With all of this as a backdrop (see part 1 in this series), the question is reduced to this: Is God giving authoritative revelation on par with that which He has given in the past, much of which has been inscripturated, or is He not? If He is, then the church of Christ needs to take note and come into compliance with the modern prophecy movement, following its revelations as it would Scripture. But if the Lord is not revealing His inspired word today, then we need to reject the claims of the modern prophets and expose these supposed revelations for what they are. This means the position taken by most on prophecy—cautious but open—is untenable. The cautious but open crowd is skeptical of the claims coming from the prophetic movement and they are suspicious of the many “words from God” that so many evangelicals are claiming. Still they hesitate to embrace cessationism. They are concerned about limiting God or, as it was mentioned above, “putting God in a box.” To this let me make two replies:
- It is okay to put God in a box if God, in fact, is the One who put Himself in that box. In other words, God can do anything He wants to do, but we expect God to do what He says He will do. If God has put Himself in the cessationist box we can embrace and proclaim it.
- Taking the open but cautious view really does not hold up. Either God is speaking today apart from His Word or He is not. If He is speaking, how do we determine which of the multitude of messages people claim are from Him and which are bogus? If, with Grudem, we have eliminated the tests of Deuteronomy 13 and 18, how are we to evaluate all these revelations? How do we know to whom we should listen and whom we should ignore?
On such an important area as divine revelation it is indefensible to believe that God’s people cannot know with certainty whether such is taking place. Surely we should expect that the Scriptures themselves would lay out the guidelines for us to determine if divine, authoritative, inspired revelation is being given today. I believe it does and that we can be confident, from the witness of Scripture itself, that God has ceased speaking to mankind during this age apart from the Bible. Let’s take a quick look at what the Word has to say.
A cessationist view begins with a careful look at what God actually did in Scripture. We find, when we search carefully, that God was not speaking to everyone all the time. His revelation, even in biblical times, was rare and when He did speak it was always supernaturally with an audible voice, never through inner voices or impressions. The assumption held by many that God spoke to most of his children in biblical times is simply not true. The average believer in either Testament never received a personal word from God and even the majority of key players never heard the voice of God personally. When God did speak in Scripture it almost always dealt with the big picture of what He was doing in the outworking of His redemptive program or the life of His people in general. You will search in vain to find God instructing someone to take a job, purchase a number of donkeys, or buy a house—except as it related to the bigger issue of God’s dealings with His people. Beyond a few individuals, finding a non-prophetic person in Scripture who heard directly from God becomes a difficult task. The contention that God spoke to almost everyone all the time, leading, guiding and directing, simply does not stand the test of careful examination of the Scriptures. Even those to whom God spoke in the Old Testament, to only Noah, Abraham, Moses (considered to be a prophet), Jacob, Aaron, Joshua, David and Solomon, did He speak more than twice in their lifetimes?
But what about the New Testament? We find that most records of God speaking to individuals after Pentecost are found in the book of Acts. But even here we find only thirteen distinct times in which God spoke directly to individuals (two of these through angels): Acts 8:26-29; 9:4, 10; 10:3, 11-16; 12:7-8; 13:2-4; 16:6,9-10; 18:9; 21:4, 11; 22:17-21; 23:11. Eight of these occasions were to Paul or Peter, leaving a total of five other individuals or groups to whom God spoke directly in the first 30 years of church history.
The positive evidence
So far, we have examined what might be called negative evidence. That is, if we are looking for a pattern of how God spoke to individuals in scriptural times, that pattern reveals a scarcity of individual revelations. The Lord chose to speak primarily through His prophets and the apostles. Following that pattern we should expect the same today. Let’s now move to more positive evidence that the Lord has ceased speaking today apart from Scripture.
Beginning with Ephesians 2:20, we find that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Since Christ is the cornerstone of the church, this verse has to be speaking of the witness concerning Christ that the apostles and prophets provided to the church. It is only to be expected that this witness would be passed along to the future generations of believers via the instrument of Scriptures that those men were inspired to write. As Ephesians 3:5 tells us, the “mystery of Christ” has been “made known to the sons of men through the revelation given to Christ’s holy apostles and prophets.” In the next chapter, Paul teaches that the Lord has provided gifted men to the church for its perfection or maturity. The apostles’ and prophets’ role in that process was laying the foundation of the church, as we have seen (Eph 2:20; 3:5). How? Through the teaching of New Testament truth, the apostles’ doctrine. The early church gathered together to devote “themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), for it was the apostles who would provide New Testament revelation.
The book of Hebrews enhances our understanding by detailing two periods in human history in which the Lord has spoken to mankind. Hebrews 1:1 proclaims that the first period was “long ago to the fathers and prophets in many portions and in many ways.” This is an obvious reference to the revelations given during the times of the Old Testament. In verse two the author of Hebrews cites the second period of divine revelation by simply saying that “in these last days [God] has spoken through His Son.” But as we know Jesus Himself did not write down anything that He said. That was left to His followers and so, the author of Hebrews adds: “After it was first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard” (Heb 2:3) i.e. the apostles. This however raises a practical problem. How did the people know that the communication they were receiving from the apostles was true? After all, many individuals made claim to being an apostle during the first century. The Lord would authenticate His true apostles by giving them the ability to perform “signs and wonders, and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Heb 2:4). When the Corinthians challenged Paul’s apostleship and authority, he pointed them to the “signs of a true apostle… [which were] signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Cor 12:12), just as the author of Hebrews confirmed. The book of Acts verifies repeatedly that miraculous gifts were taking place through the apostles for this very reason (Acts 2.43; 5:12, 13; 9:38-41; 14:3, 8-9; 15:12; 19:11; 20:10; 28:8, 9). The only exceptions were Stephen (6:8), Philip (8:6-7) and possibly Barnabas (15:12), all very closely associated with the apostles. We find no examples of the average Christian in the New Testament either performing miracles or receiving authoritative revelation. Miracles were for the purpose of authenticating the office of the men who would lay the foundation of the church. Once the foundation of the church was in place, the role of the apostles was no longer needed. With the death of John, the last of the apostles, gifts authenticating the apostles were no longer necessary and they ceased.
But did that necessarily mean revelation ceased as well? I believe the evidence of Scripture would indicate that it did. We start with 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, which clearly tells us that the day comes when prophecy and supernatural knowledge will be done away, and tongues will cease. Specifically Paul writes that “when the perfect comes the partial will be done away.” All Bible believers are ultimately cessationists, for this passage is clear that revelatory knowledge will cease at some point (that point being when the perfect comes). Many believe that the “perfect” refers to the coming of Christ or the eternal kingdom. That is a possible interpretation but the context is contrasting partial knowledge and revelatory gifts with that which is perfect. The best explanation in such a context would be that the perfect (or complete) would be the completion of Scripture.
In other words, when the revelation for this dispensation as recorded in the New Testament is completed the need for partial words of knowledge and prophecies would cease. That is, because the final, full revelation of the Lord for this dispensation has arrived, there is no need for additional messages from God. This seems reasonable, but did it happen?
This understanding of the perfect in 1 Corinthians 13 is reinforced later in the New Testament by Peter, Jude, Paul and John. When the apostle Peter pens the inspired epistle we call Second Peter, he is desirous of reminding them of many things, especially that they “remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles” (3:2). Peter did not point his readers to new or fresh revelation but to the words spoken previously by the prophets and apostles. Jude offers similar understanding when in verse three he urges his readers to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” A message had been given, a foundation laid once for all that had to be defended. How did they know what that message was? In verse 17 Jude answers, “But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The faith in verse three that was handed down to them, the faith that was to be defended and proclaimed, had been given to them by none other than the apostles.
As the apostle Paul writes virtually his last inspired words to his friend Timothy he points him to the Scriptures that are able to make the people of God “adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). In light of this lofty claim for the God-breathed Scriptures, Paul gives Timothy a final charge “to preach the word…” (4:1-5). There is no hint in Paul’s charge that Timothy is to seek additional revelation, listen to the prophecies or words of knowledge of fellow believers or preach his own dreams or visions. He is to preach the Word handed down to the saints through the apostles. As the New Testament canon nears its close the divinely inspired authors unite in pointing their readers to the apostles as the inspired human source of New Testament truth.
The apostle John joins the chorus as he closes down the New Testament with a solemn warning against adding to or subtracting from this final revelation from God. He writes, “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book” (Rev 22:18-19). Since this is the last chapter in the last book of the last Testament it is only reasonable to deduce that from that point on any addition of any prophecy would be adding to Scripture. With the death of John shortly thereafter, the last of the apostles had faded from the scene and with him the final word of revelation for this age. In addition there is no indication either the twelve apostles or the New Testament prophets were ever replaced (Rev 21:14).
The witness emerging from the Scriptures themselves is that God has chosen to communicate with mankind throughout history in specific and unique ways. He has chosen certain men at certain times to be prophets and apostles to speak and record divine revelation (Heb 1:1-2; 2:3-4). When God’s revelation was complete for this age, the ministry of the prophets and apostles was finished and we would expect no further communication at this time. This expectation is verified through the statements found in the Bible itself. What we are seeing today is not new revelation from God but subjective experiences and, at times, deception.