Have Tongues and Prophecy Really Passed Away?
By Paul Christensen
The cessationist view is based on 1Cor13:8 where is says that when the perfect is come, the partial shall be done away. It seems that a whole doctrine has been formed on the basis of this one verse of scripture. Most Bible scholars would cast doubt on any doctrine based on just one verse of the Bible, let alone an important one where gifts of the Holy Spirit are withdrawn from the church.
Paul was always clear and straightforward in his doctrinal statements. He makes reference to this where he says that although his actual presence is weak and contemptible, his letters are weighty and powerful. (2 Corinthians 10:10). What made his letters this way was the forcefulness and directness of them. Look at this Scripture:
Since we have such [glorious] hope –such [joyful and confident] expectation – we speak very freely and openly and fearlessly. (2 Corinthians 3:12)
This was Paul’s manner of speaking: freely, fearlessly, and openly. He did not speak in riddles, or double meaning words. When he had something to say, he said it clearly and without ambiguity.
This would clearly show that if Paul really believed that the gifts would pass away one day, he would have said so quite clearly. He would not have said something in riddles or with words that could be interpreted different ways. He would have said something like this: “Tongues, prophecy and knowledge will cease when all the Apostle’s letters and gospels are gathered together as one book, because once believers have that book which contains the whole revelation of the gospel of Christ, then these gifts will have served their purpose and will pass away.”
We know that Paul did not say that. Therefore it would be out of character for him to establish an important doctrine like the cessation of tongues and prophecy with one or two non-contextual sentences in the middle of his teaching about the ministries and gifts of the Spirit. If Paul has clearly set out his other doctrinal points, why not set this one out the same way?
One thing we do know clearly is that tongues and prophecy will cease one day. Paul makes that quite clear. The important issue is the timing of the event. He says it will be when ‘the perfect is come’. To find out what he means by that, we need to find out the definition of the term ‘the perfect’.
One possible interpretation may be around the theme of ‘love’. Paul may very well be comparing the gifts of tongues and prophecy with the perfection of agape love. Therefore, one interpretation could be that when the perfect (agape love in its pure form) comes, the imperfect (by comparison) gifts will pass away. This interpretation makes better sense in the context of the rest of the chapter.
The problem with assuming that ‘the perfect’ means the completion of the Canon of the New Testament is that none of the Apostles, including Paul, had any conception that there was going to be such a thing. The formation of the Canon is to be 300 years into the future. Once again, if Paul had any knowledge of it through his natural ability or by revelation, he would have stated it somewhere in his letters. But there is no mention anywhere in his letters that he is aware that there is going to be a Canon, so it is unreasonable to assume that this is what he meant when he wrote 1 Corinthians 13:8.
Of course, he would be very aware that all the Spiritual gifts would pass away at the Second Coming of Christ. He implies that in his writing in different places, so that there is more than just one verse of Scripture that expresses that point. But there is a reasonable doubt that this is what he is saying at the end of 1 Corinthians 13. Although the Second Coming of Christ is hinted at in a round about way, Paul does not specifically mention it in clear terms.
What he does make clear, however, is that the gifts of the Spirit are imperfect compared to ‘perfection’ (needs to be defined). There is going to come a day when perfection will come and the imperfect gifts will disappear to make way for something that will more perfectly express the love of Christ to believers. Paul says “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.” This says that now, through the gifts of the Spirit, we get a vague image of the love of Christ working through them; but when the perfect love of Christ comes, we will no longer be looking through a veil, but we will see clearly, and will know more perfectly, and we will have no further use for the imperfect gifts because we will have direct access to the Giver of the gifts, and will have open fellowship with Him, having all our needs met through a much deeper personal, face to face, relationship with the Saviour.
Paul expresses it as playing around with toys like children at the present time, but when the perfect love of Christ appears, it will be as if we have grown up and no longer need the toys that once satisfied us. We move to adulthood in the Spirit and leave the childish instruments and tools behind us. The crux of the matter depends on the definition of ‘the perfect’. Once we have that sorted out, we will know how to interpret 1 Corinthians 13:8 correctly.
The central expression the cessationist relies on is ‘when that which is perfect has come’. He defines it as the formation of the Canon of Scripture which he views as the ‘perfect’ Word of God. As we now have the perfect Word of God, so he says, we no longer have need for the imperfect gifts. Therefore they have now served their purpose and have ceased. This is the basis of the cessationist’s position.
Here is an extract from Matthew Henry’s Commentary on 1Corinthians13:8:
From its longer continuance and duration: Charity never faileth. It is a permanent and perpetual grace, lasting as eternity; whereas the extraordinary gifts on which the Corinthians valued themselves were of short continuance. They were only to edify the church on earth, and that but for a time, not during its whole continuance in this world; but in heaven would be all superseded, which yet is the very seat and element of love. Prophecy must fail, that is, either the prediction of things to come (which is its most common sense) or the interpretation of scripture by immediate inspiration. Tongues will cease, that is, the miraculous power of speaking languages without learning them. There will be but one language in heaven. There is no confusion of tongues in the region of perfect tranquility.
Matthew Henry is in no doubt that the time when prophecy and tongues will cease will be when we get to heaven.
Let us look at what he says about verse 10:
When that which is perfect shall come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When the end is once attained, the means will of course be abolished. There will be no need of tongues, and prophecy, and inspired knowledge, in a future life, because then the church will be in a state of perfection, complete both in knowledge and holiness. God will be known then clearly, and in a manner by intuition, and as perfectly as the capacity of glorified minds will allow; not by such transient glimpses, and little portions, as here.
Matthew Henry continues to state that the time when tongues and prophecy are to abolished is in heaven. He says that there the church will be in ‘a state of perfection, complete both in knowledge and holiness.’ Nowhere does he mention the formation of the Canon of Scripture. He sees the state of perfection as being the state of the church. Until the church reaches that state of perfect knowledge and holiness, the gifts of tongues and prophecy will remain and be a part of it.
Looking at the present state of the church, we all, including the cessationists, have to admit that the church is still in a state of confusion and division, far from the perfect standard that God expects of it. Therefore, on that basis, there is no reason to believe that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit have ceased.
Kretzmann’s Popular Commentary has this to say about 1Corinthians 13:9:
Since the assertion that the gifts of knowledge and prophecy will cease might seem strange, Paul explains his statement: For in part we know, and in part we prophesy; but when there comes the perfect, the imperfect will be abolished. Our knowing in this world is imperfect, inadequate for a complete understanding of God, of His essence, of His will. There are only small parts of the eternal, heavenly truth that we understand, even with our enlightened Christian reason. We have no comprehensive view of the total, of the connection of the divine thoughts and counsels; the fullness of God's greatness and majesty is still hidden from us. We know only so much of God's essence and will as is necessary for our salvation. And the most enlightened and inspired commentators of the Bible are able to get only glimpses of the mysteries of the spiritual world, of the heavenly glories, through the revelation given to us in the Gospel. But this imperfect condition will cease, the knowing and prophesying in part will come to an end, as soon as the perfect appears, just as the blush of dawn disappears when the sun rises above the horizon in full splendour. When Christ will return in glory, when we shall be glorified with Him in heaven, then all the imperfections of this present knowledge will be left behind.
This is another witness to the view that perfection involves Christ returning in glory and we bring glorified with Him in heaven.
John Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:10 witnesses the same as the other two commentaries:
When that which is perfect is come,“ when the goal has been reached, then the helps in the race will be done away.” He retains, however, the form of expression that he had already made use of, when he contrasts perfection with what is in part “Perfection,” says he, “when it will arrive, will put an end to everything that aids imperfection.” But when will that perfection come? It begins, indeed, at death, for then we put off, along with the body, many infirmities; but it will not be completely manifested until the day of judgment, as we shall hear presently. Hence we infer, that the whole of this discussion is ignorantly applied to the time that is intermediate.
So here we have three reliable witnesses, representing men of God who have prayed and consider what these verses mean, agreeing on what they view ‘the perfect’ is. The Scripture says:
…so that every word may be confirmed and upheld by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Matt18:16)
So the testimony of the three witnesses that we have provided shows that they believe that the ‘perfection’ is that perfect state of the believer when he gets to heaven and fellowships with the Lord face to face. They also speak of the perfection and holiness of the church when it goes into eternity as the holy Bride of Christ.
These would now bring reasonable doubt on the interpretation that the cessationists propose about verses 8 and 10 of 1Corinthians. Three highly respected commentaries contradict them, and although the only really reliable way to get a totally accurate interpretation of the verse is to ask the original author, St Paul, and we cannot do that, the next best thing is to take the word of our most respected and scholarly commentators.
Also, it is noteworthy that Paul does not mention anywhere in his letters anything about a future time when the literature of the early church would be gathered together and a Canon decided upon. Neither does Peter or John in their epistles. In fact, the concept of a New Testament Canon is unknown until the Second Century.
But when we study the writings of Paul concerning the time when the Church was going to reach perfection, we see that he fully understands the concept and frequently refers to it elsewhere. Let’s look at some of the places where he talks about the Church reaching full perfection and holiness.
That He might present the church to Himself in glorious splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such things – that she might be holy and faultless (Ephesians 5:27)
Paul is comparing the relationship between husband and wife to Christ and His church. He is seeing forward to a time when the Church will be without spot or wrinkle; in other words, perfect. This is what he is thinking of when he says when that which is perfect is come.” He is talking about the emergence of the Christian Church, holy and faultless, standing with Christ when He comes again.
The perfection of the Church is inseparably linked to the Second Coming of Christ in the mind of Paul. This is exemplified in the following Scripture:
But we are citizens of the state (commonwealth, homeland) which is in heaven, and from it also we earnestly and patiently await [the coming of] the Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah, [as] Saviour. Who will transform and fashion anew the body of our humiliation to conform to and be like the body of His glory and majesty, by exerting that power which enables Him even to subject everything to Himself.
This talks not only of us as individuals, but us as the Church, the Body of Christ. This is all part of the emergency of the perfect Church that is to reflect His glory and majesty.
The purpose of God is that Christ is going to present us before the Father as faultless. This started with our conversion to Christ, and is continuing through the process of progressive sanctification as we go through the journey of our lives, But there will come the day when we as individuals and as a Church will be presented to the father having been made perfect in Christ as set out in the following Scripture:
You now has [Christ, the Messiah,] reconciled [you to God] in the body of His flesh through death, in order to present you holy and faultless and irreproachable in His [the Father’s] presence. (Col 1:22)
We know that the whole creation as been moaning together in the pains of labour until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves too, who have and enjoy the first fruits of the (Holy) Spirit – a foretaste of the blissful things to come- groan inwardly as we wait for the redemption of our bodies [from sensuality and the grave, which will reveal] our adoption (our manifestation as God’s sons). (Romans 8:22.23)
Paul is saying that the whole creation is groaning as it waits impatiently for that time when we will be manifested as God’s children. This is a clear image of the future emergence of the faultless and holy Church of God.
He says that we are presently enjoying the first fruits of the Holy Spirit. This speaks of the present gifts and ministries, set out in 1Corinthians12. Part of those first fruits are the gifts of tongues and prophecy. But once the Church emerges in the glory of Christ and is presented to the Father, the first fruits will fade away.
Therefore, we see the present gifts and ministries of the Spirit serve to build up and develop the Church in its journey of progressive sanctification, looking forward to that day when it will be made perfect in Christ.
This is enough to show us that Paul had a more clear view of the Church being made perfect at the Second Coming of Christ, than he had of the emergence of the Canon of the New Testament. Paul would never have viewed the collective writings of the Apostles as having such perfection that they would replace the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. But it is easy to see that he would certainly believe that the emergence of the perfect Church of Christ would cause the gifts and ministries of the Spirit to fade into insignificance.
Paul is quite clear that the present Church is a work in development:
In Him (Christ) the whole structure is joined (bound, welded) together harmoniously; and it continues to rise (grow, increase) into a holy temple in the Lord – a sanctuary dedicated consecrated and sacred to the presence of the Lord. (Ephesians 2:21)
This talks of the structure of the Church, which is growing and increasing until at last it becomes a holy sanctuary dedicated to the Lord. At the present time, the Church is growing and developing. It is not perfect yet. Perfect has yet to come.
Finally, we see that Paul combines the gifts and ministries with the building up of the Church:
And His gifts were [varied; He Himself appoint and gave men to us,] some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers. His intention was the perfecting and the full equipping of the saints, [that they should do] the work of ministering toward building up Christ’s body (the church). [That it might develop] until we all attain oneness in the faith and in the comprehension of the full and accurate knowledge of the Son of God; that [we might arrive] at really mature manhood – the measure of the stature of the fullness of the Christ, and the completeness found in Him. (Ephesians 4:11-13).
When we couple these references to 1Corinthians13:8,10 we then see that Paul is further emphasising the perfection he is looking forward to. It is the emergence of the perfect Church. He sees the gifts of tongues and prophecy as tools in the building up and development of our present church, and these tools will be set aside once the Church has reached perfection. This is the only possible interpretation, given these other references.
So now we see the absurdity of the cessationist interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:10 as the perfect thing being the Canon of the New Testament. To use this interpretation is to pluck this verse right out of the natural context of Paul's thinking about what is actually perfect. The verse fits comfortably with Paul’s other sayings about the Church developing towards perfection in Christ, but the Canon interpretation is in sharp discord with them.
So though this we have shown that the gifts of tongues and prophecy are still part of the present developing Church and will only be made redundant when it emerges as the holy and faultless Church standing in the full light of the knowledge of Christ, being presented to the Father.
But the cessationist maintains that tongues were a sign to unbelievers; and the ‘unbelievers’ are defined as ‘unbelieving’ Israel. Therefore, they say that the gift of tongues were meant to be spoken in front of Jews in order to show them that the gospel was true and that they were under the judgement of God. Well, this is partly true.
When Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 14:22, he first gives an example from Isaiah 28:11,12.
It is written in the Law, By men of strange languages and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and not even then will they listen to Me, says the Lord. (1 Corinthians 14:21)
The Jews would have known about this because after Isaiah prophesied this, the Assyrians invaded Israel and took over the government of the nation. But instead of repenting and allowing God to become their Deliverer to put things back under His Lordship, they made alliances with the Assyrians and adopted much of their culture. So the Lord stopped speaking to them in their native language, and chose to speak to them through the Assyrians. This was to show them that the Lord was no longer their Lord and that they were under His judgement. But even then, they would not turn back to the Lord and make Him their Lord and their God.
But Isaiah’s prophecy was never meant to be a prophecy concerning the New Testament gift of tongues. When Isaiah made mention of ‘this people’, he meant the people of his time, not the Jews of any later age.
Peter quoted the prophecy that foretold this when he preached to them in Acts 2:
This is [the beginning of] what was spoken through the prophet Joel: And it shall come to pass in the last days, God declares, that I will pour out of My Spirit upon all mankind, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy...” (Acts 2:16,17, quoting Joel 2:28-32)
Although the Joel prophecy does not expressly mention tongues, Peter quotes it in the context where the listeners had heard the gift of tongues being manifested and their own native dialects being spoken. Peter obviously included the manifestation of tongues, by implication, in his quote of the Joel prophecy.
But Paul’s example has a different purpose, he is showing that in the same way as in Isaiah’s time when the Jews were under judgement because God spoke to them through the Assyrian tongue, which by comparison to Hebrew sounded like ‘stammering’, so the present day unbelievers who at first were Jews and afterward were Gentiles as well, when they heard the gift of tongues being manifested, would know that they were under the same judgement of God. The gospel was the only thing that was going to give them hope of salvation. This is what Paul meant in verse 22 of 1Corinthians:
Thus [unknown] tongues are meant for a supernatural sign, not for believers, but for unbelievers [on the point of believing]…
The Jews would readily understand this, because they would know the background of the Isaiah quote. With the correct teaching (which Paul would have given), the Gentile unbelievers would have been made aware of it also.
The point is, that unbelievers would not be able to understand the language when it was being spoken near them. This is why quoting the manifestation of Acts 2 where Jews from the different countries heard in their own native dialects the disciples speaking of the wonders of God, to give an example of tongues being a ‘sign’ to unbelievers is right out of context to what Paul was actually saying. The fact that the listeners on the Day of Pentecost could actually understand the languages meant that tongues for them was not acting as a ‘sign’ at all.
For tongues to act as a sign for unbelievers, according to Paul, the languages were not to be understood. It was meant to show that while God was speaking to them in languages they could not understand, they were under His judgement, and it was a signal that they needed to get right with Him and become believers. Then the Word of God to them would come as prophecy in a language they could understand.
This is linked with Paul saying that unbelievers had their minds blinded so that they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ (2Corinthians4:4). Paul also said that the things of God could not be understood by unbelievers because they were spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14). So when unbelievers encounter Spirit filled believers speaking in tongues their very lack of understanding is a sign that they do not understand spiritual things because their spirits are dead and they are under the judgement of God.
What we have done is to dismantle, through a careful study of Scripture, two of the main foundations of cessationist belief. We have clearly shown that they have seriously misquoted the Scripture to make out that tongues and prophecy are longer part of the Church’s toolbox. We have also shown that even if they believed that tongues was still existent, it would be limited as a sign to unbelieving Jews. We have shown that this is also a misquote of the Scripture.
If cessationists have made these two glaring errors as part of their teaching on the ministry of the Spirit and the gifts of tongues and prophecy, then it would be reasonable to assume that the other principles they are promoting could also be in error. We think that there is a reasonable doubt about the veracity of their teaching on tongues and prophecy. They are using a completely defective premise, and are teaching their disciples error.
Some cessationist writers even go as far as to say that people who speak in tongues and prophesy are being motivated and inspired by a wrong spirit. This implies that tongues speakers are inspired by demons instead of the Holy Spirit. We would counter that by maintaining that because we have shown that they themselves are in error, through misquoting and twisting the Scripture, they themselves might be in bondage to a spirit of error themselves.
We would go a little further, and quote from 2 Chronicles 18: 18-21 where the prophet Michaiah gave the Word of God in prophecy to King Ahab in front of his 400 prophets who had prophesied that he would win the battle that he was about to fight.
Michaiah said, therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of Heaven standing at His right hand and His left. And the Lord said, Who shall entice Ahab king of Israel, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead? And then there came a spirit and stood before the Lord, and said, I will entice him. The Lord said to him, By what means? And he said, I will go out, and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And the Lord said, You shall entice him, and also succeed; go forth and do so.
This is an object lesson to those who start with a premise that is not clearly part of God’s Word and then try to twist and stretch it to fit their preconceived idea. The 400 prophets of Ahab had a preconceived idea that Ahab was a strong king who would win against his enemies. They prophesied the things that the king wanted to hear, instead of really seeking to hear what the Lord was really saying.
Genuine Bible teachers start with what the Scripture actually says. They do not start with a premise and make the Bible fit into it. They do it the other way around; they form their premise on what the Bible tells them.
In our experience, when a lying spirit starts to influence the teaching, it is because the Bible teacher has tried to make the Bible fit his ideas. Jesus is not Lord of his teaching, and this opens the way for a lying spirit to gain access. Once it is in place, it is very difficult to detect and remove. The teacher is totally convinced that his error is truth. It is as if his eyes and mind are blinded to the fact that he is teaching error.
We have many pseudo-christian sects that started with people who genuinely believed in the Lord and preached the gospel. Then for a number of reasons they developed a theory and started to try and fit the Scripture into their theory. Ultimately, they were the founders of sects that departed completely from the purity of the gospel and adopted all sorts of doctrines, some of which were doctrines of devils (1 Timothy 4:1)
The gift of tongues is a very powerful tool for preparing the Christian for ministering in the Spirit and preaching the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. The devil knows this, and has worked hard to talk two thirds of the Church out of using it as a tool for personal growth, intercession and as a preparation for evangelism and healing ministry. He has used the defective doctrines of cessationists to achieve that end.
We need to turn away from cessationist teaching, and take God at His Word. His Word tells us that there is a gift of tongues, and it is available to us as a tool for our Christian lives and ministry. Paul gives us the ‘instruction manual’ in 1Corinthians14. It is up to us to use the resources that God has given us.
The gift of tongues was very important to
Paul, and he used it as much as he possibly could. We can see the
results of that. His letters are the basis of our New Testament
doctrine. We have the choice to follow his example and see the same
power of the Holy Spirit working through our lives as well.
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