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Study 2: The Spirit of God
Definition | Inspiration | Gifts of the Holy Spirit | The Withdrawal of the Gifts | The Bible The Only Authority | Digressions (Is the Holy Spirit A Person?, The Principle of Personification, Calvinism, "Ye shall receive the . . . Holy Spirit", "These signs shall follow") | Questions
2.3 Gifts of the Holy Spirit
At various times in His dealings with men, God has delegated the use of His power ("Holy Spirit") to men. However, this has never been in the form of a "blank cheque", as it were, enabling them to do what they wished; always the use of this Holy Spirit has been for a specific purpose. When it was accomplished, the gift of the Holy Spirit was withdrawn. We must remember that God's spirit acts in a way which forwards the purpose which is in His mind. His purpose often allows short-term suffering in the lives of men in order to bring about His long-term purpose (see Study 6.1), so it is to be expected that His Holy Spirit would not necessarily be used to alleviate human suffering in this life. Any such relief it does achieve will be for a higher purpose of expressing God's mind to us.
This is in marked contrast to popular Christian attitudes to the Holy Spirit today; the impression is given that belief in Christ is worth it because of the physical benefit, e.g. healing from illness, which the Holy Spirit will supposedly give. This would explain why in strife-torn countries like Uganda there has been a marked outbreak of people claiming to possess the spirit gifts of healing and, historically, such claims have often coincided with times of great human need. This in itself places present claims of spirit possession under some suspicion; if someone is looking for experience which transcends the present human plight, it is easy to claim to have found something which fills the bill.
Many 'Christians' today claim to possess miraculous spirit gifts, yet when questioned about what their exact purpose is, there is a significant uncertainty. God has always given His spirit to achieve specific, defined objectives. Because of this, those who truly possessed the gifts of the spirit knew exactly what they were to use them for, and therefore did not achieve only partial success in their use of them. This contrasts with the many failures and partial cures experienced by those who claim to have spirit gifts of healing today.
The following examples all indicate specific reasons and objectives being behind the granting of spirit gifts. In none of these cases was there any subjective element associated with possessing the gifts, nor were the possessors of the gifts able to use them just as they saw fit. Because we are talking of God's spirit, it is inconceivable that men could direct the use of it, seeing that it was given to them in order to perform certain specific desires of God, rather than those of the men who had the temporary use of it (cp. Isa. 40:13).
- Early in Israel's history, they were commanded to make an elaborate tent ("tabernacle") in which the altar and other holy items could be kept; detailed instructions were given concerning how to make all the items which would be necessary for the worship of God. To accomplish this, God gave His spirit to certain men. They were, "filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron's garments..." etc. (Ex. 28:3).
- One of these men, Bezaleel, was "filled with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to...work in gold and...in cutting of stones...in all manner of workmanship" (Ex. 31: 3-5).
Num. 11:14-17 records how some of the spirit/power delegated to Moses was taken from him and given to the elders of Israel, for the purpose of enabling them to correctly judge the people's grievances so that there was less pressure on Moses. Just before Moses' death, the spirit gift was transferred from him to Joshua so that he, too, could properly lead God's people (Deut. 34:9).
- From the time that the people of Israel entered their land until their first king (Saul) they were governed by men called judges. During this period they were often oppressed by their enemies, but the book of Judges records how the spirit of God came upon some of the judges in order to miraculously deliver Israel from their invaders - Othniel (Jud. 3:10), Gideon (Jud. 6:34) and Jephthah (Jud.11:29) exemplify this.
- Another judge, Samson, was given the spirit in order to kill a lion (Jud. 14:5,6); to kill 30 men (Jud. 14:19) and to break apart cords with which he had been tied up (Jud. 15: 14). Such "Holy Spirit" was therefore not possessed by Samson continually - it came upon him to achieve specific things and was then withdrawn.
- When God had a special message for His people, the spirit would inspire someone to speak forth God's word. When the message was ended, the spirit gift of speaking directly on God's behalf was withdrawn, and that person's words would again be his own personal ones, rather than those of God. One of many examples:-
See 2 Chron. 15:1,2 and Lk.4:18,19 for other examples.
From this it should be evident that receiving the gift of the use of God's spirit for a particular purpose was not
It has to be said that there is much hazy reasoning about gifts of the Holy Spirit. People claim to have 'received the Holy Spirit', and in many a Gospel Hall the preacher dangles the carrot of 'receiving spirit gifts' before those considering 'accepting Jesus'. But the question must be pressed, Which gifts? It is inconceivable that men do not know exactly which gift they possess. Samson was given a spirit gift to kill a lion (Jud. 14:5,6); as he faced the roaring animal he would have known exactly what the spirit had been given him for. There could have been no doubt in his mind. This stands in stark contrast to those today who claim to have received the Holy Spirit, but cannot perform any specific act; nor do they know which gift(s) they are supposed to have.
There is surely no alternative but to conclude that such people have had a dramatic emotional experience connected with Christianity, and the subsequent U-turn in their attitude to life has left them with a strange feeling of newness within themselves. Being aware of this, they have seized on the Bible passages concerning Holy Spirit gifts, and concluded, 'This must be what I'm experiencing!' and their gleeful Pastor taps them under the chin and says, 'Dead right! Praise God!' and uses such cases as 'proof' when trying to convince others to receive the Holy Spirit. The root cause of this travesty lies in the lack of Biblical understanding which the person had before their supposed 'conversion'.
As we struggle against the deceptiveness of our own feelings (Jer. 17:9), we must keep our feet on the solid rock of Bible principles. In nothing is this need more apparent than in a study of how God's spirit works. We all like to think that God's power is working with us in our lives. But how and why is He doing so? Do we really possess the spirit gifts as men did in the Bible record? If we wish to truly know God and have a living relationship with Him, we will recognize the urgency of properly understanding these things.
Reasons For The Gifts In The First Century
Remembering the basic principles which we have already learnt about the gifts of God's spirit, we now come to the New Testament record of the spirit gifts which were possessed in the early church (i.e. the groups of believers who lived in the generation after the time of Jesus).
Christ's last command was for the apostles to go throughout the world preaching the Gospel (Mark 16:15,16). This they did, with the theme of Christ's death and resurrection foremost in their message. But remember that then there was no New Testament as we know it. As they stood in market places and synagogues speaking about this man Jesus of Nazareth, their story could have sounded bizarre - a carpenter from Israel who was perfect, who died and was then resurrected in accurate fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, and who was now asking them to be baptized and follow His example.
In those days, other men were also trying to develop cult followings. There had to be some way of proving to the world that the message preached by the Christians was from God Himself, rather than being the philosophy of a band of fishermen from Northern Israel.
In our day we appeal to the New Testament records of the work and doctrine of Jesus in order to prove that our message is from God; but in those days, before it was written down and available, God allowed the preachers the use of His Holy Spirit in order to underline the truth of what they were saying. This was the specific reason for the use of the gifts in the sight of the world; the absence of the written New Testament would have also made it difficult for the new groups of believers to grow in their faith. The numerous practical problems which arose amongst them would have had no clear solution; there would have been little means of guidance for them to grow in their faith in Christ. So for these reasons the gifts of the Holy Spirit were made available for the guidance of the early believers through inspired messages, until the New Testament record of these messages and the teaching of Jesus was written and circulated.
As ever, these reasons for the granting of the Holy Spirit were made abundantly plain:-
Concerning the use of the gifts to confirm the preaching of the Gospel, we read:-
Thus the miracles led him to really respect the doctrines being taught. At Iconium also, "the Lord...gave testimony unto the word of his grace, and granted signs and wonders to be done" (Acts 14:3).
All this is summarized by the comment on the apostles' obedience to the command to preach: "They went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following" (Mark 16:20).
Specific Things At Specific Times
These gifts of the spirit were therefore given in order to perform specific things at specific times. This shows the error of claiming that the miraculous possession of the gift is a permanent experience throughout a person's life. The apostles, including Peter, were "filled with the Holy Spirit" at the feast of Pentecost, soon after Jesus' ascension (Acts 2:4). They were therefore able to speak in foreign languages in order to launch the preaching of the Christian Gospel in a spectacular way. When the authorities tried to clamp down on them, "Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit" was thereby able to convincingly answer them (Acts 4:8). On their release from prison they were enabled by the gifts to go on preaching - "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spake the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:31).
The watchful reader will spot that it does not say that "they, being already full of the spirit", did those things. They were filled with spirit to perform certain things, but had to be re-filled to achieve the next objective in God's plan. Paul likewise was "filled with the Holy Spirit" at his baptism, but years later he was to again be "filled with the Holy Spirit" in order to punish a wicked man with blindness (Acts 9:17: 13:9).
In speaking of the miraculous gifts, Paul wrote that the early believers possessed them "according to the measure of the gift of Christ" (Eph. 4:7). The Greek word for "measure" means "a limited portion or degree" (Strong's Concordance). Only Jesus had the gifts without measure, i.e. with total freedom to use them as He wished (John 3:34).
We will now define those spirit gifts which seem to have most mention as being possessed in the first century.
The First Century Spirit Gifts
The Greek word for 'prophet' means someone who forth-tells God's word - i.e. any person inspired to speak God's words, which at times included foretelling of future events (see 2 Pet. 1:19-21). Thus "prophets" - those with the gift of prophecy - came "from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth (famine) throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren" (Acts 11:27-29). This kind of highly specific prophecy, which had a clear fulfilment within a few years, is quite lacking amongst those who now claim to possess the gift of prophecy; indeed, so sure were the early church that this gift really was possessed amongst them, that they gave their time and money to relieving the hardship which had been prophesied. Few examples of this kind of thing can be found in today's so-called 'spirit filled' churches.
Seeing that the apostles were preaching the good news (Gospel) of God's coming Kingdom of perfection on the earth, it was fitting that they should confirm their message by doing miracles which gave a foretaste of what that time would be like, when "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap..." (Isa. 35:5,6). For more about conditions in God's Kingdom, see Study 5. When God's Kingdom is established on earth, such promises as these will not be fulfilled in half measure, nor will there be ambiguity over whether the Kingdom is here or not. Therefore God's miraculous confirmation of the message of that Kingdom was in a conclusive, definite form which could not be gainsaid; for this reason many of the miraculous healings performed by the early believers were in the sight of the general public.
A classic example is found in Peter's healing of the lame beggar who was laid each morning at the temple gate. Acts 3:2 mentions that they laid him there daily - so he would have been a familiar sight. Having been healed by Peter's use of the spirit gift, "he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking and leaping...And all the people saw him walking and praising God: and they knew that it was he which sat for alms at the Beautiful gate of the temple: and they were filled with wonder and amazement at that which had happened unto him. And as the lame man which was healed held Peter...all the people ran together unto them in the porch...greatly wondering" (Acts 3:7-11).
Peter then immediately launched into an open-air talk about the resurrection of Christ. Having the unquestionable, irrefutable evidence before them in the form of that healed beggar, we can be sure that they would have taken Peter's words to be those of God. The temple gate at "the hour of prayer" (Acts 3:1) would have been thronged with people, like a shopping mall on a Saturday morning. It was in a place like this that God chose to confirm the preaching of His word by such a clear miracle. Likewise in Acts 5:12 we read that "by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people". The usual claims made by 'Pentecostal' healers and the like revolve around things which have happened in back-street churches rather than on the streets, and in the audience of 'believers' hyped up into a spirit of expectancy for a 'miracle' to occur, rather than before the hard-hearted general public.
Let it be said that the present writer has had considerable experience of discussing these issues with present claimants of spirit possession, and also of witnessing many claims of spirit possession. Yet my 'personal testimony' of seeing many inconclusive 'healings', and at best partial cures, need not be specifically elaborated; any honest member of these churches will admit that a lot of this goes on. On many occasions I have put it to my well-meaning Pentecostal friends, "I'm not unwilling to believe that you might have these great powers. But God has always clearly shown who has His power and who hasn't; so it isn't unreasonable for me to ask you to demonstrate the fact to me - and then I might be more inclined to accept your doctrinal position, which at present I just can't reconcile with Scripture". Never has a clear "demonstration of the spirit and of power" been given me.
By contrast to my attitude, the orthodox Jews of the first century had closed minds to the possibility that Christians possessed God's miraculous spirit gifts. Yet even they had to admit, "This man doeth many miracles" (Jn. 11:47) and, "For that indeed a notable miracle hath been done...is manifest to all them that dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it" (Acts 4:16). Likewise those who heard the Apostles speaking in tongues were "confounded" (Acts 2:6). The same does not occur today in response to Pentecostal blabbering. The fact that people more kindly disposed to modern 'Pentecostals' can reasonably deny that they really achieve miracles, is surely a significant point in this debate. If just one miracle hit the headlines throughout Jerusalem, is it not reasonable to suggest that if a true miracle were done in London's Trafalgar Square or Nairobi's Nyaharuru Park, there would then be world-wide recognition that God's miraculous spirit gifts are possessed today? Instead, Pentecostals expect the world to seize upon the following sorts of 'evidence' as reasons for their faith in this:-
To these examples must be added the fact that ambulances brought hospital patients to the T.O. Osborn healing crusades in Nairobi, Kenya; the drivers, faced with the ethical dilemma of whether to stay or return, remained - and just as well, for the sufferers received no cure.
Yet the challenge calls out from many publicity posters for such meetings: "Come expecting a miracle!" Psychologically the stage is set for all manner of auto-suggestion and the like. Nowhere in the New Testament is there the slightest hint that such a massive psychological softening-up was needed before a miracle occurred. It is evident that some of those healed in the first century did not have faith - one did not know who Jesus was (Jn. 5:13; 9:36).
A similar bombardment of the psyche is achieved by the mind-warping of repetitious prayers, the rhythm of drums and rousing music. There can be no doubt that any rational awareness of God - and anything else - is blanked out by all this. The writer can recall attending several such meetings in various places, and each time experiencing a cracking headache from the struggle to retain a rational, balanced, Biblical awareness in the face of the temptation to get lost in the rhythm of drums and hand-clapping. That all of this appears to be the necessary prelude for a Pentecostal 'miracle' is proof enough that the 'healings' are a result of emotional and psychological conditioning, rather than the direct operation of God's spirit. By contrast, Peter was able to use the true gift of miracles to heal people as they lay in the streets (Acts 5:15); Paul's use of the miraculous gifts was personally witnessed by an unbelieving Government minister (Acts 13:12,13), as well as by many of the pagans living in the city of Lystra (Acts 14:8-13). As was required by the very purpose and nature of the spirit gifts, these things were done publicly, and could in no way be shrugged off with any other explanation than to admit that here was God's power being openly displayed by His servants.
The effect of one of Christ's healing miracles was similar: "They were all amazed (those who saw it), and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion" (Mk. 2:12).
The apostles, rough fishermen that some of them were, received the great commission to go out into all the world, preaching the Gospel (Mk. 16:15,16). Perhaps their very first reaction was, "But I don't know the languages!" For them it wasn't even a case of, "I was no good at languages at school", for they had had no schooling. It was written all over them "that they were unlearned and ignorant men" (Acts 4:13) when it came to that kind of thing. And even for the more educated preachers (e.g. Paul), the language barrier was still formidable. When converts were made, the reliance which they would need to have on each other for edification (in the absence of the written New Testament) meant that not understanding each other's language was a sizeable problem.
To overcome this, the gift of speaking in foreign languages ("tongues") and being able to understand them, was granted. The N.I.V margin renders "tongues" as "languages". Obviously there is stark opposition between this view of "tongues" and that of many 'born again' Christians, who describe their ecstatic utterances of unintelligible sounds as ''tongues'. This confusion can be cleared up by showing that the Biblical definition of "tongues" is "foreign languages".
On the Jewish feast of Pentecost, soon after Christ's ascension to heaven, the apostles "were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues...The multitudes came together (again, a public display of the gifts!) and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue (the same Greek word translated 'languages') wherein we were born? Parthians and Medes...we do hear them speak in our tongues...And they were all amazed" (Acts 2:4-12). It is unlikely that the double emphasis on the people's amazement and their marvelling would have been necessary if they had heard only the mumbo-jumbo spoken by those who claim to have the gift today; that gives rise to petty sarcasm or indifference, rather than the amazement and conviction from understanding the words being spoken, which was experienced in Acts 2.
Apart from the clear parallel between "tongues" and "languages" in Acts 2:4-11, "tongues" is very evidently used to mean "languages" in other parts of the New Testament; the phrase "peoples, and nations, and tongues" is used five times in Revelation to speak of all the peoples of planet earth (Rev. 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 17:15). The Greek word for "tongues" occurs in the Greek version of the Old Testament (called the 'Septuagint') in the sense of languages (see Gen. 10:5; Deut. 28:49; Dan. 1:4).
1 Cor. 14 is a list of commands concerning the use of the gift of tongues; v. 21 quotes Is. 28:11 concerning how this gift would be used to witness against the Jews: "In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people...". Is. 28:11 primarily refers to Israel's invaders speaking to the Jews in languages ("tongues") they would not have known. The parallel between "tongues" and "lips" indicates that "tongues" were foreign languages. There are many other indications in 1 Cor. 14 that "tongues" refers to foreign languages. This chapter is Paul's inspired criticism of the abuses of the gifts which were taking place in the early church, and as such it gives many insights into the nature of the gifts of tongues and prophecy. We will now attempt a brief commentary upon it. Verse 37 is a key verse:-
If anyone claims to be spiritually gifted, he must therefore accept that the preceding commands about the use of the gifts are inspired by God. Any who today disobey those commands are therefore openly admitting that they see fit to despise God's inspired words. Verses 11-17:-
To speak in a language which those present at the service do not understand is therefore pointless. The use of 'mumbo-jumbo' speaking is ruled out - for how can a truthful "Amen" be said at the end of a "prayer" composed of gibberish which cannot be understood? Remember that "Amen" means ''So be it', i.e. 'I totally agree with what has been said in this prayer'. Speaking in language which is not understood by your brethren does not edify them, Paul says.
I remember distributing tracts outside a Billy Graham crusade, appealing for people to get back to a more Bible-based approach to Christianity. An excited woman tried to persuade me that my Christadelphian doctrine was "devil-led" - by jabbering away in "tongues" for 10 minutes. In no way could I be "edified" by that; surely this is exactly what Paul is commanding not to do.
Because of his wide travels in the preaching of Christ, Paul needed the gift of languages ("tongues") more than most.
This is quite plain. A brief sentence about Christ in English will do me more good than hours of preaching to me in a foreign language - or 'mumbo-jumbo'.
The use of tongues was therefore mainly to be used for outgoing preaching of the Gospel. Yet today most claims of 'tongues' possession occur among groups of 'believers' or (apparently) in their individual, personal experience, while alone. There is a chronic dearth of examples of such people being able to speak miraculously in foreign languages in order to spread the Gospel. In the early 1990s the door of opportunity opened to preach Christ in Eastern Europe, but the (so-called) 'evangelical' churches had to distribute their literature in English because of the language barriers! Surely the gift of tongues should have been used if it were possessed? And the great mass evangelist Reinhardt Seiber, whilst claiming phenomenal possession of the Spirit, still had to speak to the crowds in Kampala, Uganda, through a translator.
This is exactly what has happened. Muslims and pagans alike have mocked the bizarre behaviour of those claiming the gift of tongues throughout West Africa. Even a level-headed Christian putting his head round the corner of a Pentecostal meeting would be tempted to think that the members were mad.
Only two or three people were needed to speak in tongues during any service. It is unlikely that there would be more than three different languages spoken by any audience. A service would soon lose all coherence if each sentence of the speaker had to be translated more than twice. If the gift of tongues were possessed at a meeting in Central London, attended by English people, with some French and German tourists present, the speakers might begin:-
Pastor: Good evening.
First-tongue speaker: Bon soir (French)
Second-tongue speaker: Guten abend (German).
But naturally they must speak "by course", one after another. Confusion would result from them speaking simultaneously; yet, because of the fundamentally emotional nature of present 'speaking in tongues', the phenomena does occur from the mouths of many people simultaneously. I have observed that once one person starts, others are quickly influenced to do likewise.
The gift of tongues would often have been used in conjunction with that of prophecy, so that an inspired message from God could be spoken forth (by the prophecy gift) in a language foreign to the speaker (by the gift of tongues). An example of such use of the two gifts can be found in Acts 19:6. However, if at a meeting in London attended by English people and many French visitors, the speaker spoke in French, the English people present would "not be edified". Therefore the gift of interpreting tongues (or languages) would have to be present, so that everyone could understand - in our example, to translate from French to English. Likewise if a question were asked by one of the French speakers, the speaker would not be able to understand him unaided, even though he had the gift of speaking in French without personally knowing it. The gift of interpretation would therefore be present to help in this.
Without the presence of one with the gift of interpretation when it was needed, the tongue gift would not be used: "...let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church" (1 Cor. 14:27,28). The fact that many modern claimants of 'tongues' speak in 'language' which cannot be understood by anyone, and without an interpreter, is surely a case of flat disobedience to these commands.
Possession of Holy Spirit gifts is not therefore to be associated with an experience which takes a person out of the realms of normal consciousness; the spirit is subject to the control of the user, rather than a force which takes them over so that they act involuntarily. It is often wrongly claimed that demons or 'evil spirits' possess the 'unsaved' (see Study 6.3), but that the Holy Spirit fills the believers. But the spirit power referred to in 1 Cor. 14:32 was subject to the possessor's control for specific ends; it was not an animating force of good in contrast to the force of evil which is in human nature. Besides, we have shown earlier that these powers of the Holy Spirit came on the apostles at certain times to perform specific things, rather than being present with them permanently.
The plea for possessors of the gifts to use them in a way befitting God's love of peace and hate of disorder (v. 33), seems to fall on deaf ears in the 'Pentecostal' churches of today.
In this context of using the spirit gifts, it is undeniably laid down that a woman should not use them during a church service. The wholesale disregard for this is to be expected if the present phenomena of speaking in 'mumbo-jumbo' is explicable in terms of emotional excitation passing from one person to another in an audience. Woman, children - indeed anyone present with a willing mind - can be affected by such stimulus, and therefore make the ecstatic utterances, which are passed off as 'tongues'.
The prominence of women in alleged 'tongue speaking' and 'prophecy' in modern churches just cannot be reconciled with the clear command of this verse. The ridiculous, desperate argument that Paul was a woman-hater is quashed a few verses later: "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" (1 Cor. 14:37) - not Paul personally.
Any believer in an inspired Bible must therefore accept that these commands of 1 Cor. 14 must be taken seriously; to openly flout them can only indicate a lack of belief in the full inspiration of Scripture - or a self-declaration that one is not spiritually gifted, seeing that someone who lacks the gifts will deny that the commands of 1 Cor. 14 are the Lord's commands for us. The logic of this argument is telling, indeed devastating. In the light of it, how can you remain a member of such a church, or be willing to fellowship them?
As a footnote to this section, it is highly significant that those sects which claim to speak in tongues have been scientifically proven to have higher levels of depression compared to people from other backgrounds. Keith Meador, Professor of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, U.S.A., undertook a major study analyzing the relationship between depression and religious background. He found that "the rate of serious depression...among Pentecostal Christians was 5.4% compared to 1.7% for the entire survey group". The results of his work are written up in the journal, 'Hospital and Community Psychiatry', Dec., 1992.
An interesting article, reaching the same conclusion, appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Feb. 11, 1993; the title speaks for itself: "Pentecostals top charts when it comes to the blues". Why is this? Surely it must be related to the fact that the 'experience' of spirit-possession, which Pentecostals (and others) claim, is no more than a painful psychological con-trick.