Revelatory Gifts in the New Testament

By Simon Padbury


The Apostles of Christ

The Lord Jesus Christ selected twelve men from among his disciples and appointed them to be his apostles. We know exactly who they were (Matthew 10:2-4). Of course Jesus knew that one of them would betray him (John 6:64; 17:12). After Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and Christ’s subsequent crucifixion, burial in the tomb, resurrection and ascension, the eleven remaining apostles prayed for guidance from the Lord, asking for his choice for a successor. And so they appointed Matthias to make up the number of the twelve (Acts 1:15-26). Christ likewise called and commissioned an early persecutor of the New Testament church, Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul (Acts 9:3-6,15,16).

The New Testament Greek word apostle (αποστολος, apostolos) means messenger and it carries the idea of a specially commissioned person or group which is given authority to speak for whoever sent them out as their representative. The genuine apostles of Christ are only those whom Christ himself has chosen for this purpose (Luke 6:13; Matthew 10:2; Acts 1:13-26; 9:1-16; 1 Corinthians 15:3-10; Galatians 1:16,17). Paul described himself as having seen the risen Lord Jesus “last of all” – in other words, he was the last of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:8,9). Thus according to the Bible, there are no other apostles of Christ after Paul (Galatians 2:1-10).

When the apostles spoke and wrote authoritatively what the Holy Spirit gave them to speak and write, their very words were special revelation from God.


Special Revelation

Theologians classify God’s revelation of his will to human beings into two kinds: (1) general revelation – those truths which God reveals to mankind when we consider the natural world (e.g., Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:18-20); and (2) special revelation – those truths which God reveals to mankind through prophecy, theophany and through the incarnation and ministry of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2). That large quantity of special revelation which God gave through Christ and his apostles and prophets established the New Testament church and completed the New Testament – and hence completed the whole canon of the Bible. With the completion of the Bible, the former ways of God revealing his will have now ceased.

The first apostles had spent three and a half years with the Lord Jesus Christ, being taught and trained by him. It was his own ‘body of doctrines’ which they were to preach. Christ promised that when later God the Father would send the Holy Spirit to them, the Spirit would cause them to accurately and comprehensively remember what he had taught them, and that the Spirit would also reveal to them even more (John 14:26; 16:12-16). Therefore, they were able to preach, and did preach, these truths infallibly and inerrantly.

The Apostle Paul was also taught by Christ, through the Holy Spirit, so that later he faithfully preached the gospel which he had “received” (1 Corinthians 15:3). After a conference with the apostles at Jerusalem, Paul was able to testify that “they added nothing to me;” that is, to “that gospel which I preach among the gentiles,” that he therefore hadn’t “run … in vain” (Galatians 1:11-2:10). The message which Paul ran with as Christ’s messenger was part of that special revelation that Christ gave to the Twelve.


New Testament Prophets 

After the Holy Spirit was given to the church in a greater measure at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21,33), Christ also gave other disciples the gift of prophecy. Indeed the giving prophetic revelations, including visions and dreams, was to be an evidence of the pouring out of the Spirit at the establishment of the New Testament church: “This is that which was spoken of by the [Old Testament] prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in those days, saith God, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh: your sons and your daughters shall prophesy …” (Acts 2:16-21).

The New Testament Greek word prophet (προφητου, prophetou) means a revealer or proclaimer of a message which he or she has received. The content of the prophecy may be some doctrine or information about a future event. The reason why God gave gifts of prophesy to any of his people, at any point in history, is to impart the special revelation from himself through them.


The foundation of the Apostles and Prophets

According to Paul, the New Testament Church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Ephesians 2:20). That these prophets are listed after the apostles indicates that Paul here has in mind the prophets of the New Testament, not the Old Testament prophets.

Paul asserts that these apostolic and prophetic revelations were the foundation on which the New Testament Church was established. The “foundation of the apostles and prophets” was their New Testament special revelation. We Christians today are not in the foundational period of the New Testament church. We are part-way through the building up of the New Testament Church superstructure. We are to be “built up” through our learning of the Old and New Testaments (see also 1 Corinthians 3:10-11).

The apostle Peter teaches concerning the Old Testament prophets, that those “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21). And this was surely true whether their prophesies became part of the Holy Scripture or not. Their prophesies were all “given by inspiration of God” – that is, they were “breathed out” by God (2 Timothy 3:16) and were therefore inerrant and infallible. They contained no error in their teachings and they did not (or, they will not) fail in their predictions of future events.

The gifts of prophecy which God gave to the New Testament Church were likewise “given by inspiration of God.” The New Testament apostles and prophets, like the Old Testament prophets, were borne along by the Holy Spirit. When they give revelations from God, these are as inerrant and infallible as those of the Old Testament prophets. Their revelations were not merely non-propositional pictures or notions which the Holy Spirit allegedly brought to mind, like those which the so-called prophet of Pentecostals, charismatics and other continuationists of today attempt to describe in their own words. Biblical prophets, whether Old or New Testament, proclaimed genuine “This saith the LORD …” and “Thus saith the Holy Ghost …” – meaningful, specific messages (Acts 21:10-11). They did not say merely, “I think God is trying to tell us” vague generalities alleged to be words of prophecy, visions, dreams or whatever other special revelations from God. And, please note: real prophecies from God, whether they became included in the Bible or not, were never mixtures of God’s revelation and the prophets’ (or prophetess’) guesses or imaginations. They “spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”

The New Testament prophets were delegates appointed by the apostles to the same task but as secondary office-bearers (1 Corinthians 12:28) in the early Christian church, and they had their ministries in various localised settings. At least one prophet went where apostles had not visited and preached: Philip was the first Christian evangelist to venture into Samaria (Acts 8:5-8). Other prophets, through the Holy Spirit, gave New Testament revelation to newly established Christian congregations in that era before they possessed the completed and all-sufficient New Testament as committed to written form.


The Completion of the Canon of Scripture

The reason why apostles and prophets were given to the New Testament church was completed with the completion the New Testament Scriptures. The whole completed Bible is no less, and none other, than God’s all-sufficient record of special revelation for his people. As Paul affirmed: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Timothy 3:16,17). The “doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness” of “all scripture” (i.e., the Bible, both Old and New Testaments) is sufficient – and more than sufficient – to make us “perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”

All that we need of God’s special revelation can be obtained through a study of the “all scripture” which comprises the Bible. What God’s elect have always needed since the completing of the Bible is threefold: (1) the Bible; (2) God in his providence to bring the Bible into their lives through various physical and human means, including evangelists, Bible teachers and preachers; and (3) the Holy Spirit to regenerate them and open their spiritual eyes and hearts to believe the Word of God written (see, e.g., 1 Peter 1:3; 1 John 5:1; Ephesians 1:17-19; Philippians 1:29).

Seeing that the Bible is comprised of all the special revelation that we need, authentic Christian faith therefore suffers no loss if we ignore and reject the ‘apostles’ and ‘prophets’ of the Pentecostals, charismatics and other continuationists.

This argument of the sufficiency of the Bible, you may remember, is the same as that which Reformers used in their opposition to the Roman Catholic church and her accumulated traditions and papal “ex cathedra” pronouncements. The Reformers called this position “Sola Scriptura.” To embrace the continuationist claims to their receiving revelations from God apart from the Bible is to deny the sufficiency of the Bible; and to withstand them is to defend the sufficiency of the Bible.


Speaking with Tongues

The New Testament Greek word γλωσσαν (glossan) literally means a tongue (i.e., the muscular organ in the mouth), and this was one of the words for a language. (Our English word “language” is based on the Latin word for a tongue: lingua.) This Greek word or its plural (γλωσσαις, glossais) is used in many places in the New Testament. Most translations of the Bible into English use the word “tongues” to translate the plural Greek word, and it usually refers to ordinary human languages. In two instances the word refers to actual tongues in mouths (Romans 3:13 and Revelation 16:10), and once it refers to something resembling tongue-shaped flames (Acts 2:3). Nowhere in the New Testament do these words mean some kind of code other than a real human language. And they never mean an extemporaneous uttering of sounds, as is practiced today by Pentecostals, Charismatics and other continuationists.

Mark 16:17 records the Lord Jesus Christ’s prophecy that at the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, his disciples (“them that believe”) would “speak with new tongues” (γλωσσαις, glossais). They would be given prophecies (special revelations; messages) from God in languages which were “new” to them, which they had not learned – i.e., not the Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek tongues which they already knew.

The other Greek word used to refer to a language is διαλεκτω (dialekto), from which we get our word dialect. This word is used interchangeably with γλωσσαις (glossais) in Acts chapter 2: “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues [γλωσσαις, glossais], as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language [διαλεκτω, dialekto]. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilæans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue [διαλεκτω, dialekto], wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judæa, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues [γλωσσαις, glossais] the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:4-11).

In his first epistle to the Corinthian church, Paul mentions a counterpart gift of the “interpretation of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:10). In church services where revelations in unlearned languages were permitted by the elders to be spoken, there would also be present another person who had the gift of interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:27). This was done for two interrelated reasons: in order that the other person might interpret the meaning of the revelations in the language of the congregation; and also consequently to authenticate that they genuinely had come from God (1 Corinthians 14:27-28). This other person we can rightly refer to as a kind of prophet, because the God-given interpretation of the tongues-messages was special revelation.

The Greek word translated “interpretation” is ‘ερμηνεια (hermeneia), from which we get our word hermenutics – the branch of knowledge which deals with the interpretation of (in our case, Bible) texts. We generally use the word translation today when referring to the transferring of the meaning of a message from one language to another. The word interpretation means to explain the meaning of a message in order that people can understand it.

The biblical gift of tongues were prophetic gifts – revealing previously unrevealed “mysteries” (1 Corinthians 14:2) in the same way that the New Testament gifts of prophecy were, except that the tongues-messages were given in words from a human language which the recipient had not learned.  These “mysteries” being revealed by God concerned the great things of the gospel of Christ, the salvation of Jews and Gentiles from their sins by his atoning sacrifice on the cross at Calvary and the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives – see Romans 16:25; 1 C0r 2:7-10; 15:51-53; Col 1:23-27; 2:2-3; 4:3-4; 1 Tim 3:9, 16. Thus the biblical gifts of tongues conveyed meaningful information from God to the hearers – if those hearers understood that language in which the information was given, or if someone interpreted the message to them.

The so-called “gift of tongues” in Pentecostal, Charismatic and other continuationist circles today is not the same thing as the biblical gift of tongues – whether correctly used, or misused as in the church at Corinth. The modern “tongues-speakers” do not understand the sounds that they are making. They are not saying anything – it is not a real language, but an extraneous uttering of sounds. And there is no information to interpret (or translate, or explain) in such gibberish.


The Gifts of Tongues were both Revelatory Gifts and Sign Gifts

The fact that these prophetic revelations were given in human languages that were not learned by the speaker meant that they also served as signs. This is why we can also classify the gifts of tongues as sign gifts.

Let us here consider something important that the apostle Paul wrote, which is often forgotten in this connection.

Paul wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthian church, “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men. 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 Corinthians 14:20-22).

By “them that believe not,” Paul clearly does not mean all unbelievers, i.e., all non-Christians. We cannot construe him as arguing here, illogically, “With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak into this people [Israel] … Wherefore tongues are for a sign … to all unbelievers, whether people of Israel or any other nation.”

Clearly Paul’s argument is that the gift of tongues, so long as God gave this gift to the Christian church, should only have been practiced before “this people” – the people of Israel. Paul, in his God-breathed, inerrant and inspired epistle quotes a prophecy from Isaiah in order to explain the true purpose of the gifts of tongues as being a sign to unbelieving (i.e., Messiah-rejecting) Jews in order to prompt them into accepting the New Testament apostles and prophets as being apostles and prophets of the one true God – and therefore they should accept their gospel doctrine as being “from God” himself and “worthy of all acceptation” (1 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Timothy 1:15), as many have done. In the gift of tongues God was signifying – demonstrating – to the Old Testament people of God that he was doing a new thing in the world; that he was bringing the Gentiles into his covenant family, and that they had better embrace them as co-heirs of salvation (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22).

The apostle Peter and other formerly Jewish Christians with him also found themselves in a situation where the gift of tongues was a sign to them. Peter had preached the gospel to the Roman Centurion Cornelius and his household – a Gentile household. When they were converted, the Holy Spirit also gave them gifts of tongues: “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.  And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God” (Acts 10:44-46a).

The significance of this sign from God was not missed by Peter. He understood and concluded, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” (verse 47). By giving these Gentiles gifts of tongues, God had unmistakably signified to Peter that they had received the Holy Spirit – the same as he himself had received.

This receiving of the Holy Spirit by the Gentiles is something that Peter, and the others with him, could not have known for sure by using their own senses and examining these new Christian converts. (No mere man can cannot look into the heart of another person). This work of the Spirit among the Gentiles, therefore, had to be verified by God in some way to the Jewish Christian converts. God could have simply explained this to Peter himself. Or he could have given him the ability to discern the real changes in the hearts of Cornelius’ household. But God chose to bestow the same spiritual gift upon them as he had bestowed upon Peter and other Jewish Christians – thereby demonstrating them to be equals.

Later when Peter reported to the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem what had happened on his mission to Cornelius’s house he told them, “… And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:15-17).

The apostle Paul too experienced gifts of tongues being a sign to him. When he encountered some disciples of John the Baptist, he preached to them, “John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.” They were converted and baptised by Paul, and then, when he laid his hands on them, “the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied” (see Acts 19:1-6). So they too were accepted as part of the New Testament church.

It should also be noted that the gifts of tongues in the church at Corinth were not spurious, merely gibberish. They were the authentic gifts from God, which were misused. That they were the real gifts is evident from the fact that Paul issued regulations for their use in 1 Corinthians 14. If they were counterfeit gifts, Paul would have prohibited them and subjected their practitioners to church discipline.


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