By Eric Carpenter
It was a bright and sunny day. A middle-aged woman had wandered into our Sunday worship. As I was greeting people after the service, she came up and introduced herself.
“Hi! I’m Joy and I have an important question for you.” She began haltingly. “A few months ago−uh, well, I was praying. Then, all of a sudden, some strange sounds came out of my mouth. It was like−like a language.”
She looked at me to see if I was tracking. I was! So she went on, “I asked a few Christian friends about it, but they gave me different answers. It was confusing.” I nodded. “Tell me more,” I encouraged her.
“Well, you see, some said it was a gift of God called ‘tongues.’ You know−to use in prayer.” Joy hesitated, but then rolled on. “A few others scoffed at me. They said the gift of tongues is not for today. It’s not from God. Avoid it. Could be the devil, they warned me.”
She fixed me with a stern look. “Pastor, what do you think?”
It was quite a question, especially for a first-time meeting in the church atrium. I was struck by the diverse counsel Joy had received. Some believed the experience was a useful gift from God. Others labeled it as unhealthy, even evil, something to avoid.
Divergent opinions exist about prophecy as well. Some argue that like apostolic ministry, prophetic ministry ceased with the so-called Apostolic Age. I myself grew up assuming that apostolic and prophetic ministries had ended with the passing of the original Apostles (around 100 A.D.).
Yet others (as I wrote in my previous article) are beginning to view these ministries and gifts as available for today. More and more Christian leaders not only advocate for receiving all the gifts, but also point to Ephesians 4 as a framework for the ministries of the Church. They champion these gifts and ministries for today and as crucial for the expansion of the kingdom.
Our views on these issues are critical. Our understanding and participation in these gifts and ministries are significant not only for individuals like Joy, but also for our churches. I invite you to think deeply with me about these issues and embrace the hope of transformed ministries.
When Perfection Comes…
Joy and I met later in the week for a longer discussion. I explained the primary passage people refer to when talking about the cessation of some gifts like tongues, prophecy, healing, interpretation−you know, the ones considered weird.
Joy and I read aloud 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 NIV.
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. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
I was prepared to discuss the phrase, when perfection comes, and its differing interpretations, but she simply said, “Oh, so when Jesus comes back, that is when those things will cease!” And I said, “Ah … yes, basically.” (When Paul uses the phrase face to face in verse 12, it seems like a strong indication that the perfect refers to Jesus Christ in his second coming.)
Many Christian leaders have been using 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 to conclude that we are living in a time of history when some of the miraculous manifestation gifts have ceased. They cross-reference this passage with James 1:22-24 to argue that perfection in the Corinthian passage refers to the Word of God. However, there are problems with this interpretation. First, Paul used the mirror illustration in 13:12 as an analogy for not seeing or understanding clearly. He didn’t equate the Word of God with the mirror. Second, James used the mirror analogy in a completely different way. It demonstrated how we are to respond to the Word of God.
More people have come to recognize that the Corinthians text doesn’t actually support a cessationist view. Yes, some gifts will cease, but that will take place when Christ returns and we all live in his manifest presence. In fact, I think that these very passages argue in favor of the gifts in full operation today.
However, the reservations that many leaders have about the manifestation gifts and the apostolic and prophetic ministries are much greater than a single passage of Scripture. I contend that these reservations are rooted in our understanding of the current age in which we live. Let’s look at this.
The Day of the Lord
Nowhere in Paul or in the rest of the New Testament do we find the idea that the completion of the canon of Scripture would fundamentally change how the Spirit of God works within the Church. Nowhere do we find the authors of Scripture talking about a different “age” or “dispensation” between the time of the original Apostles and the Church today. This is a construct of later theologians and not found in Scripture.
The Apostles saw history in three ages:
- Pre-messianic age (O.T.)
- Present age of the Church (initiated by the Messiah’s first advent, established by the original Apostles)
- Age to come (to be initiated by the Messiah’s Second Advent).
The initial proclamation of the gospel by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2 is striking. To help those gathered at Pentecost understand what was happening, he quoted from the prophet Joel.
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy. Acts 2:17-18 NIV
He continued this quote, referring to end times events and the day of the Lord.
… before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. V. 20b
The Apostles understood that the Messiah and Pentecost had introduced the “Last Days,” and that we would be living in these “days,” or this “age” from that time until the second coming of Christ. We are living in the “last days” now.
Pentecost was the beginning of the Church and the time following is this age− a time when the Spirit is being poured out on all people. The Spirit’s presence and power are available now and until the return of Christ.
In writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul referred to the age in which we live. He defined this time by quoting Isaiah:
As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time [kairos] of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 (Quoting Isaiah 49:8)
In other words, right now is the time/age of God’s grace and favor. Paul urges the Corinthians not to miss the kairos moment. Incredibly, the favor and grace of the age to come is already spilling out. Don’t miss it! Experience it!
The author of Hebrews referred to this age too when he warned:
It is impossible [to bring back to repentance] those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age …[and who then turn away from God]. Hebrews 6:4-6a NIV [NLT]
In his warning, the inspired author refers to the age we are presently living in. The Lord’s abundant resources are given us to use until the coming age. We will be renewed and refreshed by the heavenly gift (perhaps communion?) and enjoy both the Spirit and the Word. Certainly, one does not replace the other, or reduce either, but both are part of God’s favor and grace in this age. We will even taste the powers of the coming age. In Paul’s time, he didn’t anticipate an age between the apostolic age and the age to come. There is no intermediate age where the works and gifts of the Spirit are somehow restricted. God’s Kingdom is advancing. He is equipping his Church with the resources of all the spiritual gifts and the comprehensive five-fold ministries of Ephesians 4:11. Then one day, the Kingdom will be fully consummated.
Many theologians have argued that Paul believed Christ’s return was imminent. He had no category of a post-apostolic time/age. Again, this is a later construct of theologians. To help clarify the idea, look at the two timelines below.
Timeline #1 depicts the Jewish understanding of God’s salvation history and timing. The Messiah comes and establishes the new age.
Our Present Age is the dynamic era of his Spirit− pouring out upon the Church, flowing into the world, empowering both men and women. It is a time of prophecy and dreams, a time of spiritual gifts revitalizing the Body of Christ. It is a time of grace and favor. It is a time when the power of the coming age spills out into our age, but is not yet fully realized−the “already but not yet.”
Churches of the Present Age
This understanding should affect our pastoral care and counsel to people like Joy. This perspective on the age we live in should lead us to encourage Joy in the thoughtful and biblical use of the Spirit’s gift already given to her. His desire is to edify Joy and others like her (1Corinthians 14:4).
This understanding should affect how we see our churches as well. For instance, when the realization that our own church didn’t reflect the fullness of ministry depicted in the #2 timeline above, it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. We have been a church of “word and sacrament.” However, we are not yet a church that reflects ministry where the Spirit is poured out. We haven’t even had a category for prophetic ministry, let alone desires and goals for it. Now the Spirit urges me, impels me, to lead change. All the gifts of the Spirit are for us all. All are part of the vast resources of the Godhead, destined to accomplish His purposes in the world, through the Church.