|A331 : by Tony Garland |
I’d like to prefix my answer by mentioning that I’m no stranger to Pentecostal/Charismatic beliefs held by many Christians. I was born-again in a Pentecostal/Charismatic church. Having become a Christian, I was raised with the standard Pentecostal teachings and interpretations of Scripture, the foundational belief being that all the gifts, miracles, signs and wonders exhibited in the New Testament were available to believers throughout church history and especially today. The so-called full gospel. Another foundational belief was that Spirit-baptism was a second work beyond salvation which had to be sought after and which only some Christians experienced. The church I was in believed that the evidence of having been Spirit-baptized was the ability to speak in tongues (ecstatic speech, not bona-fide unlearned human languages). Our church services featured a steady stream of visiting modern-day Apostles and Prophets. I was completely immersed in all this, participated on the prayer team laying hands on people, catching people slain in the Spirit, and I, myself, prayed in tongues.
Things continued this way for about 4 years. By then, I had become more knowledgeable of the Scriptures and began to see some problems. One of the problems I saw pertained to this question: are the same sorts of miraculous gifts mentioned in the New Testament being practiced today? By then, I’d had numerous prophecies said over me and listened to scores of prophetic words, given by self-proclaimed prophets, both men and women, but also by individuals who believed they had the gift of prophecy. But these prophecies were not proving true. They either were untestable (vague generalities restating truths already found in Scripture) or flat out wrong: often failing spectacularly. Then there was the serious matter of modern-day Apostles—who you would expect to be among the most mature Christians on the face of the planet—exhibiting very fleshly sins, often falling into serious financial or sexual sin. Add to that the many healings which were dubious or didn’t stick, and it was clear something was wrong.
That led to what I call my Where’s the beef? moment. This phrase comes from a television advertisement you may remember where a woman buys a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant, but when she’s about to eat it she pulls the bun apart to look inside and the meat (the beef) is missing! From the outside, it looks like a genuine hamburger, but the most important element that makes it a hamburger (the beef) has gone missing! In this case, it had to do with the prophecies, healings, and signs which were not working out: they were false. But, all the while, they were proclaimed to be empowered by the Spirit of Truth! If the Holy Spirit were in this, why so much falsity?
This spurred me back to the Scriptures to see what was wrong. Could it be the Scriptures were false? Or was it, more likely, that what the modern Pentecostal movement served up as New Testament realities were in fact something much different. Whatever they were, they certainly weren’t turning the world upside-down (Acts 17:6).
Apostolic Age is a Transitional Period
This realization eventually led to my departure from the Pentecostal movement. Anyone who has been there knows that it isn’t an easy thing to leave the movement with your faith intact—or even stronger. What I came to see is that the Pentecostal movement fails to fully-appreciate the historic context within which the gospels and the Book of Acts were given. They insist that things are just the same today. The same signs, wonders, miracles, and office of Apostle, and Prophet are with us now as then.
But, I believe a careful examination of Scripture shows this is not the case. Instead, the Bible describes a transitional period during which signs, wonders, and various offices were used of God to testify to new revelation and teaching which were given at that time—which form the contents of the New Testament—which has remained unchanged since the formation of the canon.
This is, admittedly, a huge topic. But let’s take a brief survey to see this idea in the New Testament.
In the Great Commission, we read the following: And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen. (Mark 16:20) Notice that those who first proclaimed the gospel were accompanied by signs and that the signs had a purpose: to confirm the word. What word was this? This was the new revelation given by Jesus to the early church—revelation which would eventually be collected and codified as the New Testament. Since it was new revelation, God saw fit to authenticate it by working unusual signs.
On the Day of Pentecost, when Peter preached what could be considered the first gospel message to a large audience, we read, Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. (Acts 2:43) Notice that the wonders and signs were done through the Apostles. Although I won’t delve into the matter here, I believe it can be shown that the Apostles were not just sent ones, but those having first-hand knowledge of the Lord at His first-coming (Acts 1:22; 1Cor. 9:1; 1Cor. 15:7-9).
In numerous places, we are told that both Apostles and Prophets are foundational to the establishment of the Church—something newly-established on the Day of Pentecost (1Cor. 12:28; Eph. 3:5; 2:20; 4:11-12). How often do you build a foundation? Only once—at the beginning of a construction project.
Consider also this passage where Philip preached to the Samaritans. Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. (Acts 8:4-6) God granted Philip the ability to do the miracles in order to bear witness (to authenticate or certify) Philip’s message: the things spoken by Philip.
A similar situation confronts us when Paul and Barnabas are at Iconium on the second missionary journey. Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. (Acts 14:3) The Lord was using the signs and wonders to bear witness to the word — the message they spoke and the doctrine they were teaching. A doctrine which would later be gathered together in the form of letters that we now know as the New Testament.
In his letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul makes an interesting statement: Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds. (2Cor. 12:12)
Notice he appeals to his ability to perform signs and wonders as a witness (to authenticate or certify) that he held the office of an Apostle. These signs and wonders were not generally being done and they were closely associated to the need for Paul’s message—which included new revelation—to find acceptance. Also, if the office of an Apostle is foundational, then once the foundation is laid, the office will cease—along with the need for God to certify new revelation given through that office.
In the latter to the Hebrew Christians, we find a very interesting passage:
Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard [Him], God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will? (Hebrews 2:1-4)
Several things should be noticed within this passage. The message that was being given had a beginning, at the first. This means it contained new revelation. The writer says the salvation message was (past tense) confirmed—that at the time he wrote the confirmation had taken place. The purpose of the confirmation was to bear witness (to certify, to authenticate). This witness was provided by the signs and wonders, miracles, and various gifts of the spirit. All of these had a purpose related to the new message.
We also note that gifts of the spirit are included in this purpose. This phrase would seem to include generally-distributed gifts of the Spirit among the common New Testament believers—such as the gift of healing.
The Purpose of signs, wonders, and spiritual gifts
What many Christians fail to fully appreciate in their reading of the New Testament is that the various signs, wonders—and even gifts—had a specific purpose: to help establish the Church and certify its message and messengers. Keep in mind that this is during a period when there is not yet a New Testament and revelation was being given which claimed to be on a par in authority with the inspired Old Testament. Moreover, this message was to find acceptance among Jews—who would only naturally view it with initial suspicion since they rightly clung to the Old Testament revelation.
Fruchtenbaum summarizes Hebrews 2:4,
A common misconception is that in the Book of Acts all the believers were doing all kinds of miracles, signs, and wonders, but that is not true. The only ones who performed miracles were the Apostles or apostolic legates (those who were appointed to do so by the Apostles by the laying on of the Apostles’ hands). Even so, in this passage, he clearly states that these signs, wonders, and so on, were done by the eyewitnesses, not by the next generation of believers. These spiritual gifts were according to his own will because God decides who gets which gifts (1 Cor. 12:7–11). The gifts are distributed sovereignly as God wills.1
Notice that all of this is according to God’s own will. So the question we need to be asking ourselves is not, What can God do, but rather, What is God doing and why? Could it be that the historic position and needs of the fledgeling Church in the pages of the New Testament differed substantially from that of the Church in this age? This would certainly seem to be the case in regard to established doctrine and laying a foundation.
Scripture says that at least some gifts—revelatory gifts—will cease
We also notice that Paul explicitly teaches that at least some gifts—the revelatory gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge—will pass away at some point (1Cor. 13:8-10). Here again, we see that the gifts have a purpose associated with revelation—God giving new information. And that the purpose relates to a time period—the gifts will not continue perpetually. While Christians struggle with an understanding of when the gifts are said to cease, it is my belief that Paul is contrasting partial/incomplete revelation through the New Testament gifts with completed revelation which obtains at some later time—at the completion of the New Testament. While this passage does not explicitly mention the gift of healing, by implication we can see an important principle: the gifts God granted the New Testament church had a purpose and the gifts could well cease when they are not needed for their original purpose.
Sick saints during the late Apostolic period
Yet another point to consider: by the time of the later Apostolic writings, Scripture mentions numerous sick saints. If the gift of healing was still operational within the Church, why were these individual sick—some very seriously so? Epaphroditus was sick almost unto death (Php. 2:26-30, circa A. D. 60-62). Paul left Trophimus sick in Miletus (2TI. 4:20, circa A. D. 60-62). Paul advised Timothy concerning frequent infirmities (1Ti. 5:23, circa A. D. 60-62).
Yet this same Paul had exhibited mighty healing powers earlier in his ministry. In Lystra, Paul healed a man born lame (Acts 14:9, circa A. D. 48). Even handkerchiefs and aprons brought from Paul’s body healed the sick (at a distance) (Acts 28:8, circa A.D. 57-58). On the island of Malta, Paul healed a man with dysentery. Thereafter, the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were healed (Acts 28:8, circa A. D. 57-58).
Could it be that the healing gifts within the Church had largely served their purpose by the early 60’s A. D.?
Although I don’t believe the New Testament gift of healing is presently bestowed upon specific individuals within the Church, as in Old Testament times, God can and does heal through any means He intends. This could be at-a-distance without any individual involved, or through any Christian. God is sovereign, He is a healing God, and so we expect and prayerfully encourage that He do so by whatever means He sees fit. Even so, I’ve yet to meet any Christian through whom God consistently and repeated performs unambiguous and fully-restorative healings like those documented within the New Testament.
For additional information, I would suggest listening or watching Andy Woods’ presentations on Ecclesiologya (the doctrine of the Church). Specifically: sessions 23 through 35.
No doubt Christians will continue to struggle to understand this issue and perhaps reach differing conclusions until the Lord returns. We need to keep in mind that all believers will spend eternity together. In the meantime, we are part of a united body of Christ which seeks to serve the Lord in His absence so grace is needed on all sides.
|Ref-0803||Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Ariel's Bible Commentary: The Messianic Jewish Epistles (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2005). ISBN:0914863118b.|