Spiritual Gifts, Part 3: What and Where are they?

Please turn with me in your copies of the scriptures to 1 Corinthians chapter 12. We’re continuing our series of sermons on the spiritual gifts, examining verse by verse what Paul wrote to the divided church in the ancient Greek city of Corinth.

I’ve got a lot of ground to cover tonight, so let’s just jump right into the text. Let’s read 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, looking more closely at verses 8-11:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

Tonight, my plan is to answer two questions about the spiritual gifts: what were they, and where are they? What did they look like, and where are they today?

To answer the first question we can look at Paul’s list of gifts in verses 8-10. This is one of a few different lists of spiritual gifts in the new testament. You could look also at 1 Peter 4:10-11 or Romans 12:6-8, which I encourage you to do for homework.

It is worth noting that each of these lists differs slightly. If you examine them side by side, you’ll see some gifts common to each list, and some found only in one list. And I think that indicates to us that none of these lists are meant to be exhaustive. Paul is merely here giving us a sampling of possible gifts, probably those especially present in the Corinthian church. It is an interesting exercise to wonder what other, unlisted spiritual gifts might be present among the body, but I will leave you to ponder that later.

For now, let’s go through the present list and let me briefly describe each one. Paul begins by listing in verse 8 the “utterance of wisdom.” This special gift of wisdom allows the possessor to rightly perceive situations and apply God’s word in order to best bring about godly results. We might think of Solomon’s answered prayer, where God made him the wisest man on the earth. Men and women came from all around to see Solomon’s gift of wisdom. People with this gift are able to bring light and clarity to complex situations. When they speak, people usually listen, because they have proven themselves to be adept at applying God’s word, capable handlers of the sword of the spirit.

We could also think back to the text I preached last week, Acts 6, where the apostles asked the people to choose from among themselves men full of wisdom. And they did just that, selecting 7 men, one of which being Stephen, who was said in Acts 6:10 to have wisdom so profound that his opponents couldn’t refute him.

This gift is similar to the next gift Paul lists: The Utterance of knowledge. Here we might think of someone having a gift of knowing something that would otherwise being unknowable. For example, remember the Apostle Peter in Acts 5. Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold a piece of land, and pretended to be generous by giving it all to the church. However, they tried to deceive everyone, and secretly kept back a portion for themselves. They let their greed get the best of them, and thought nobody would know if they skimmed off the top.

But Peter knew. He knew something that was, humanly-speaking, un-knowable. He knew about the lie, and called them out for lying to God, and he condemned them. That knowledge that Peter had was a gift. It was a gift of the Holy Spirit, and was an ability that would never be possible without the Spirit’s working. That’s the gift of knowledge.

Next, Paul list the gift of faith. Faith. Now, a certain element of faith is common to all believers. It is not as if some Christians have faith and some do not. Every Christian must have faith in Jesus Christ, or they wouldn’t be a Christian. Faith is the sine qua non of salvation.

And yet, we all have probably interacted with believers who seem to have a spiritual gift of faith. Some Christians have a more resilient faith, a deeper faith, a sturdier faith. Some believers can remain joyful, even in the midst of terrible sorrow. Some can remain hopeful even when there seems to be no way out. Some can choose to love, even when surrounded by nothing but hate.

This, it seems to me, would be more than mere baseline Christian faith, but would indicate more of a spiritual gift of faith. These people that never seem to struggle with doubt, never question their calling, and never entertain the possibility that God’s word will not come true.

Stephen, for example, is called a man “full of faith” in Acts 6:5. Think of Peter and John before the council in Acts 4, or Peter and the other Apostles in Acts 5 who, when charged with never preaching Jesus, boldly responded: “we must obey God, rather than men.” That’s bold faith, and it is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Next, Paul mentions in verse 9 the Gift of healing. The verbal form of this word healing is used several times in Acts, and it references special, miraculous, supernatural actions of physical restoration.

For example, Peter says to a paralyzed man named Aeneas in Acts 9:34: “Jesus Christ heals you, rise and make up your bed.” He hadn’t walked in 8 years, but Peter heals him by simple words.

Peter wasn’t the only one with this gift. In Acts 28:8, Paul went to the father of a man named Publius, who was sick with fever and dysentery. The text says Paul visited him, prayed, “and putting his hands on him healed him.” This was a powerful gift of the holy spirit, similar to the power demonstrated by Jesus Christ, himself.

Related to the gift of healing, Paul next mentions the “working of miracles.” This gift is mentioned in places like Acts 19:11 which says, “11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”

Or think of Phillip in Acts 8, dealing with Simon the sorcerer. Verse 12 says, “ But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles[b] performed, he was amazed.”

The gift of miracles doesn’t have a single expression, but the effect was clear. The gift confirmed the validity and veracity of the message being proclaimed, and it confirmed the legitimacy of the one sent by God. But more on that later.

The next gift in our list is Prophecy. This is the gift of receiving and proclaiming divinely-revealed truth on behalf of God. Prophets were the mouth-piece of God, and as such, when they spoke they spoke with divine authority.

Sometimes they brought words of judgment. Sometimes they proclaimed truth about the future, which we might call FORE-Telling. Think like Agabus predicting a coming famine in Acts 11, which later came true. But we’ll talk more about prophecy shortly.

Let’s move on to our next gift, which is the Ability to distinguish between spirits. If you will recall, John speaks a lot about this in his letters. For example, in 1 John 4 he writes: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” In the age before the completion of the New Testament, there were many false prophets, claiming to speak on behalf of God, when in reality they were not guided by the Holy Spirit at all.

Indeed, the Corinthian church was even victim to some of these false prophets. John calls them Antichrists in 1 John 2, and they go about under false pretenses, seeking to turn people away from the truth.

And to combat these false spirits, the Holy Spirit gifts some people with the discernment needed to judge between what is true, and what is false. Between what is godly and what is satanic, and between what is genuine and what is fake.

We see something of this in chapter 14 verse 29, where Paul says that two or three prophets should speak, and then others should weigh what is said. The weighing of prophetic speech would be a kind of discernment, hopefully done by those gifted by the Holy Spirit in that way.

Lastly, Paul’s list concludes with the gifts of tongues and interpretation of tongues. We see in Acts 2 that on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit gifted some people to speak in languages that they had previously not known. This was a momentous moment in redemptive history, and a foretaste of the ultimate undoing of the curse of Babel.

That same gift was extended to gentiles in Acts 10:46, when the Holy Spirit comes to the gentiles in the fullness of his new covenant ministry.

These tongues, we should point out, and contrary to what some people think today, were known languages. The word for tongues in 1 Cor 12-14 is glossa, and it means languages, foreign tongues. At Pentecost in Acts 2 the text says that “each was has hearing them speak in HIS OWN LANGUAGE.” In Acts 10, it says that they heard them “speaking in tongues and extolling God.” How could they know if the tongues were extolling God if the language of the tongues was not an intelligible language? They couldn’t.

Indeed, Paul’s arguments about tongues in chapter 14 assume that the language spoken by the gifted tongue speaker would be an intelligible foreign language.

Similarly, the one gifted in the interpretation of tongues would be gifted by the Holy Spirit to interpret, or translate the inspired tongues message, and communicate it to the body so that everyone present might be edified. So important was the gift of the interpretation of tongues, that in chapter 14 verse 5 puts a properly-interpreted tongues message on par with prophecy, and the lack of a properly gifted interpreter means that the tongues speaker should remain silent in the public assembly.

There is our not so brief survey of what were some of the gifts. I’d like to spend the remainder of our time tonight answering the question: “Where are they today?” Do people have these gifts today?

Part of the answer to that question is yes, and part of it is no. As I have previously taught, and as all of Christian tradition affirms, every believer has been gifted in some way. Each has a gift.

However, the majority of Christian tradition affirms that not all the gifts continue today, at least not in the same way. The debate today centers on a more specific question, namely, whether or not a subgroup of spiritual gifts, called the “miraculous gifts,” continue today. These “miraculous gifts” would be the revelatory gifts like prophecy and tongues, and the special gifts of healing and miracles. Does the spirit still give the gift of miracles, the gift of healing, the gift of prophecy today?

As you examine the literature today, you will see that there are two main positions, which I will survey tonight very briefly, and endeavor to defend one of them, largely with the help of Sam Waldron’s book called To Be Continued: are the miraculous gifts for today? You could also read O. Palmer Robertson’s The Final Word. Both of those are helpful on this question of whether the revelatory and miraculous gifts continue today.

The first camp, held by Pentecostals and charismatics, is called continuationism. It believes that the ALL spiritual gifts, in one way or another, are still given to the church in the same or similar manner to that described in Acts 2. The gift of apostleship, the gift of prophecy, tongues, healing, they’re all still given to the church.

The other position on this question we might call cessationism. Rather than seeing the miraculous gifts continuing today, the cessationist believes they have ceased. That there are no apostles today, none gifted to perform miracles or healings, no prophets on earth today.

Now, to be sure, the cessationist doesn’t believe that miracles don’t happen anymore, because they certainly do. The question is whether we have gifted miracle-workers today, gifted prophets giving divinely-inspired revelation, gifted healers, or gifted tongue-speakers today. And the cessationist would answer in the negative.

This is the position that I believe is most aligned with biblical revelation. I do believe that the miraculous gifts have ceased to be given by the Holy Spirit to the church. I think that conclusion is merited from both observation and scripture.

In terms of observation, and this is admittedly anecdotal, I’ve not noticed people with the gift of healing or miracles heading to the cancer center, or to the burn ward. Rather, you most often see people claiming to have those gifts in circumstances where the results cannot be questioned nor reproduced, and often in circumstances where money is sought.

But more importantly, I’d like to make a logical argument for the cessationist position from scripture. And that logical argument builds upon itself; it’s like a chain which needs each successive link to remain strong, and the chain is connected like this: first, there are No apostles, then no prophets, then no tongue-speakers, then no miracle workers. No apostles, no prophets, no tongue-speakers, no miracle workers. Let me spell those out.

First, no Apostles.

The apostolic office is not a repeatable one. There are some people today, just as there were some in Paul’s day, who fancied themselves to be apostles, when they clearly are not. You can watch on TV or hear on the radio of Apostle so-and-so. But that’s just plain wrong. The apostles were eye-witnesses of the resurrection of Christ. Nobody alive today has such credentials.

Further, the apostles were commissioned by Christ. Not everyone who witnessed the resurrection was automatically an apostle. They had to be called, commissioned into such a role.

Furthermore, the apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak and write the word of God. They were tasked with speaking God’s truth on God’s behalf.

Witness of the resurrection, commission by Christ, and inspiration by the Holy Spirit. That’s what makes an apostle.

We could look at Acts 22 and see all three of these marks of an apostle. You don’t have to turn there, I’ll read it to you, but you’re free to go back and read it later to confirm what I am saying. Paul recounts his own conversion and commissioning in Acts 22, starting in verse 12:

“As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ [There is the eyewitness part] …skipping to verse 12

12 “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well-spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will [there’s inspiration], to SEE the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him [there is the commission] to everyone of what you have seen and heard.

Paul was an eye witness, was inspired with divine knowledge and insight, and was commissioned by God to serve the church in a special way.

Additionally, the apostolate, which is the group of the apostles as a whole, was foundational to the church, as several passages make clear.

Ephesians 2:20- the church “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” We could likewise cite Matthew 16 where Jesus says to Peter as the representative of the apostles that he would built his church upon that rock.

Or Revelation 21:14, which says, “And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” The apostles were foundation, and once you finish the foundation, you begin to build the building. You don’t need more foundation. You don’t go back and lay more foundation once it is finished. You move on to the next thing. So it is with construction, and so it is with the church.

Given these arguments, I think a case can be made that there is at least one gift that does not continue today, which is the gift of being an apostle. Those were men who were spirit-inspired, divinely-commissioned witnesses of the resurrection, who served as the foundation of the church of God. Such do not exist today.

Second link in the chain: No Prophets. The office of prophet was not original to the new testament church. In the old testament there were prophets, and their office was recognized and regulated by scripture.

Remember back when God calls Moses to go speak to Pharaoh, but he doesn’t want to do it. In Exodus 4 God says to Moses: ““Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well…15 You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. 16 He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.” You shall be as God to him. A prophet was someone who spoke for God; indeed, we could say he was the mouth of God.

Such was the relationship between God and his mouthpiece, that any person who dared to speak a false message, or speak presumptuously, or speak in the name of any other god, he would be put to death. You can look at Deuteronomy 13 or Deuteronomy 18 as examples of that, that false prophets must die.

However, even with the droves of people claiming to have the gift of prophecy today, you don’t see many people trying to enforce this standard today. And they do that because many continuationists make a distinction between OT prophecy and NT prophecy.

That is, they say that OT prophecy was scriptural, revelatory, and infallible, but NT prophecy is of a different kind, and is potentially fallible. That’s the key difference. Prophecy was infallible in the OT and is potentially fallible in the NT. People I highly respect teach this view, especially Wayne Grudem who has written extensively on this distinction in prophecy. And others too like DA Carson, believe something like this.

However, I remain unconvinced. I see no reason in the text of scripture believe that OT and NT prophecy are fundamentally different. And there are several reasons for that conclusion. First, the bible uses the same terms for both OT and NT prophecy; there is no difference in terminology of prophecy between the testaments.

Second, Old and New Testament prophecy is referenced side by side throughout Acts. I won’t give you a long list of references, you can read that in a good study bible. Third, reading about the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:16-21 clearly equates old testament and new testament prophecy. It cites the OT prophet Joel who says that your sons and daughters will prophecy, without making any distinction in the QUALITY of the prophecy. The continuationist distinction between OT and NT prophecy falls flat.

Fourth, the book of revelation is described as prophecy. However, if New Covenant prophecy is potentially fallible as the continuationist contends, then that shakes our faith in Revelation’s inerrancy and trustworthiness.

We could go on, but I think the point is made. Saying that OT prophecy is infallible, while NT prophecy is potentially fallible fails to convince from the text, and produces shockwaves in the rest of our theology, especially the doctrine of scripture.

Thus, back to our major point. If OT and NT prophecy are gifts of the Holy Spirit and have their origin in divine inspiration, then for people today to claim to have the gift of prophecy is to claim they are speaking revelation on par with scripture. If you claim to be a prophet, then you claim to speak with the same authority as Paul or Peter, and your words ought to be added to the back of the bible.

But, thankfully, most evangelical charismatics don’t want to go that far.

I, on the other hand, agree with John Owen on the subject, who saw this issue in light of the total sufficiency of the bible. He said that if you have some private revelation, and it agrees with scripture, then it is needless. It is redundant. But if your private revelations disagree with scripture, then you know that they are false.

There is no middle ground for something that is divinely-inspired, yet potentially fallible. Prophecy, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, does not continue today.

Next, the third link in the chain: No Tongue-speaking. No Apostles, no prophets, no tongue-speakers.

If you’re tracking with me so far, this point won’t be too difficult, because tongue-speaking, when accompanied by the gift of interpretation, was a form of prophecy, and indeed, functionally equivalent to prophecy. And therefore, if there is no prophecy today, then there will be no gift of tongues today either.

As I mentioned above, 1 Corinthians 14:5 implies that tongues and interpretation are just as important as prophecy, meaning that the gift of tongues and the gift of interpretation, properly exercised, were elevated to the level of infallible, direct revelation, on part with the OT prophets or the Apostles.

That’s miles away from what people in most evangelical charismatic churches believe today. They think the gift of tongues is some kind of encouraging activity, meant to allow the person to commune more closely with God. They rarely believe that they are receiving direct, infallible, revelation on par with scripture.

But that’s the link that Paul makes. And if that link is clear, that tongues and interpretation is on par with prophecy, and if prophecy has ceased to be a gift with the closing of the canon of scripture, then it is not hard to make the connection that the gifts of tongues and interpretation have also ceased.

Additionally, before I move to the final link in the chain, it is worth noting that the sometimes impressive and bizarre activity of speaking in tongues is not necessarily an exclusively-Christian activity at all. Indeed, the phenomenon of speaking in tongues is also is called free-vocalization, and you can google it sometime and see it noted by sociologists who have observed it in utterly non-Christian environments. It has been observed in various pagan and shaman religions, outside of Christian influence.

If that is the case, that there is nothing necessarily-Christian about free vocalization, which some call speaking in tongues, then we need to be careful of falling into the same trap of the Corinthian believers, who assumed that whatever is impressive, must be genuine.

Lastly, last link in the chain. No Apostles, no prophets, no tongue-speakers, and, fourth, no miracle workers. No miracle workers.

Biblically speaking, we should consider a miracle in a narrow way, not in the imprecise way that we might speak of a baby being born and the miracle of life. Yes, God has worked in a mighty way to create and sustain that baby, but it is not a miracle or a sign, biblically speaking.

Precisely speaking, miracles are redemptive, revelatory, extraordinary manifestations of God’s power. Redemptive, revelatory, extraordinary manifestations of God’s power. Each adjective is important.

Redemptive, because God’s miraculous works in scripture, his signs and wonders, are connected with the work of redemption. Think of the splitting of the red sea, the raising of the dead, the feeding of the 5000.

Miracles are also revelatory. A miracle is done by a prophet or apostle to attest to the divine origin and authenticity of his message. Think about Moses and the plagues, or Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus.  Signs serve to verify the legitimacy of the messenger.

Given that connection, think about the main sections of redemptive history, and the times when we see most of the miracles. They cluster together, don’t they. There are long periods of history with few miracle workers mentioned, punctuated by moments of incredible miracle activity.

From creation to the flood, from the flood to Abraham, Israel’s whole time in Egypt, the 400 years between the testaments, all are large sections of time with little miraculous activity.

Conversely, when we see redemptive moments with great miraculous activity, we also see great sections of inspired revelation given. For example, Moses becomes God’s vessel for a huge number of miracles, and he also wrote the first 5 books of the bible. The prophets, like Samuel and Jeremiah and Daniel all saw wonderful signs of God done by their hands, and they also wrote inspired, divine revelation. Jesus and the Apostles all did incredible miraculous things, and all were foundational in compiling the New Testament scriptures.

Miracles served to confirm the divine-authority of the messenger, and also confirmed the legitimacy of their message.

Therefore, and here is the link, if we believe that miraculous signs attesting miracle workers continue today, then we have committed ourselves to continuing redemptive revelation. This would entail that the canon is not closed, that there is more bible to be written down. If we believe in miracle workers today, then we commit ourselves to the idea that there are divinely attested apostles or prophets to whom we must give belief and obedience, because the bible isn’t enough (Waldron, 102).

I don’t think that’s right, and the church has historically refuted such an idea, because all the key biblical passages tie miraculous signs and miracles to redemptive revelation, and identify the miracle-workers as the vessels of God’s direct revelation. Moses, the OT prophets, Jesus, the Apostles, and the NT prophets worked miracles, not as an end in and of themselves, but in order to bring divine validation to the revealed message that they bring.

There we go, a high-level overview of the cessationist position. If you’re wanting more detail, I suggest you read Waldron’s book or Robertson’s book which I’ve already mentioned.

As a conclusion tonight, I want to try and give us a couple of brief application points. I know that this sermon was different, and may have felt like more of a lecture, but this topic is important. Satan wants to divide and lead astray as many in the church as he can, and he has done a wonderful job of it through the error of continuationism.

So how does this help us today, and what does this have to do with Jesus. Couple of quick encouragements. First, be encouraged by the sufficiency of God’s word. God has, in every age, given a sufficient amount of revelation to His people for them to know how to please him. And we, in God’s kindness, have the written word. We don’t need human prophets whom we have to test.

In fact, Peter says in 2 Peter 1 that he was an eyewitness of Christ’s majesty. He was present when the Father said of Jesus, “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well Pleased.” Peter says I heard the voice from heaven myself.

But then he says something unbelievable. He says in the very next verse that we have something more sure, more certain, more fully confirmed. And what is that sure thing? The written word of God. How trustworthy is God’s word? Peter says it is more trustworthy than his own ears which heard the voice of the father. Your ears can be fooled, but scripture cannot lead you astray.

Trust in God’s word, and in the God who revealed it, who inspired it. We don’t need human prophets today, we need people who know and trust what God has said.

And that’s related to my final application. Be reminded that although there are no human prophets today, there is still one prophet: Jesus Christ. Our confession reminds us that Christ exercises, even now, the office of prophet, priest, and king. And as our prophet, he reveals to us.

He reveals to us God’s word, illumining our eyes to grasp the truth found within the pages of scripture.

He likewise reveals to us our sin, using His law to show us where we fall short. But he doesn’t just leave us there.

He also reveals to us himself ,so that we might know how we can be healed.

We were born blind, led astray by sin. Pridefully running in directions of our own choosing, headlong down the path of sin and headed for destruction. But God spoke, through the Word of God, through our great prophet, and spoke light into the darkness of our hearts and minds. He showed us our condition. In his mercy, he revealed to us our sad estate.

And what’s more, he revealed to us the cure for our condition. He showed us the loveliness of the lamb of God, his mercy and his compassion, and gave us the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the power to believe.

Our prophet’s message was confirmed by many miracles, the greatest of which was His resurrection, proving to us that his message is trustworthy, and his atonement complete. If you haven’t heard and trusted in this message, then do so tonight. Don’t wait another moment. Listen to the greatest prophet, read his words, heed his warnings, and answer his call. His message is perfect and his calling is true.

And for those of us who believe, I urge you to not ignore our prophet. His word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, but it is only useful to us when it is received with meekness. That’s what James says: “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Don’t grow dull to God’s word. Don’t ignore it. Don’t let it grow dust on your shelf while your soul withers. Cherish the word of our great prophet. Heed his commands. They’re meant for your joy and flourishing, not for your pain and misery.

And lastly, listen to the word of our prophet, who will preach His word to you through this supper table. Our prophet proclaims to you the glorious message, the only message, which is able to make you right with God.

He preaches to us again how his body was sacrificed to the grave in our place. How his blood was shed in the place of sinners, and how his death is the nourishment our souls need to be saved.

If you’re trusting in Christ, walking like the saints in Acts 2, devoted to God’s word, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread at the table, and to the prayers of the body, then we invite you to come. Join us at the table.

If you haven’t trusted in Christ, or if you’re out of fellowship with the church, first be reconciled, trust in Christ and be baptized, then you can join us at the table.

Let’s pray.


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