Yesterday I explained that spiritual gifts were God’s way of uniting believers in the church and advancing the gospel through the church. Every believer uses their spiritual gifts when they serve the church for the purpose of building up each other (1 Cor 10:23-24, 1 Cor 12:7).
But there is an obvious exception to these principles: the sign gifts. By sign gifts I mean the gift of languages, interpretation, the gift of healing, the gift of apostleship, and the gift of miracles. These gifts were not merely examples of people serving the church, but instead they had a much more immediate role: they validated the ministry of the Apostles. This is exactly why Paul called them “sign” gifts (2 Cor 12:12).
Most Christians globally would say that those gifts all continue today, exactly like they did in Acts. I disagree. I think those gifts were given for a period of time and have since ceased—in fact, I believe they ceased before the NT was even completed. This view is called cessationism, and here I want to lay out my case for it.
Before I do so: I know this topic has been beaten to death recently—this isn’t even the first time our blog has done a post like this. Yet some how it keeps getting resurrected (score one for the miracles side, I suppose). Let the coroner’s report indicate that the time of death for this horse was 9 pm on October 1, 2014, and bear with me as I lay out the four reasons I am a cessationist:
- Because the sign gifts have ceased
My strongest argument is also the most circular, so I might as well get it out of the way at the front. I believe the sign gifts have ceased, because they are not around anymore. In the NT, people with the gift of healing healed everyone. They drove illness out of the cities they were in. You could touch their handkerchief and be healed (Acts 19:12). Their shadow would do the trick if their hanky was taken (Acts 5:15).
This is not what we see today. Today we see those with the “gift of healing” charging for their time, lying about the results, and staying far away from hospitals. The poor are robed, the desperate are exploited, and the sick die.
Today, if you are sick, you are supposed to ask for others to pray for you, and God may heal you through prayer. That is worlds apart from the handkerchief/shadow method seen in Acts. If someone had the gift of healing today, they really should go to the hospital, clean it out, and preach the gospel while they are at it. Start in the nations with Ebola.
The same is true for the other sign gifts as well. Bata-longa-sota does not count as the gift of languages. When someone once tried to teach me how to speak in tongues, they told me to just let go of my thoughts and repeat the same words over and over again until muscle reflex kicked in. Then I’d be off to the glossia races. Let’s just say, that’s not exactly the gift of languages in Acts 2, 10, and 19.
And of miracles? Apostleship? Even CJ Mahaney walked away from claiming that gift.
Look around the world—I know we all wish it looked more like it did in Acts (minus the beheadings), but the sign gifts that we see in the early church simply are not still in the world today.
In other words, I am a cessationist because the sign gifts are not still here—and their half-hearted prosperity-preaching step-sisters don’t’ count. The sign gifts simply are not here anymore.
- Because the function of the sign gifts was to establish the early church
Why did God give the sign gifts to the church in Acts? Because it was a world without elders and a world without the New Testament.
Imagine how unhealthy a church would be if it didn’t’ have elders, and if it didn’t have a NT. This is exactly the situation in Jerusalem, then Corinth, and everywhere the gospel went in those first few decades of missions.
This is why 1 Corinthians 13:11 compares the sign gifts to the infancy of the church. Paul actually calls them childish, not because the gifts were for children, but because they were for the church when the church had not yet “become a man.” People can wrestle over what telios means until the cows come home, but getting over that debate, Paul’s comparison of the sign gifts to childishness is astounding.
Then glide your fingers over to Ephesians 4 where Paul again describes how some of the gifts (and particularly the gift of apostleship) were critical because the church had not yet grown up into maturity. As it was, the church was “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” I’ll save this for a future post, except to say that the connection between 1 Cor 12-13 and Eph 4 is obvious. Both passages compare the church to a human body, they both describe the sign gifts as given before the church reaches “maturity/manhood,” and they both say that love is what remains when the church grows up.
In other words, the gifts were given to hold the church together until they got some of the NT books, and developed some elders who could preach whatever Scripture they could get their hands on (see also Eph 2:20).
- Because the function of the sign gifts was to authenticate the apostles:
In an immature church without the NT and without elders, what would people believe? What would they teach? Who would teach? Who would throw out the heretics, and who would commission the missionaries? Basically it would be a free-for-all, not at all unlike Corinth.
The answer to those questions in the book of Acts was simply: The Apostles. But how do you know who they are? You don’t have their pictures on Facebook. You can’t fax a photo from Corinth to Jerusalem to have this Paul guy checked out (aka: Saul). The function of the sign gifts was to fulfill this purpose (again, see 2 Cor 12:12).
The gifts authenticated the Apostles, and demonstrated to the world that they were the ones Jesus left in charge of his church until elders and the NT arrived. Because those Apostles are dead, churches have elders, and the NT is completed, those gifts have obviously run their course (cf. point 1).
- Because the gifts ceased inside the NT
Finally, the NT itself describes the cessation of the gifts. Consider Hebrews 2:3-4:
“It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”
Notice that the author appeals to his readers to remember the time when Jesus spoke, his message was proclaimed by the apostles, and God validated their message by the miraculous gifts. All of this points backwards to a time when that had happened in their past. If those sign gifts were still ongoing in the church, there is no conceivable way to understand these verses. Again, the argument is simply: “Don’t walk away from the gospel, because remember the time when Jesus spoke, and then his followers spoke, and they had the miracles to back it up!”
Earlier I compared how the gift of healing worked in Paul’s life with the so-called gift of healing today. (see: “handkerchiefs” in Acts 19:11-12 vs. TBN). But the truth is, we don’t even need to compare Acts 19 with the present day, when we can instead compare it with 2 Timothy 4:20: “Trophimus I left sick in Miletus.”
And with Trophimus, context is key. These are the last words Paul writes before he dies. He is abandoned, alone, and without his co-workers. He pleads with Timothy to hurry and join him, and tells Timothy that part of his urgency is because Trophimus was too sick to come.
Hebrews 2 and 2 Timothy 4 show that by the time elders had been raised up in churches, and much of the NT was written, the sign gifts had already faded away from the scene. They didn’t end when Revelation was completed, or when John died in isolation. They had run their course long before that.