TONGUES, PROPHECIES, HEALING – SPIRITUAL GIFTS SHOULD NOT ONLY BE EMBRACED, BUT ALSO EXERCISED, SAYS CRAIG KEENER
aul declares that we are the body of Christ with many members (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12, 20). He then elaborates on some of the varied gifts God has graciously given us to serve the rest of Christ’s body. Because Paul is simply offering samples, he provides several different lists that include a variety of ministries. These gifts for helping the other members in Christ’s body include such diverse ministries as giving, teaching, prophesying, speaking wisely, healings, worship leading, and evangelism (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-10, 28-30; 14:26; Eph. 4:11).
Paul nowhere distinguishes between what we might call supernatural and potentially natural gifts. That is, we need God’s grace to teach God’s word just as we need God’s grace to prophesy it. Like the churches that Paul first addressed, we remain the body of Christ in need of all our members and all our gifts; otherwise we will be like a body with important parts (such as hands or eyes) missing (1 Cor. 12:14-30).
Nevertheless, some modern Western interpreters have traditionally affirmed so-called natural gifts while denying that supernatural gifts such as prophecy remain. (Some of these Western interpreters have promoted their views elsewhere in the world, but happily most Christians elsewhere read the Bible for themselves and recognise that the Bible does not make such a distinction.) Not only is there no support for this distinction in the biblical text, but also Paul’s lists and teaching about gifts undercut it. Indeed, Paul emphasises the need for various gifts, including prophecy, to bring Christ’s body to maturity and unity in trusting and knowing Christ (Eph. 4:11-13) – a need that Christ’s body still has today. (I must pause to note here that Paul presumably uses the term “apostles” here, as he normally does elsewhere, to refer to a group of ministers larger than the Twelve original witnesses for Jesus. Virtually no one suggests that we still have original witnesses of Jesus among us; cf. Rom. 16:7; 1 Cor. 15:5-7; Gal. 1:19; 1 Thess. 2:6.)
One gift in nearly all of Paul’s lists, which Paul often ranks toward the top, is the gift of prophecy (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). In the Old Testament, it was the most commonly mentioned ministry for communicating God’s message; it remains prominent in the New Testament as well. Paul not only emphasises that this gift is particularly valuable for building up Christ’s body (1 Cor. 14:3-4), he even urges believers to seek it (14:1, 39; cf. 12:31). Thus, even if we did not know of true prophecies today, obeying biblical teaching would lead us to pray for God to give this gift to the body of Christ. Prophesying sometimes includes exposing the secrets of unbelievers’ hearts by God’s Spirit (14:24-25); at least in principle, the gift is widely available (14:5, 24, 31), though not all have it (12:29) and not all have it in the same degree (Rom. 12:6).
Those who object to gifts such as prophecy continuing today often argue that allowing for contemporary prophecy would diminish the unique authority of Scripture. But this argument itself is an extra-biblical approach that differs from what we find in Scripture. Both in the Old and New Testaments, we read of many prophets whose prophecies were not recorded in Scripture (e.g., 1 Kings 18:13; 1 Cor. 14:29, 31). Scripture does not include all true prophecies; Scripture moreover includes history and other genres that are not prophecies.
I am not suggesting that God is revealing new doctrines—new doctrine is quite different from saying that God speaks to us at times to guide and nurture us. We already have in Christ’s first coming the fullest revelation of God that we will receive until his return (Heb. 1:1-2), although the Spirit continues to teach us (John 14:26; 16:12-14; 1 John 2:27). One reason people object to gifts like prophecy continuing is that they fear that this opens the door for unbiblical doctrines. True prophecy need not do this. Yet the doctrine that the gifts have ceased is itself a postbiblical doctrine, without genuine biblical support.
Gifts like prophecy are pervasive in Scripture, and nowhere does Scripture suggest that they will become obsolete before the Lord’s return. Some cite 1 Cor. 13:8-10 against continuing gifts, but the text in fact teaches the opposite. Paul provides three examples of gifts: prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. Given how “knowledge” is used elsewhere in 1 Corinthians (versus some modern ideas about what it means; cf. 1:5; 8:1; 14:6), “knowledge” here probably means knowledge about God of the limited sort presently available, often through teaching. Both this sort of knowledge and prophetic messages are limited, as opposed to the full knowledge we will have when we see the Lord face to face (13:11). This expression cannot simply refer to the close of the canon at the end of the first century. Knowledge has not passed away, nor have we yet seen Jesus face to face, without limitation.
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