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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 8am & 11am service, 2015-07-12

Text: 1 Corinthians 12:27-30; 13:8-10

Spiritual gifts are our God-given endowments for Christian service. They are very important for the spiritual health and effectiveness of the church. Unfortunately there was much misunderstanding and abuse of the spiritual gifts in the church of Corinth. For this reason, the apostle Paul devoted three entire chapters to this subject in his first epistle to them. In chapter 12 he taught them that spiritual gifts are meant to edify the church. He emphasized that every believer has at least one spiritual gift and every gift is important for proper function of the body of Christ.

This concept is found in our Scripture text in 1 Corinthians 12:27-30– “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?”

In verse 28 a list of eight spiritual gifts are given: Apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healings, helps, governments and diversities of tongues. In the earlier part of this chapter (vv.8-10) five other gifts are mentioned: the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, discerning of spirits, and the interpretation of tongues. However, this list is not exhaustive. Other passages of Scripture (e.g. Ephesians 4 and Romans 12) include spiritual gifts that are not found in 1 Corinthians. When we combine all these lists, there are altogether 21 different spiritual gifts.

Now, all these spiritual gifts can be divided into two categories. The first category are the permanent edifying gifts, like preaching, teaching, evangelism and exhortation (which are Gifts of Speaking) and ruling, giving, mercy, and hospitality (which are Gifts of Serving). The use of these permanent edifying gifts by all Christians today has never been questioned. It is clear that we ought to discover which of them God has given to each of us. And we must put them to good use to build up the body of Christ and to advance God’s kingdom.

The gifts which are the subject of much controversy and confusion is the other category: the temporary sign gifts, which include Gifts of Revelation such as speaking in tongues, prophecy and knowledge, and Gifts of Power such as healing, miracles, and casting out of demons. The question that is often asked is: Are these sign gifts meant for all Christians? Should we be experiencing them today? We contend that the answer is No. And we need to know the reasons why the answer is No. Here are three reasons.

1. The sign gifts were meant only for the time of the apostles.

This is seen from the historical context of 1 Corinthians. It was written in AD 55 which puts it right within the time of the apostles. Paul the apostle wrote this epistle a few years after planting the church at Corinth. By this time he had moved on to Ephesus to plant another church. This part of Paul’s ministry is described in Acts 19. And we are told in vv.11-12– “And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul: So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them.”

This is not the only passage in the Acts of the Apostles which describes miracles, signs and wonders. The book has many other passages which describe them  – the lame were able to walk (3:6-9; 9:33; 14:8-10), demons were cast out (16:16-18), the dead were brought back to life (9:36-41; 20:9-12), prisoners were freed from maximum security prisons (12:7-17; 16:25) and a poisonous snake bite had no harmful effect at all (28:3-6). These were amazing demonstrations of God’s power.

However, in some miracles the power of God was manifested in a severe, frightening manner: A Christian couple was instantly struck dead when they lied about their offering (5:1-10); A sorcerer was blinded when he hindered the preaching of the Gospel (13:6-11). The Corinthians had also witnessed God’s power chastising them when they desecrated the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:30 – “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep”). Those who long to see the miracles of apostolic times returning to the church today should take note of this, as they may not like what they see if it does happen!

All the miracles of the apostolic era had two important features: The first is that they were instant and permanent. There was no manipulation of people’s emotions – unlike what happens in faith-healing rallies today. One word or one touch from an apostle, or even his passing shadow was sufficient to work the miracle! This can be seen in Acts 5:15,16 – “…they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them. There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed every one.” The healing by the apostles was not subjective or selective – everyone who came to be healed was fully healed and did not need more healing sessions.

The second important feature of all these miracles is that they were closely associated with the apostles of Christ. This can be seen in: Acts 2:43 – “And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.” Acts 5:12 – “And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people.” Paul mentioned this in 2 Corinthians 12:12 – “Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.” This verse provides the background for the sign gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12. And so as the twelve apostles died off and were promoted to glory, all the miracles associated with them naturally came to an end.

Today there are no more apostles on earth – they are all now with the Lord. There are some who claim to be apostles, but they really do not qualify to bear that title. To be an apostle of Christ, a man had to be personally called by Christ Himself, and be a personal witness of His resurrection (Acts 1:22).

Paul was the only exception. He was not among the 12 disciples of Jesus. But the resurrected Christ appeared to him personally on the road to Damascus and called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:3-16). The rest of the apostles readily recognized his apostleship and his God-given authority over the church (Galatians 2:6-9). But after Paul and the rest of the apostles died, there have been no apostles on earth. And thus the signs of an apostle which include miracles and other sign gifts have all disappeared. This leads to the second reason why we believe that the sign gifts are not meant for us today:

2. The sign gifts were meant to authenticate the apostles’ message.

If God’s purpose for giving the sign gifts had been to relieve human suffering or to solve the world’s problems, then they would become a permanent feature of human life existing even today. How nice it would be if miracles, signs and wonders could happen every day and everywhere. We won’t need hospitals anymore if all the sick can be healed miraculously. We won’t need funeral parlors anymore if all the dead can be raised back to life! But if the sign gifts were meant for that, they would become so common that they could never be used as a mark of authenticity. For this reason, the use of sign gifts had to be limited. They were limited to the apostles of Christ and those who were close to them, so that their message alone would be easily identified as the authentic Word which comes from God.

I think we all can understand how important authentication is. When you buy a product how can you tell whether it is genuine or not? Some products come with a special seal that shows its authenticity, and when you find that seal you know for sure that the product is genuine. The same thing applies to the apostles. The authentication of their message is crucial, since the entire New Testament depends on it. There were false apostles and false teachers who claimed to speak for God. The sign gifts testify to us that only what the apostles taught and wrote is the authentic infallible, inspired Word of God and all the rest are not.

Now that the apostles are gone and the New Testament which is their legacy has already been completed and authenticated, the sign gifts are not needed any more and have ceased to exist. There are two passages of scripture which show that the sign gifts have ceased. The first is 1 Corinthians 13:8-10– “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.  For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.”

Three sign gifts are mentioned here: They are prophecies, tongues and knowledge. This passage tells us that each of them has a time limit. The gift of prophecies would fail. The gift of speaking in tongues would cease. The gift of knowledge would vanish away. Is there any indication of when this would happen? Yes. Verse 10 says that they will end when “that which is perfect” comes. The word ‘perfect’ here actually refers to the completion of the New Testament. 

At the time when this verse was written, the only New Testament books in existence were James, 1 & 2 Thessalonians and Galatians. The rest of the New Testament books would be written within the next 40 years. This is why Paul wrote about the completion of the New Testament as a future event – “…when that which is perfect is come…” (13:10)

However, some Bible scholars have proposed that the word ‘perfect’ here refers to the rapture or to Christ’s second coming. But if Paul meant to say that, he would probably have written, “But when Christ is come…” One indication that the word ‘perfect’ here refers to the complete New Testament is that it is used in a similar way in James 1:25– “But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.”

The most important indication comes from the context of v.10. Let us take a closer look at the passage. Observe that prophecies, tongues and knowledge are specifically named as “that which is in part.” Why is there is no mention here of the gifts of healing or miracles? These three sign gifts have one thing in common – They are all gifts of revelation. God used them to reveal His will to man. This implies that “that which is perfect” will do the same thing as the gifts of prophecies, tongues and knowledge, but it will do it so much better than these gifts could ever do. What else then can ‘that which is perfect’ be, except the complete New Testament? Unlike us, Christians of the early church did not have the New Testament. They had to rely on these sign gifts to know what God would have them do, until sometime in AD 95 when the New Testament was completed.

So now we know that at least three of the sign gifts – prophecies, tongues and knowledge – have already expired and are no longer in use today. What about the rest of the sign gifts? Let us look at Hebrews 2:3,4 and see what it says – “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and 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 Ghost, according to His own will?”

From this we learn that the sign gifts were meant for a special purpose – for God to bear witness to “them that heard Him.” This can only refer to the apostles of Christ. We notice that the actions are mentioned here as past actions, not ongoing actions. The writer does not say that God still bears witness to people in his day with these sign gifts. They had become a thing of the past. The book of Hebrews was written about 13 years after 1 Corinthians. By that time (AD 68), the sign gifts had already ceased to exist, because they have served their purpose of authenticating the message of the apostles.

The last miracle recorded in the New Testament in which God worked directly through a human being occurred about the year AD 58 – when Paul healed the father of Publius in Acts 28:8. The sign gifts have ceased to exist since then. This brings us now to the third reason why we believe that they are not meant for us today:

3. The sign gifts ceased to exist after the apostolic era.

The writings of the church fathers bear testimony to the cessation of the sign gifts. John Chrysostom (An Archbishop of Constantinople, AD 347–407), wrote a commentary on 1 Corinthians 12 in which he states that tongues and the other miraculous gifts had ceased: “Argue not because miracles do not happen now, that they did not happen then…In those times they were profitable, and now they are not…Of miraculous powers, not even a vestige is left.”

Augustine (Bishop of Hippo, AD 354–430), in his comments on Acts 2:4, wrote, “In the earliest times the Holy Spirit fell on them that believed and they spoke with tongues. These were signs adapted to that time, for there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit. That thing was done for betokening and it passed away.”

There is a good reason why the sign gifts ceased to exist after the apostolic era. It is found in Ephesians 2:19-20– “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.”

Whenever a new building is constructed, the first thing that needs to be done is to lay a firm foundation. This requires the use of heavy machinery like excavators to clear all the rocks out of the site, and piling rigs to drive the steel or concrete piles deep into the ground. After the foundation is laid, these machines are no longer needed. Hence they are removed from the construction site. But other machines like cement mixers and cranes remain on the site until the building is completed.

When the NT church was built, it was necessary to first lay a good foundation. This foundation consists of the message of the apostles and the prophets. The Lord gave the sign gifts to lay down this foundation firmly. When this was complete, the sign gifts were removed from the church since they were no longer needed. But the edifying gifts like preaching, teaching, ruling and evangelism have remained with the church, and they will remain until Christ returns since they are still needed for the edification of all believers.

To bring the sign gifts back to the church is to lay its foundation all over again! Imagine what would happen if a building is already built halfway or almost complete, and then excavators and piling rigs are brought back to do extensive work in the worksite – they will do more harm than good to the building!

Thus we understand that the sign gifts have ceased because they have done their work of laying the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. The only spiritual gifts that the church needs today are the permanent edifying gifts. However, Charismatics do not agree with us on this. They believe that the sign gifts are still meant for the church today. Hence they place much emphasis on miracles, healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues. They also claim to receive new revelations directly from God and they believe that there are modern-day apostles and prophets.

The problem is that not all the prophecies made by these so-called prophets come true. Some of them were fulfilled but many of them turn out to be false predictions. The well-known theologian R.C. Sproul says that he was deeply immersed in charismatic circles in the 1960s and that after hearing about 40 to 50 prophecies with specific dates and details that never came to pass, he decided to end his involvement with charismatics.

What does the Bible say about this? Let us look at Deuteronomy 18:22 – “When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.” If even one prophecy of a prophet does not take place, that prophet is a false prophet. But such prophets are tolerated in Charismatic circles, because they don’t want to ‘quench the Spirit.’

The Charismatics make the same mistake as the Corinthians of Paul’s time: Coveting the sign gifts above the rest. These gifts are more impressive and spectacular than all the edifying gifts. They tend to draw a lot of attention and create much excitement. But coveting spiritual gifts which are not meant for the church today has led to numerous errors. Here are some of them: Adding to God’s Word (cf. Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:18) – through their prophecies, dreams and visions; Elevating human experience above God’s Word (cf. 2 Peter 1:16-19). This has fostered a false spiritual unity – e.g. bringing Catholics and Protestants together – doctrinal differences are overlooked; Placing undue emphasis on Healing and Prosperity (e.g. healing in the atonement); Deception by faith-healers (many have been disappointed); Reducing the Holy Spirit to a force or power that man can dispense at will. 

Knowing all this should help us now with regard to the sign gifts. There are at least three applications from today’s sermon: Firstly, we should not seek after the sign gifts, since they are not meant for us. What we need to seek after are the permanent edifying gifts. We should be thankful for them and use them with love, which is the most important ingredient in using every spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 13:1-4). Let each of us renew our commitment to discover the spiritual gifts that God has given to us. And then let us put our gifts to good use in the church: To build up the body of Christ, and to advance God’s kingdom, motivated by sincere love for God and for one another. 

Secondly, knowing the Scriptural teaching on the sign gifts should lead us to rest our faith on God’s Word rather than on experiencing miracles. Sometimes when people hear the Gospel they respond, “I will believe in God, if only I can see a miracle from Him.” Do you know what our Lord said to those who asked Him for more miracles? “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas [which refers to His resurrection from the dead].” (Matthew12:39). Let us therefore be careful not to rest our faith on these things. Miracles occur very rarely, even in biblical history. They are meant only for unique moments in history like God’s giving of the Gospel message to the world through Christ and the Apostles.

However, this does not mean that we stop seeking God for healing altogether. God can still heal us in response to our prayers. Many have testified of how God answered their prayers in unexpected ways they never dreamed of. But all this is done through God’s skillful use of the natural laws of science, or through a timely provision from certain people He has already prepared, or through our own body’s built-in processes. So they are not miracles in the true sense of the word.

Thirdly, knowing the Scriptural teaching on the sign gifts should make us more careful not to believe anyone who claims to have them. Please don’t believe those who claim that God has given them a supernatural ability to heal. They give false hopes to those who are terminally ill. Don’t be deceived by testimonies of people who claim to be completely healed of cancer after a certain faith-healer laid his hands on them. No person on earth today has any supernatural gifts of healing from God or any divine power to perform miracles, because all power rightly belongs to the Lord Jesus alone. He is all-sufficient for us, and so we must always look only to Him for all our needs, and turn to Him in all our trials and distresses. If Jesus does not grant us healing, we can rest assured that His grace is always sufficient for us, for His strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

If you have come to church this morning with a problem that you cannot solve, tell it to Jesus – ask Him to help you. If you have come with a burden that is too heavy for you to bear, Jesus says to you, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28).

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

December 3 & 10 - Holy Living

Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, 2 Peter 3:11