The threefold purpose of spiritual gifts
What are spiritual gifts? Last month we examined their nature, distinguishing between the miraculous ‘sign gifts’ and ‘normal’ spiritual gifts such as teaching, administration and helps. We now we turn to the purpose of spiritual gifts, considering first the extraordinary sign gifts and the much debated question of their cessation or continuance. Finally, we see the continuing value in the church of the non-sign gifts.
The purpose of miraculous sign gifts was to authenticate the ministry of the apostles and their companions, and confirm the Word they preached (Mark 16:20).
The Word of God asserts that spiritual gifts such as miracles, healing, exorcism and prophecies were given for the purpose of authenticating the ministry of these men. Mark 16:20 says, ‘they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word with signs following’.
Furthermore, Acts 14:3 recounts that they were ‘speaking boldly in the Lord, [who] gave testimony unto the word of his grace and granted signs and wonders to be done by their hands’.
These two verses are explicit – the first purpose of the sign gifts was to authenticate the ministry and confirm the Word preached by the apostles and their companions (also see Romans 15:19; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Acts 4:20; 8:13; 15:12).
But the question arises, do Christians need miraculous signs today to confirm the Word that they preach? Obviously, three questions must be answered. Firstly, are there any more apostles in our days? Secondly, what was the role of non-apostles like Barnabas and Philip who also performed signs? And thirdly, does the Word or gospel of Christ require confirmation through sign gifts today?
The apostles and their companions
The New Testament apostles were, by definition, men personally called by Christ (Acts 1:21; Matthew 10:1-4). They also learned under him (Mark 6:30; 10:1) and bore witness to seeing him alive after his resurrection (Acts 1:22; Acts 9:3-5; John 20:26; note that Paul counts himself among their number in 1 Corinthians 15:8).
It follows that there can be no genuine apostles today, even if some falsely claim apostleship or appoint themselves to such an office.
But what of those who were not apostles but were deacons like Stephen (Acts 6:8), evangelists like Philip (Acts 8:6) or missionaries like Barnabas (Acts 14:3; note the plural ‘their’). They also performed miraculous signs which authenticated their testimony to Christ. Were they also unique in some way?
Yes, they were. Hebrews 2:3-4 explains that God bore witness ‘with signs and wonders’ to those who heard the gospel from the lips of Christ himself. It was this first-generation of preachers and evangelists who spoke of Christ from first-hand knowledge, and the signs confirmed the truth of their first-hand testimony.
Thus whether apostles or not, these first generation preachers were unique. No one since those days has had this special responsibility of testifying directly to the teaching of Jesus and so authenticating Christ’s own messianic claims.
There is no possibility, therefore, that the role and function of these first disciples can be repeated. Nor is there any need – because both their testimony and the signs they performed to support it are recorded for us in the New Testament Scriptures! They therefore still bear witness today and nothing needs to be added.
Creating a single church
A second purpose of the sign gifts was to unite Jewish and Gentile Christians together in Christ. Where does the Bible explicitly says that the sign gifts were given for this purpose? In Acts 10:46-47 which says, ‘they heard [the Gentiles] speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptised, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?’
Many first century Jewish Christians perceived Gentile Christians to be inferior because they were not physical descendants of Abraham and had not been circumcised according to the Mosaic law (Romans 2:17-29; Galatians 2:11-14).
However, the manifestation of the sign gift of tongues among Gentile Christians proved otherwise (Acts 10:26,27). Gentile Christians received the same Holy Spirit as the Jewish converts and were not second-class Christians.
Do Christians today need to rely on sign gifts to prove that Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians are equal in Christ? No. Because we have the complete revelation of God in our hands – the New Testament Scriptures which prove that all born again Christians are equal in the sight of God (Ephesians 2:11-19).
They are all chosen people (1 Peter 2:9,10) and are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). They are all spiritual children of Abraham regardless of race, background or culture (Galatians 3:29).
Edifying the church
But what of the use of sign gifts in the church at Corinth and elsewhere? It is clear that these were intended to edify and build the church, the ‘body of Christ’.
Paul writes, ‘The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all’ (1 Corinthians 12:7 NKJV). The words ‘of all’ have been added by the translators but correctly so, being clearly implied by the analogy that follows in verses 12-31 – which pictures the church as one body with many members.
The ‘body analogy’ is used again in Ephesians 4:7-16, where Christ’s ascension-gifts to his church are listed as the people who minister to it – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
Apostles and (arguably) prophets can be categorised among ‘sign gifts’ because they exercised a unique ministry in the first-generation church (see below). But evangelists, pastors and teachers are obviously ‘normal’ gifts which remain with us today. Either way, their function was to edify and nurture the infant church (Ephesians 4:12-16).
The revelatory sign gifts were needed in the early church for one obvious reason – New Testament Scripture was still in the making. The gospel revelation, although implicit in the Old Testament, still had to be made explicit.
Thus Paul writes, ‘by revelation [God] made known to me the mystery … which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit’ (Ephesians 3:3-5; emphasis added).
This gospel ‘mystery’ is, of course, now embodied in the NT Scriptures. But before those Scriptures were complete and widely circulated there was a need for apostles and prophets to minister New Testament truth directly to churches by revelation. Clearly, this is no longer necessary.
The non-sign gifts today
It is equally clear that non-sign gifts are still given to the church today. We have already mentioned evangelists, pastors and teachers with their respective ministries. What are some of the other non-sign gifts?
Verses 5-6 and 27 of 1 Corinthians 12 indicate that various ‘helps’, ‘administrations’ and ‘operations’ are gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thus besides evangelism, pastoring and teaching, spiritual gifts include less obvious activities like administration; visitation of members and the sick (James 1:27; 5:14,15; Acts 15:36); caring for the poor and needy (James 1:27); and simply being helpful to the cause of Christ and to his people.
And what is the purpose of these less remarkable or spiritual gifts? It is again for the profit of believers and the edification and building-up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-16).
Love with discernment
In fact, Paul said that the greatest spiritual gift that Christians ought to seek is love, which is ‘the bond of perfection’ (1 Corinthians 13:13; Colossians 3:14). And that should alert us to the need to respect the views of others – not least their views on spiritual gifts!