Therefore we must pay much closer attention to
what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
For since the message declared by angels proved
to be reliable, and every transgression or dis-
obedience received a just retribution, how shall
we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?
It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was
attested to us by those who heard, while God
also bore witness by signs and wonders and
various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit
distributed according to his will.
In the previous blog, we introduced the first of several warnings found in this letter. The writer here warns the readers that unless they pay close attention to what they have heard, they might ‘drift away from it.’ The seriousness of this matter is underscored by the fact that the message the writer refers to as “what we have heard” was not declared by angels but “by the Lord” Himself, who passed it on to his handpicked apostles.
Furthermore, the writer refers to the fact that the message itself was attested to by miraculous displays (“God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will”). This clearly shows the message of the gospel was confirmed in the first century by means of the display of miraculous power. Beginning with the life and ministry of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels and extending to the ministry of the apostles in the book of Acts, these “signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit were distributed according to his will.”
Few would argue with the clear statement at the end of verse four that a display of the miraculous followed both the ministry of Jesus and the apostles (although many liberal scholars have attempted to dismiss the clear testimony of Scripture). The question I want to address in the remainder of this blog takes us beyond Hebrews. It is this: Does the New Testament teach that these miraculous gifts and powers vanished after the completion of the New Testament? Some say without hesitation, Yes. They believe that since the canon of Scripture was complete, there was no need for these miraculous signs, and they henceforth disappeared. The common term for this is Cessationism, and there are many today of that persuasion.
But many today reject, on Scriptural grounds, the idea that these miraculous gifts disappeared after the closing of the canon. Known as Continuationists, they contend the spiritual gifts given to the apostles and the first-century believers continued throughout the Church Age. They are not only persuaded of this on Scriptural grounds but on the grounds that the Church in every age needs them. They are tools that equip the Church to be effective in its ministry; therefore, believers need them. In recent years, many formerly Cessationists have become fully persuaded that spiritual gifts are still in operation in the Church today.
The Cessationists’ main text to bolster their position is the very text quoted at the beginning of this blog and the previous blog: Hebrews 2:1-4. They cite these verses as establishing that the gifts were given to the first-century apostles and Church until the canon was complete. After that, they were no longer needed since the Church now had a completed canon.
These verses might infer that the first-century church would see a profusion of these gifts. But, nothing in them definitively limits these things to that period alone. The other Scripture they often use to defend this view is I Corinthians 13:9-10 from what is commonly known as the great ‘Love Chapter.’ They focus specifically on the phrase from verse 10: “When the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” The perfect (according to them) is the completed canon of Scripture. Since that has occurred, the gifts have been permanently done away with, there being no need for them.
But this can’t be the meaning of that phrase. For one, it says that when the perfect comes, knowledge would also cease (“as for knowledge, it will pass away”). Since the canon has been completed, has knowledge ceased? Hardly. So on that basis alone, it is clear that the perfect does not refer to the completion of the canon, but the perfect revelation of God, which will be ours at the Second Coming. At that time, things that are partial such as the gifts of the Spirit, will be done away with.
For that reason, I believe that Continuationism rather than Cessationism is the proper view. Even though the Corinthian church abused the gifts, the apostle still commands them to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts” (I Corinthians 14:1). Christian living must include the exercise of these gifts as normative for living lives that are effective at building up the body of Christ and glorifying God.