Spiritual Gifts

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The feature which most immediately forces itself upon our notice, as distinctive of the early New Testament church age, is its possession of supernatural or spiritual gifts. Concerning these, our whole information must be derived from Scripture, because they appear to have vanished with the disappearance of the Apostles themselves, and there is no authentic account of their existence in the Church in any writings of a later date than the books of the New Testament.

The absense of many of the spiritual gifts after the first century gives a more remarkable and impressive character to the frequent mention of them in the writings of the Apostles. They discuss the exercise of such gifts as a matter of ordinary occurrence.

The manifestation of spiritual gifts occurred so often that their miraculous powers are not even mentioned by the New Testament writers as a class apart, but are joined in the same classification with other gifts, which we are wont to term natural endowments or "talents."

Thus, Apostle Paul tells us (1Corinthians 12:11) that all these charisms, or spiritual gifts, were wrought by one and the same Spirit that distributed them to each severally according to God's will. Among these he classes the gift of healing, and the gift of tongues, as falling under the same category with the talent for administrative usefulness and the faculty of government. Since we are discussing those powers that gave a distinctive character to the early Church, it is desirable that we should make a division between the two classes of spiritual gifts, the extraordinary and the ordinary.


The most striking manifestation of divine spiritual intervention was the power of working what are commonly called miracles, that is, changes in the usual operation of the laws of nature. This power was exercised by Apostle Paul himself very frequently (as we know from the narrative in the Acts), as well as by the other Apostles. In the Epistles we find repeated allusions to its exercise by ordinary Christians.

Examples of the operation of miracles include Apostle Paul's raising Eutychus from the dead (Acts 20:9 - 10), his striking Elymas with blindness (Acts 13:6 - 11), his healing the sick at Ephesus (Acts 19:11 - 12) and his curing the father of Publius on the island of Malta (Acts 27:7 - 8).

The last-mentioned examples are instances of the exercise of the spiritual gift of healing, which was a peculiar branch of the gift of miracles, and sometimes apparently possessed by those who had not the higher gift. The source of all these miraculous powers was the charism of faith. It was that peculiar kind of wonder-working faith spoken of in Matthew 17:20, 1Corinthians 12:9, and 1Corinthians 13:2. It consisted in an intense belief that all obstacles would vanish before the power given. This must, of course, be distinguished from that disposition of faith which is essential to the Christian's spiritual life.

We have remarked that the exercise of these miraculous powers is spoken of both in the Acts and Epistles as a matter of ordinary occurrence, and in that tone of quiet (and often incidental) allusion in which we mention the facts of our daily life. And this is the case, not in a narrative of events long past (where unintentional exaggeration might be supposed to have crept in), but in the narrative of a contemporary, writing immediately after the occurrence of the events which he records, and of which he was an eyewitness.

Further still, the manifestation of such spiritual gifts occurs in letters which speak of those miracles as wrought in the daily sight of the readers addressed. Now the question forced upon every intelligent mind is, whether such a phenomenon can be explained except by the assumption that the miracles did really happen.

The spiritual gift of discerning of spirits was needful for the checking of false pretensions to some other charisms. Those who had this ability could distinguish between the real and the imaginary possessors of spiritual gifts.

Gift of Prophecy

Besides the power of working miracles, other supernatural or spiritual gifts of a less extraordinary character were bestowed upon the early Church. One of the most important of these is the gift of prophecy. It is needless to remark that, in the Scriptural sense of the term, a prophet generally does not mean a foreteller of future events but a revealer of God's will to man.

The gift of prophecy was that charism which enabled its possessors to utter, with the authority of inspiration, divine strains of warning, exhortation, encouragement, or rebuke. It also enabled them to teach and enforce the truths of Christianity with supernatural energy and effect.

The wide diffusion among the members of the Church of the spiritual gift of prophetical inspiration was a circumstance which is mentioned by Peter as distinctive of the Gospel dispensation (Acts 2:17 - 18). In fact, we find that in the family of Philip the Evangelist alone (Acts 21:9) there were four daughters who exercised this gift. The general possession of it is, in like manner, implied by the directions of Apostle Paul to the Corinthians (1Corinthians 11:4, 14:24, 31, 34).

Paul looks upon the spiritual gift of prophecy as one of the great instruments for the conversion of unbelievers, and far more serviceable in this respect than the gift of tongues.

Thus far we have mentioned a few extraordinary gifts of the Spirit which were vouchsafed to the early New Testament Church alone. Yet, there was no strong line of division, no "great gulf fixed" between these, and what we now should call the ordinary gifts, or natural endowments of the Christian converts.

Gifts of teaching, governments

The spiritual gift of prophecy cannot easily be separated by any accurate demarcation from another charism often mentioned in Scripture, which we should now consider an ordinary talent, namely, the gift of teaching. The distinction between them appears to have been that the latter was more habitually and constantly exercised by its possessors than the former. We are not to suppose, however, that it was necessarily given to different persons. On the contrary, an excess of divine inspiration might at any moment cause the teacher to speak as a prophet and this was constantly exemplified in the case of the Apostles, who exercised the gift of prophecy for the conversion of their unbelieving hearers, and the gift of teaching for the building-up of their converts in the faith.

Other spiritual gifts specially mentioned as charisms are the gift of government and the gift of ministration. By the former, certain persons were specially fitted to preside over the Church and regulate its internal order. The latter gift enable a person to minister to the wants of their brethren, to manage the distribution of relief among the poorer members of the Church, to tend the sick, and carry out other practical works of piety.

In all cases, so far as we may infer from the recorded instances in the Acts, those who were selected for the performance of Church offices were solemnly set apart for the duties to which they devoted themselves. This ordination they received, whether the office to which they were called was permanent or temporary. The Church, of which they were members, first devoted a preparatory season to fasting and prayer.

Those who were to be set apart were then consecrated to their work by that solemn and touching symbolical act, the laying on of hands, which has been ever since appropriated to the same purpose and meaning. And thus, in answer to the faith and prayers of the Church, the spiritual gifts necessary for the performance of the office were bestowed by Him who is the Lord and Giver of Life.

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