There is immense benefit in sitting under a pastor who knows how to teach well (accurately, intelligently and compassionately, I might add). There are no words to describe the gratitude in my heart for this rich blessing in my life.
As our congregation steps methodically through the book of Acts, I’ve been fascinated that the stories contained within its pages are consistent with the redemptive-historical lens of interpretation I have come to appreciate and deeply value. With the right lens, the Bible comes alive in its proper perspective for the believer. Seen through a cloudy lens or an inaccurate interpretative hermeneutic tool, comprehension for the believer is often difficult to achieve.
No where do we see muddled theology more glaringly revealed than in the segment of contemporary Christianity which believes in the continuance of extraordinary gifts. These individuals still believe that prophetic words, miracles, signs and wonders (and more) performed by the hand of man (through God) continue today. Prophetic conferences abound across the world and many pastors/teachers, caught up in the excitement of such speculative ventures, end up bringing false doctrine and false hope to the doorsteps of their churches and to the individual lives of their people.
The Reformed position says that these kinds of out-of-the-ordinary gifts ceased with the era of the apostles of the early church. It recognizes that the extraordinary miracles we read about during the time of the apostles were for a specific purpose, during a specific time for a specific people. We tend to think that it is only the charismatic community which has jumped on the prophecy bandwagon but this false ideology has woven its way into the tapestry of many today’s evangelical churches, as well. Both mainstream and charismatic Christianity is becoming a blended doctrinal mess of hyped-up emotions that end up injuring the heart more than healing or informing it.
There is no better place than the book of Acts to understand this contemporary dilemma. Each city visited by Paul (and other apostles) suffered from some sort of doctrinal confusion. No wonder; we live in a fallen world.
In Acts 19, we find Paul in Ephesus, a hyper-spiritualized city not unlike like the contemporary evangelical church we know today. Think of Berkeley, CA or Boulder, CO. Ephesus was famous for housing one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis. It was a metropolitan city; a commercial center of the ancient world and a city where people flocked to be counted among the world’s elite.
Because of its multi-cultural flair, Ephesus had evolved into a murky puddle of theological stew; a little bit of this and a little bit of that blended in such a way that it became spiritually delightful to the hearts of the Ephesian Christians. Christianity was that spoonful of sugar that made the medicine go down just a little bit easier. One would hav thought that real sugar would have been enough.
Biblical clarity was absent in Ephesus — but put yourself in their shoes. The Ephesians had yet to receive the canon of scripture in its completeness. Just one chapter (Acts 20:27) later Paul will remind early Christians that the apostles had not failed to deliver the whole counsel of God to the church. So — they were not ignorant of these matters.
I’m not trying to make excuses for them but the fact is the church was still very young in the scheme of history. Yet, they were not forgotten by God. For this specific time and place, God sent apostles to their churches for a specific purpose — to clarify doctrinal confusion. A plethora of false teachers continued to prey on their frailties. This required the apostles to travel to as many cities as possible to clear up these misconceptions and to teach sound doctrine to the church. A specific purpose; a specific time; a specific people.
The Christians of Ephesus had developed the habit of mixing Christian beliefs with other religions and their practices. If one religion was good, surely a mixture of several religions was better and more powerful! Surely an acceptance of a little deviation here or there wouldn’t hurt anybody. For instance, they routinely performed exorcisms in the names of various idolatrous gods, finally conjuring up potions that used the name of Jesus as the whipped cream par excellence topping which would make their exorcism or mystical activity more powerful.
In this particular chapter (Acts 19), the seven sons of the Jewish High Priest, Sceva, began to invoke the name of Jesus within their exorcism practice. Why not throw Jesus in the mix? Why not mix Jew, Christian and pagan all into one pot? The more gods the merrier, in their estimation. After all, it’s all about how we perceive God, right? God is in everything, right? When they attempted to exorcise evil spirits from the people of Ephesus, at some point an evil spirit spoke directly to them.
The evil spirit asked, “Who are you?” The evil spirit knew Jesus and it knew Paul, but it didn’t know the sons of Sceva. The Bible reminds us that even the demons tremble at the name of Jesus. Fear fell on the church of Ephesus after the person who possessed the evil spirit ended up overpowering the sons of Sceva. Isn’t it funny that it took this kind of an extreme situation to grab their attention? Isn’t it just like a human to trust their own instincts instead of what has already been fully delivered to the saints? Isn’t that just what we do today when we want to create an artificial way to substantiate what we want to believe? God’s ways; not our own.
Word about this situation spread across the city and Christians began to recognize their error. The name of Jesus (alone) was once again praised; sound doctrine was taught and received by the people. Many came forward, confessing their sin of the use of divination and other forbidden practices such as exorcism. The Christians of Ephesus chose to burn the very books which had taught them to abuse the Word of God with pagan ideologies. Mind you, it was a grave cost for these people. Scripture is unclear which monetary unit is standard for this passage, but if the assessment of the books were recognized in denarii, the worth of these books would have been $6,000,000,000 dollars in today’s currency. Repentance is both beautiful and costly.
Acts continues: “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” A specific purpose; a specific time; a specific people.
It is the Word which prevails. Not our works nor our dreams. Not the supposed false prophecies of contemporary “prophets.” Not our own self-centered interpretation of the Word, but The Word which speaks. The Word is enough. The gospel message of Christ is the power of salvation to everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16) It is sufficient for all we need in faith and life.
This kind of spiritual abuse happened frequently in the early church and sadly, these kinds of false practices continue to deceive the contemporary evangelical church today. Sometimes when I get overwhelmed at the magnitude of doctrinal error in my own generation, I sit down and read through Acts and the letters to the churches. It comforts me to know that the same God who was faithful to the early church is also faithful in my own generation, to those who love the Lord.
Another example: In 2 Corinthians 11 – 13, Paul tried to warn the Corinthian people about the supposed super-apostles who were going around mimicking the works of the true apostles of Christ. He warned the church at Corinth that they were being deceived by imitators of the true faith.
Like Corinth, none of us are immune from deception. The problem in Corinth was that believers were being led astray from from what should have been a pure and sincere devotion to Christ. The Word. False apostles entered their city and preached another Jesus to their church; another gospel – a false one. The Corinthians did not discern that they were being misled. Why? They did not know sound doctrine. They failed to invest as much in their minds as much as they did in their hearts and in hearsay. Paul, as a true apostle, reminded the Corinthian church that Satan is a deceiver. He reminds them that they should not be surprised then, if the servants of Satan sometimes disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.
Thus, Paul proclaims, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” The Corinthians were testing him yet they failed to realize they needed to test themselves, as well. We are to teach what accords with sound doctrine. (Titus 2:1)
Why then do humans gravitate towards false doctrine? Even those who proclaim to know the Lord Jesus Christ well? Today, those who seek after signs and wonders in order to proclaim the grace of God are doing so in a false context. They may perhaps be doing so sincerely but they do so without a firm grasp of theology. Sincerity does not always equate into truth. Any truth claim must be examined in light of the words of God to see if it holds truth in its grasp. It not, one should run fast and furiously away from it.
Biblical history shows that this special kind of apostolic office was for a specific purpose, a specific time and a specific people. By proclaiming the office of apostle still exists today, people who practice the continuance of prophecy and other miracle “gifts” thus try to give credence to their aberrant activity.
Hebrews 1:1-2: Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
It couldn’t be more clear. The prophetic word has ceased. Today, God speaks to us through His Son. Jesus is culmination of prophecy. Thus, we have His Word for all that we need. As Graeme Goldsworthy says, “The real meaning of prophecy lies in the person and work of Jesus Christ.” (pg. 50, from his book, According to Plan) Goldsworthy points to 1 Peter 1:10-17 to explain.
“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written,“You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
Goldsworthy further reminds us that “the one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel. What went before Christ in the Old Testament, as well as what comes after him, finds its meaning in Him.”
Acts 13:32-33 supports the understanding that God used miraculous means for a specific purpose, time and people but that he now works through his Son. It says: And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’
Here’s the thing: when we manipulate God and His Word, we end up creating a spiritually toxic vessel in which to dwell. It affects our personal lives and the lives around us, including both our spiritual and secular lives. For instance, we might confuse church and state — or we might think that our righteousness is based on a works-based righteousness instead of the work of Christ alone. Our bodies and minds don’t function well when we are filled with toxins. Rather, we should trust in what He has revealed to us; His timing and His providence.
If we know that that Ephesians 2 tells us we are dead in our sin, following the course of the world and the spirit of disobedience that is now at work in the world, we should recognize our vulnerability and be wary of continuing this kind of practice as believing Christians. The promise of God is salvation through Him alone. Those who profess that prophecy continues today do not rest in this promise, in my opinion.
We trivialize the name of the Lord when we require signs and wonders in order to believe or to hype up our faith. Our faith was once for all given to us. It is complete. It’s a done deal and the hyped-up version need not be a part of a sound, reasoned faith given to all generations of God’s chosen people.
The real miracle is the life we have already received — that our salvation is secure in the hands of a loving, faithful God who sent Christ to accomplish on the cross what we could not do on our own.
Manipulating God in order to relate to Him on our terms will never work. Manipulating God in order to soothe our own questions and personal dilemmas is merely a false assurance. True assurance rests in work and word of Jesus Christ alone on our behalf.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
Dr. Michael Horton has written a short blog piece here that is applicable to what I have written and worth a read. In regard to teachers in error he says:
“I am not targeting these friends and brothers, but pleading with them—and with all of us—to rediscover the ordinary means of grace, ordinary ministry, ordinary offices, and to long for a genuine revival: that is, a surprising blessing of God on his ordinary ministry in our day. The false choice between head and heart, the Spirit and the Word, has been a perennial polemic of the radical wing of Protestantism.”
I couldn’t agree more. The simplicity I have found in the classical Reformed faith has given me the full assurance I need of the faith given to me by God. It is ordinary. I am grateful.