'Gifts and Miracles' ... a contemporary perspective
"The role of the gifts of the Spirit in the Church today."
The subject of spiritual gifts is often a sensitive one among Christians.
We often bring into this topic our own experiences, whether positive or negative.
This is why I believe we must be very careful to examine scripture for our understanding.
In order to tackle the subject I’ll begin by asking two questions.
Please read on as I discuss these important questions. Also, an mp3 message is available for you to download.
Should we expect a supernatural work of the Spirit today?
Firstly, can we expect to experience spiritual gifts in modern Christianity?
For many, the answer is a resounding no! The argument goes something like this: at the arrival of the Spirit during the birth of the Church, God performed great miracles as a way of kick starting Christianity. So, when we read of miraculous signs and wonders in the book of Acts, we’re reading of God’s unique work at a particular time of history. However once this birthing of the Church had finished, the Spirit ceased to do His miraculous work. At the close of the New Testament and death of the apostles, an important era in the history of God’s work had come to a close. To expect Him to continue to work in that way then is a little like expecting to find burning bushes as Moses did - just because God performed a miracle at a unique time in history doesn’t mean we should be expecting one now.
There is something to this argument - and may give a little explanation to why we don’t see the magnitude of gifts in the modern Church that we do in Acts. However, to state that gifts and miracles have ceased entirely seems to me to say something very different to the picture that we get in the New Testament.
There are two reasons for this. To begin with, nowhere in scripture are we told that gifts cease. Nor do we find any evidence in the writings of the early Church. Surely if this was the case, there would be at least some mention of it.
Secondly, we’re told in a number of places that it wasn’t just the apostles who had these gifts, but many of Jesus’ followers. In Luke 10, Jesus appoints 72 followers to head out on a short term mission that will include healing the sick. In Acts 6, Stephen is said to have performed great signs and wonders. In Galatians 3, Paul refers to the believers performing miracles in the Church at Galatia, as he does in his letter to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 12. The supernatural work of the Spirit clearly extends to all followers of Jesus, not only apostles.
If there is no solid Biblical reason to doubt the existence of gifts today, what should our response be?
One response is to be open receiving them, but to avoid pursuing them in any way. In Matthew we read “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39 NIV) This may lead us to think that desiring the supernatural work of the Spirit in any way is wrong. However, when we read Peter’s prayer in Acts 4 we see a direct asking for miraculous signs: “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”” (Acts 4:29–30 NIV) So what is the difference? It seems to have less to do with words than the motives behind them. Jesus’ words in Matthew are directed towards the Pharisees who we know had come to Jesus to test Him. However, Peter’s prayer is driven from a desire to see God glorified through the salvation of people.
Another objection may be that miraculous signs and gifts get in the way of the gospel, sidetracking people from what really matters. However, again the tone of the New Testament is markedly different. If there is a fierce advocate for the gospel, it is Paul. And if there is a Church that has had the tendency to allow gifts to take a higher place than they should, it’s the Corinthians. Yet three times he urges them to seek after spiritual gifts:
“But eagerly desire the greater gifts.” (1 Corinthians 12:31 NIV) “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.” (1 Corinthians 14:1 NIV) “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” (1 Corinthians 14:39 NIV)
So where will we see spiritual gifts?
Who does the Spirit gift them to?
We might expect that God would give them to his most faithful followers. However, Paul writes these words to the Church in Corinth. A quick look through his epistles to them tells us they are hardly excelling in Godliness. Yet they have spiritual gifts. No, we don’t earn spiritual gifts - that’s why they are called gifts, not rewards.
And I’d want to say trying to help God give you a spiritual gift isn’t the way forward. They are gifts, not skills. They come from God, not us. So, for example, I’ve heard this when it comes to tongues. You start speaking jibberish and after a while God will take over and you’ll be speaking in tongues. That isn’t speaking in tongues in my opinion. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need a kick start to get going. On the day of Pentecost when tongues are first on the scene, they just begin. No one had even heard of the concept. They just started speaking in other languages.
But what we are told is not to earn spiritual gifts, not to imitate spiritual gifts, but to desire them. And it’s an explicit commandment. I’ve been rebuked by God while looking at this. I can think of no reason to ignore this commandment. I take the rest of God’s word seriously, do I take this seriously? What about you? Do you ever pray that God might gift you?
A couple of years ago the Sydney Anglicans invited Mark Driscoll to Australia. He gave them his thoughts on Aussie evangelicalism. One of his concerns was this. You are scared of the Holy Spirit. And maybe he’d be right to say that of many of us?
We might think - OK, but spiritual gifts and miracles and healings are weird. Yes, they are! We’re talking about the work of God here, of course it will be weird to us humans. It’d be weird if it wasn’t weird!
What is the centerpiece of our faith?
A man who claimed to be God died, remained dead for three days, then came back to life. And we don’t think that’s weird? Why? Because we’re used to hearing about it and talking about it. Plus, it happened 2000 years ago on the other side of the world! If it happened here now, we’d think it was just a little strange wouldn’t we? The challenge for us is not to reject that which seems strange to us but to be obedient to scripture. Paul says - eagerly desire the spiritual gifts. So - eagerly desire spiritual gifts!
The purpose of gifts
The second question then is this - what is the purpose of gifts and miracles?
There are two that I can see.
The first is to attest to the Gospel. We need to keep in mind when we’re looking at this that the Gospel always remains central. We don’t have the Gospel first and then move on to gifts and miracles as we mature. The Gospel always remains as the message that saves us and unites us and grows us to maturity. No person has ever been converted through a miracle. In Romans 1.16 we read:
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16 NIV)
And so miracles live up to their name. We’re told what they are constantly in scripture. They are signs. They are not the main event - they point to the main event. And that’s how they’re described in Acts. Look at the ministry of Paul and Barnabas as it’s described in Acts:
“So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders.” (Acts 14:3 NIV)
The work of the Holy Spirit is seen when the Gospel of Jesus is magnified. He’s like this data projector. What do you focus on when a data projector is doing its work? The screen! Not the projector itself! And so when the Spirit is at work it is seen in people focusing on Jesus, not the Spirit Himself. It’s worth noticing that not once in the Bible is the Holy Spirit spoken to or prayed to. That doesn’t mean that He’s lesser a person, but that His role is the magnification of Jesus.
I attended a convention years ago with a good friend who is a pastor of a Pentecostal Church in Brisbane. I thought it was great - there were a few thousand guys giving praise and glory to Jesus. He thought it was disappointing. He said it was OK, but the Holy Spirit wasn’t there. I don’t think he’s right. Paul tells us this in 1 Corinthians:
“Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3 NIV)
And if you look through the New Testament you see the overwhelming focus is Jesus and His work. No one is ever rebuked for not practicing gifts, but for not holding to the Gospel. In Matthew 7 we’re told that many will stand before Jesus on Judgement Day. Among them are many who performed miracles in His name, but don’t enter the Kingdom. Why? Because they didn’t know Jesus.
The second purpose of spiritual gifts is the uniting and building up of the Church. In fact, every time the gifts are listed in the New Testament it’s in the context of instruction on Church unity.
Let’s look again at 1 Corinthians:
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NIV)
And he then goes on to speak about the Church as the body of Christ. Or, in chapter 13:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1 NIV)
It’s interesting that in 1 Corinthians we have the two chapters that deal with spiritual gifts more than anywhere else: chapter 12 and chapter 14. But wedged between them is the chapter on love. Why? Because that is the big problem the Corinthians have. Sure, they have spiritual gifts, but they’re lacking in love! They’re not using the gifts for the right purpose - to build up each other in love and unity and godliness.
It’s worth saying that the purpose of gifts and miracles is not to make our life easy! It’s not to bring the perfection of heaven to earth now. There is a big difference between the gold plated TV healers of today and the apostles of the early Church. Paul’s life was marked by hardship, yet he performed signs and wonders.
Look at what he refers to as his message in Acts 14:
“They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.” (Acts 14:21–22 NIV)
The purpose is to glorify God and build up others, not give us all of our dreams. In fact Paul tells us about a thorn in his flesh, some kind of affliction that never healed. He prayed three times for it, but God left it there. So the idea that hardship and sickness comes through a lack of faith is completely bogus in my opinion.
And it needs to be said that gifts are to be exercised in a sensible under control way. The last word from Paul on gifts in 1 Corinthians is this:
“But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” (1 Corinthians 14:40 NIV)
One of the fruits of the Spirit is self control. So in a Church meeting where everything is out of control - that’s not the work of the Spirit. That’s chaos!
What about 'tongues' and 'prophecy'?
To finish I thought it might be an idea to have a quick look at what the Bible says about the gifts of tongues and prophecy.
'Tongues' is the most spoken about gift. Part of the problem with tongues is that they aren’t actually described much in the Bible. On the day of Pentecost we read that those speaking in tongues were speaking in other languages. All of them were speaking different languages. Or, they are described by Paul in 1 Corinthians as the tongues of angels, which I’m assuming is different to the tongues of other nations.
We know that tongues are of great value because they are a gift from God. Some people have a tendency to dismiss tongues, saying they are a pointless gift. I don’t buy that - God is a class act, if he gives gifts, they are valuable. We read before that speaking in tongues is not to be forbidden.
What about the idea that speaking in tongues is for every Christian?
This is a view held by some of the more extreme Pentecostal denominations. They teach that filling of the Holy Spirit is evidenced by speaking in tongues. But nowhere do we ever read that it’s a gift for all Christians. In fact, Paul says the exact opposite.
“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:29–30 NIV)
And the answer of course is no. He’s speaking about the diversity of the Church and the gifts given to its members. So if you don’t have the gift of tongues, don’t let people look down on you.
My problem with tongues is not that people speak in tongues but the way they do it in churches now. See Paul gives very specific and straightforward instructions.
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.” (1 Corinthians 14:27–28 NIV)
And he goes on to give two reasons for that. To start with, tongues without interpretation doesn’t help anyone. That’s why Paul says:
“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Corinthians 14:18–19 NIV)
You aren’t building up anyone. Secondly, he says that non-Christians will think you’re out of your mind if you’re all just speaking in tongues. So he says, interpretation must be happening - if not, keep it between yourself and God. And desire the gifts that build up others more, like 'interpretatio'n and 'prophecy'.
So when we’re thinking about tongues - they are a great gift from God. Paul thanks God that he speaks in tongues. But they are for personal edification and so unless interpreted, to be kept to yourself. And we’re to desire the gifts that build up others more.
The gift that Paul points to as a greater gift is 'prophecy', so what does that look like?
Well again, we aren’t actually told. I might be wrong on this, and I’m happy to be corrected, but this is my take:
Prophecy in the New Testament is not the same as prophecy in the Old Testament.
Apparently the word 'prophecy' in the Greek language had changed its meaning by the time of the New Testament. It meant being influenced by an external authority. In the Old Testament prophecy is stronger than that. The prophets' words are taken down as scripture. And there’s a strong predictive element. So in the New Testament, it’s the Apostles who seem to take on the role of the Old Testament prophets. Their words are taken down as scripture. And in Revelation John is given a vision of the future.
But prophets in the New Testament don’t speak with the authority of scripture. For example, in Acts 21 Agabus makes a prediction on the future that isn’t completely accurate. In the Old testament, if a prophet speaks words that aren’t from God, they were supposed to be put to death (Deut 18.20). And Paul says that now prophecy is to be tested:
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:19–21 NIV)
Notice he says there - don’t treat them with contempt. If you hear that someone has spoken an apparent prophecy, don’t dismiss it. Instead, God says, test it. Does it match up with scripture? Does it point to Jesus? Again in 1 Corinthians:
“Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” (1 Corinthians 14:29 NIV)
So we’re not called to just take on board everything someone says when they say they have a prophetic word. We’re to be discerning. It’s for this reason that I think it’s very unwise to say “thus says the Lord”, like an Old Testament prophet. Much better to say - I think God might be giving me a word. And so, if anyone has what they think might be a prophetic word, I think that the elders or leaders here should listen to it and weigh it up. If it’s fitting with scripture and passes the test, the Church can be told. If not, it doesn’t.
So let me sum up what we’ve looked at.
Gifts of the Spirit are not to be despised, looked down on, or treated with suspicion. They are a gift from God for the building up of the Church and the magnification of the Gospel. And they are to be desired eagerly and used in line with the Bible’s teaching.
Steve White is a pastor at Harbourside Presbyterian Church (Coffs Harbour) as well as being on the 'Christian Faith' team. Steve welcomes any comments you may want to send via our CONTACT US page. We will most likely publish your comments so let us know if you don't want that to happen.
His recent sermon on this topic can be downloaded ... see below.
(Acknowledgment: Corinthian's picture is by bdentzy)