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The Close of the Prophetic Age: A Case for Cessationism

‘For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away … For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.’

- 1 Corinthians 13:9-10, 12 -

 

Charismatics believe God still gives prophetic revelation just as He did through apostles and prophets in the 1st century. Those who believe all the gifts God gave in the church’s early days are still given today are called Continuationists. But those who believe certain gifts like apostleship, prophecy, and tongues ceased once their purpose was fulfilled are called Cessationists. Traditionally, all biblical prophecy fell under inspired utterances: direct revelation from God. Lately, there are more and more attempts to see different levels of prophecy, from revelation that is truly God’s Word (therefore inerrant) to inspired utterances mixed with human thought (including error). This modern view is hard to support biblically.


 

Cessationists believe in the inspiration, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture. They believe both Scripture and history show prophetic gifts ended at the apostolic age. But is this defensible? Proper methodology begins with the exegesis of relevant passages like 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, which I believe predicts the cessation of prophetic gifts with the arrival of ‘the perfect’ (to teleion, 13:10). The key question is what Paul means by ‘the perfect.’ Let’s dig in and find out!


When Paul uses to teleion, he refers to the maturity God was developing in His young church; a maturity of doctrinal and practical elements that revolve around a right understanding of the new Jew-Gentile union in the body of Christ. A major challenge facing the early church was the resistance of Jewish believers to accept Gentiles as spiritual equals. A return of Jesus in the first century would have brought an immediate and complete maturity to the body (1 Cor. 13:12), but it was God’s purpose that the New Testament writings help mature the church and overcome this early disunity (1 Cor. 13:11). The arrival of this maturity ceased prophetic gifts; a reality validated by church history.



Spiritual gifts are a divine enabling given to each believer at the moment of conversion, equipping them for ministry in the church. But not all gifts are of the same nature. The 20 gifts named in Scripture fall into four categories (with the first two categories including temporary gifts that have now ceased): revelatory gifts: apostle, prophet, discerning of spirits, word of wisdom, word of knowledge; confirmatory gifts: miracles, healings, tongues, interpretation of tongues, the gift of faith; speaking gifts: evangelist, pastor, teacher, exhortation; and auxiliary gifts: helps, serving, giving, mercy, administration, leadership.

 

All gifts edified the body of Christ, but revelatory gifts brought prophetic revelation, confirmatory gifts confirmed God’s prophetic messengers, speaking gifts disseminated God’s truth, and auxiliary gifts enabled the body to serve. The crucial discussion of gifts and Cessationism is in 1 Corinthians 12-14. The Corinthian church had many problems, so it asked Paul about gifts. His answer explains the uniqueness of gifts (12:1-3), the source of gifts (12:4-11), the nature of gifts (12:12-31a), the superiority of love over temporary gifts (12:31b-13:13), the purpose of gifts (14:1-36), and the importance of orderly conduct (14:37-40). Paul even scolds the church for favoring miraculous gifts, especially tongues, as he says they ought to grasp that there is a ‘more excellent way,’ namely love (12:31-13:13).



Paul’s first correction is that no matter how great one’s gift, if they do not serve with humble love, they fall short (13:1-3). Verses 4-7 show what real love looks like. Finally, Paul shows that the miraculous gifts the Corinthians are so enamored with will soon cease (vv. 8-13). He highlights three particular gifts (prophecy, tongues, knowledge) that are destined to end. He does not make a statement about the cessation of all gifts, only these three miraculous gifts, as the Corinthians need to be more concerned with love that ‘never fails’ (13:8) than with short-lived miraculous gifts.

 

During the apostolic age, we see these prophetic gifts bring portions of prophetic truth to the church (v. 9), but Paul says prophetic gifts will end ‘when the perfect comes’ (v. 10). Church history indicates four major views for the meaning of ‘the perfect’ (to teleion). The first says to teleion means an end of the partial knowledge of this present age, when an individual (or the church) enters the presence of God. The second says to teleion refers to the close of Scripture. Once that comes, the partial gifts will end. The third says to teleion refers to the perfect state of affairs brought about by Christ’s return. The fourth (the Mature Body View) beats out the first three. It says miraculous gifts will end when the body of Christ arrives at the kind of maturity God is developing in His early church.



There are five key reasons to support the Mature Body view. First, there is good reason to translate teleion as maturity when it is used in close connection with its antonym, nepios (immature). Second, this maturity is understood as corporate maturity of the wider church; not of an individual or the local church. Third, the specific kind of maturity Paul writes about was doctrinal and relational maturity dealing with the Jew-Gentile elements of the church. Paul opposes the false idea that Gentiles had to covert to Judaism to be right with God (Acts 10-11; 15:1, 5) as Gentiles are spiritually complete through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:11-22), just like Jews who were saved by their Messiah.


Fourth, the Mature Body view accounts for both illustrations in 13:11-12. Maturity could come through either Christ’s imminent return (v. 12) or by a gradual process (v. 11). The fifth and final argument is that Paul’s teaching contrasts the temporal inferiority of miraculous gifts destined for a soon-cessation with the arrival of maturity and the more excellent (and eternal) way of love.

 

Seeing as Christ’s church was in a collective growth process since the day of Pentecost, it is crucial we understand the nature of the church and the function of gifts as in Ephesians 2:11-4:16. We need to see how it relates to 1 Corinthians 13 and the doctrine of Cessationism. In 2:11-22, Paul gives the Ephesians a new and revolutionary message! Jew and Gentile are now a unified spiritual family based on faith in Christ alone (Eph. 2:11-13). Paul says many Jews are staggered that by His death, Christ ‘is our peace, who made both groups one and broke down the dividing wall of the partition by abolishing in His flesh the enmity…so that in Himself He might create the two into one new man, making peace’ (2:14-15).



Through faith alone (no Jewish conversion required), Gentile believers became citizens of heaven and God’s family (Eph. 2:19-22), something hidden in the Old Testament: ‘the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the Gentiles, leading to obedience of faith’ (Rom. 16:25-26). The Holy Spirit created this positional Jew-Gentile unity at Pentecost, but the problem was a lack of practical unity and maturity. So Paul tells the church to preserve this new spiritual unity at a functional level (Eph. 4:3). His discussion of gifts in Ephesians 4:7-16 is related as it argues revelatory gifts bring new truth (4:11), speaking gifts disseminate this new truth to equip the saints for ministry (v. 12), with the ultimate goal to bring the whole church to maturity, or ‘the unity of the faith’ (v. 13).

 

It was hard for the early church to functionally live out this new Jew-Gentile unity, but God meant to grow His church out of early immaturity so it would arrive at a ‘unity of the faith’ and become the ‘mature man’ (4:13). In line with this, 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 says the attaining of maturity will cease prophetic gifts that make maturity possible. First Corinthians 13 and Ephesians 4 both discuss a maturity God is developing in His church. As Paul predicts, once God accomplishes this particular maturity, He will end revelatory gifts. But does history and experience validate Cessationism?



John Chrysostom (345-407), patriarch of the Eastern church, makes clear Cessationist claims when writing on the end of tongues, saying this gift ‘used to occur but now no longer takes place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity hath produced us again another question; namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more?’ Likewise Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo in northern Africa, says: ‘In the earliest times the Holy Spirit would fall upon believers, and they would speak in languages they hadn’t learned, as the Spirit gave them utterance. This was a sign suited to the time … The sign was given and then passed away.’


John Calvin (1509-1564) also takes a Cessationist position was he states: ‘Grace (the gift of apostle) has ceased to be given … Those miraculous powers and manifest workings…have ceased, and they have rightly lasted only for a time … The gift of healing, like the rest of the miracles, which the Lord willed to be brought forth for a time, has vanished … The Lord is indeed present with his people in every age; and he heals their weaknesses as often as necessary … Still, he does not put forth these manifest powers, nor dispense miracles through the apostle’s hands. For that was a temporary gift.’

 

So, do people today still receive inerrant prophecy as in the apostolic age, and do they still speak in real human languages (tongues) formerly unknown to them? Despite the impassioned pleas of Charismatics, the evidence says “No.” We must never allow Cessationist convictions to cause us to be harsh or unloving toward Charismatics. The subject is important and Cessationist convictions are biblical, but we should always be gracious as we seek to help others understand these truths.1


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1 comment

1 Comment


kabham001
kabham001
Mar 05

I found your article very informative. Not many hold to this particular view of cessationism, or at least not much published material on it. I'm interested to see how you arrive at the four categories of gifts and whether or not the auxiliary and speaking gifts would likewise cease based on the same 'maturity' view (along with 'helps' and 'administration' being hapax legomena and without biblical examples).

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