The Jewish festival of Pentecost is now famously connected to the sign gifts that were poured out on this day— gifts of tongues, and prophecy, and the like. We get the denominational name of Pentecostal from this day, and so one of the things we should learn as we mark this day is how that day should be understood in the history of the Church. This means also guarding against how it can be misunderstood.
“In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe” (1 Cor. 14:21-22).
“Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds” (2 Cor. 12:12).
Summary of the Text
The outpouring of gifts on the day of Pentecost was a historical mile-marker, and was specially designated as a sign to unbelieving Jews. Paul says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, and because of the passage he cites from Isaiah 28:11-12, we can see that he means unbelieving Jews. With men of other tongues God says that He will speak to this people. Despite this clear indication and sign, they will continue on in their unbelief. Now this is exactly what happened on the day of Pentecost, in the streets of a Jerusalem that (within a generation) was going to be filled with armies speaking other tongues—like speaking German in Paris, or English in Baghdad. It is a sign of conquest and defeat, not of happy prayer times. The gift of tongues was given as a sign of an historical judgment falling upon Israel in a terrible way. In contrast, Paul argues, prophesy was intended to serve those within the Church.
In addition to this, we see that these gifts simpliciter were apostolic marks, meaning that those in possession of them had the authority of an apostle, meaning that in effect they could write Scripture.
An understanding of the 28th chapter of Isaiah is essential to understanding much of the New Testament. Isaiah rebukes the corrupts of Israel (Is. 28:1-8). But they do not receive it—who’s he trying to teach? Little kids? They mock him, and he replies that instead of sing-songy precepts they will finally hear gibberish, right before they are captured and “taken.”This is right before Isaiah introduces the cornerstone—the one the builders rejected.
Philip’s Daughters and the Uniqueness of Scripture
Whenever anyone says “thus saith the Lord,” that person must also be willing, in the next breath, to claim that the message he speaks belongs in the Scriptures, Vol. 2. The answer to this claim is often that Scripture speaks of the existence of prophecies that never made it into the Bible (Acts 21:9). And this is quite true—but God can dispense with His own words whenever He wants, and however He deems fit. We cannot be in possession of what we claim to be inspired words from God, and then throw them away. If we have them, and we believe them to be God’s words, then we must act accordingly. If prophesy proper is an extant gift, then it follows that the canon of Scripture is not closed. If the canon of Scripture is closed, then prophecy proper is not an extant gift.
Now I use the phrase “prophecy proper” because every preacher of the Word is called upon to prophesy in one sense, a lesser sense (1 Pet. 4:11). On account of this, the Puritans even called preaching “prophesying.” But this was sharply distinguished from what Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Agabus did. You should come to the sermon prepared to encounter the Word of God there, but without equating the sermon outline with Scripture. In short, what the neo- orthodox claim about the Scriptures, the Reformed claim for faithful evangelical preaching. This particular gift is not dependent, incidentally, on a preacher’s gifts or graces.
But God is Not Bound
We must distinguish between a sign gift of power, resident within someone, and answers to prayer. The fact that the sign gifts, authenticating the ministry of an apostle, have ceased, does not mean that the Holy Spirit has ceased, or gone out of the world. The choice is not between a lively Pentecostalism and a duddy non- Pentecostalism. Too often cessationists act like God died, and they are in charge of holding the ongoing memorial services. But we are not weeping for Tammuz.
A man with the gift of healing, for example, could walk through a hospital ward, and heal the people there, with power flowing out of him. And incidentally, if there were a man who could do that, we would all know his name. When the woman with the hemorrhage touched Him, the Lord felt the healing power go out from Him. This is different than when we intercede for the sick, and God answers the prayer. To deny that the first kind of thing still happens is not to say that the second happens rarely, if at all. These are two separate questions. Disbelief in false apostles should never translate over to unbelief in God.
So Guard Against Reductionism
The fact that we believe that the sign gifts have ceased does not mean that we hold that the universe functions in the way that the materialists believe that it does. We live and move and have our being in God, and spiritual realities surround us on every hand. The world is not a machine grinding away in accordance with natural laws. The universe is personally governed.
So the gift of prophecy (or tongues plus interpretation) is not a gift of spiritual utterance. It is a gift of guaranteed spiritual utterance. In other words, the fact that something is spiritual doesn’t make it true. The Bible is not our ultimate, infallible authority because it consists of spiritual words. It is our final and infallible authority because it represents the perfections of God Himself. The devil is a spirit, and can speak, and we have spirits, and we can speak spiritual words. Our words are not just the motion of atoms in the air, or the function of ink on a page. We do not surrender the nature of the world by guarding the true nature and boundaries of the Bible.