecy” that edifies. In 1 Cor. 14:3 Paul explains that edification, exhortation, and consolation don’t come through extravagant interpreted “tongues” (v.2) but through teaching prophecy that all can understand. For emphasis, Paul points out his wish all could do it (v.5). Contrary to modern charismatic apologists, the letter to Corinth is not a support text for speaking more unknown foreign languages (or prayer languages) but a discipline and limitation of its (tongues) misuse in the Corinthian context.
Question: Isn’t the church of Acts connected to the church of all time? Clearly, the apostles were special, but where does the NT assert we shouldn’t be like the apostles?
Answer: Paul called the “apostles and prophets” a foundation of the church. In Ephesians 2:20 Paul stated the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Paul even intimates that he is the last apostle (cf. 1 Cor. 15:7-8). Although there remains an apostolic skill set (i.e. missionary work etc.), the definition of Apostle, and its office, was restricted to those who had been commissioned by Jesus (Acts 1).
Question: In 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 Paul asserts spiritual gifts will not “pass away.” Assuming that the “perfect” which is to come is the return of Christ or New Heaven and New Earth then clearly Paul allows the spiritual gifts to continue to that point. Correct?
Answer: 1 Corinthians 13:8 must be broken down by gift: (1) The gift of “tongues” is middle reflexive, signifying a self-fade, the timing of which is clarified in 1 Cor. 14:21 where Paul explains the supernatural ability to speak foreign languages (glossa) were meant as a “sign of conviction for unbelieving Israel.” Thus, when Israel was destroyed in 70 AD the purpose of the gift was no longer needed. This explains why the patristic fathers pointed out no such “tongues” by the 2nd century. (2) In the remainder of the verse, Paul’s emphasis regarding “knowledge” and “prophecy” until the perfect comes, has nothing to do with mandating normative revelatory gifts, and simply emphasizes that all knowledge and teaching (even his own apostolic gift) is but a partial version until the Eternal State. All would agree with this, as we’ll have a more complete knowledge when Jesus returns.