Are they available today?
The question is often asked whether believers may be blessed with these Pentecostal gifts today. Claims to have the gift of healing or of speaking with tongues are often made (though, strangely enough, the other gifts hardly ever seem to be claimed). What is the truth about this?
The Bible is a true guide, and all its evidence points to the same conclusion — that the gifts of the Spirit were intended by the Lord as help for his church in its early years and only then; and having done their work, the gifts were taken away.
The Early Church and its problems
Let it not be overlooked that some outstanding divine help for those early preachers of the gospel was absolutely necessary. Think for a moment of the difficulties and hindrances against which they had to struggle.
They no longer had their Lord with them to inspire and direct personally the work he had set them to do. Nor were those preachers men of outstanding influence or reputation, but — with the exception of the apostle Paul — humble folk drawn from obscurity. Nor did they have the inspired wisdom of the New Testament to direct their efforts, for in those early days that part of the Bible was only just being written. There was no big influential body of opinion to support their efforts and bring pressure to bear on people in high places. Instead, at first, only scattered groups of new believers, without any set pattern of church affairs to guide their way of life.
But, on the other hand, there was plenty of opposition from suspicious Roman governors, and especially from a strong well-organised body of clever and evil adversaries — the Pharisees and the men of the temple. Swimming against such a tide of opposition and difficulty, how could those early disciples hope to make headway, unless the Lord equip them with the gifts of his Spirit? Without such help how could they cope with a task that was otherwise too much for them?
As mentioned earlier, the circumstances were very special and called for special men specially equipped for a great work. But once the Christian gospel was well launched on its course and making good progress, the need for the gifts was no longer there…
All the available Bible evidence supports this approach to the problem of Holy Spirit gifts.
Given through the Apostles only
The account in Acts of how the Holy Spirit came to the believers in Samaria (Acts 8) is very helpful on this question.
Philip, one of the early evangelists (but not the Philip who was an apostle of the Lord) had a highly successful preaching mission to the Samaritans. Hearing about this, the apostles in Jerusalem promptly sent Peter and John to confirm the good work and also to impart gifts of the Holy Spirit by laying hands on the new converts.
It is useful to enquire here, why Philip did not do this himself? He certainly had the Holy Spirit. Why didn’t he impart the gifts to the believers? Why was it needful for the Spirit to be given through Peter and John? The only explanation that makes sense is that the Lord had left authority for passing on the Spirit in the hands of His apostles only, and with no one else.
Special to the Apostles
This conclusion is confirmed by the story of Simon who saw big opportunities of money-making and influence here. He came to the apostles offering to pay them well if only they would give him the same power and authority:
“Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:18,19).
It was not the Holy Spirit which Simon was trying to buy, but the power to pass on the Spirit’s wonderful gifts to others. Clearly, he saw this as a good business investment. But he had already seen miraculous signs done by Philip (Acts 8:6,7). Then why hadn’t he come to Philip with his commercial proposition? The only reasonable answer is this: he recognized that only the twelve apostles, and later, Paul, had been given power and authority to impart the Spirit to others.
Two Generations Only
It follows from this, that when the Twelve passed off the scene, there would be no one left to give the marvellous powers of the Spirit to others. The generation after the apostles would be the last to know the presence of such gifts in the church. They were bound to die out.
The witness of writers in the early church confirms this conclusion. In the first two or three generations of believers the memory continued of the remarkable powers which the Spirit imparted, and then no more.
Gifts Passing Away
This is the witness of the apostle Paul also. In 1Co 13, only a few verses after his long chapter about the Holy Spirit’s gifts of healing, knowledge, tongues, and so on, he declared plainly:
“As for prophecy, it will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge it will pass away” (1Co 13:8).
The pronouncement of this inspired apostle is surely decisive. The superhuman gifts of the Spirit were given to the church only for a time, until new believers were firm in the faith and a good sound pattern of Christian belief and living had been established. Today the completed Bible is all that is needed for that purpose. [As already mentioned, in the days of the apostles the New Testament was only gradually coming into existence. When the apostles died, few churches would have copies of a complete New Testament.]
Outpouring of the Spirit
The heading just above — “Given through the Apostles only” — was intended to indicate that no other men besides the apostles had this power and authority.
But there was, of course, another way of receiving the Spirit — by direct outpouring from heaven. This was most exceptional. Only four examples are mentioned:
- Our Lord, at his baptism (Mat 3:16).
- Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).
- The assembly of thankful brethren (Acts 4:31).
- The household of Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10:44).
It follows that today those who claim to have received the Spirit’s gifts should have received them either by direct outpouring from heaven, or by laying on of the apostles’ hands.
The first of these was exceptional, even in New Testament times; and the second is no longer possible.
For those who today say they have this power, there is a problem here. How do they claim to have received the Spirit?
It is worth noting that on all earlier occasions when God poured out his Spirit upon men, it was only for a while, and for a special purpose. Moses had seventy Spirit-blessed elders of Israel to aid his work (Num 11:24-30), but not so Joshua who succeeded him. Saul, anointed by Samuel, prophesied (1Sa 10:9-13), but later that Spirit was replaced by an evil spirit (1Sa 16:14).
During his ministry, the Lord Jesus gave the Spirit’s powers to the Twelve when he sent them out preaching (Mark 6:7,13), but some time later nine of them were unable to cure a boy who suffered from fits (Mark 9:17,18,28,29).
In the Last Days
The claim, sometimes made, that the Bible promises a revival of Holy Spirit powers in the last days, is correct, but the Scripture verses are often wrongly used, and nearly always misapplied.
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (Joel 2:28).
The apostle Peter quoted these words at Pentecost (Acts 2:17), and applied them to Jews in Jerusalem in his time. If, as seems likely, there is to be a further fulfilment of these words, it can be expected to begin in Jerusalem as a blessing upon believing Jews, since the Joel passage specially mentions Mount Zion in Jerusalem (v 32); and then spread to believing Gentiles after the pattern of the bestowal of Spirit gifts in the first century.
This scripture would therefore throw considerable doubt on the claims of modern charismatic movements whose beginnings are claimed to be everywhere except Mount Zion in Jerusalem.