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Written by: C. W. Booth

Friday, January 01, 2010

Is Every Spiritual Gift Given Continuously, Even to this Day?

Outraged by a Bible Study

A very upset individual wrote to me recently to castigate me for having written an in-depth biblical analysis of two spiritual gifts: apostle and prophet. To be more precise, the individual was enraged that the article exactingly followed the evidence in the Scriptures which led one to the conclusion that the apostolic gift was only ever dispensed and commissioned by Jesus (not the Holy Spirit) while Jesus still lived on earth and that the gift stopped being bestowed when Jesus returned to heaven.

My detractor found this outcome to be outrageous because he had been taught that all the spiritual gifts have been in continuous use from the 1st Century until today. Presumably he had been taught this by a self-styled apostle. He further argued that since there were self-titled apostles today it proved that the gift was still being meted out by God. Ultimately he asserted that unless he could find a statement in Ephesians 4 that said apostles were no longer being commissioned then he was going to reject all other biblical evidences that might imply the same.

The article with which this individual took umbrage is here: http://thefaithfulword.org/apostlepageone.html

Demanding God Use Specific Phrases

At the heart of my critic’s concern is that he had desired to see in the New Testament the literal statement, “The spiritual gift of apostleship will cease to be given out by A.D. 100.” Until someone can point out that phrase to him in the Bible he said he will ignore all other evidences and will continue to seek out and honor modern day apostles.

Yet, how often does God accommodate our personally preferred turns of a phrase in the Word? Not often. God states things the way He wants to say them, not the way we want Him to state them. Essentially the attitude exposed by the critic’s demands is not the humility of finite human intellect awed by the literary shadow of an almighty God who has graciously revealed His nature to us in the pages of sacred writings. Rather, the critic lays bare an arrogance that betrays an intractable opinion, “I will defend and hold onto my self-inspired personal beliefs by erecting unrealistic barriers and verbal requirements that I already know cannot be overcome with Scripture.”

Many truths of Scripture are not phrased as we might personally prefer, but we accept them as true based on the preponderance of biblical evidences. No single passage of Scripture states “God is a Trinity or a Tri-Unity,” yet we know that by studying all the passages that explain God’s nature it is true that He is the Triune God (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

The Pharisees and Sadducees likely argued that Jesus was not the Christ on the same flawed logic as used by my critic. They surely said, “Until I see in the sacred writings a passage that explicitly says that the Messiah will come as a spiritual Savior and a suffering human sacrifice instead of as a conquering political leader, I will not believe this Jesus is the Anointed One.” All the clues were in the Old Testament, but it was certainly never worded that way.

Other examples may be seen in the concept of the rapture and the first resurrection of the saints. In English there is no statement, “There will be a rapture whereby the Christians will be resurrected into heaven until the end of the Great Tribulation.” Yet, the evidences are surely there in several different Scriptures, so long was we set aside our obstinate demand that God say things the way we want them said.

No, there is no phrase saying literally and explicitly that the apostolic gift ceased to be distributed the day Jesus left the earth for heaven. However, many passages of the New Testament when taken together certainly do mean that very thing.

Equipping Will Continue Until the End of the Church Age: Ephesians 4:7-14

Too many false human precepts are casually read into Ephesians 4:7-14. Having recently undertaken an exegetical exposition of the passage it became clear to me that the passage was not written for the purpose of teaching that the Holy Spirit was somehow obligated to dispense the highlighted five spiritual gifts to every local church throughout the entirety of the church age. Rather, the primary purpose of the passage was to demonstrate that the proper application and joint use of any and all gifts, beginning with the ones Jesus personally handed out while He was on earth, will result in the church members becoming strong and mature, able to withstand false doctrine down through the ages.

Far from being some kind of theology lesson on how apostles are continually made anew in each generation, the passage is an exhortation to use diligently whatever gift is provided so that the body’s members will build each other up. Moreover, the goal of applying the spiritual gifts in the local church is not said to be better evangelism or more exciting worship but is doctrinal growth and maturity such that the body learns how to teach the next generation to become mature.

When Did Jesus Give the Five Gifts of Ephesians 4:7-14?

When looking at the passage closely it becomes evident that Paul is talking about Jesus, the one who descended from heaven to live on earth. Jesus was the one who died and was buried, having descended into His grave (hades) under the ground. Then He arose to re-ascend into heaven. When He did those things, that is to say, at the time in human history when He bodily descended to earth, lived, died, and rose again, at that time He gave gifts to the church in the form of gifted people.

It says that “He gave gifts” in the past tense. It does not say that Jesus is giving those same five gifts today. He already gave them when He visited the earth. During that visit He made some men into apostles, some into prophets, some into evangelists, and some into shepherds (pastors-teachers). In fact, that is exactly what He did for three years with the Twelve and with the Seventy. Jesus trained them for three years to use those gifts for the benefit of the church and the kingdom. He gave gifts--past tense--while He was on earth.

The truth is that Jesus no longer gives gifts, for the Holy Spirit does that now (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). Ephesians 4 does not address which gifts the Holy Spirit is presently giving out, only that Jesus once at the beginning of the church age commissioned and trained men to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds (pastors-teachers).

Subsequently those gifted men did train the body of Christ. They did just as Jesus had commanded: make disciples and train them in everything that Jesus had taught to them for three years (Matthew 28:20).

As a result of those gifted men having employed their commissions to instruct the church in all that Jesus had taught them, the church now continues to train itself up. That the apostles were successful in building disciples and teaching them all that Christ taught them is evidenced by the fact that two non-apostles, Luke and Mark, were so thoroughly trained by the apostles as to be able to write the gospels.

That is the point, it is the equipping work, the church training and equipping its own members, that will continue until the end of the church age, until we all attain to the perfection in Christ. Ephesians 4 is not meant to teach that Christ will continually return to earth to train new gifted men, but that the equipping work once begun by the original gifted men will continue throughout the church age.

The Gifts that the Holy Spirit Does Give Out

No passage of Scripture promises that God will always do things the same way with all people in every age. God never promises that every gift He has ever given will be repeated in perpetuity. For example, the gift of the incarnate Messiah was only a one-time-in-history event. Similarly, His sacrifice for sin was a one-time-for-all-history gift. Nor will we ever expect the kings or judges of Israel to return. Not even the gift of the Law will be repeated.

Since the Holy Spirit chooses which gifts to give, to whom, and when, it is not possible to demand that God give out specific gifts based on the will and whim of people. What Jesus did once-in-history need not be repeated by the Holy Spirit for us today.

There are a plethora of gifts listed in the New Testament (see Romans 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12), as there were in the Old Testament (see Numbers 12:7-8, 1 Kings 2:12, Exodus 31:1-4, 35:31-35). Nothing in Scripture requires that every church have every one of those gifts all the time. Why? God distributes only those gifts at the time and to the place that they are actually needed.

There was only one time in all history that apostles were needed. The apostles were those who having been taught by Jesus for three years subsequently taught the Christian doctrines to the world for the first time; they were the foundation of the Christian church, “[Christians are being] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (Ephesians 2:20). Further, when the Scriptures were completed the apostles’ task as eyewitnesses of Jesus (Luke 1:2, 2 Peter 1:16) was completed and could never be repeated.

Everything that the apostles did, said, and taught became the foundation for all we presently believe about Christ. That foundation can never be rebuilt; it is done; it is past. That is why Jesus no longer needs to return to the earth every three years to train new apostles, because their work was finished in the 1st Century. In fact, the apostles worked until the last apostle, John, died about A.D. 90 on the island of Patmos. That is why apostles were so prominently included in many of the lists of gifts, because those gifted men were still active all the while the New Testament was still being written, though new ones were not being added to their number.

Apostolic Equipping Continues Today without Apostles

It must always be remembered that the foundational equipping ministry of the apostles continues even though the original apostles commissioned personally by Christ have all died. Their equipping ministry is passed along in the form of the New Testament Scriptures. Peter prophesied this: "…that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles." (2 Peter 3:2)

Moreover, regardless of which gifted men or women may or may not be in any local church congregation, every person can be adequately equipped for any and all service to God by virtue of studying the written Scriptures: "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).

Many churches have grown up around the world without ever having had an apostle in their midst. The church in Rome was founded in the 1st Century and grew to considerable size without an apostle ever having visited, which was why Paul wrote to them his famous letter in which he apologized for never having come. By the time an apostle did visit Rome, he was under arrest and in chains.

Most of the historic churches in Egypt, Arabia, and Northern Africa had no attendant apostles. History indicates that there were no popes or apostles from the A.D. 1500’s through the 1800’s in the “protestant” church, yet the church thrived and brought reformation and the gospel to and throughout the world in that time!

Passages that Imply the Gift of Apostleship Stopped being bestowed when Jesus Ascended

Apostles were once necessary to equip the Christian church with doctrines (teachings) of Christ and to provide eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection. Apostles were the foundation for all Christian dogma and belief.

But did God stop giving out apostle-ships when Jesus ascended into heaven, as Ephesians 4 seems to imply? There are numerous passages that indicate that this is exactly what happened. Among the most persuasive is that Paul, who was not made an apostle while Jesus was on earth, said he was commissioned to be an apostle “out of the proper time for apostles to be made” or “untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8). In other words, there was an appointed or recognized time for apostles to be commissioned--while Jesus was preaching on earth--but Paul, the “last man to whom Jesus appeared” and the last to made an apostle, was uniquely commissioned outside of that appointed time.

Paul later writes that every man who attempts to imitate Paul’s apostolic commissioning is a false apostle (2 Corinthians 11:13). Surely that is an odd thing to write if new apostles were being made all the time.

Equally importantly, Jesus called every “new” apostle a false apostle in His letter to the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:2). Here, Jesus does not even say that “some” are genuine, rather that every single one “who call themselves apostles” are in fact found to be false when tested. Every one.

For a more complete investigation into the unique commissioning of Paul please read the previously mentioned article: http://thefaithfulword.org/apostlepageone.html That article also studies Paul’s own defense of his training under Jesus as an apostle.

Conclusion

Apostles were commissioned only during the time when Jesus was ministering on earth, with the sole exception of Paul. Apostles served as the eyewitnesses of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. Their teaching (everything that Jesus had taught them) became the foundation for all Christian doctrine. Their equipping ministry remains with us as the inspired Word of God, the New Testament.

Even with no apostles present the New Testament says that all Christians can be adequately equipped for every work that God calls them to do by virtue of studying the Bible, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Many passages of the New Testament indicate that Paul was the last apostle commissioned. Today the Holy Spirit dispenses spiritual gifts as He sees fit, but only Jesus ever commissioned an apostle. Their apostolic foundational work remains with us even though the gifted men have gone to heaven.

We must not be arrogant and demand that God do things the way we want them done. God says and does as befits His righteous thinking and planning. He bestows spiritual gifts as He determines best. The next time Jesus returns to earth it will not be to train a new set of apostles but to administer a reign of justice and righteousness. Amen!






Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Run the race...to win?

What Paul did not say: “Run the race in such a way as to win even if you have to sabotage or crush the other runners.”

What Paul did say: “Run the race just as hard as any winner would run and help all the other racers you find along the way to run in just the same winning manner.”

The roots in the two words for race used in Paul's passage are where we get the words stadium and trek. Paul seems to be illustrating a long distance race that requires stamina, that is, a trek.






Friday, January 22, 2010

Omens and Signs -- Is there a difference?

What Is an Omen?

An omen is any event of everyday life that some person decides has a hidden prognosticative meaning. Construing an ordinary happenstance as having some kind of a secret meaning which prophetically reveals the hidden will of God is the very definition of an omen. These ordinary events are the typical and mundane things that happen all the time (driving to church, finding the car keys, receiving a tax refund) but which happen coincidentally with someone’s expectations and thus mystically become omens.

For example, fish die in lakes and ponds all the time due to illness, old age, and injury from predation by larger fish. There is nothing extraordinary in the event of a fish dying. And there is no genuinely deeper meaning in it. Yet, if a young couple is sitting on the dock on a lakeside dangling their feet in the water and a fish swims up and happens to die right then, many will take this as a prophetic hint that the relationship is doomed. That ordinary event becomes an omen.

Similarly, a Christian is struggling to decide whether to go on a missions trip to South America. As she goes about her grocery shopping she happens to find an orange juice carton with the following words printed on the nutrition label, “Product of South America, Missions Fruit Cooperative.” Immediately she concludes this is an omen revealing the secret mind of God with regard to His will for her life and for the proposed missions trip.

Omens are ordinary incidents that happen to everyone which in themselves have no special meaning. Omens obtain their meaning only from a person who imposes the meaning into the event because they expect to find some hidden meaning in earthly objects and worldly events. Fish dying do not regularly or inherently mean a relationship is doomed. The name of an orange juice company printed on a label does not have any intrinsic message to consumers to go on missions trips. These events only get their meaning from people who coincidently happen to want to find extraordinary meaning where it did not previously exist.

What Does God Say about Omens?

"There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the LORD; and because of these detestable things the LORD your God will drive them out before you. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)

God hates the practice of observing ordinary or earthly events and reading into them some supernatural meaning. God forbids such a practice entirely. Reading commonplace events is the same thing as reading palms, reading tea leaves, interpreting thunder as if it were God’s voice, reading the alignment of planets, and fortune telling. They do not reveal the mind of God, for God does not communicate in this way.

What Are Prophecies?

Prophecies are special revelations in dreams, visions, or words from God to a man. In these special revelations from the mind of God to the mind of a human God always gives this command, “Tell everyone, ‘This is what the Lord God has spoken to you…’” (Please read http://thefaithfulword.org/apostlepagefour.html for a more complete Bible study of the spiritual gift of prophetic revelation.)

Are Signs the Same As Omens?

What then do we make of the biblical statements, “when the people saw the signs which Jesus did…” (John 6:14)? Are not these signs omens? Not at all. Jesus performed overt miracles (healing the sick, raising the dead, and feeding crowds without an earthly food supply). Each of these miracles was an overt evidence that He was the Messiah and spoke for God. The only meaning that need be read into each of these miracle-signs is that Jesus is the Christ, because the Old Testament had verbally predicted that the Christ would do such miracles.

Omens are ordinary and mundane events of everyday life that have no innate meaning on their own until someone, from their own imagination, declares them to have a supernatural significance. Omens are used by people to make day-to-day decisions. On the other hand, miracles are events that cannot possibly happen in this world without a supernatural cause and always have only the intrinsic meaning that Christ is God, Savior, and King. Miracles have no value in making day-to-day decisions.

How Can I Know God’s Will?

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

“But I am not a prophet, how will I know the will of God without an omen?” The will of God is anything and everything that is good (according to God’s definition of holy goodness), acceptable (which is anything that is acceptable to do in God’s presence), and perfect (that which demonstrates and builds spiritual maturity).

We have tremendous freedom to make decisions. We read God’s Word, pray for the wise application of the Word in our decision-making process, ask for biblical counsel from godly persons, contemplate what is best for the Kingdom of God, assess our own desires in the matter, count the costs of each option, evaluate our willingness to commit to a given choice, and make the best decision we are able to make. Then we trust God for the increase, the fruit and outcome of that decision (1 Corinthians 3:7). But we never look for an omen, for the very act of doing so is the essence of being outside of God’s will (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)

What Does This Mean to Me?

Today, when Christians resort to omens to discern the secret knowledge of God they practice a forbidden form of prognostication and divination. Interpreting ordinary coincidental events and so proclaiming God’s revealed will in them is literally the practice of pagan superstition.

Our Lord does not reveal the secrets of His divine intentions in dead fish and juice labels. Our God reveals Himself in words: the words of the Scriptures written by the prophets.

Booth addendum

Does the dying fish illustration above sound fishy or made-up? It is a true episode in my life. My girlfriend (who later became my one and only wife) and I were sitting on the breakwall of a large freshwater lake late one fall day. I had never fished before in my life and did not recognize the species or the behavior of the fish. We humorously discussed how some might see this as a forboding omen.

After marrying my wife, my father-in-law taught me to fish. Having become an avid fisherman I now know the fish that died at our feet was a shad, the favored bait fish of most other fish species. The reason it died was likely due to the fall die-off that I have observed occur on other fresh-water lakes, leaving schools of dead shad behind.

An omen? No. Though to the uninformed in theology or angling it might seem so. It was an occurrence without deeper meaning, excpet that it now makes my wife and I laugh out loud.

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[Note: The above essay was originally posted as a blog. As such, it was open to public commentary. Below are select comments from the public and by the author which are considered helpful in bringing comprehension to the topic or in advancing the dialogue.]

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Pulbic Comment 1:

Quoting from another person's blog: "If the temporal could affect the Eternal, the moment it did the Eternal would cease to be eternal. And if that is the case it could not have been eternal in the first place." I quite agree with you that we should not "spiritualize" events, spectacular or commonplace by taking them as "omens." I often look at things most people hardly even see (because they are commonplace) and in them see God's Hand and His infinite creativity.

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. Romans 1:18-20

The verses following are show typically what sinful man has done with the knowledge they have received and how they have perverted it. (not quite the same thing you are talking about here, but the same principle.)

Very good post!

Booth response to commenter 1

That is an interesting point. We cannot use specific episodes or events in our life to say, "Here is what God was secretly thinking so this is the decision He wants me to make," but we can look at nature in general and conclude, "An entire universe populated with life cannot come into existence by itself, so there must be a creator." Using the evidence of our existence to realize that a God must have brought it all into being is a far cry from seeing omens in every little happenstance.

Blessings.






Sunday, January 31, 2010

Must there be unbelievers in this world?

While returning from church today my teenage son began a dialogue with rapid fire questions regarding the origin of sin, God’s sovereignty, the fairness of sending some people to hell when all are sinners, the fairness of creating men who could or would sin in the first place, and how it is that God is loving for not saving everyone. This conversation continued into and past lunch.

I could not answer all his questions to his satisfaction. I did give it a valiant effort, at least that is how I remember it.

On one question something came to mind that I had not previously contemplated. Romans 9:13-24 states that God presses into service the unbelievers and that He is patiently enduring their unbelief, “…to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us.” (Romans 9:23b-24a)

My son asked, “Do there have to be unbelievers in this world in order to show to believers, or even to give to the believers, God’s glory and mercy?” It turns out, the answer appears to be, “Yes.”

We know that God pressed Pharaoh into that kind of service to show His glory and riches to the Jews at the Exodus. But there was a more poignant historic event where this was dramatically evident. On the day of Jesus’ execution God pressed into service Pilate, the Roman governor, as well as King Herod, the temple officials, and the Jerusalem mob.

So I asked my son, “What if all those who lived in Jerusalem believed Jesus’ message during those three years? What if all the Romans soldiers believed along with Pilate, Herod, the temple officials, and all the city occupants? Who would have brought the charges against Jesus? Who would have demanded Him executed? Who would have given the order to crucify Him?”

In other words, in theory, if all those who dwelt in Jerusalem had become believers during Jesus’ ministry, He would not have been crucified. If He had not been crucified there would have been no resurrection. If there had been no resurrection there would have been no salvation for the Gentiles or for the world.

If there had been no unbelievers during Jesus’ earthly ministry, if all had become believers, God could not have shown His mercy and glory to the world through Jesus’ sacrifice. Do there have to be unbelievers in this world in order to show God’s glory and mercy to those who are called to be saved? Yes, it appears so, else, none would have been saved.

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Note: a possible alternative understanding of this passage is implied by the NIV rendering. Specifically, that God spares judgment against this world of sinners until the future, until the last days, for the express purpose of demonstrating to the believers right now that He is long-suffering and merciful.


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