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Were Some Spiritual Gifts Only Temporary?

There is much debate today over certain New Testament spiritual gifts. Some will argue that all gifts listed in the New Testament are still active today, while others claim that some of those gifts were only temporary gifts to the first century church. Here, we will examine each of the controversial spiritual gifts from a Biblical perspective. For a discussion on spiritual gifts in general, please see What are Spiritual Gifts?

Apostles

Ephesians 4:11 tells about the spiritual gift of apostles (or "sent ones"). By definition, this was a temporary gift, because of the nature of the apostolic authority. There are three closely-related definitions of an apostle. First of all, when the Bible uses the term "apostle" as in Acts 1:21-22 and 1 Corinthians 15:5, it refers to "the 12." These are the 12 disciples of Jesus who served with Him during his earthly ministry, up to the time of His ascension. This includes only the 12 disciples, but not apostles like Paul.

The second use for the term apostle is in Galatians 1:19 and 1 Corinthians 1:1, where it refers to those who saw the resurrected Christ. This includes apostles like Paul, and James, the brother of Jesus.

The third use of the term apostle is for a messenger of churches, or one sent to the churches in order to bear a message to Christians (2 Corinthians 8:23). These are sometimes referred to as apostles of the churches, or messengers of Christ. Barnabus was this type of apostle (Acts 14:14), as was Epaphroditus Philippians 2:25). However, these apostles did not necessarily see Jesus, either during His earthly ministry or after his resurrection. They have a special type of apostolic authority simply because of their extremely close relationship with another apostle, Paul.

Originally, it was the 12 who laid the foundation of the church (Acts 6:24, Ephesians 2:20). They became leaders of several churches, and the Apostles were the source of divine revelation who gave us our New Testament. Once this New Testament was completed, divine revelation was completed, and the gift of Apostles ceased. Apostleship is not passed on from generation to generation. In general, the requirements for apostleship included actually seeing Jesus either in earthly or resurrected form, although there were a few others who were granted the gift during the first century because of their close association with other apostles, and because of the need to carry the word of the apostles to the churches.

Prophets

The spiritual gift of prophets, named in Ephesians 3:11, was a communications gift, whereby the prophets gave prophecies, or divine revelations from God. They sometimes simply told what God's doctrines were, and sometimes they predicted future events which stood as authorization for the source of their revelations. The purpose of the gift of prophecy was to build up the Christians spiritually (1 Corinthians 14:4, Romans 12:6, 1 Corinthians 12:10, 1 Peter 1:21, Acts 11:27-28, Acts 21:9-11).

The types of prophecies which were given by prophets are sometimes called foretelling and forth telling. Foretelling (Revelation 22:7,10) involved predicting a future revelation from God. The prophets were always right, and when the predicted event occurred, it served as proof that the prophet was from God.

Forth telling involved giving current revelation. This was needed in order to complete the Bible. During the first century, the people did not have a completed revelation from God. The gift of prophecy served as the communication necessary to complete our Bible. By the end of the first century, our Bible was completed, and Revelation 22:18-19 warns against any additions to it. It seems that the gift of prophecy then ceased (1 Corinthians 13:8-9), because there is not further need for it. We don't need it today, because God has already spoken all we need to know. All we have to do is study His written word. Although some believe that Ephesians 2:20 and 2 Peter 2:1 show that the gift of pastor picks up where the gift of prophecy left off, the gift of pastor is a communications gift for teaching God's word, but it should not be confused with the gift of prophecy where God supernaturally filled the prophet's mind with His unrevealed word.

Wisdom, Knowledge, and Discernment

The Bible tells us very little about the spiritual gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and discernment (1 Corinthians 12:8). The gift of knowledge was apparently the imparting of God's divine viewpoint, similar to prophecy. The gift of knowledge involved knowing how to properly interpret His word, and the gift of discernment was used to distinguish between the truth of real prophets and the lies of false prophets, based on the evidences seen. By Hebrews 2:1-4, we would say all these types of gifts have ceased, because God's word has been completely revealed and confirmed in His perfect Bible. The people of the first century needed oral communication from prophets, but once the prophets spoke, and their messages were recorded, now we have God's written word on which to rely. This is not to say that we are without wisdom, knowledge, and discernment; rather, we attain these traits today through studying God's revealed written word, rather than through God supernaturally filling our minds with information.

Miracles

The gift of miracles involved God's use of a particular person in order to prove His authority by supernaturally interrupting the natural order of the world. That person was God's agent, and sometimes that agent manifested God's miracles or passed the gift along through such acts as laying on hands. It is important to realize that miracles have only occurred at specific points in history. We sometimes think that the Bible is full of miracles, but actually there have only been three short periods during which miracles occurred.

The first period of miracles was during the life of Moses. He was able to cause miracles with his staff. The next period began with the prophet Elijah, and continued briefly with his successor, Elisha. The third and last period of miracles was during the New Testament times, beginning with the ministry of Christ, and continuing through much of the first century, through the lives of the apostles. In all cases, the purpose of miracles was to authenticate God's messengers, and His revelation (Mark 16:20, 2 Corinthians 12:12). Once God's word was completely revealed, the gift of miracles apparently ceased. Again by Hebrews 2:1-4, we can say that our Bible is complete, and that the gift of miracles was phased out due to the completion of our Canon of scriptures.

Conclusions

When we look to the Bible to answer the question of temporary spiritual gifts, we see that all the gifts discussed here were probably only temporary. Each one had a specific purpose, and each one served that purpose during the first century. There remains no purpose for these gifts today, so none of them are active today.

Rebuttals

So what about missionaries who have reported seeing miracles occur, or who have spoken in foreign tongues that they have not known? I believe that God performs miracles and healing, and if He chooses to cause someone to speak in a foreign language, then He will do so. What I question are the claims of the gifts of miracles, healing, and tongues today, whereby these miracles come through a human agent. I don't believe that there are certain people who are able to bring about these miracles at will as some people were able to do in the first century. I especially doubt those who make these claims in sensational style on television and in other public forums.

So weren't the Apostles and early church human agents also? Where do we draw the line on when these gifts and miracles stop by a human agent? What scripture do we have confirming this?

Summary

There are four basic passages that support the argument of temporary spiritual gifts:

1) "We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will." Hebrews 2:1-4

Here we see that the gospel message was confirmed by eye witnesses, as well as by miracles for those who couldn't talk to an eye witness.

2) "Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it." Mark 16:20

Here, again, the purpose of miraculous signs was to confirm God's word. In fact, I believe the healings of the New Testament were all for this purpose, rather than specifically for the obvious advantage to the ailing person.

3) "The things that mark an apostle-- signs, wonders and miracles-- were done among you with great perseverance." 2 Corinthians 12:12

Again, the purpose of these miraculous signs was to confirm certain men as apostles, in order to verify that the things they preached were indeed from God.

4) "Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears." 1 Corinthians 13:8-10

Here we find specific revelation that certain spiritual gifts will become inactive. When perfection comes (when our New Testament is complete), the imperfect (temporary gifts) disappear.

Please see the separate articles concerning the gift of healing, the gift of tongues, and psychic phenomena.

Owen Weber 2009