The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit Series
Wed, 14 Apr 2010 - 11:03 AM CST
By Donald Gee
It is impossible to read the New Testament without observing certain supernatural features in the worship and experience of the early Christians. The miraculous element was especially prominent in the ministry of apostles and evangelists.
During his extended ministry at Ephesus, God wrought “special miracles by the hands of Paul” (Acts 19:11). The word translated special means “not the ordinary,” indicating that some forms of miracles were regarded as ordinary. This shows how widespread was the church’s experience of the supernatural in those days.
Examination will prove, however, that usually the miracles had some definite connection with the preaching of the gospel, either to attract the lost or to fulfill the Lord’s promise to confirm the Word “with signs following.” They were not simply miracles for miracles’ sake.
A careful reading and interpretation of the New Testament leads to the conclusion that the early Christians, including the apostles, lived quite normal lives. They remained “earthen vessels,” even after Pentecost, and they tasted a full cup of human joy and sorrow; riches and poverty; strength and weakness; popularity and persecution. Nevertheless, the miraculous element was there, its presence becomes even more striking against this background of the ordinary.
Another supernatural feature of New Testament church life was the distinct prophetic ministry. The prophets were a distinct class of ministers (Acts 13:1; Ephesians 4:11), and their ministry was recognized as supernatural. Some of their predictions were immediately and strikingly fulfilled (see Acts 11:28).
Somewhat similar to the gift of prophecy was the more mysterious gift of tongues, which continued after the Day of Pentecost. It occurred in places far removed in place and time from the initial outpouring in Jerusalem.
Meetings of the Early Christians
It is possible to reconstruct from various passages in the New Testament, especially First Corinthians, a picture of the gatherings of the Early Church. Various gifted writers have done this; and some, such as Dean Farrar, have clothed their narratives with considerable dramatic effect. That those meetings never lacked in vitality and variety, we can well believe.
Of course, we are familiar with many of those features in Christian worship today. The meetings included praying, preaching, singing hymns, and the ordinances of water baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Fast days, collections, and business conferences are mentioned, as well as special meetings when well-known brethren came to town.
Yet throughout the New Testament accounts of these meetings runs a supernatural touch, an unearthly quality. Prayer could become “praying in the spirit,” or praying in “tongues,” and was often spontaneous and united. Preaching and teaching had a distinct note of Spirit-given authority, being confirmed by the highly inspirational utterances of the “prophets.” Singing could be “with the spirit” as well as with the understanding; it sometimes took the form of purely “spiritual songs.” A miracle might occur in any meeting. Returned missionaries told of mighty works the Lord had done through them. Special days of fasting and prayer were made memorable by the spoken voice of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Even conferences were so overshadowed by the Holy Ghost that He was considered to have made the decisions in conjunction with the church.1
And all this is recorded in the New Testament without the slightest suggestion of strain or hysteria or excitement as far as the Christians themselves were concerned. It was among outsiders that the excitement occurred. With the believers it was all beautifully spontaneous and was accounted quite normal for those who had received the gift of the Holy Ghost.
The Gift of the Holy Spirit
Therein lies the dynamic source of the whole subject. The early believers had received the “gift of the Holy Ghost” as promised by our Lord, and through the lips of Peter on the Day of Pentecost.
With them it was no mere intellectual assent to some article in a creed. Neither was it acquiescence to a vague idea that in some mysterious manner the Holy Spirit had been imparted to them upon conversion. To them the personal reception of the Holy Spirit was an intensely vivid experience. They knew when He came, where He came, and how He came.2 Nothing reveals this more clearly than Paul’s searching question to certain disciples whom he discerned to be spiritually lacking: “Have ye received the Holy Ghost?” (Acts 19:2). The challenge was to experience, not to doctrine. How significant. An Ephesian Pentecost followed, and it was an experience as vivid as all the rest had received: “They spake with tongues and prophesied.”
That passage, like its parallels, reveals an intimate connection between the supernatural gifts of the Spirit and the initial baptism with the Spirit. They constituted one of the accepted results of that blessing in the corporate life and activity of the assemblies; and the spiritual gifts with which their gatherings were enriched all arose out of the fact the individuals comprising the assemblies were personally filled with the Spirit.
The phrase “manifestation of the Spirit” makes this clear (1 Corinthians 12:7). The Greek word is phanerosis, a shining forth. Those nine gifts that follow are examples of the different ways in which the indwelling Spirit might reveal Himself through believers. It is the light shining through the lantern.
There must have been a wonderfully comforting, but sometimes also a terribly searching “light” in those early Christian assemblies as these gifts were in operation. A wealth of insight is contained in just one verse where Paul says, “Thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth” (1 Corinthians 14:25).
Not Imitation, but Inspiration
The rich variety afforded by “diversity of operations” where the gifts of the Spirit were concerned must have effectively prevented in the early churches that staleness sometimes found in public worship today. There was a constant spiritual freshness and attraction, without any shallow preoccupation with novelties for their own sake.
That all Christians felt at liberty to take part as the Spirit moved in upon them seems beyond question. Otherwise, passages such as 1 Corinthians 14, and the situations they predicate, would be meaningless and impossible.
It is a fallacy, however, to think that we can achieve a scriptural New Testament assembly by simply throwing our meetings open for all to take part as they will. Imitation is not inspiration. The open ministry of the early churches was for spiritual gifts, not for natural activity. The common result of “open meetings” on a purely natural plane is spiritual bondage and sterility worse than any adherence to a fixed form of worship that at least makes room for consecrated natural talent.
Actually, the highest type of order permeated and safeguarded the liberty of the early Christian congregations. The gift and ministry of “governments” gave presiding elders an authority recognized as from God Himself (1 Corinthians 12:28). This was accompanied by a “discerning of spirits” that detected the spiritual source of any passing manifestation.
The temporary disorders in connection with spiritual gifts at Corinth did not arise out of anything in the nature of the gifts themselves, but only out of certain weaknesses in the believers who were exercising them. The Apostle’s final words on the matter: “Let all things be done decently and in order,” show that a proper exercise of spiritual gifts is consistent with the strictest ideas of genuine reverence.
Two Forms of Ignorance
Paul begins his discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12–14, with, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.” The ignorance dealt with at Corinth had nothing to do with the believers’ experience of these things as a vital spiritual reality in their lives. Paul testified that they “came behind in no gift” as far as their experience was concerned. What they needed was to gain a clearer understanding of the essential unity running through all the diverse gifts they possessed, and to grasp the fact that love alone could guarantee the profitable use of their gifts for all. They alone could guarantee the profitable use of their gifts for all. They needed to understand the relative importance of some of the gifts, and also the relative worth of even the best gifts compared to the highest elements of Christian character.
A strange, yet obstinate, fallacy insists that the enjoyment of these supernatural gifts of the Spirit presupposed perfect holiness and spiritual maturity. Actually, the New Testament makes it clear that they were ordinary people who, although sanctified by the Holy Spirit, were still subject to human infirmities and sincere mistakes; and they needed the sympathetic instruction of their “spiritual father” in Christ.
Today we confront a more fundamental ignorance concerning spiritual gifts. In many segments of the church there is an almost complete lack of personal experience in the exercise of the gifts. No wonder, then, that the plain references to the gifts in the New Testament appear dim and mysterious, and are sometimes misapplied. Moreover, this ignorance is excused and confirmed by a persistent assumption that in any case these things are not intended for today, and therefore need interest us no more than any other facet of church history.
Possibilities of an amazing spiritual revival in the church lie in the challenging realization that the supernatural gifts of the Spirit with which early Christians were endowed are even yet within the reach of simple faith and loving obedience.
—Condensed from Concerning Spiritual Gifts.
1. Acts 4:24; 13:2; 14:27; 15:28; 1 Corinthians 2:4; 14:13,14; Colossians 3:16.
2. Acts 2:4; 8:17; 9:17; 10:44; 19:6; Galatians 3:2; Ephesians 1:13.