Prophecy Is Not… Prophecy?

There is a prominent view of prophecy that God can apparently presently give revelations or visions but then leaves the interpretation of such to the prophet, potentially resulting in errant prophecy that was only partially correct. Explaining this view in brief, 1) if the term prophets in Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5 is simply an appositional title for the apostles (meaning they are one and the same), 2) if these apostles act as the NT counterpart to the OT prophets, and 3) if any other prophets in the NT can merely be a prophet like the pagan prophets in Crete (Titus 1:12) or someone who might know something about you (cf. John 4:19) or might know who did some unseen thing (cf. Luke 22:29), then we can identify all of the other NT prophets (that is, in all other instances besides Eph 2:20 and 3:5) as something other and less than the OT prophets and have them speak from some mere “spiritual influence of some kind.”1 This influence could be the Holy Spirit, but (hopefully not) one’s “own interpretation” could muck the revelation up, maybe getting at least some of the details right along the way. In fact, Agabus in Acts 21:10–11 is an example of just that—though he said the Jews would bind Paul and deliver him to the Romans, it was the Romans who took Paul from the Jews and delivered him to their courts (so says Acts 21:33; 22:29). But he got the general idea of Paul’s arrest correct.2

A biblical view of NT prophecy, however, is to see all of it (whether by apostles or their fellow recipients of revelation, the prophets; cf. Eph 2:20; 3:5) as parallel to OT prophecy, and furthermore, as something that ceased once the Scriptures were complete (cf. Rev 22:18–19). There was obviously a loose sense of the word prophet (cf. Titus 1:12) and a narrow, biblical sense that referred to men who infallibly spoke for God, such as Agabus in Acts 21. The narrative of Acts 21:10–11 (and Acts 21:4 for that matter) would have perfectly fit with the revelation given by the Spirit to Paul in Acts 20:22–23—that imprisonment and afflictions were awaiting Paul in Jerusalem. And in keeping with Acts 19:21, Paul’s Spirit-given resolve in Acts 21:1–6 and 21:7–14 was to go obediently to Jerusalem despite what waited for him there. The resistance to Paul in the abbreviated narrative in Acts 21:4 was most likely the same in the more detailed and clearer Acts 21:10–14—inerrant prophecies of affliction were given, resulting in the human resistance of the brethren to Paul’s resolve to go to Jerusalem, much like Peter’s human resistance to Jesus once he understood that Jesus would likewise suffer (cf. Mark 8:31–32).3 As for Agabus and the fallout of his prophecy, his summary version of the events could simply be explained as the Jews and Paul described the matter later—that the Jews seized Paul, resulting in his being taken by the Romans (Acts 24:6; 26:21; 28:17).4

Of course, if one is compelled to explain the modern phenomenon of errant prophecy as a biblical phenomenon, one might find examples of such in the Bible as well. Or, if one simply lets the OT be the context for the NT, the prophets are in a class all their own from one testament to the next. According to the brief explanation above, this is the better and more biblical option of the two.

  1. Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1050. []
  2. This argument can be found by Grudem in his Systematic Theology, 1050–53. []
  3. David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (PNTC; Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 2009), 579–81. []
  4. See Bruce R. Compton, “The Continuation of NT Prophecy and a Closed Canon: Revisiting Wayne Grudem’s Two Levels of New Testament Prophecy” (paper presented at the Conference on the Church for God’s Glory in Rockford, IL on May 19, 2014), 11. Available online: []

Cessationism in a Nutshell

The term cessationism is typically used in theology with reference to the belief that the practice of miraculous spiritual gifts ceased at the end of the time of the apostles. In contrast, the term continuationism is used with reference to the belief that the practice of miraculous spiritual gifts continue to be practiced today.

Some gifts are miraculous because they involve the reception of God’s direct revelation—prophecy (receiving and giving this revelation), discerning of spirits (confirming that the Spirit gave revelation to another), wisdom (revelation giving wisdom), knowledge (revelation giving knowledge), tongues (revelation involving a known human language previously unknown to the speaker), and their interpretation (supernaturally interpreting a known human language previously unknown to the interpreter). See 1 Corinthians 12:8–10.

Other gifts are miraculous because, like the gifts above, they only take place by the supernatural work of God. These gifts include faith (the kind of faith granted for miracles; something beyond faith for salvation, it seems; cf. Matthew 17:20), miracles in general, and healings in particular. Again, see 1 Corinthians 12:8–10.

This second set of gifts— miracles, healings, and their necessary faith complement the first set of gifts, those that involve the reception and communication of divine revelation. Miracles confirmed that the speaker and his revelation from God were authentic and true. The message of “such a great salvation” was spoken by Jesus and the apostles, and “God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Hebrews 2:3–4; see also Acts 14:3).

Though miracles were occasionally practiced by someone outside of the apostles (e.g., Stephen in Acts 6:8; Stephen in Acts 8:6; Ananias in Acts 9:17–18), miracles were primarily the practice of the apostles themselves, so much so that Paul identified “signs and wonders and mighty works” as “the signs of a true apostle” (2 Corinthians 12:12). Apostles were those who had followed Jesus since the time of John the Baptist, could be a witness for having personally seen Him after His resurrection, and were personally appointed by Him to their apostleship (Luke 6:12–16; Acts 1:21–26). While Paul did not meet the first of these three requirements, Jesus Himself appointed Paul to his apostleship, and he was thus an apostle “untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8).

These requirements for being an apostle are historically conditioned. No one today (or for the last 1,900 years) fits these requirements. The apostles have ceased to be. And if signs, miracles, and wonders are primarily the signs of an apostle, then the practice of these miraculous gifts has also ceased to be. And if the primary purpose of these gifts was to attest to new revelation, then the reception of new revelation has ceased as well.

I realize that one can believe in the gospel and be either a cessationist or a continuationist. I also believe that God can do miracles today apart from the hands of men. But, as seen above, I also believe that new revelation and the miracles that validated this revelation and its speaker ceased with the apostles.

The importance of this whole matter lies in what claims as one’s authority for Christian belief and practice today—does God speak to us through Scripture alone, or does He continue to speak through men? If He continues to speak through men, the authority for Christian belief and practice lies in the Bible and also in men. But if God ceased to speak in this age when the apostles died and when He closed the Canon of Scripture, then Scripture alone is sufficient for our Christian belief and practice.

While the above is only the briefest of explanations for the cessation of apostles, miraculous gifts, and revelation, I believe that all we need for every good work and all the knowledge necessary for life and godliness is found in Scripture alone. May God help us all to mine the riches of His Word to do these good works and live a godly life for Him.


All quotes ESV.

Questions and Answers about Speaking in Tongues

While I realize that many disagree with cessationist beliefs (i.e., that special revelation and its occasionally-accompanying sign-gifts such as tongues were limited to the apostolic era and have thus ceased), it is helpful for anyone to study the topic of speaking in tongues as it is involves multiple chapters in Acts and 1 Corinthians. I know it has been helpful for me, and these are some answers from my own study that I provided to my church while preaching through Acts 2. My intent is certainly not to argue with anyone or stir debate with those who disagree. I don’t expect to bring others to my convictions (though I would not object if that happened!). I simply hope to share what I and my church believe for the benefit of others. Whatever your position may be, if otherwise, perhaps you will find it helpful as well. 

What were people saying when they spoke in tongues?

The speakers were speaking actual, human languages. Acts 2:1–13 provides an example of multiple tongues (languages) being spoken and lists them out. In the context of instructing the Corinthians, Paul states, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning” (1 Cor 14:10), implying that, whatever words they were speaking, and whether or not they had spoken the language before, they were being spoken in a meaningful, human language.
In 1 Cor 13:1, Paul supposes a situation in which he could speak in “tongues…of angels.” In doing so, Paul could have been speaking hyperbolically to stress the role of love as the motivation for using spiritual gifts—even if hypothetical but actually impossible angelic tongues could be spoken, even this kind of superlative tongue-speech is unprofitable if spoken for self and without love (cf. 1 Cor 13:1–7). Or, as he “heard things” in “the third heaven” and “paradise…which man may not utter,” the tongues of angels may be real, angelic languages but still impermissible for man to utter, even with the gift of tongues (2 Cor 12:2–4).

Acts describes in the content of tongues-speech in various ways. First, the content involved “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11), which had to do with works such as the resurrection of Jesus and finding salvation through the Spirit in Him (cf. Acts 2:14–41). Second, the content had to do with “extolling God” (Acts 10:46). Most likely, the context of Acts 10 involved new converts extolling (praising) God for what they had just believed of the gospel as well (cf. Acts 10:34–43). Third, speaking in tongues is joined with “prophesying” (Acts 19:6). As Peter explained speaking in tongues in terms of prophecy (cf. Acts 2:17), and as it spoke of “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11), the content of tongues in Acts 19 likely involved prophesying in that they speakers were praising God for His mighty work through Christ for salvation as well.

Added to the above, Paul identifies the content of tongues-speech as “mysteries” (1 Cor 14:2). “Everywhere in Paul’s writings ‘mysteries’ were truths about God and His program that for a time remained hidden, but were at that moment revealed through the inspired writer (Rom. 11:25; 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; 13:2; 15:51; Eph. 3:3–4, 9; 5:32; Col. 1:26).”1 For one speaking in tongues, these truths about God and His program were not essentially different from the other mysteries Paul would reveal in Scripture after writing to the Corinthians. The difference is that, with tongues, the mysteries were spoken.

What was the purpose for speaking in tongues?

On a basic level, the purpose for speaking in tongues indicated to the speakers and others that the speakers had been given the Spirit (Acts 2:1–13 with 2:33; Acts 10:46 with 10:47; Acts 19:2 with 19:6).

Paul likewise taught that “tongues are a sign…for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14:22). Looking more closely at the examples of tongues as the gift involved unbelievers in Acts, we could say that, like other miracles (a miraculous gift in this instance), tongues signified to unbelievers that what was being said of God’s Word was true (Acts 2; cf. 1 Kgs 17:24; Acts 14:3; Heb 2:4). In the other instances, tongues signified to new converts and especially others that the new converts had indeed believed the gospel and had been accepted by God as His people (Acts 10, 19). They could not speak in tongues by the Spirit if they did not have the Spirit. Within the gathered assembly (the situation that Paul is addressing in 1 Cor 14), it seems tongues could have likewise verified the truth or the certainty of one’s conversion as long as certain guidelines were followed (cf. 1 Cor 14:27–28).

Though these passages are not exactly alike in every detail, each passage somehow involved unbelievers and speaking in tongues. Either unbelievers heard the tongues-speech and then believed, or unbelievers believed and then spoke in tongues to confirm their belief.

 Are some Christians able to speak in “private prayer languages”?
A surface level reading of 1 Corinthians 14 leads some to the conclusion that Paul spoke of privately praying in tongues. After all, in the context of instructing the Corinthians about how to speak in tongues, Paul did mention that “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God” (1 Cor 14:2), that “the one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself” (1 Cor 14:4), that one can “pray in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:14), and that he could “speak to himself and to God” (1 Cor 14:28).
For each of these passages, however, one should remember that the entirety of 1 Cor 12–14 has to do with the assembled church and not what to do in a private, isolated setting. Paul’s repeated point in 1 Cor 14 is that the Corinthians were to do what edified the assembly (1 Cor 14:5, 12, 19, 26). With this necessary contextual element in mind, speaking or praying in a tongue to God alone should be understood as a misuse of tongues—an interpreter was necessary to make known to all the mysteries given by the Spirit, and the assembly would thus be edified (cf. 1 Cor 14:5). If an interpreter was not present, the one who could have spoken in tongues was to remain silent (1 Cor 14:28), be personally built up by silently contemplating the mysteries he could have otherwise spoken (1 Cor 14:4, 28), and let edification prevail through prophecy instead (1 Cor 14:5, 19). To clarify, tongues could certainly have involved praying in a tongue (cf. 1 Cor 14:14), but only in the assembly. The gift of tongues was meant to edify others.

Should missionaries witness in tongues?

In Acts 2, unbelievers heard the mighty of acts of God being declared in their native languages (Acts 2:8–11), which eventually led to the salvation of many (Acts 2:41). Moreover, Paul declared that “tongues are a sign…for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14:22). Should we attempt today to speak in tongues to unbelievers as a sign that what we say is true, which may lead to their salvation?

As a cessationist, I would obviously answer no to the question of whether or not missionaries should witness in tongues. But even if we set cessationism aside, the book of Acts describes this kind of thing only once in all of its 28 chapters (Acts 2). In Acts 10 and 19, it is not even the missionaries who were speaking in tongues. A well-known hermeneutical axiom is helpful here for Acts 2 (and Acts 10 and 19 for that matter)—“the descriptive is not necessarily prescriptive.” Stated another way, “narrative is not necessarily normative.”

If anything, this sign-gift fits with the overall theme of Acts—how the gospel spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). People spoke in tongues in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1–13), maybe further to Judea and Samaria (compare Acts 8:14–17 with 10:44–48), yet further to Caesarea (Acts 10:44–48), and yet even further all the way to Ephesus (Acts 19:1–7). The gift of tongues verified that the Spirit was given to believers in Jerusalem and others as the gospel spread to new and further geographic regions.

Should new converts to speak in tongues once they believe the gospel (e.g., Acts 10:44–48 and 19:1–7)?

Again, as a cessationist, I would answer no. But, along the lines of how we just answered the last question, if we build our expectations for new converts according to narrative descriptions alone, we should also include the instances of people being saved without speaking in tongues immediately thereafter (e.g., Paul in Acts 9, the Philippian jailer in Acts 16, etc.). Even for the book of Acts, speaking in tongues is not a uniform element for those who come to Christ.

Some try to narrow tongues-speaking and conversion to what happens on the frontiers of the gospel in a way that parallels Acts 10 and 19. But again, even with cessationism set aside, this claim is at best making a narrative normative, albeit in a limited way. It may keep tongues and any related excesses out of established congregations and isolate the gift to the ends of earth, but we have no direct instruction to expect this kind of thing. Narrative is not necessarily normative.

Does speaking in tongues have anything to do with reversing the judgment of tongues in Genesis 11?

Some suggest that the confusion of tongues at Babel in Gen 11 is “reversed” through tongues breaking the language barrier in Acts 2. The table of nations in Gen 10 likewise finds a parallel in the languages listed in Acts 2:8–11. And just as language was confused in Gen 11 to spread man over the earth, so also Acts 2 gives unity in language through tongues to take the gospel to every end of the earth to which man has spread (cf. Acts 1:8).2 Or, a softer conclusion, maybe Acts 2 showed the judgment of Gen 11 being not actually but only “symbolically broken” and will be “realized finally” at “the fulfillment of kingdom expectations (Rev. 5:9).”3

As interesting as these parallels may be, Acts 2 does not explicitly identify its events as a reversal of the judgment of Gen 11. Moreover, it does not even record everyone (whatever their spiritual state) speaking one, singular language, which would have been a full reversal of Gen 11. Many languages persist today as they did in Acts 2.4 That tongues are no longer spoken today is further evidence (for the cessationist) that Gen 11 has not been reversed as well.

No study is complete without looking at the Scriptures for yourself, but hopefully the above can be an introductory guide in studying this difficult topic. If nothing else, what an amazing gift it was for some to speak in tongues, edify others, and show the spread of the gospel!

  1. Robert Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts (revised edition; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 87. []
  2. Chalmer E. Faw, Acts (Believers Church Bible Commentary: Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993), 51. []
  3. Chad Brand, s.v., “Tongue” in the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman, 2003), 1605. []
  4. Max Turner, s.v., “Languages,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 628. []

Spiritual Gifts for Today

Yesterday, I posted a list of nine spiritual gifts that I believe are no longer operative today. Here is a list of the remaining six that have been in use in the church since its birth at Pentecost.1

Teaching (Rom 12:7; cf. teachers, 1 Cor 12:28, 29): Teaching involves one’s proper understanding and effective communication of spiritual truth to others for the sake of their edification.

Leadership (Rom 12:8, προΐστημι; 1 Cor 12:28, κυβέρνησις): Leadership involves the effective administration of God’s people according to God’s Word. Two words are used for leadership: προΐστημι(“he who leads,” Rom 12:8; cf. 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 3:4, 5; 5:17) and κυβέρνησις (“administrations,” 1 Cor 12:28; cf. Prov 1:5; 11:14; 24:6 [LXX] and Acts 27:11; Rev 18:17).

Exhortation (Rom 12:8): Exhortation involves effectively urging or appealing to one’s listeners to live out the truth of God’s Word.

Ministry: Service (Rom 12:7; 1 Pet 4:11) and Helps (1 Cor 12:28): Ministry is a broad word that refers to any way whereby one might serve the church and its members. Two words are used for the gift of ministry: διακονία (“service,” Rom 12:7; cf. 1 Pet 4:11) and ἀντίλημψις (“helps,” 1 Cor 12:28).

Mercy (Rom 12:8): Mercy also involves service but likely has to do with serving others in desperate circumstances.

Giving (Rom 12:8): Giving is a spiritual gift that refers to cheerfully giving of one’s resources with a view towards some type of benefit to the church.

  1. Some clarifications: (1) I assume that the gifts lists were not exhaustive; (2) the gift of ministry may refer to numerous ways one can serve within the church; (3) the gifts in my lists are Spirit-enabled functions, not spiritually-gifted people, as in Eph 4:11, for which the term gift in Eph 4:8 (cf. 4:11) stems from δόμα, not χάρισμα; (4) I am only referring to explicitly listed gifts, not gifts that might be otherwise deduced by theological conclusion from other related texts. []

Spiritual Gifts That Ceased at the End of the Apostolic Era

Paul lists nine spiritual gifts in 1 Cor 12:8–10, all of which I believe to have ceased sometime shortly after the end of the apostolic era. Here is a list of those gifts with a brief description of each.

Word of Wisdom (1 Cor 12:8): A word of wisdom involved prophecy that had more to do with the gospel proper (cf. 1 Cor 1:18–2:13).

Word of Knowledge (1 Cor 12:8): A word of knowledge involved prophecy that had more to do with truth necessary for daily Christian living (cf. 1 Cor 8:1–6, 10).

Faith (1 Cor 12:9): This gift of faith seems to be a faith beyond saving faith and is the absolute certainty that God can and will effect a healing or miracle during the event in which a healing or miracle takes place.

Gifts of healings (1 Cor 12:9): Paul singles out this gift and includes it in three of his gift lists (1 Cor 12:9, 28, 30), perhaps to highlight the variety of ways in which healing can take place.

Miracles (1 Cor 12:10, 29): The same may be said of miracles, which is literally “workings of miracles” in 1 Cor 12:10, a phrase shortened to just “miracles” in 1 Cor 12:29.

Prophecy (1 Cor 12:10): Prophecy entailed the perfectly accurate reception and communication of special revelation, made possible by the agency of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:10). This revelation could include predictions of the future but not necessarily so.

Discerning of Spirits (1 Cor 12:10): Discerning of spirits is a spiritual gift whereby a prophet  would discern with absolute certainty whether or not another individual had truly given an inspired prophecy to a local assembly (1 Cor 12:10; cf. 14:29).

Kinds of tongues (1 Cor 12:10): Tongues refer to understandable human languages (cf. 1 Cor 14:10; cf. Acts 2:4–11). That there are kinds of tongues is simply to say that there are many languages. Outside of the assembly, tongues highlighted the spread of the Spirit and the gospel (Acts 2:1–13; 10:44–48; 19:1–7). Within the assembly, tongues called attention to the communication of new revelation or the teaching of revelation already given (1 Cor 14:6) and would be confusing to unbelievers who were present (1 Cor 14:22).

Interpretation of tongues (1 Cor 12:10): The interpretation of tongues is similar in that it involves the translation of a given utterance from a language previously unknown into a language known by the one exercising this gift. Tongues and their interpretation functioned as prophecy in that revelation was given to the tongues-speaker and needed only to be translated by the interpreter (cf. 1 Cor 14:2).