Why Have the Miraculous Gifts of the Spirit Ceased?
NINETEEN hundred years ago, the invisible God powerfully backed up the good news of salvation through his Son, Jesus Christ. By what means?
The writer of the book of Hebrews, addressing Christians who had been under the Mosaic Law covenant, showed how, saying: “God joined in bearing witness with signs as well as portents and various powerful works and with distributions of holy spirit according to his will.” (Heb. 2:1-4) Yes, by this means, God also plainly showed that he was now dealing with the newly established Christian congregation under the new covenant and had removed his favor from the Jewish arrangement under the Law covenant.
These “distributions of holy spirit” included many miraculous abilities. The apostle Paul spoke of these miraculous gifts, and said that they would pass away in time. (1 Cor. 13:8) Today we do not observe God’s spirit operating through individuals in such startling, miraculous ways, performing healings, speaking in various tongues that the speaker has never before studied, uttering inspired prophecy, and so forth. Why not? If they were necessary to the congregation then, why not now?
The reason is that, though the Christian congregation today is just as fully blessed with the operation of God’s spirit to accomplish its ministry, the spirit supplies many of the congregation’s needs in a different, more widespread and permanent way. How is this? For the answer, it is necessary to review the purpose of the gifts as bestowed back there and what they accomplished.
THE SPIRIT’S MIGHTY ACTIVITY IN THE FIRST CENTURY
When we read the account reporting the activities of the apostles and their associates, as recorded primarily in the Bible book of Acts, we cannot help but be impressed by the might, intensiveness and energy of the holy spirit’s operation. From Pentecost of 33 C.E. onward, “believers in the Lord kept on being added, multitudes both of men and of women.” (Acts 5:14) During Paul’s first missionary journey, which occupied only about a year and a half, he and Barnabas traveled through Cyprus and Asia Minor. (Acts chaps. 13, 14) In this short time they established congregation after congregation and appointed local men to take oversight. Some congregations were evidently formed in a very short period of time. On a later tour, Paul spent only about a year and a half in the large city of Corinth, finding many disciples there.—Acts 18:11.
Why did the spirit operate so mightily, gathering hundreds, yes, thousands, to the Christian congregation in so short a space of its early history?
It was because there were relatively only a few years in which to establish, build up and strengthen the congregation. Jesus, in his illustration of the wheat and the weeds, had shown that this vigorous activity would be of limited duration. It would end when “men were sleeping,” that is, after the apostles ‘fell asleep’ or passed off the scene in death. When this occurred, the foretold “man of lawlessness” would not much longer be restrained and the great apostasy, the rebellion against true apostolic teaching and practice, would blossom forth in full strength. (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; 2 Thess. 2:3-8) So the apostles worked tirelessly to build up the congregation in order that it would be “a pillar and support of the truth” against the storm waves of the apostasy that would all but swallow it up.—1 Tim 3:15; 4:1; Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Pet. 2:1-3.
Why, however, were miraculous operations of the spirit necessary? Well, you will recall that, in the first century, even the Jew was rare who possessed a complete set of the scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures. Among pagans the Bible was virtually unknown. As to the Gospel accounts and the letters of the Greek Scriptures, only very few copies were circulating. None of the Bible books were handily divided into chapters and verses, as today. Bible concordances, Bible dictionaries and commentaries were nonexistent. Therefore, it becomes apparent that help from God was needed, beyond what was normal. It was logical that the spirit of God should operate in a way that filled the need of the many Christian disciples for Bible knowledge and direction. This it did through the miraculous gifts, as we shall see.
THE MIRACULOUS GIFTS
These gifts are listed at 1 Corinthians 12:4-11. Here the apostle writes that the spirit did not operate in the same manner upon every member of the congregation, but, rather, that it manifested its operation and influence in a variety of ways. Thereby it fully equipped the congregation as a body to maintain right doctrine and clean practices, to preach and teach the good news and to stand firm against the apostasy. Let us consider the various gifts and their purposes.
The first listed is “speech of wisdom.” Wisdom is the ability to use knowledge and understanding successfully to attain certain goals. This gift of wisdom was not a wisdom born of experience, but a miraculous wisdom, the possessor thereof being able to assist the congregation in decisions of a difficult nature.—Acts 13:1-5.
Second was “speech of knowledge.” This was not the knowledge of God and Christ that all Christians were required to have to be disciples. (John 17:3; Rom. 10:14) It was a miraculous knowledge that made up for the lack of copies of the Scriptures. It also alerted them in a miraculous way to situations affecting the well-being of the congregation.—Acts 5:1-11.
Next was “faith.” Again, this would not be the faith that all Christians had to possess, for faith in God and in his Son and in the ransom sacrifice was the primary requisite to become a Christian. (Rom. 10:10; Acts 2:38, 39) Rather, this was a miraculous spirit-inspired faith, an unbreakable conviction that enabled its possessor to overcome mountainlike obstacles and to impart to the congregation energy and zeal to go ahead unshakably in preaching the good news. What a valuable member of the congregation the one possessing this gift would be!
Then there were “healings” and other “powerful works.” (Acts 3:1-8; 5:12-16; 13:6-12) These served as signs to unbelievers, powerfully proving that God’s spirit was on the congregation and facilitating its work.
The gift of “prophesying” included, besides speaking the magnificent things of God, the inspired ability to speak accurately of things to come. This inspired foretelling of events seems to have been generally limited, however, to things that affected the congregation at that time, enabling it to meet the foreseen situation, as in the case of the famine in the time of Emperor Claudius, foretold by the Christian prophet Agabus.—Acts 11:27-30.
“Discernment of inspired utterances” was a gift that worked for the safety of the congregation. At that time there actually were prophets with inspired messages from God, some of whom traveled, as did Barnabas, Silas, Paul and others. By the gift of discerning inspired utterances, the congregation would be protected from any impostors, false prophets. If such came to the congregation, they could be identified by the member who possessed this gift. Thus the congregation would know whether to give attention to the “inspired utterances” or not.—1 John 4:1.
“Tongues” and “interpretation of tongues” were important in getting the good news quickly spread through Asia, Europe and Africa and the islands of the sea. The gift of tongues also served as a sign to those outside the Christian congregation. (1 Cor. 14:22) Paul, because of his commission as the apostle to the nations, traveled more widely than the rest, meeting persons of a great variety of languages and dialects. Doubtlessly it was for that reason that he was so richly endowed with this gift, as he said: “I speak in more tongues than all of you do.”—1 Cor. 14:18.
SPIRITUAL GIFTS IN THE MODERN CONGREGATION
Now, at the present time, the true Christian congregation has been recovered from the apostasy that enshrouded the Middle Ages in spiritual darkness. Just as Israel was returned to its land in 537 B.C.E. by King Cyrus of Persia, so Jehovah has used his reigning King Jesus Christ to bring the modern-day Christian congregation into a spiritually prosperous condition. (Isa. 1:25-27) The true doctrines have been restored concerning God’s name, the position of his Son Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God, the ransom, resurrection, and others. The false doctrines of Trinity, hellfire, immortality of the human soul and others have been exposed as unscriptural. The preaching of the good news of the Kingdom is being done world wide. Are the miraculous gifts of the spirit necessary for the congregation to carry on its work and to maintain its cleanness, uprightness and unity?
No, such gifts are not needed in an altogether miraculous way, as they were in the first century, for God has endowed the congregation with the necessary things in a different, more complete and permanent way. However, just as in the congregation’s early history, not all members of the congregation possess all abilities, but each complements the others so that the congregation as a body, in all its abilities, accurately represents God and Christ. This is accomplished by the operation of God’s spirit, giving a variety of abilities.
As to knowledge, God has provided his entire Word, which today can be possessed in printed form by the most humble person. Its use can make the man of God fully competent, completely equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16, 17) Furthermore, knowledge is available to all through Bible study helps such as commentaries, concordances and Bible dictionaries, as well as by the help of men in the congregation who have acquired knowledge through diligent study.
Wisdom can be similarly obtained. It is not necessary for wisdom to be gained miraculously. The experience of the early congregation as related in the book of Acts is available, along with the history of the modern congregation, recovered from apostasy. Hardly a problem can arise that has not been faced and overcome. The congregation of anointed Christians at this time is designated by Jesus Christ as the “faithful and discreet slave.” (Matt. 24:45-47) Mature men who have had years of experience in being directed by God’s Word and his spirit employ the wisdom thus gained in helping the congregation to overcome problems and to carry forward the work in an orderly, successful manner.
In a similar way, strong faith works powerfully in the congregation through the majority of its members. It is a fruit of the spirit developed by carefully ascertaining God’s will through study of the Bible and by following the leading of the spirit. (Gal. 5:22) Through the upheavals of two world wars, through the furnace of burning hatred and opposition to God’s kingdom and its proclamation, through indifference, ridicule and persecution, men of faith have led and inspired the congregation to fulfill its commissions.
Gifts of healings and similar miraculous works are not necessary today. God’s change from the ancient Jewish to the Christian congregation is verified by history, while love and activity on the part of the Christian congregation, as well as many fulfillments of prophecy, stand as modern identifying signs, proof that God’s favor is upon it. The worldwide expansion of the Kingdom preaching is also a powerful sign.—1 Cor. 13:10-13; Matt. 24:14.
Inspired prophesying today would be superfluous. The prophecies written in the Bible being complete as a guide to the congregation today, nothing needs to be added. (2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Rev. 22:18, 19) Accordingly, since God’s Word provides a perfect guide, there is no need to have the gift of discernment of prophecies in a miraculous sense, for there are no inspired prophets now authorized by God. Those things that “come out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the wild beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet,” or from others who speak so-called “inspired expressions” are quickly evaluated and proved false by means of the spirit-inspired Word of God.—Rev. 16:13, 14; 1 John 4:1.
“But what about tongues and interpretation of tongues?” someone may ask. In reply the question might be propounded, “Is the good news of the Kingdom being preached to all the nations in all the major languages?” Yes, in 206 lands the witness is being given, and the Bible or parts of it are available in more than 1,400 languages. Thousands of trained missionaries have learned foreign languages and have brought the good news of the Kingdom to the people in those lands. The people hearing are in turn spreading it abroad, even in dialects not spoken by the missionaries, thus interpreting the word of truth to others.
In this manner God’s spirit directs the preaching of the good news, with the result that ‘a great crowd, which no man is able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues’ has come forth in praise of Jehovah God and his King Jesus Christ, joining in the proclamation that the King has begun his rule.—Rev. 7:9, 14.
The spirit therefore does indeed act powerfully today, as it did in the early Christian congregation. Actually the work it is accomplishing might well be termed miraculous, from a human standpoint. The ones doing the work must have God’s spirit to do it, and they acknowledge that his spirit really accomplishes the results.
However, the things accomplished may seem to be the natural outworking of matters to one who does not recognize God’s spirit as the force that energizes his people to activity. The operation of the spirit in God’s congregation today does not appear as a spectacular thing, for the gifts employed are spiritual gifts developed over a period of time by their possessors, while the miraculous gifts of the early congregation were bestowed instantly on Christians as selected by God.—1 Cor. 12:6, 11, 18; Acts 19:5, 6.
As Christians today, we can be happy that God, in his marvelous wisdom, worked in this manner so that the truth has been kept alive in the earth. We should now zealously seek to develop the fruits of the spirit so as not to be found ‘accepting the undeserved kindness of God and missing its purpose.’—2 Cor. 6:1.