Whatever Happened to the Miraculous Gifts?
or Have Some Spiritual Gifts Really Died Out?
copyright © 1987, Fred G. Zaspel
In the discussion of spiritual gifts few (if any) considerations loom larger than that of the miraculous gifts. Do they still exist? Does God still give the gift of performing miracles to the church? Charismatics and other advocates of the present exercise of the miraculous gifts assure their followers that they have every right to expect any blessing enjoyed by the early church and that no Bible verse can be cited to teach the contrary. Further, they assert, if Jesus Christ is always the same (Hebrews 13:8) then it naturally follows that His blessings to believers in this age of His church must surely be the same as those at the beginning.
While these arguments may seem plausible to some, the question, of course, is whether or not they are in agreement with Scripture. The inspired apostles demand that we "prove all things" (I Thessalonians 5:21) and "test the spirits" (I John 4:1). This paper is an attempt to do just that.
Incidentally, the fact that Jesus Christ remains the same can in no way imply that He must always give the same gifts to His church any more than it could imply that He would require Old Covenant sacrifices of New Testament believers. He Himself remains unchanged; His dealings with His own may, however, differ from time to time. Furthermore, as it will be shown below, God has not always given the same gifts to His people. Throughout Biblical History, very few enjoyed the miraculous, although Jesus Christ has remained the same.
Is there, then, any justification for saying that some (or any) spiritual gifts were given only temporarily? Is it Scripturally correct to rule out the exercise of any gifts today?
These are critical questions which must receive clear answers, and the answer of Scripture is a resounding "yes." It should be clearly understood that God never intended for some gifts to be operative in His church permanently, throughout the entire church age; He gave some gifts to be enjoyed by that first-century church only. The New Testament makes this very clear.
Our approach here will be to examine several lines of reasoning the Scripture gives to show that some gifts were, indeed, only temporary.
The Qualifications Of Apostleship
The first and perhaps most obvious evidence for temporary gifts is found in the qualifications for the gift of apostleship. When the eleven disciples sought a replacement for Judas Iscariot, the stipulations were clear:
"Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection" (Acts 1:22-23).
Notice two requirements: 1) company with Christ during His earthly ministry until His ascension, and 2) witness of the resurrected Lord. These were the qualifications which had to be met by the new twelfth apostle, who, as it turned out, was Matthias. Clearly, this eliminates any present day apostleship.
It seems that the second qualification is what the New Testament specifically emphasizes. Paul cited it in defense of his own apostleship: "Have I not seen Jesus Christ?" (I Corinthians 9:1). This would also reveal that these requirements apply not only to that elite group of "the twelve," other apostles excepted, as it is sometimes argued. The qualification stands for all who would claim apostleship.
The requirement is clear: no man can be an apostle who has not been a witness to the risen Lord. So unless someone is willing to claim that his age is more than twice that of Methuselah, there is no gift of apostleship today. The qualifications for it simply cannot be met.
Already it is clear, then, that we cannot just assume that all the first-century gifts be given today.
The Nature Of Certain Gifts
Some gifts, by their very nature, are limited to that initial stage of church history.
Apostles and prophets, for example, are foundational gifts (Ephesians 2:19-20). The church is built on this foundation, the apostles and prophets. The nature of a foundation is that it is built upon; a builder does not continue to construct a foundation, but rather having laid that foundation, he proceeds to build upon it. Once the foundation is laid, there is no need to build another. The church, in Ephesians 2:19-22, is pictured as a great building, a temple, in which God dwells. The foundation of this building is "the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone" (verse 20). The apostles and prophets were unique in their position: their teaching is foundational to the church in that without it, the entire edifice would collapse. The truth given to us by God through the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5) supports the church.
This is anticipated in Christ's statement to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19 which presents Peter, the representative of the apostles, holding the keys of the kingdom as the rock on which Christ will build His church. The apostles were foundational to the church; Christ was the chief corner stone. This is implied also in Revelation 21:14 which states that the apostles' names are on the twelve foundation stones of the wall in the New Jerusalem.
In recording for the church the life and teaching of Christ, the apostles and prophets are foundational. Christ is the chief corner stone: to His redemptive labors nothing can be added. But the apostles and prophets do supplement that work in the sense that they bear witness to it. With that foundation intact, the gifts which make up the foundation are no longer needed.
Some gifts were revelatory; that is, some believers were enabled by their gifts to receive truth directly from God. The question here is precisely this: Does God give revelations today? This is the issue at hand, for if God is not giving revelations today, then it necessarily follows that revelatory gifts are no longer operative.
The New Testament is clear in its teaching that special revelation is no longer being given. In John 14:26 the Lord Jesus Christ tells His disciples of the coming of the Holy Spirit and His ministry to them as they write the books which came to be The New Testament Scriptures:
"But the Comforter, who is the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you."
His promise to His disciples was that they would be guided into all truth; all truth would be given to them. Jesus again made the same promise in John 16:12-13. All truth was given to the apostles. This "all truth," of course, does not mean all truth about all things: the apostles were not informed of the laws of physics or astronomy, etc. It is all truth in regards to Christian faith and life, the truth which, having received, the apostles preached and recorded. The point is this: if all truth was revealed to them, then there is no more to be revealed. Revealed truth is complete. This is precisely what Jude affirmed in verse 3 of his epistle when he referred to the Christian faith as "once for all" given. John attested to the same in Revelation 22:18 where he said, in effect, "this is all; there can be no more" and pronounces a curse on any who would attempt to add to it.
It was the very clear understanding of our Lord and his apostles, the New Testament writers, that revelation was complete. All the truth that God would reveal, he chose to reveal to his apostles and prophets, who with that truth laid the foundation of the church. They gave the truth to the church; it's all here, and there is no more. The foundation is complete, and with that the church passed into the superstructure phase of its building. To claim further revelation, then, is to step far backwards into the foundational phase of the church: immediately, "all truth" would become "some truth," and the Holy Scriptures would be incomplete.
The desire for further revelation than what is given in Scripture is not a desire for something more but an invitation for much less. This is precisely what has been delivered by those who have claimed new revelation -- Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon serves as a vivid example. Charismatic supposed visions and revelations are no less destructive. To allow more is to deliver less: it undermines God's truth revealed through His apostles.
The church and the world today do not need more revelation; they need only a fresh and honest confrontation with the revelation which has been given in His Word.
Some gifts were foundational, and some were revelatory. With the foundation complete and revelation ceased, these gifts are now extinct. They were temporary gifts -- gifts given to the church initially but given temporarily, nonetheless.
The Pattern Of Miraculous Gifts
Many people seem to think that the Bible is one long story of miracle after miracle, from beginning to end. Miracle workers, they think, were always a part of God's dealings with His people. But even a casual observing of the Bible reveals that such is not at all the case. Historically, miraculous gifts were only given occasionally. This pattern suggests that they were never intended to be permanent fixtures in the church.
The Bible records basically three periods of miracles.
Moses & Joshua
The first period of miracles was during the time of Moses and Joshua (c. 1400 BC). The incidents of the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the sea, water from the rock, the quick and immediate judgment on Korah, the fall of Jericho, the long day, etc., are all very familiar. Before the time of Moses and Joshua, however, and even after, miracles are virtually unheard of. To be sure, there are sporadic miraculous events (such as during the period of Judges), but the presence of a miracle worker, one who could at will cause the miraculous, was not enjoyed.
Elijah & Elisha
Not until the time of Elijah and Elisha (c. 870 BC) is there any real miracle worker. With the ministry of these men, rain was withheld, fire was brought from heaven, a widow's food was supernaturally supplied, a boy was raised from the dead, the Jordan River was crossed again, a leper was cured, and on and on goes the list (at least eight miracles each). But again, with the passing of these men, miracles cease; miracles recur occasionally (as in the time of Daniel), but the ability to perform them is gone.
Christ & His Apostles
The next and last great period of miracles surrounds the ministry of Christ and His apostles. The four gospels seem to never end in their record of the unsurpassed miracles of Christ, conquering demonic forces, diseases, and even death. His apostles were given similar power, although not to the same extent. They too performed an abundance of miracles. The pattern of Biblical history then repeats: with their passing, again there is silence. Miracles do appear evident from time to time, but the presence of one who can at will heal diseases and raise the dead is conspicuously absent.
The point which stems from this evidence is obvious: miracles are not the norm, and there is no reason to expect them to be. They are the exception to the rule. The claim that the church today should expect to experience any blessing enjoyed in the early church is completely without foundation: the facts of the Biblical record speak clearly to the contrary. Miracles occur only occasionally and temporarily. Anyone today claiming that miracles should be operative himself bears the burden of proof, for the pattern of Scripture clearly shows otherwise.
The Purpose of Miraculous Gifts
Nor are these miracles scattered haphazardly. A question arises at this point: why were these miraculous gifts given to the church? Why not at other times rather than only during these occasional periods? And why did they end so abruptly?
The answer is simple: they were given to serve a specific purpose, and with that purpose served, they were no longer needed, and so they were withdrawn.
Analyzing The Pattern
Note another pattern which emerges within this pattern just observed. In each period of miracles, the miracles called attention to new revelation from God and attested to the authority of the miracle worker. The miracles of Moses and Joshua were introductory to the Pentateuch and early historical literature, affirming as well the authority of Israel's leaders, Moses and Joshua. Israel was at an all time spiritual low during the ministry of Elijah and Elisha. God sent these men with His word (now recorded in the books of Kings and Chronicles) to the nation at that time. With their abilities to perform the miraculous, God's approval of their ministry was clearly affirmed. Turning to the New Testament, Christ and His apostles brought a new and fuller revelation from God; their authority and the truth of their message were validated by their miracles.
This pattern is very clear: again and again God was calling his people's attention to His Word and the truth of His messengers. This was the purpose of the miraculous gifts.
Stating the Purpose
Accordingly, the New Testament names these miraculous gifts "sign gifts." A sign is a mark or some means of identifying something. For example, The distinguishing mark of all loyal Jewish men was their circumcision (Romans 4:11, "sign of circumcision"). One "sign" of a Biblical scholar is his ability to work well with the original languages. In this sense, miracles were signs; they had a purpose, and that purpose was to "signify" or testify to the authority of the miracle worker.
Isaiah's famous prophecy was that the virgin-born son was a sign (Isaiah 7:14). Jesus' first miracle, the turning of the water into wine at the wedding of Cana, is called, literally (Greek reading), the "beginning of signs" (John 2:11). The healing of the nobleman's son was His "second sign" (John 4:54). Miracles were also among the "signs of an apostle" (I Corinthians 12:12); they were apostolic credentials. The apostle Paul's ministry was verified by "signs and wonders" (Romans 15:19).
The need for this kind of authentication is obvious. Picture yourself as a loyal Jew in that first century hearing another Jew say that God has established a new religion (Christianity) insisting that the old way is gone forever. In words perhaps not so kind, you would most likely inform him of his inevitable destiny! That reaction would be completely understandable: after all, Judaism was God-given! Then as you would watch this Christian perform such great miracles as healing and raising the dead, you would be able to come to no other conclusion but that his power is of God, and so he must be telling the truth. The miracles, then, served as signs. They testified to the truthfulness of God's messengers and established their authority. This was their intended purpose.
The same is stated to be so in the case of Moses: the miracles were "that they may believe that the Lord God of their fathers . . . hath appeared unto thee" (Exodus 4:1-5). Elijah's calling down fire from heaven had the same effect as well (I Kings 18:36, "that they may know ... that I am thy servant"); it established his authority. When Jesus was asked by the followers of John the Baptist if He was the Messiah, he replied by merely pointing to His miracles (Matthew 11:2-6); they established the fact. Again, He did the same with His enemies (Matthew 12:28; John 10:25). His ministry was "approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs" (Acts 2:22). Likewise the apostle Paul's ministry was confirmed by spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 1:6-7; see also Romans 15:18-20 and II Corinthians 12:12).
As if this were not enough, the author to the book of Hebrews also makes the point abundantly clear. In chapter 2, verses 3-4, he speaks of the gospel which was "confirmed unto us by them that heard Him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit." The clear statement is that those who preceded (that is, the first generation Christians, "those who heard Him") had worked signs and miracles. Notice the past tense, it was something that earlier generation had which was no longer available. In other words, the inspired writer to the Hebrews affirmed that the miracles were operative (note the past tense) by those earlier Christians and that those miracles served their purpose of attesting to the truth of the gospel. They were God's means of affirming the truthfulness of His messengers.
The clear and obvious understanding of the New Testament writers was that their faith was confirmed by those miraculous gifts and that once that purpose was achieved, the gifts which achieved it were withdrawn. The new revelation was given, confirmed, and is now here to stay "once for all" (Jude 3), but not its confirming gifts.
Serving the Purpose Today?
No purpose would be served by seeking miraculous gifts today; their purpose has already been served. The church has a validated and confirmed revelation from God, and that is all she needs. Further, if a man will not believe the Scripture today, neither will he believe the miracles. There have been enough miracles to establish the fact. It is not now a question of miracles but of faith. This was precisely Jesus' point in Luke 16:30-31 where He spoke of the rich man in hell calling for Abraham to send someone from the dead to testify to his brethren: "If they hear one from the dead, they will believe!" he cried. The reply: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead." This, of course, is precisely true -- Jesus Himself rose from the dead, an indisputable fact of history, yet His Word is rejected.
Peter makes an astounding claim in his second epistle. While speaking of the miraculous event of the mount of transfiguration he speaks of Scripture as a "more sure word of prophecy" (II Peter 1:16-21). Even in comparison to miraculous events personally experienced, God's Word is supreme. The idea prevalent today is that experience is normative; not so with Peter. For him, Scripture alone is completely trustworthy. God intends for faith to rest on something much more credible than miraculous experience -- His Word. "We walk by faith, not by sight" (II Corinthians 5:7) or signs.
In light of the fact that Scripture is established and confirmed, asking for further signs would be exactly contrary to faith (see Luke 11:29 and John 4:48). "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20:29).
Miraculous gifts appear only occasionally on the pages of Scripture. Their purpose is to validate the claims of God's messengers who bring new revelation. That revelation having been confirmed, those sign or confirmatory gifts are no longer needed. The Word of God is not only complete, but it is also well confirmed by the miraculous gifts of those who gave it. Scripture, then, is both sufficient and trustworthy, but its validating gifts which initially accompanied it are gone.
The Testimony of New Testament History
The earliest church history, recorded in the book of Acts and the epistles, reveal clearly a fading out of the miraculous gifts. The early part of this period abounds with the miraculous: healing of lame, blind, and diseased men, raising of the dead, casting out of demons, miraculous prison breaks, swift and immediate judgment on sinners, etc. It reached its height with Paul in his third missionary journey: "special miracles" were performed, such as merely sending a handkerchief to a person's healing (Acts 19:11-12).
The striking fact is that these great powers soon began to subside. In II Corinthians 12 Paul speaks of an ailment which he could not heal, nor would God heal it in answer to his prayers. Writing from a Roman prison to the believers at Philippi he speaks of his good friend Epaphroditus who nearly died as a result of his terrible sickness (Philippians 2:26-27). God did heal him, but evidently it was a sickness out of Paul's control. Later, writing to his younger friend and associate, Timothy, he advises him to take wine for its medicinal value (I Timothy 5:23). Writing to him another time from a Roman dungeon he mentions that he had to leave his companion, Trophimus, in Miletum because of his illness (II Timothy 4:20).
The obvious question is, what happened to the handkerchiefs? The only possible answer is that Paul's miraculous powers were fading away. They evidently had served their purpose and so were being withdrawn. Even that swift and immediate judgment such as on Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), Herod (Acts 12:20-23), and Barjesus (Acts 13:5-11) is noticeably absent later. In I Corinthians 5 a man is "delivered over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh" because of incest (verses 1-5) but (presumably) later is alive and well evidently restored (II Corinthians 2:6-9 and 7:9-12). In AD 63 Alexander was delivered over to Satan (I Timothy 1:20) but by AD 67 was still not judged (II Timothy 4:14).
The point is clear: it is not at all unwarranted to speak of the cessation of miracles, for it is seen in the pages of the New Testament itself. To say that they have continued unto today is completely without foundation.
The Testimony of Every Day Experience
It is just a fact of life that no one today is able to heal the blind and raise the dead. It is interesting that while the healing of leprosy was one of the most common healing miracles in the New Testament, it is entirely absent today; missionaries to lands where leprosy is prevalent do not see it healed. Nor are hypocrites dying on the spot (Acts 5:1-11). No one today can look at another man and cause him to go blind, as Paul did in Acts 13. All the claims notwithstanding, these things just do not happen today. These gifts are gone; it is a fact of every day life. (This fact was also recognized by those generations of the church just following the apostolic period. For a full discussion of this see B. B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, The Banner of Truth Trust.)
The Promise of Christ
In John 14:12, the Lord made a fascinating promise: "He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also, and greater works than these shall he do" (italics added). Does this mean (as some teach) that believers today can expect to perform greater miracles than He performed? If so, the promise has fallen to the ground unfulfilled, for no one today can do what He did. His miracles are in a category all to themselves. No one today can feed thousands of people with a small lunch. No one today can bring a man to life who had been dead four days. Nor can anyone still a storm or walk on water. His miracles simply can not be surpassed.
What did he mean, then? He was referring to the church's ministry of meeting men's basic needs, completely and permanently. His miracles, while they were great, only met men's superficial needs -- physical healing, food, etc.-- and that only temporarily, for men healed again became sick, and men fed again became hungry. But in ministering the gospel of Jesus Christ, believers today can meet the basic and essential need of men and meet it permanently.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon addressed this subject with characteristic eloquence:
"He sent them forth to work miracles as well as to preach. Now, he hath not given us this power, neither do we desire it; it is more to God's glory that the world should be conquered by the force of truth than by the blaze of miracles. The miracles were the great bell of the universe which was rung in order to call the attention of all men all over the world to the fact that the gospel feast was spread; we do not need the bell now . . . , for the moral and spiritual forces of truth to work by themselves, apart from any physical manifestation, is more to the glory of the truth, and the Christ of the truth, than if we were all miracle workers, and could destroy gainsayers. Yet still, though we work no miracles in the physical world, we work them in the moral and spiritual world."
The point here is this: this promise clearly prophesies that His ministry of miracles would be supplanted by something else, a ministry of spiritual healing. This greater ministry has replaced the other.
Summary & Conclusion
Our purpose here was simply to establish the fact that some gifts were only temporary. The evidence runs along these lines. That some gifts were only temporarily given is evident by virtue of:
1) The Qualifications for apostleship
2) The Nature of Certain Gifts
3) The Pattern of Biblical Miracles
4) The Purpose of Miraculous Gifts
5) The Testimony of Biblical History
6) The Testimony of Every Day Experience
7) The Promise of Christ
It is the teaching of Scripture that certain gifts were never intended to be permanent in the life of the church. They were only for that foundational stage of the church. To return to them, then, would be a return to infancy (I Corinthians 13:11). Christians today are far more blessed. They need not a return to those revelations but a new and honest confrontation with Scripture, the all sufficient guide for faith and practice.