Spiritual Gifts – Their Duration
A Significant Disagreement
Sincere Christians disagree with each other concerning the issue of the duration of spiritual gifts. Some believe that God intended all the gifts possessed by the early Church to remain in the Church throughout its history. Others believe that God intended some of the gifts to be temporary—to exist in the Church just during the time of the apostles of Jesus Christ (during the first century A.D.). Those who advocate the latter view normally assert that it was the revelational and sign gifts which were to be temporary.
It is important to note that the heart of the disagreement is related to the intention of God, not to the authority and power of God. Certainly God has the authority and power to do whatever He wants, whenever He wants. Thus, the real issue is not God’s ability to continue all the spiritual gifts throughout the history of the Church. Instead, it is God’s intention. Did God intend to make all the gifts permanent in the Church, or did He intend to make some temporary?
Evidence For The Temporary Nature Of Some Gifts
There is reason to believe that God intended some of the spiritual gifts which He gave to the early Church to be temporary. The Scriptures present several lines of evidence to that effect.
First, the apostles of Christ were temporary, and some of the spiritual gifts were unique to them. Certain biblical factors indicate that the apostles of Christ were temporary. First, in order to be an apostle of Christ (in contrast with mere apostles of churches -2 Cor. 8:23 where “messengers” is a translation of the word “apostles”; Phil. 2:25), one normally was required to have been with Christ throughout His entire earthly ministry. Peter stated this requirement in Acts 1:21·22. Paul was the one exception to this normal requirement. For that reason, he stated that he was “born out of due time” (1 Cor. 15:8), and some challenged his claim to be an apostle of Christ (2 Cor. 12:11). In light of this normal requirement, it is apparent that people of later generations did not qualify to be an apostle of Christ. Rengstorf wrote: “It is only logical that the apostolate should be limited to the first generation and should not become an ecclesiastical office.”1
Second, in order to be an apostle of Christ, one had to have seen the resurrected Christ with his own eyes (1 Cor. 9:1). The reason for this requirement was as follows: One of the major responsibilities of an apostle of Christ was to give eyewitness testimony to the fact that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead (Lk. 24:46-48; Acts 1:8; 2:32; 3:15; 5:29-32; 10:39-42; 13:30-31).
In light of this requirement, Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:8 is most significant. After referring to Christ’s post-resurrection appearance to all the apostles, he declared: “And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.” In light of the fact that Christ appeared to the Apostle John on the Island of Patmos several years after His appearance to Paul, one must conclude that the appearance to Paul was not the absolute last post-resurrection several years after His appearance to Paul, one must conclude that the appearance to Paul was not the absolute last post-resurrection appearance by Christ. Instead, it must have been the last one for the purpose of making a person an apostle of Christ.
Thus, Grosheide wrote:
Paul directly joins the appearance of Christ to himself to the one to all the apostles: and last of all – He appeared unto me. Last of all: the last one in this series. Paul was the last one to see the glorified Lord with his own eyes, in order that he might be a true apostle.
Hence the words: the child untimely born. The article before child shows us how Paul designates himself in relation to the other apostles.2
Paul’s statement, then, strongly implies that he was the last person to be made an apostle of Christ.
Third, neither the Scriptures nor church history records indicate that new apostles of Christ were appointed by God or the Church to replace the first generation apostles as they departed through death. Certainly God would have appointed replacements if He had intended the Church to have apostles of Christ throughout its history.
Fourth, in Ephesians 2:20, where Paul drew an analogy between the construction of a building and the construction of the Church, he declared that the apostles and New Testament prophets are the foundation of the Church. Since the foundation of a building is laid once and for all in the early stages of construction, Paul’s analogy implies that the apostles were present once and for all in the early stages of the Church. Just as the foundation is not built up to the top of a building, so apostles of Christ are not present in the Church throughout its history.
There are good reasons, then, for concluding that there were no more apostles of Christ after John, the last of the first generation apostles to die, departed this life around 100 A.D. The apostles of Christ were temporary. They were limited to the first century of the Church’s existence.
In light of the fact that apostles of Christ were temporary, Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 12:12 is most significant. Some opponents had been attacking the validity of Paul’s apostleship (v. 11). In order to demonstrate the fact that he was a true apostle of Christ, Paul stated: “Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds” (v. 12). Paul’s statement indicates that some of the miraculous sign gifts in the early Church were unique to the apostles. In other words, some of the sign gifts were possessed and exercised just by the apostles of Christ, not by any other believers.
Those specific sign gifts had the function of identifying apostles of Christ in contrast with other believers. If this had not been so, then those gifts would not have been “the signs of an apostle,” and Paul could not have used them as proof that he was a true apostle of Christ (cf. Acts 2:43; Heb. 2:3-4). Rengstorf indicated that such miraculous action by an apostle of Christ “is essential, for in it the messenger has and gives proof that he is really the commissioned representative of Jesus.”3
Since the apostles of Christ were temporary, and since some of the sign gifts were unique to them, then it can be concluded that those particular spiritual gifts which were unique to the apostles were also temporary. Since those gifts had the function of identifying apostles of Christ, once the apostles were gone, those gifts had no further purpose to exist. They ceased when the apostles of Christ ceased. God did not intend those particular gifts to be permanent in the Church.
A second line of evidence to the effect that God intended some of the spiritual gifts which He gave to the early Church to be temporary is as follows: The Apostle Paul specifically declared that some of the gifts were temporary. In 1 Corinthians 13:8 Paul, writing under the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit, stated: “whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” Since Paul made this declaration in the midst of his most extensive discourse on spiritual gifts, it can be concluded that the apostle was referring to the spiritual gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge.
Paul made this statement as part of a line of thought. He developed this line of thought in the following manner. First, he asserted that love is superior to the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:31-13:7). Then he gave one of the reasons for love being superior to the gifts (v. 8). Love is superior to the spiritual gifts because love never fails; it is permanent; it abides (cf. v. 13). By contrast, some of the spiritual gifts are temporary. They will fail, will cease, will vanish away.
The apostle named three specific spiritual gifts (prophecy, tongues, knowledge) as examples of those which are temporary. The specific gifts which Paul named belonged to two different categories of gifts. Prophecy and knowledge belonged to the category of revelational gifts. According to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:22, tongues belonged to the category of sign gifts. It would appear, then, that Paul was indicating that the revelational and sign gifts were temporary.
Next in his line of thought Paul gave an example of why some of the spiritual gifts were temporary: “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part” (v. 9). Using as his example the two revelational gifts of prophecy and knowledge to which he had referred in verse eight, Paul presented the following teaching in verse nine: The revelational gifts were temporary because they delivered only a partial revelation or knowledge of God. That was their God intended purpose or function. They were not capable of delivering a full, complete revelation or knowledge of God. Thus, once the revelational gifts had delivered all of the partial revelation or knowledge of God which they were capable of delivering, they had fulfilled their God-intended purpose or function and were no longer necessary. Because they had fulfilled their intended purpose or function and were no longer necessary, God did away with them.
It is important to note that, through this example of why some of the spiritual gifts were temporary, Paul indicated a significant principle concerning spiritual gifts. That principle is as follows: It is the purpose or function of a spiritual gift that determines its duration. A spiritual gift will continue to exist until it fulfills its God-intended purpose or function. But once it fulfills its intended purpose or function, it is no longer necessary, and God does away with it.
Did Paul state the specific time when the revelational gifts would fulfill their intended purpose or function and thereby be put out of existence? Some believe that he did in 1 Corinthians 13:10. After having stated, “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part” (v. 9), Paul went on to assert, “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (v. 10). Those who believe that in verse ten Paul stated the specific time when the revelational gifts would be abolished are convinced that the expression “that which is in part” in verse ten refers to the spiritual gifts. Thus, they think that Paul said that the spiritual gifts would be done away when the perfect comes.
There is a major problem with this view, however. The expression “that which is in part” cannot refer to the spiritual gifts. It cannot for at least two reasons. First, there is no such thing as a partial gift. Second, in the Greek text of verse ten the term which is translated “that which” is singular in number. By contrast, in the immediately preceding context (v. 9) Paul referred to two spiritual gifts (plural), the gifts of prophecy and knowledge. Since a noun or pronoun is required to agree in number with its antecedent, and since the expression “that which” (v. 10) is singular in number and the spiritual gifts (v. 9) are plural in number, then the expression “that which is in part” (v. 10) cannot be referring to the spiritual gifts. Thus, Paul was not saying that the spiritual gifts would be done away when the perfect would come (v. 10).
If the expression “that which is in part” (v. 10) cannot refer to the spiritual gifts, to what then does it refer? The Greek words which are translated “in part” in verse ten are the same as those translated “in part” in verse nine. It seems apparent that they are referring to the same thing in both verses. Earlier it was noted that in verse nine those words referred to the partial revelation or knowledge of God which the revelational gifts were capable of delivering. Thus, it seems apparent that the expression “that which is in part” in verse ten is also referring to the partial revelation or knowledge of God which came through the revelational gifts.
The Greek word which is translated “perfect” in the expression “that which is perfect” (v. 10) means whole, complete or total.4 It is the opposite of the expression “in part.”5 Thus, it refers to the full, complete revelation or knowledge of God in contrast with the partial revelation or knowledge of God which the revelational gifts were able to deliver.6
An important distinction should be noted at this point. There is a difference between the revelational gifts which could deliver the partial revelation or knowledge of God and the partial revelation or knowledge of God which was delivered through the revelational gifts. The two are not the same. The gifts were the cause of the partial revelation or knowledge, and the partial revelation or knowledge was the result of the gifts.
In light of this distinction and what has been seen about the meaning of expressions in verse ten, the following conclusion can be drawn: In 1 Corinthians 13:10 Paul was not stating the time when the revelational gifts would be done away. Instead, he was stating the time when the partial revelation or knowledge of God which came through those gifts would be done away. He was not declaring that the spiritual gifts would be done away when that which is perfect would come. Instead, he was declaring that the partial revelation or knowledge of God which came through the revelational gifts would be done away when the full, complete revelation or knowledge of God would come.
In spite of the fact that in 1 Corinthians 13:8 Paul clearly indicated that revelational and sign gifts were temporary, neither in verse ten nor any other verse of chapter thirteen did he state the time when those gifts would end. Other Scriptures indicate when they would terminate. Those other Scriptures will be examined in the next article.
A third line of evidence to the effect that God intended some of the spiritual gifts which He gave to the early Church to be temporary is found in Hebrews 6:5. In that passage the Holy Spirit moved the writer to refer to the miracles performed by Jesus and His apostles as “the powers of the world to come” (literally, “the age to come”). Since Hebrews was written during this present age, the expression “the age to come” is a reference to the next great age of this earth’s history -the coming Millennial Age, when Messiah will administer God’s Kingdom rule over the entire earth (Dan. 2:44; 7:13.-14, 27; Zech. 14:9). Thus, the writer of Hebrews was calling the miracles of Jesus and His apostles “the powers of the future Millennial Age.”
Jesus possessed and exercised great miraculous powers during His first coming (Mt. 9). He gave those same miraculous powers to His apostles to exercise (Mt. 10:1-4). It is significant to note that Jesus exercised His miraculous powers in conjunction with His proclamation of “the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt. 9:35). He also commanded His apostles to exercise those same miraculous powers in conjunction with their proclamation of the same kingdom message exclusively to the people of Israel (Mt. 10:5-8; Lk. 9:1-2).
A comparison of the miracles performed by Jesus and His apostles with Old Testament prophecies concerning the miraculous changes which Messiah will bring to the world when He establishes the Kingdom of God in the future Millennial Age indicates two things. First, the miracles performed by Jesus and His apostles were a foretaste, a sampling, of the miraculous changes which will characterize the future Millennial Age when Messiah will establish and rule over the Kingdom of God on earth (Mt. 19:28; Acts 3:19-21). Second, the ultimate purpose of the miracles performed by Jesus and the apostles was to demonstrate the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah, the One who can and will establish the Kingdom of God of the future Millennial Age when the people of Israel repent (Lk. 7:19-23; Jn. 10:24-25; 12:37; 20:30-31; Acts 2:22, 36; Heb. 2:3-4).7
It was because of this twofold significance of the miracles of Jesus and His apostles, plus the fact that they performed their miracles in conjunction with their proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom, that the Holy Spirit moved the writer of Hebrews to call the miracles of Jesus and His apostles “the powers of the future Millennial Age.” This was the Holy Spirit’s way of indicating that the miraculous powers of Jesus and His apostles were uniquely related to the future Millennial Age. They were to be characteristic of that age, not of the present age. As a result, those miraculous powers were not to be present throughout this present age. If they were to be present throughout this present age, then they would be “the powers of this age,” not “the powers of the age to come.” Thus, Hebrews 6:5 implies that the miraculous sign gifts which belonged to the apostles of Christ were temporary. God did not intend them to continue throughout this present age.
This article has examined three lines of evidence to the effect that some of the spiritual gifts which God gave to the early Church were temporary.
The next article will study when some of the gifts ended.
- Karl Heinrich Rengstorf , “apostolos,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), p. 432.
- F. W. Grosheide, “Commentary On The First Epistle To The Corinthians,” of The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953), p. 352.
- Rengstorf, “apostolos,” p. 429.
- Gerhard Delling, “teleios,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), p. 74.
- Ibid., p. 75.
- For a study of these two indications see: Renald E. Showers, “The Purpose Of Jesus’ Miracles,” Israel My Glory, December, January, 1975-76.