In a recent conversation with a non-believing friend, he told me that he figured the only reason I believe in Christianity is because I was raised and encouraged (read: coerced) into following the status quo of the culture around me. If I had been raised in a Muslim country, I’d be a Muslim, and so forth. We are all a product of our upbringing, he said, which we cannot control and certainly cannot escape until we are older and wiser.
Now, I believe just about the opposite of that. I’ve written previously about the moment of awareness of God and the need for the gospel and that awareness came much later than my childhood church-going. While that’s a story for another time, it is really worth considering where we all get our belief system from.
I’ve heard it said that Catholics emphasize church tradition to form their beliefs and doctrine, while Mainline Protestants emphasize man’s thoughtful and logical consideration, Charismatics emphasize personal experience and finally, Evangelicals emphasize Scripture. There may be a time and a place for each of these emphases, but my purpose in writing this article is to provide Scriptural evidence for the cessation of the miraculous gifts found in the Bible.
This evidence, I believe will be backed by centuries of church tradition, but also make sense in a clear and logical argument if you give it careful consideration. It may in fact also match your personal experience of day to day life in the church. Let us begin by defining some terms.
Cessation simply means to cease: the ending of a period of time where the miraculous signs, wonders, and gifts of the apostles and prophets were commonplace. We find two types of miracles in the pages of the Bible:
Examples of the first kind are 1) the flood, 2) creation, and 3) the virgin birth. Examples of the second kind are 1) Moses parting the Red Sea, 2) Peter healing a paralytic, and 3) Paul raising a boy from the dead. For what it’s worth, Catholics, Protestants, Charismatics, and Evangelicals all believe that miracles of category 1 are still, by God’s grace and discretion, active today. The difference lies in the second category. Evangelicals (myself) believe in the cessation of category 2.
I believe that God has indeed ceased to empower special agents (prophets, apostles) with the miraculous gifts of healing, tongues, and prophecies today because the purpose of endowing apostles and prophets with the gifts has been fulfilled.
I also believe that God is powerful, merciful and loving. We can and should pray for healings, knowing God’s power and grace are still active by the means of the first category. But we mustn’t confuse God’s purpose of endowing the gifts with His benevolent common graces.
There are three groups of people in Scripture who had the capability of performing miraculous signs and wonders. The first is the prophets (Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha), the second is Jesus, and the third is the apostles (Peter, Paul). Each of these groups was closely identified with new revelation from God, and the miraculous signs supported, validated, and demonstrated the truthfulness of this new revelation.
A riveting example of God empowering a prophet with miraculous signs to validate new revelation is found in Exodus 3 and 4. Moses is worried that the new revelation of God (“I [God] have come down to deliver them [Israel] out of the hand of the Egyptians.”) will be drowned out by Moses’s shear unremarkable nature. He says that he is a nobody. He says that he doesn’t speak well. He says that the people “will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’”
God immediately empowers Moses with the power to change his staff into a serpent and take it up again, saying “that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”
The miracle pointed to the credibility of the testimony of Moses. The miracles were signs that validated the truthfulness of the proclamation of deliverance from Egypt. We see this trend repeated by the other prophets who gave new revelation from God in the Old Testament.
Jesus performed many miracles. He did this to point to His divine authority (c.f. John 3:1-2: “we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”) and ultimately point to the truthfulness of His claim to be the Son of God and the Messiah. In John 2:23, we see that “many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” In John 11:15 we see Jesus support His claim of having power over death by raising Lazarus and saying “for your sake, I am glad that I was not there so that you may believe.”
It was never about the miracles themselves. It was about the reality that the signs point to.
Many times in His earthly ministry, Jesus used these signs so that the people around Him might believe. But when the crowds became more interested in the signs and miracles than Jesus, He said “you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” (John 6:26)
Jesus constantly directs us back to the reality that the signs point to. His signs are a proof and a validation of the new revelation that He brought, the gospel: He is the Son of God, with the power to reconcile our broken relationship with God.
In the midst of teachings by so-called super-apostles, Paul establishes his own credibility by pointing back to the signs of a true apostle: “the signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.” (2 Corinthians 12:12)
God empowered Paul to perform many signs and wonders to establish the credibility of his teaching in the early days of the church. In these early days, such validation was necessary with contradicting doctrine being taught by super-apostles, false teachers, or even well-meaning early Christians without the benefit of Scripture written.
This sentiment is echoed in Hebrews, saying “God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (Hebrews 2:4) God chose to build His church through Paul and the other apostles. As Ephesians tell us, the church was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets , Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:20)
Proponents of continuationism (the idea that apostolic gifts are still active today) might point to 1 Corinthians 12:31, which tells us to “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” Shouldn’t we try to obey that command to desire the gifts of tongues, healing or prophecy?
It is not for us to lay again the foundation of the apostles. The foundation can only be laid once. The letter to Corinthian church was written during this time period of building that foundation: the church was commanded to collectively desire God to raise up those faithful believers with gifts within the church in order to establish a firm foundation, during this shaky period of time with no New Testament Scripture written yet. In fact, as time goes on, even Paul apparently finds his use of the gifts lessening, apparently unable to heal Timothy (1 Tim. 5:23) or Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20), when he suggests common remedies for their illness rather than miraculous healing that he once possessed.
This points to the fact that it’s not just the apostles themselves that possess the gift for as long as they live, but that it is an age of apostleship for the church. Before Christ, there is an age of prophets foretelling Christ’s coming, and using signs and wonders to testify of the truthfulness of the new revelation of the Old Testament. After Christ, in the age of the apostles, some believers (even some non-apostle believers in the Corinthian church) were gifted with gifts to testify to the new revelation of the New Testament in order to serve the church by the building up of fellow believers. (1 Corinthians 14:5) These ages come to a close once the stories are written and recorded as Scripture.
The testimony by signs is changed to a testimony by the self-authenticating light of Scripture, which records these signs. We have no need for new miracles to testify to the truthfulness of the gospel, as John tells as that “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) The Bible is enough!
Perhaps the strongest argument against the continuation of gifts is an experiential one: have you seen any gifts in existence in the strength of the power that we find them used in the Scripture, during the times of the apostles or the prophets? At this time, both Jesus and the apostles possessed the power to heal using their words, using their touch, sometimes unintentionally healing those that touched them, and even healing people who were in a different town! These kinds of blindness-to-sight, paralytic-to-walking, unexplainable-but-for-the-grace-of-God miracles simply are not seen today. Claims of miracles by word of faith teachers today are often subjective, such as a lessening of pain. The miracles of the Bible were instantaneous, irrefutable, and unexplainable testimonies to a greater spiritual truth.
Boldly. We should still pray boldly, knowing that God is not limited. When a friend is sick, we can pray for miraculous healing for our friend. While healings through human agents have ceased, we know that God is continually working the good of those who love Him and for His glory. God is constantly showing us grace that we don’t deserve, even by giving us another day of life. He may choose to heal through the modern improvements of science and medicine, or He may choose to heal through some divine intervention or providence. We can pray for God’s providence, grace, mercy with full assurance that His Son intercedes on our behalf for all of needs!
The content of this article is indebted to all that I learned from amosyang.net.