I wanted to continue a bit on the theme of providing answers to charismatic objections to cessationism. Probably one of the biggest is the charge that cessationism isn’t biblical. Charismatic continuationists insist that if a person were to lock himself in a room for a year and study the Bible exclusively, there would be no way he could honestly conclude that spiritual gifts ceased after the close of the NT.
But is that a legitimate claim? I don’t believe it is.
Back in 2004, Doug Kutilek, whose material I have cited here at my blog a number of times, did a brief study on how the spiritual gifts were transmitted. I thought he had some compelling insights from Scripture documenting the role in which the Apostles played in transmitting the spiritual gifts and the miraculous displays of the Holy Spirit during the first century establishment of the NT church.
He builds his case comprehensively from the text of Acts and the NT epistles. It is nearly 11 pages in a Word format, so I will break it into two, manageable parts. This first one introducing the subject and surveying Acts, and the second part considering Paul and the epistles. If you wish to read ahead, the entirety of Doug’s study can be read in his monthly As I See It email newsletter volume 7, number 1.
How Were the Charismata Transmitted in New Testament Times?
The last half of the 20th century was marked by a strong interest in the charismata, the “gifts of the Holy Spirit.” Much of this interest has no doubt been generated by the so-called “charismatic renewal” that began on Azuza Street in Los Angeles in 1907, with the subsequent “signs and wonders” movement that has spread nation- and even world-wide.
But it has not been just among those who claim that the sign-gifts (miraculous manifestations such as speaking in tongues) of the New Testament are still operative today that the charismata have been widely discussed. Among conservative evangelicals and even among fundamentalists, much has been spoken and written about this subject, certainly in part as a reaction against the extreme claims of the charismatics. A view proposing the extinction of the miraculous sign-gifts and the persistence of the non-miraculous service-gifts have been the usual line of approach among non-charismatic theological conservatives. Books have been written and seminars have been held to help people ‘discover’ what their gift (or gifts) is, ostensibly with the purpose of helping Christians to more effectively utilize their Divine bestowments.
In all this discussion, it seems that one very important question has been entirely ignored: how were the charismata bestowed or conveyed to individuals in the first century? It has been apparently an unchallenged assumption, first, that every Christian has–present tense–at least one spiritual gift, whether a sign-gift as the charismatics would claim, or a service-gift as the non-charismatics affirm, and that in all cases the gift was directly and sovereignly bestowed by God on the individual.
But, in fact, is this so? Were the gifts communicated during the Apostolic age to believers directly by God without any human intermediary, or was a human instrument involved? This will be the focus of this investigation. Limitations require that the nature of the charismata, that is, e.g., whether the gift of tongues was an ecstatic utterance or a known but unlearned human language must be reserved for another study.
Pentecost was not the first time that the Apostles displayed miraculous gifts. In the Gospels, we find the Twelve sent forth by Christ and “he gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of disease and all manner of sickness” (Matthew 10:1, ASV).
He expressly instructed them when He sent them out, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (10:8). The record of their expedition reports that “they cast out demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:13). Silence on the matter of cleansing lepers and raising the dead does not necessarily indicate that these were not done (leprosy could have been included under the more general term of sickness), though physical resurrections, even when performed by Christ, caused such a great stir that if such had been performed by the Apostles during this preaching tour, some written notice of them could well be expected. Perhaps Christ was speaking figuratively about their raising the spiritually dead by the message of the Gospel of the kingdom, or perhaps He was anticipating the later resurrections which they would perform (Acts 9:40; 20:10).
This account of Apostles performing miraculous works, or spiritual sign-gifts, if you will, is almost unique in the Gospels. Almost, I say, because in Luke 10, we are told of the commissioning of the Seventy (or Seventy-two, depending on which is the true original reading) who depart on a similar preaching tour. Christ expressly commissioned them to “heal the sick” and upon their return, they reported to Him that “even the demons are subject unto us” (Luke 10:8, 17).
However, beyond the one account involving the Twelve and the other involving the Seventy, no other incidents are reported in the Gospels of the Apostles or those in the larger circle of Jesus’ disciples performing miracles or exercising sign-gifts. This empowerment was apparently temporary and not repeated. In both instances, it is of note that this authority was expressly and directly granted by Jesus, without any other intermediary.
On Pentecost, apparently all the assembled 120 disciples, men and women,–not just the Apostles–displayed the miraculous sign of “tongues.” This gift was obviously sovereignly bestowed on the assembled group by the descent of the Holy Spirit. No intermediary, whether human or angelic was involved. And every individual among the 120 had this gift: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues” (Acts 2:4).
The incident at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10 has a number of parallels to Acts 2 in regard to how and on whom the gift of tongues was bestowed. For, “while Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all them that heard the word” (Acts 10:44). Contextually, this means all the Gentiles who were assembled to hear Peter’s message (10:33). The falling of the Holy Spirit on these newly-believing Gentiles was outwardly manifested by their exercising the gift of tongues. Those Jewish believers who came with Peter “were amazed. . . because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.”
All the believing Gentiles present received the gift of tongues given by the Holy Spirit. And all of them received this gift by the sovereign act of God, without any human intermediary, just as on the day of Pentecost.
These two incidents–Acts 2 and Acts 10–are in a class by themselves. As we shall see, in all other bestowals of the charismata in Acts and the rest of the New Testament, specific human agency was expressly involved (or clearly implied), and involved a very restricted circle of human agents.
Why should Pentecost and Acts 10 be distinctive? Pentecost was the first bestowal of the Holy Spirit and His gifts on Jewish believers, for the purpose of empowering them (Acts 1:8) to carry the Gospel message to the ends of the earth. Pentecost constituted the first public proclamation of the resurrection as well. It is notable, that in no later proclamation of the Gospel to Jews, whether by Peter or the other Apostles in Jerusalem and Judea, or by Paul and others to the Jews in the Diaspora, were the phenomena of Pentecost–the wind, the fire, the Gospel proclaimers speaking in tongues–repeated.
Acts 10 was the first proclamation of the Gospel to Gentiles as Gentiles. Nicolaus (Acts 6:5), one the first deacons, was a proselyte (a Gentile who made a complete conversion to Judaism, even undergoing circumcision). The Samaritans who received the Gospel (Acts 8) were ethnically half Jewish and already accepted the Law of Moses (though in a somewhat corrupted form), and followed a religion with many features virtually identical to Judaism. Even the Ethiopian eunuch was not a mere Gentile. He was either an Ethiopian Jew or a proselyte. We read that “he had come to Jerusalem to worship” (Acts 8:27), actions explicable only if he is either a Jew or a proselyte making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, more than likely at one of the three appointed annual feasts (cf. Acts 2:10).
It was not at all clear to Peter and the others that the Gospel should be taken to the Gentiles (though Acts 1:8 seems clear enough in hindsight). Peter’s initial reluctance in going to Cornelius’ house at all was only overcome by a dramatic vision sent by God (Acts 10:9-23). Peter and his accompanying Jewish brethren were persuaded by the sign of tongues that their actions were right and proper in going into a Gentile’s house and offering him the Gospel without first requiring conversion to Judaism. It was sufficient proof to Peter that these Gentiles were suitable candidates for immersion. It was also the proof Peter used in his own defense that his actions were of God (Acts 11:15-17). Peter even expressly compares the events at Cornelius’ house with the events at Pentecost.
In none of the subsequent presentations of the Gospel to groups of Gentiles, whether in Acts or as reported in the Apostolic epistles was such a phenomenon repeated: the direct bestowal by God without any human intermediary of a gift of the Holy Spirit on all those present.
Up to chapter 6 of Acts, several miracles performed by God through human instrumentality are reported, namely the healing of the crippled man (Acts 3), the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) and the general statement: “And there also came together the multitude from the cities round about Jerusalem, bringing sick folk, and them that were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed every one” (Acts 5:16). It is notable that all these miracles were performed only by the Apostles. The record is absolutely silent up to this point about anyone else performing any kind of sign, wonder, or miracle: “And by the hands of the Apostles [emphasis added] were many signs and wonders wrought among the people” (Acts 5:12). Even the gift of tongues, manifest on Pentecost, is not repeated.
However, in Acts 6, the circle of miracle-workers expands. We read that “Stephen, full of grace and power, wrought great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). What had brought about this sudden change of affairs? The significant factor is reported in Acts 6:6, namely that after the church chose seven deacons, the Apostles prayed and then “laid their hands upon them.” As will become immediately evident, this act of the imposition of Apostolic hands upon Stephen (and Philip, at least; the record is silent about the other five), was the means by which the ability to perform signs and wonders–gifts of the Holy Spirit–was conveyed or transmitted. Before the laying on of Apostles’ hands he performed no miracles. Afterward, he performed many.
As a consequence of the persecution of believers in Jerusalem by Saul, Philip left that city and went to Samaria, where he presented the Gospel to the inhabitants of that region. Many Samaritans believed when they heard Philip’s message, “and saw the signs which he did” (Acts 8:6). These signs apparently included casting out demons, and healing the crippled and lame (v. 7), and they continued to be performed for some time, since at a later date, Simon the sorcerer saw the signs and great miracles which Philip performed (Acts 8:14). As with Stephen, we read of signs performed by Philip only after the laying on him of the Apostles’ hands.
Soon the Apostles heard about the reception of the Gospel message by the Samaritans and their subsequent undergoing believer’s immersion. Peter and John were sent from Jerusalem to Samaria, and when they arrived these two Apostles “prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit: for as yet He  was fallen upon none of them; . . . .Then laid they their hands on them [emphasis added], and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:16, 17).
That this act involved something more than or even other than simply receiving the Holy Spirit to indwell them or as the seal of redemption (Rom. 8:9; Eph. 1:13) is evident from verse eighteen: “When Simon saw [emphasis added] that through the laying on of the Apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given . . . .” Something external caught Simon’s attention, something not evident before in the conduct of these Samaritan believers. A broad spectrum of commentators on this passage recognize that the laying on of Apostolic hands involved the transmission of the charismata.
Matthew Poole, in the 17th century, explained the phrase in v. 15,
“that they might receive the Holy Ghost” as “those extraordinary gifts of tongues, of prophesying, of working miracles, &c.” And again on v. 17 (“They received the Holy Ghost”): “the power of speaking with tongues, and working miracles.”
In the 18th century, John Gill commented on the phrases “For as yet he was fallen upon none of them” in v. 16, and “and they received the Holy Ghost” in v. 17:
“They had received him as a Spirit of illumination and sanctification, and as a Spirit of conversion and faith; they had been regenerated, enlightened, and sanctified by him; and were converted by him, and brought to believe in Christ, and live by faith upon him; they were baptized believers, and no more; as yet, none of them had gifts qualifying them for the ministry; and still less could any of them speak with tongues, or prophesy, or work miracles; the Holy Ghost had not yet descended on them for such purposes [emphasis added]. . . .”
“. . .[T]hey received the gifts of the Holy Ghost; so that they could prophesy and speak with tongues, and heal diseases, and do other wonderful works;. . . .”
In the 19th century, Henry Alford recognized that something external and visible was evident in Samaria:
“Its effects [i.e., the laying on of Apostolic hands] were therefore visible. . .and consequently the effect of the laying on of the Apostles’ hands was not the inward but the outward miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit [emphasis in original].”
Noted 20th century writer F. F. Bruce states very plainly,
“The context leaves us in no doubt that their reception of the Spirit was attended by external manifestations such as had marked His descent on the earliest disciples at Pentecost.”
It seems evident, from the initial manifestations of the charismata elsewhere in Acts (2, 10, 19) that the gift or gifts here manifested was restricted to speaking with tongues and possibly “prophesying,” though the gifts bestowed may have included others as well. It not evident that anything more (such as the sound of a rushing wind or of tongues of fire) was seen (as there is no record of any such repetition at any time after Pentecost).
Also of surpassing significance is the fact that no one except Apostles could transmit these charismata to the Samaritans, and that the Apostles’ personal presence, indeed, the personal imposition of their hands, was necessary to their reception. These gifts did not come automatically at conversion, nor could they be transmitted by even so spiritual a man as Philip, who himself possessed and repeatedly exercised Holy Spirit gifts. The opening words of v. 18 could well be translated as “Now when Simon saw that only through the laying on of the Apostles’ hands were the Holy Spirit’s gifts given . . .”
The dozen men Paul encountered at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7) are the only other expressed case in Acts of the imposition of Apostolic hands and the exercise of one of the charismata. This account presents numerous problems which cannot detain us (whose disciples had they been? who had baptized them? what did Paul find improper about their baptism? in what way were they ignorant of the Holy Spirit? had they in fact been converted before Paul met them?).
What is significant for this study is the statement in v. 6: “And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.” In agreement with the incident in Acts 8, the personal imposition of Apostolic hands was a necessary prerequisite before these Christian men exercised the gifts of tongues and prophecy.
1. My settled opinion is that in all cases the gift of tongues in the New Testament was the miraculous ability to speak a foreign human language without the necessity of learning it by study or experience.
2. All Scripture quotations will be from the American Standard Version of 1901 unless otherwise identified.
3. The miraculous release of the Apostles from prison, Acts 5:19, was an angelic, not human, act.
4. The ASV inexplicably here reads “it,’ contrary to the uniform rendering of such earlier English versions as Wycliffe’s, Tyndale’s, Cranmer’s, the Geneva, the Rheims, the KJV and the ERV. The ASV corrected the KJV’s references to the Holy Spirit “itself” in Romans 8:16, 26, though it failed, as did the ERV of 1881, to correct the reference to the Holy Spirit as “it” in I Peter 1:11.
5. A Commentary on the Holy Bible, vol. III, p. 410.
6. Gill’s Commentary, vol. V, p. 860.
7. The Greek Testament, vol. II, p. 90
8. Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 181