Have the miraculous spiritual gifts we read of in the New Testament ceased? If so, when did they cease and why?
This question has raised debate among believers for centuries.
Welcome to the 44th post in my series of rethinking Christian eschatology. Because these posts build upon each other, if you've not already done so, I invite you to read the previous posts in this series before continuing here.
This is the final post I currently have planned for this series. I'm confident I'll add more later, but for now, this is it.
I hope you've enjoyed, benefitted from, or at least been challenged by the material I've presented.
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On to today's post.
A wonderful byproduct I experienced from studying the things covered in this series over the past few years has been increased clarity on a question Christians have pondered for centuries.
Miraculous spiritual gifts would be one such topic.
Many believe the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit still continue today. For clarification, when I use the term "miraculous spiritual gifts," I'm talking about gifts like healings, speaking in tongues, raising the dead, etc.
Others acknowledge a lack of widespread undeniable evidence of supernatural gifts similar to what we read of in the New Testament. (These people are sometimes called cessationists.)
If the miraculous spiritual gifts we read about in the New Testament have indeed ceased, then when did they stop and why?
I finally have peace that I can confidently answer these questions with Scripture.
Let me show you.
Setting the context
In case you're unfamiliar or could use a refresher, here's a quick overview to catch you up.
The first Christians were given miraculous abilities by the Holy Spirit.
The coming of GOD's Spirit upon His people had long been foretold by the Prophets of Israel.
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
(Matt. 3:1-12 NIV)
Likewise, Jesus also prophesied about the coming of the Holy Spirit on multiple occasions. For example:
11 “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”
(Luke 12:11 NIV)
14:26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. ...
16:12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
(John 14:26; 16:12-15 NIV)
45 Then [Jesus] opened [the apostles'] minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
(Luke 24:45-49 NIV)
15 [Jesus] said to [the apostles], “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
(Mark 16:15-18 NIV)
4 On one occasion, while [Jesus] was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
(Acts 1:4-9 NIV)
Luke recorded the Holy Spirit's arrival in Acts 2:
2:1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
(Acts 2:1-4 NIV)
Miraculously, the Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven for the Feast of Pentecost each heard the apostles speaking in their own native tongue—languages which these uneducated men did not know.
Just as we read about with Mark 16:17-18, miracles began to follow these early Christians throughout the recorded events of the rest of Scripture.
You can read all about these miracles in the book of Acts. The subject of miraculous spiritual gifts was also discussed in certain letters of the New Testament.
The main source of our questions
The apostle Paul devoted a significant portion of 1 Corinthians to the subject of spiritual gifts. It is Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians, in fact, that form the primary source for our questions regarding these miraculous divine gifts.
Paul began discussing the topic of spiritual gifts as follows:
12:1 Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
(1 Cor. 12:1-11 NIV)
Toward the end of the same discussion, Paul wrote:
14:1 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.
39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
(1 Cor. 14:1-5; 39-40 NIV)
When Christians read 1 Corinthians, it can seem like Paul is instructing all Christians to pursue these miraculous spiritual gifts.
Yet, when we read about the miraculous healings, speaking in foreign languages and raising dead people back to life which are described in the New Testament, and then we look around at what we see happening today, it seems obvious that things are different.
This raises big questions for us:
- Why do we not see the miracles we read about happening today?
- Those gifts seemed so effective in the early church. Why would GOD stop them?
- Why don't the Scriptures say more about these gifts and when they would cease and why?
Even as early as the third century A.D., we have record of Christians stating that they no longer saw the level of miraculous gifts that existed during the first century.
For example, around 250 A.D., Origen repeatedly wrote that only "traces" of signs and wonders were seen among the Christians of his day (see A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, David W. Bercot, pp. 301-302).
So what gives?
The Scriptures foretold the cessation of miraculous gifts
In the same previously-cited discussion of miraculous spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians, Paul made a curious statement predicting a coming end to the miraculous spiritual gifts. He wrote:
12:27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
And yet I will show you the most excellent way.
13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
(1 Cor. 12:27-13:13 NIV)
Here, Paul plainly said that:
- Prophecies would cease.
- Tongue-speaking would cease.
- Special knowledge would cease.
- Once "completeness" comes, these special gifts would disappear.
The age-old question and key to solving the mystery surrounding miraculous spiritual gifts, is, "What is the 'completeness' that Paul mentioned in v.10?"
When completeness comes
I have previously explained my (now-outdated) understanding regarding this "completeness" here. That was before my studies of the past few years into these things.
Now, I understand more ... sorry, can't help myself ... completely. ;-)
The word translated "completeness" in the NIV is translated "perfect" in other translations.
- NKJV — But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
- NASB — but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.
- AMP — But when that which is complete and perfect comes, that which is incomplete and partial will pass away.
- YLT — and when that which is perfect may come, then that which [is] in part shall become useless.
The explanation of this "completeness" (or perfection) is found in the book of Hebrews.
Let me show you.
Beginning our reading at the conclusion of the great "hall of faith" chapter:
11:32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17 Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.
18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm;
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
25 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”
(Heb. 11:32-12:3, 14-18, 22-29 NIV)
What we've just read is incredible; don't miss its significance!
The writer lists out these individuals we read of in the Scriptures who did amazing things by faith. Some of them conquered seemingly-insurmountable foes. Others suffered great tragedy while standing for their faith.
Then, at the end of this list of reminders, when the writer had run out of time, he drops this bomb (for us, because we haven't been taught this as the first century Christians had been):
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
What was it that had been promised to the great cloud of witnesses?
The text tells us it was the kingdom that could not be shaken, the heavenly Jerusalem, the ultimate Promised Land and fulfillment of GOD's promises to Abraham.
Why could the heros of faith only be made perfect/complete together with the first century Christians?
Because until Jesus returned, the mass dead souls were not yet resurrected (under the altar, remember) and therefore hadn't received their ultimate reward, their home in the spiritual kingdom of GOD—Israel. The old things were still in place.
According to the Hebrew writer, these dead souls would receive their kingdom inheritance at the same time the living first century Christians received theirs: when Jesus returned, which happened during the first century A.D., just a few years after this letter was written.
Therefore, the "completeness" or perfection that Paul mentioned in 1 Cor. 13:10 which would bring about the cessation of miraculous spiritual gifts was the coming of the kingdom of heaven in judgment, eliminating the old covenant and its land, citizens, temple and worship.
Now, check this out!
As it turns out, the Prophets already told us about the end of miraculous spiritual gifts, but we didn't catch it.
The Holy Spirit arrived on Pentecost after Jesus' ascension back to heaven.
Look again at Peter's words on that day:
12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
(Acts 2:12-21 NIV)
- Peter quoted Joel 2:28-32 here, a text we've studied extensively in multiple posts.
- The salvation mentioned in Acts 2:21/Joel 2:28 referred to salvation from the judgment of the Lord's return in the first century. We know this because the very next verse, Joel 3:1, speaks of the gathering and restoration of Jerusalem's fortunes, which occurred with the transition from physical Jerusalem to spiritual Jerusalem, at the Lord's return.
Recognizing this, we can plainly see that Joel was prophesying, by inspiration, that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and the miraculous abilities that followed were signs to warn people of the judgment (i.e., "the great and glorious day of the Lord") so that they might call upon the name of the Lord and be saved!
Once that day had come, as it did with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the time for warning (and therefore the need for the miraculous gifts) had passed.
And that's why, practically, the miraculous spiritual gifts existed and why they stopped existing during the first century.
Read Joel's words once more with this in mind. You can see it indicated in the text.
2:28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
32 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved;
for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
there will be deliverance,
as the Lord has said,
even among the survivors
whom the Lord calls.
3:1 “In those days and at that time,
when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem,
2 I will gather all nations
and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat.
There I will put them on trial
for what they did to my inheritance, my people Israel,
because they scattered my people among the nations
and divided up my land.
3 They cast lots for my people
and traded boys for prostitutes;
they sold girls for wine to drink.
(Joel 2:28-3:3 NIV)
Personally, I find this answer to this difficult, age-old question far more satisfying than any other I've heard.
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