The Fellowship of Serving: Sign Gifts

One of the most confusing and controversial subjects in the church is the spiritual gifts of tongues, interpretation, healing, and miracles. These gifts are used to display the mighty power of God and, thus, are referred to as the ‘sign’ gifts. The reason such gifts have become so confusing and controversial is the fact that there has been many movements of false teaching and practices that have misused these gifts and, therefore, created a hesitancy or fear concerning these gifts. However, these gifts are listed with all the other spiritual gifts. Therefore, we must consider if these are legitimate spiritual gifts to be used in the church today or, perhaps they have evolved to take on a different form than what was first seen in the ministry of the Apostles. To begin, we will look at each of the sign gifts and how they are defined and demonstrated in scripture, then we will tackle the issue concerning the use of these gifts in the church today.

                The Gift of Tongues. In 1 Corinthians 12:10, we see speaking in tongues listed along with other spiritual gifts. This gives legitimacy to the gift of tongues. It is, in fact, a real spiritual gift given to believers as the Holy Spirit wills. However, there is much confusion today regarding the gift of tongues because of the misunderstanding and misuse of the gift. We must first define what speaking in tongues is. The word for ‘tongues’ in the Bible is the Greek word ‘glossa’ (gloce-sah). It literally means ‘language’. It is not a bunch of gibberish. It is an actual organized and structured language.

To better understand the use of tongues we should look to the very first time it occurred as recorded in the book of Acts. Look at Acts 2:1-12. The first account of speaking in tongues was on the day of Pentecost. This was the day when the Holy Spirit came and empowered the believers to be witnesses of Jesus throughout the world. At this event the believers, namely the Apostles, began to preach the Gospel. There were many gathered that day from all nationalities. Miraculously, every person heard the Gospel preached in their own language. The Apostles did not know the languages of these people. However, the Holy Spirit gave them the words to say in such a way that everyone clearly understood the message in their own language. What a miracle! The key here is that the languages that the Apostles spoke on the day of Pentecost were actual real languages that existed.

Though the majority of the time we see speaking in tongues in scripture it is seen as an actual known language, there is some evidence that speaking in tongues, in some instances such as in prayer, could be seen as an unknown tongue or a language unknown to man. In 1 Corinthians 13:1 it speaks of the importance of love, and it says, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.”[1] Here there is a reference to speaking in the tongues of the languages of angels. 1 Corinthians 14:2 describes someone speaking in a tongue or language that is not understood by men. If the Holy Spirit gives someone the ability to speak in an unknown language it is still a language. There is good indication that the language of Heaven is some form of Hebrew which is a known organized language.

Though there is much misunderstanding and misuse of tongues today, we cannot just ignore the fact that it is a spiritual gift given to those as the Spirit wills. The real question we must consider is whether or not the Holy Spirit is giving believers this gift today and if so, then for what purpose.

The Gift of Interpretation. The gift of interpretation is also seen in the list of spiritual gifts as recorded in 1 Corinthians 12. This gift is fairly simple to understand. The gift of interpretation is the ability given to one by the Holy Spirit to interpret a tongue or language that is not understood by those present.

The Gift of Healing. The spiritual gift of healing is seen in 1 Corinthians 12:9. This gift was mostly used by the Apostles as the Holy Spirit enabled them to heal the sick as a demonstration of God’s power. Just like the gift of tongues, this is a gift that has been exploited and misused in many circles today. Many false teachers have claimed to have the gift of healing and have deceived many to send them money in exchange that they would be healed. Such practices are not of God. However, healing is a spiritual gift and if it is used today, it would certainly not be for the glory and benefit of man. Just as all the spiritual gifts, the gift of healing is to be used to glorify God through the edifying of the church and the furtherance of God’s Kingdom.

The Gift of Miracles. This gift is similar to the gift of healing. It is the performance of some feat that only God could do. This gift was used primarily by the Apostles to demonstrate the power of God to the unbelieving world. We do serve a miracle working God that can do anything. If one claims to be able to work miracles, they must be one who gives all the glory to God and make it clear that it is God working in them to perform the miracle and not they themselves.

The Cessationist View of the Sign Gifts. The reason we call the gifts of tongues, interpretation, healings, and miracles ‘sign’ gifts is because the example seen in the scriptures. These gifts were seen in various periods of time and used to authenticate the ministry. “Moses was enabled to perform miracles to authenticate his ministry before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:1-8). Elijah was given miracles to authenticate his ministry before Ahab (1 Kings 17:118:24). The apostles were given miracles to authenticate their ministry before Israel (Acts 4:1016). Jesus’ ministry was also marked by miracles, which the Apostle John calls “signs” (John 2:11). John’s point is that the miracles were proofs of the authenticity of Jesus’ message. After Jesus’ resurrection, as the Church was being established and the New Testament was being written, the apostles demonstrated “signs” such as tongues and the power to heal. “Tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not” (1 Corinthians 14:22, a verse that plainly says the gift was never intended to edify the church)”[2]. The Cessationist view says that these ‘sign’ gifts ceased with the end of the age of the Apostles. Just as there are no true ‘Apostles’ today, these gifts primarily given to the Apostles, are of no use today. In 1 Corinthians 13:8, Paul seemed to predict that there would be a day when these gifts would cease. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul emphasizes the need for edification in the church and that the sign gifts, particularly the gift of tongues, is not useful for edification and Paul even seems to discourage the use of tongues in the church. Verse 13 of 1 Corinthians 13 talks about when ‘that which is perfect is come’ there would be no need for these ‘sign’ gifts. Many believe this a reference to the completion of God’s Word. Now that we have the complete Word of God, there is no need for such gifts to authenticate our ministry. Our authentication and authority come from God’s Word. There is also historical evidence that these ‘sign’ gifts have ceased. Tongues are not mentioned at all by the Post-Apostolic Fathers. Other writers such as Justin MartyrOrigenChrysostom, and Augustine considered tongues something that happened only in the earliest days of the Church. It wasn’t until the modern charismatic movement that we saw these ‘sign’ gifts supposedly revived and used again.

Personally, I am a partial cessationist. I believe that these gifts are not needful today in most cases and they serve no real purpose for the church and for the advancement of God’s Kingdom. I believe that there is no need for using these gifts to authenticate our ministry, because we have the complete written Word of God that the Prophets and Apostles did not have. However, I am very careful to not put God in a box. In some rare cases in parts of the world that have no access to the scriptures, God may very well empower someone with these gifts in order to authenticate their ministry and to bring people to Christ. However, I believe these gifts are used only in such cases where the Word of God is not available. In places, such as where we live, there is certainly no need for such gifts, and we should be very wary of anyone who insist they have these gifts and attempt to impose them upon the church. As far as speaking in an unknown ‘pray language’ I leave that between you and the Lord. If that is a legitimate practice, it is a personal thing and should not be practiced in the setting of the church. However, I see very little evidence that such a practice is truly Biblical, and I have never personally experienced it in my prayer life.

The Principle of the ‘sign’ gifts for today. Even though these ‘sign’ gifts either no longer exist or, if they do, it is only used in very rare cases; there is a principle behind these gifts that can apply to the church today. For example, the gift of tongues may, in principle, be a gift of communication. There are those to whom the Holy Spirit gives a unique ability to communicate truth. They are able to speak truth in love and in way that people respond.

There are also those that the Holy Spirit my enable to be good interpreters or discerners of truth. Some are gifted with the ability to understand an interpret scripture. Others are gifted with the ability to rightly interpret what others are saying and the meaning behind their words.

Though God is the only one who heals, there are those to whom the Holy Spirit has given a special gift of bringing healing to difficult situations. These are those who are calm in moments of pressure or discord. They have a way of bringing peace. They are good counselors and are able to help others come to a place of healing from addictions, or marriage problems, etc.

When it comes to working miracles, this can be seen as the ability to make something out of nothing. They are able to accomplish things that others thought was impossible. Those who have this ability are very quick to acknowledge that it is the Holy Spirit working in them to accomplish that which man deems as impossible.

All spiritual gifts are to be used for the edifying of the church and for the advancement of God’s Kingdom. If someone does something in the church that brings confusion rather than edification, it is not of God. The Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts as He wills. There is good indication that the ‘sign’ gifts are given at certain periods of time and for specific purposes and are not given to be used in the regular function and purpose of the church. However, perhaps the Holy Spirit has given you spiritual gifts relating to the ‘sign’ gifts in principle, and there are ways you can use the gifts of communication, interpretation, healing, and miracles, to edify the church and advance God’s Kingdom.

[1] The New King James Version. (1982). (1 Co 13:1). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[2] Is cessationism biblical? What is a cessationist? |

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