The coming of the Son of God in the flesh is the turning point in redemptive history, that is in the outworking of God’s plan for rescuing His fallen world. It marks a decisive divide between all that came before and all that God does from that crucial point onward.
Jesus indicated His own place in redemptive history in the parable of the tenants. In this parable, God is likened to the owner of a vineyard who sends a series of bondservants to collect his due, only to have them rebuffed, abused, even killed by the uncooperative tenants. The next step is an escalation in the status of the messenger: “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” (Matt. 21:37). The voice of the son, we understand, bears a superiority not just in degree, but in kind.
The magnificent opening of the epistle to the Hebrews encapsulates this same truth, and then goes on for thirteen chapters to develop this theme of Christ as superior to everything in previous phases of God’s plan, to urge against retrograde motion on the part of his readers. He begins:
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. (Heb. 1:1-2)
Continuationism is the understanding that according to the Scriptures, and Jesus Himself, during this era between Pentecost and the Parousia, God has established in the Church a vital and dynamic interconnection with Christ and the Father through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, through which Christ continues to glorify the Father, build His Church, and advance His kingdom.
To express this understanding in the imagery of the parable of the tenants, after the son is killed, when the vineyard owner comes to “let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons,” (v. 4) the son is in fact restored to life. He then continues actively to run the operations of the vineyard for his father, though off site. As he is delegated the management by his father, he in turn delegates the on-site operation to the new tenants. In this arrangement he remains in two-way communication with the tenants and supplies the resources necessary to the success of the operation.
Some others would modify this scenario by removing the idea of “two-way communication.” The son, in this case, commits to written form everything he wishes to say or will ever wish to say to the tenants. Thus he leaves them an operation manual, and determines that while he expects communication from the tenants to him, he will not communicate directly back to them, since the manual already contains everything he wishes them to know.
The former of these conceptions, according to proponents of the latter, is inaccurate in that it is incompatible with Hebrews 1:2, cited above. The idea of ongoing two-way communication with God—that is that God to man communication (still) occurs by means other than the Bible—is denied, these assert, by the statement that now God “has spoken to us by his Son” (v. 2). God’s speaking through prophets, inferior delegates, the “servants” of the parable, is relegated to “long ago.”
The use of Heb. 1:1-2 in support of Cessationism does have a noble pedigree. It appears with the Westminster Confession of Faith as “proof text” number six, underlying what is generally taken to be a clause expressing cessation of ongoing revelation: “those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.” (WCF I.1)
However, there are two distinct propositions involved, taken to be stated or implied by Heb. 1:1-2:
1. God, having delegated His Son to speak for Him, no longer employs the lower-level messengers He previously had sent.
2. God having delegated His Son to speak for Him, the Son no longer is speaking.
Proposition 1 is non-objectionable, since it represents the author’s explicit point, and he goes on to elaborate on this point in the rest of the epistle.
It is far less clear, however, that the author intends Proposition 2 as part of his meaning, as a Cessationist application would suggest. Also, if the author of Hebrews is saying that the Son has said all He has to say, when exactly are we to understand that the Son in fact ceased speaking?
What can we determine from the text? First, the verb translated “has spoken,” elalēsen, “is aorist, in the past from the point of view of the writer. The specific time frame is further specified: “in these last days.”
The author then contrasts two types of events, the ministry of the prophets in the more distant past, and the ministry of Christ in the recent past. Can we legitimately infer from the author’s statement affirming Christ spoke in the past, a denial that He is therefore not speaking in the present and will not speak in the future? Not on the basis of any valid understanding of either Greek grammar or logic.
At any rate, when exactly does the author mean to tell us that God’s revelation ceases?
If in fact we go by the tense of elalēsen, the past, we are left with the paradox, or rather the antinomy of an inspired writer, stating in his present that revelation had previously ceased in the past. The very verse containing this word, not to mention the thirteen chapters yet to come contradicts the notion that God’s special revelation had already ceased at that point.
The author would have to mean some other time than that strictly indicated by the tense of the verb, if indeed he intends us to understand that communication through the Son comes to a point of completion and then ceases. When would that be, exactly?
The ascension, the ending point of Christ’s bodily presence on earth? Hardly, the entirety of the New Testament was written after this.
Besides, the author himself states in 2:4 that after Christ’s ascension God continued to testify through human messengers other than Christ: “God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”
Is it then the completion of the Canon? It may or may not be factual to state that with the close of the Canon, the Son no longer speaks to us, and the Father no longer speaks through any other means. But how is such an understanding to be drawn from the words of Hebrews 1:1-2, which was written, perhaps decades before the last NT book was written?
What do the author’s statements about the Son tell us about the work of the Holy Spirit? Jesus’ own teaching predicts a future in which the Spirit’s work will include acts of speaking:
“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26)“And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8)“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-15)
We find here, in fact, that the speaking ministry of the Spirit is a continuation of God speaking through the Son. The Father delegates to the Son and the Son to the Spirit.
He delegates, not only to the Spirit, but to His Church. “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)
So if the speaking of the Spirit is a continuation of the speaking of the Son, how long do we expect the Son to continue to speak through the Spirit? Do we take Jesus’ words in John 16 then to be referring to the New Testament and nothing else?
If so, He said this to all eleven, but only commissioned three to write scripture: Matthew, John, and Peter. Did he exclude eight of those present and include others not present such as Paul, Luke, and James?
At any rate, the Son did in fact speak through the Holy Spirit in ways other than the writing of the New Testament:
“And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” (Acts 16:6-7)
This is still, however, during the period of the open Canon. Of course, the Spirit continues to speak during this time. Where are we ever told God will ever speak through the Spirit once the Scriptures, God’s sufficient written Word has been completed?
In Mark’s account of the Olivet discourse, Jesus gives instructions regarding what His disciples may expect in the days prior to His return, when the gospel is being proclaimed to all nations:
“But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13: 9-11)
Hebrews 1:1-2 in fact says nothing about the Son ceasing to speak. The New Testament knows nothing of a time when once the Son has become incarnate, He ceases actively to glorify the Father to the world, to be God’s ongoing self-revelation. What we can see are three distinct phases of His revelation activity (presented out of order).
The first. His first advent, when He reveals the Father in His sinless life, He proclaims the gospel of the Kingdom, and dies sacrificially and rises again.
The third. His glorious second appearing, when faith becomes sight we will know as we are known.
The second. In between these times His Body, the Church, continues what in the first phase Jesus “began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1).
“In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:20)
Yes, “in these last days, [God] has spoken to us by his Son.” Just so, in these days too, God speaks through His Son, who speaks through the Holy Spirit, who speaks through the Church, the Body of Christ.