Author Archives: asphaleia

Walking on Water?

By Marv

So what about walking on water? I’m sometimes asked why this miraculous act is not repeated today if whoever believes in Jesus really will do the works that He did (John 14:12), as we repeatedly assert.

It’s actually a reasonable enough question, especially if you consider John’s admonition and take it rather on the literal side:

Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.(1 John 2:6)

I do have an answer for this question. But first, let’s put the matter into perspective. An awe-inspiring miracle, this event without question defies both gravity and physics. What it doesn’t defy is the power of the God who made the earth and sea and everything in them. Yet, let’s be clear, it was never in the top ten of frequently-performed miracles.

As far as we are told, it was done by exactly two human beings: One who exectuted it flawlessly, and another whose showing can barely be called a success. Our Lord, the God-man had no difficulty whatever hiking across the waves. Still, the fact that Peter did it at all, however poorly, shows us that it is a case of divine power mediated through a human being. It’s what I call a human-level miracle (God’s power manifested though man).

What’s a God-level miracle, or display of divine power?

 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:3)

He upholds the universe by the word of his power.  (Hebrews 1:3)

 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17)

A walk on the lake, then, is… a walk in the park…

No mere human is ever said to do what Christ does through His own divine power. This is rather obvious. Yet, during his time on earth, we do see Him performing amazing miracles, but like walking on water, something that a mere man can do as long as “God is with him.”

And this is exactly how Christ’s miracles are described:

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:38)

This is what it means that He was “anointed,” though He Himself is the Second Person of the Trinity (infinitely powerful in His own Person), according to the divine plan, carrying out His mission as a human being, He is empowered through the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

This is entirely deliberate, since the plan entails rasing up many brothers and sisters who can likewise carry out their mission through the power of the Third Person. Unlike Jesus–again obviously–they have no innate divine power of their own. Thus He did what He didn’t have to–operate under the Spirit’s power, so as to later cause us to share in His ministry as His Body.

So, what are we saying? That when Jesus walked on water He did so through the power of the Holy Spirit. So did Peter, though his faith was weak: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)

Aha! So it’s a faith deal! Clearly. So can we manage to do it if we have enough faith?

Herein lies a misunderstanding. It is true that Peter failed due to lack of faith. But he suceeded to the degree that he had a measure of faith. But we need to understand that one thing was absolutely indispensible or else Peter could have had no faith at all.

Faith is not positive thinking, pumped up self-confidence, banishing doubt from your mind. It’s not any kind of ego-quality. It is other focused. Specifically, it is reliance on the promise of a reliable person. That person says X, so X it is. We consider the person reliable, faithful, and so we trust, rely on what that persn says. And act on it. Apart from a promise, there can be no faith.

Our confidence in that person’s reliablity can be weak or strong, and this can make a difference. It did so in Peter’s case–and so the failure.

Of course this person’s reliablity can also be weak or strong. In the case of God, it is absolute–and so the measure of success in Peter’s water walking. He couldn’t do it at all, not a single step, if he didn’t have an absolutely reliable promise that it would work.

Did he have such a promise? Yes. Note the exchange:

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. (Matthew 14:28-29)

When it comes from our Lord, a command is a promise. Peter did not step out on the surface of the lake in bold self-confidence, thinking “if he can do it, I can do it.” He knew enough that if Jesus said it, he could do it. And that what He commanded, Peter could put his total confidence in, and do it. And so he asked for a command.

For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:9)

Excellent theory, and good practice for a few seconds, at least. Then he got weirded out.

But you and I can walk on water, too, no problem–if Jesus commands us to do so. That’s an industrial strength IF though. Because He apparently doesn’t work that kind of thing in very often. It would have come in handy for Paul, who otherwise mangaged raising the dead, inflicting blindness, handling snakes, that sort of thing:

Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea. (2 Corinthians 11:25)

So that the Lord will give us that particular command may be unlikely. Though if He ever does, your potential to water-walk is 100%, if you can believe it.

On the other hand, he commands us, instructs us, intends for us to do many, many other things–acts which are not uncommon in His Kingdom. But they all likewise flow from His particular communication to us. Understand, He’ll glorify Himself in many, many ways in answer to our prayers, even if we have no particular command. But to act in faith requires a promise which is a command or a command which is a promise.

This is how Jesus operated, during His ministry. He makes this crystal clear:

 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.” (John 5:19-20)

 And nine chapters later:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:12-14)

This is why the reality of ongoing communication from Christ to us His servants, through the Holy Spirit, is absolutely vital to our carrying out His works and our mission. He has made us for works and prepared works for us to do (Eph. 2:10), and we are to do them in full confidence, faith, in His power. And if he tells us to, we can, and we will.


By Marv

I’m thinking the time has come to make a minor point about a certain frequently heard cliché. I heard it again over the weekend and decided to opine here on this very low-level pet peeve. Nothing earth shattering here, but allow me to get this off my chest, and then everyone please proceed to forget it, ignore me, and carry on regardless.

I’m talking about “foretelling and forthtelling,” and in particular the latter pseudo-word. Yes, I’m saying *forthtelling is not even a real word. Or if it has become one through constant usage within a certain Christianese subdialect, it is one of those which never should have existed. For example, another is *helpmate, which sprang from the froth of a misremembered “help meet” (i.e. suitable helper) in the Gen. 2:18 of the KJV.

“Forthtelling” is supposed to mean delivering a message from God, as opposed to foretelling, i.e. predicting the future. Accordingly, you hear people using these contrasting terms in defining or explaining Biblical prophecy, as if there were two subtypes of prophecy: (a) foretelling, and (b) forthtelling. Now, this is not without basis: prediction is a common element in prophecy, but by no means a necessary feature. And we do sometimes use the phrase “predictive prophecy,” which is not a redundancy, but neither does it indicate one category to be distinguished from “non-predictive” prophecy. And if you find “forthtelling” a useful way to express this, why, go ahead. But I don’t use it myself, and I’ll explain why not.

I’ve already mentioned that forthtell is not a real word. Also, the adverb forth is not really in anyone’s active vocabulary today (as far as I know) except in the stock phrases “and so forth” and “back and forth,” as well as intentionally archaic expressions such as “sally forth.” (Indeed, the building I am in as I write this has a place called a “sally port,” but still I’ve never heard anyone say they were sallying forth from it. I’ve never asked but I’d wager half the folks imagine it was named after some lady named Sally.) So why employ an obsolete expression in an effort to give a clear explanation?

Here’s my theory how this quasi-word came about: I think it arose from someone trying to deal with the etymology of the word “prophecy,” i.e. the Greek word prophēteuō. The fact is, that this word is constructed from the particle pro, which means “before” and the root pha- or phē- “to speak.” So etymologically, it’s pretty much equivalent to “foretell.”

But etymology is not ontology. In other words the origin of a word is not the same as a definition or explanation of the meaning of the word, or the nature of that to which it refers. Etymology is simply a mnemonic device, a convenient way of employing existing bits of vocabulary to point semantically to a particular concept.

It does not necessitate anything in regard to the referent. For example, the word for “read,” in Hebrew is an extended meaning of qara’ “to call,” and this no doubt came about because of the practice of someone reading aloud. But it can be used perfectly well of silent reading. In Greek, the same concept is signaled by anagignōskō, which etymologically is “re-knowing,” a derivation which makes perfect sense. However, you still don’t have to have forgotten the information to read about it.

So someone was evidently intending to dissociate prophēteuō with “foretelling” and either decided to appropriate the Latin pro, meaing “for,” or more likely mentally substitute the similar Greek preposition pros, which means “to” or “toward.” It may even be cognate with English “forth.”

But alas, that would be a faux etymology. Besides, it isn’t needed.

Okay, I’ve said my piece. I imagine “forthtell” is here to stay, but at least I seen my duty and I done it.

How do you know?

By Marv

The question is “How do you know?” We contend, based on the Scriptures, that God’s Spirit continues to communicate with believers today, as He has throughout history, and even more so, since Jesus prophesied and commanded his disciples to be led by the Spirit after He returned to the Father (John 14-16).

Okay, so given this instruction, how do we know when the Spirit is speaking? Does “speaking” equal an audible voice? If it is non-audible but internal, how it this communication to be distinguished from our own thoughts?

How do you know? The question comes both from skeptics of “modern-day” revelation–the classic “maybe it’s just last night’s pizza,” as well as a sincere learner, seeking practical understanding of the ways and means of this ministry that our Lord has called us to. It’s a fair question either way, and I want to touch on a few shreds of how it can possibly be answered. Largely, it depends on exactly what is being asked.

If “how do you know?” means “by what means does one arrive at absolute certainty,” I think the answer is–rather obviously–you don’t. If it is a matter of objectively verifiable assurance or nothing, then, I admit, we will be stopped before we begin. Very freqently a friend of cessationist persuasion puts this kind of chalenge to me.

It’s a strange notion though–because in no other area of life may we depend on this level of knowledge. I mean, I wish engineers and architects to have their facts and figures straight, and doctors and pharmacists to exercise care and precision every step of the way.

But for the most part, we go through our day, sensing and approximating and relying on unconscious recognition and “good enough” knowledge. When I was learning to drive, I recall my instructor asking how we know when we are in the center of the lane. I imagined some mental calculus about lines on the road and the position of the hood ornament or some other practical measure. His answer was none of these. Essentially, one learns just to know–to do it by feel.

Generally, we do the same with spelling and grammar, using the “sounds right” and “looks right” principle. These are far from fool-proof, of course, and accuracy varies from person to person, but unconscious awareness is a powerful tool, and we use it far more than we do conscious calculation.

Some people object to the notion of the Spirit speaking through an “impression.” What we experience as a “hunch” or “impression” is an extremely common mental phenomenon. That “I’ve forgotten something” feeling often happens when I’m walking out the door, and experience has shown me that I ignore it to my own regret. It usually reflects reality, though the specifics don’t rise above the surface of awareness. It is a very real, useful, and valuable part of our mental processes.

We perceive many things without that awareness achieving the precision of “knowledge.” Recognizing voices is another prime example. When my wife calls me from across the house–as she does not infrequently–though I cannot see her, though the sound is muffled, and though I may not make out the words–I know it to be her though I cannot begin to prove it. Likewise in a crowd at the park or at church, it is usually possible (though not infallably) to identify which call for “Dad” coming from behind is for me and which is not.

Recently our cat went missing. After several days, my presumption was that she had been accidentally killed and I was resigning myself to the idea that we would not see her again. But arriving home one evening, when the neighborhood was still and quiet, I heard the faintest sound of a meow. I would not have thought it possible, but instantly I “knew” it was our cat. Though I could offer no objective evidence, I also had no real doubt, and was convinced enough brazenly to wake my neighbor and ask him to open his garage door. I suspect she (the cat) knew the sound or our car, as we somehow mangaged to discern our pet’s voice from all the nearly identical sounds in the neighborhood.

So the answer, much of the time, is you don’t know–even if you do “know.” We are made to operate on perception and awareness that are perfectly elusive and hardly able to be objectified or proven. So it is, much of the time, with the Spirit.

Practically, then, once we are convinced that the Spirit of God does communicate to our spirit, we do ask ourselves the same question “How do I know” all the time. Frankly, I have noticed something about perceiving something prophetic for someone–my typical reaction is to feel fairly certain that it is “just me.” In this case I’ve learned–paradoxically–that when it “feels” as if it is “just me,” very often it turns out to be what I later conclude to be genuine communication from the Lord. I can be much more certain afterward, when my “word” correllates strongly with several others from other sources, ties in with, say, something the person was reading or what he/she was recently praying, or some other connection, and ends up giving significant upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation. These kinds of “impressions” are often well-verified after the fact, but all-too easy to dismiss ahead of time.

What is the Lord liable to use, to bring an idea to our attention? When I was still a cessationist, one day I was chatting with a missionary friend, a lady who struck me at the time as–well, rather “spacey” in this regard (though I changed my opinion and honor the memory of this saint who served the Lord even to martyrdom.) She told me once she was praying in a room where several boxes were stored. One of these had “chain saw oil” printed on the side. Her thoughts were immediately carried to a brother back on “the field” whose name was Chang So. “And oil represents the Holy Spirit” she told me. My first reaction was that the notion was a bit silly–the Spirit speaking by a play on words and a simple coincidence. I wish I had a great story of precise timing–the beloved national Christian being plucked from danger at the precise instant my friend’s prayer rose to heaven. But I have nothing to prove anything here. I just know that one way or another he came to mind and she prayed for him.

Was that the Lord? How do we know? We don’t know. But I’m pretty sure of a couple of things: it was sufficient to cause my friend to pray for the man. Why should the Spirit disdain to employ a “silly” method such as this, if it effectively brought the result it did, to one open to it? Second, given my disposition at the time, I would have missed it, the idea being altogether too “silly,” and it is I who would have missed an opportunty of service to the Lord.

But is this Biblical? Consider the Lord’s communication to Jeremiah, at the very beginning of his prophetic career, when he was just learning to hear the voice of the Spirit:

And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see an almond branch.” Then the LORD said to me, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.” (Jeremiah 1:11-12 ESV)

I’m afraid that the mechanics of what is happening in this brief exchange is obscured in translation. What Jeremiah sees (either in a vision or physically) is the branch of an almond tree, in Hebrew shaqed. Upon which the Lord replies with a pun: “I am watching (shoqed) over my word.”

Now, here’s a bit of something I definitely cannot prove, and even has the virtue of being a bit “silly.” Even the apostles would have had to know when the Lord was indicating He was about to act. Jesus Himself said He only did what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19).

Peter said to the lame man “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6) How did he know he had healing available for that man at that time? The text doesn’t tell us.

Paul “saw” that a man had faith to be healed (Acts 14:9). How did he see? How did he know? The text does not tell us.

Peter prayed for a woman named Dorcas or Tabitha and raised her from the dead. How did he know this woman would be raised? I’m not sure he did know, but someting about the circumstances may have struck him as almost déjà vu.

Once Jesus healed the daughter of a man named Jairus. Mark records the incident this way:

But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking. (Mark 5:40-42 ESV)

Now here is Luke’s account of Peter raising Dorcas:

So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them. But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. (Acts 9:39-41 ESV)

Now the Dorcas event had to recall the raising of the little girl by Jesus. But there is a “silly” coincidence of Dorcas’ Hebrew name Tabitha (both mean “gazelle”). It differs by one letter from “little girl”: talitha. Is this significant? Maybe. Maybe not. But, though Luke does not tell us the Aramaic, the words Peter spoke would have differed from Jesus words on that previous occasion by that same single consonant:

  • Jesus:  talitha kumi (“child, arise”)
  • Peter: tabitha kumi (“Tabitha, arise”)

Is it possible, that as the Lord was using Peter to continue the works of Jesus, and as Peter was learning to trust the voice of the Spirit, that He used coincidence and a play on words to direct Peter’s prayer? I don’t know, but it certainly looks to me as if Peter consciously imitated Jesus at that moment–building on the similarity of two words.

Terms of Empowerment

by Marv

What is the general subject of 1 Corinthians 12-14?

Spiritual gifts“? That seems to be the received rubric for the aspect of Christian life and ministry that Paul discusses there. I offer a mild objection. This is the phrase and concept people tend to use, but I wonder if it is quite adequate, and not a bit misdirecting.

Why do I say this? Well, for one reason, the phrase “spiritual gift(s)” occurs nowhere in 1 Corinthians 12-14. It occurs nowhere in 1 Corinthians at all.

Sure it does, you say: 1 Cor. 12:1 and 1 Cor. 14:1. All right, sure, but what I am referring to really is the underlying Greek phrase χάρισμα πνευματικὸν (charisma pneumatikon), “spiritual gifts.” It’s not there in 1 Corinthians. We do have “spiritual” and we do have “gift,” but not together as a phrase.

In fact that phrase only occurs one time in Scripture: Romans 1:11, and there I think it has a rather different meaning than we usually associate with “spiritual gift”:

For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—

Perhaps it does correlate closer than I am thinking, but that’s not my point today. I want to look at the terminology that does actually occur in 1 Cor. 12-14, and see what this can tell us.

1. Pneumatika

Here are the two verses I referred to above, as they read in the ESV:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. (1 Corinthians 12:1)

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. (1 Corinthians 14:1)

As I observe above, the underlying Greek here for “spiritual gifts” is not the phrase charisma pneumatikon, but a single word, the adjective pneumatikon, used substantively in the plural: pneumatika. This is the rendering of the ESV, NIV, NASB, and KJV, though this has “gifts” in italics.

The supposition behind this rendering, I take it, is that the bare neuter plural adjective modifies an elided neuter plural noun, which being resupplied by the translators, turns out to be charismata, “gifts.” Maybe–I guess–if we do assume that “spiritual gifts” was the ready phrase in Paul’s day that it is in ours. I’m not so sure of it, however.

One note: in 12:1 this word appears in the genitive plural, the form being penumatikōn. Ostensibly this could be any of the three genders, though feminine being difficult to account for (sorry, ladies) that generally masculine and neuter are in the running. Paul does use the term in the masculine for “spiritual people” (of either sex). He even uses both masculine and neuter forms in the same sentence earlier in the epistle:

And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths (pneumatika, clearly neuter) to those who are spiritual (pneumatikois, clearly masculine). (1 Corinthians 2:13)

However, the 14:1 reference is unambiguously neuter: pneumatika.

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts (ta pneumatika), especially that you may prophesy. (1 Corinthians)

In the context, I think it is reasonable to take these two instances, when he introduces the topic in 12:1 and reintroduces it in 14:1 as the same usage. Thus the latter informs us that the former is indeed neuter plural. That’s what the translation “spritual gifts” understands anyway.

But if the plural adjective pneumatika modifies an understood charismata, and so “spiritual gifts,” can we say that in the singular, a single spiritual gift would be a *pneumatikon? The asterisk is a linguistic convention to indicate a hypothetical form never actually found in the data. Of course, the adjective in that form does occur as we saw in Rom. 1:11, and elsewhere, but as a lone substantive, meaning a “spiritual gift” it occurs nowhere. In other words we have no evidence in the text of a “pneumatikon” being used to refer to prophecy or tongues or such.

Now not having an example does not disprove anything, but it also doesn’t confirm that we are on the right track with the rendering “spiritual gifts” for pneumatika.

Let me suggest something else. In both 12:1 and 14:1 the word is reasonably understood as a general category term. Greek has a well established usage which resembles these forms exactly. That is, frequently an adjective (especially formed with -ik-) in the neuter plural has an abstract sense which indicates a general subject or field of inquiry.

This is the origin of several of our English subject terms as well, those ending in -ics:

“Physics” from ta phusika. Not because of of some thing called a “phusikon,” but because it concerns things of phusis “nature.”

“Ethics” from ta ēthika, concerning things of ēthos “custom.”

“Politics” from ta politika, concerning things of the polis, “the state.”

Following in this line, ta pneumatika would simply be a general cover term for things concerning pneuma, “the Spirit,” rather than referring to a set of abilities or the instances of their use. I don’t know if “Pneumatics” has a future as a rubric here, especially as it is already used as a term for physical effects and related technology. But this would be consistent with similar terms.

2. Charisma, Diakonia, Energēma, Phanerōsis.

These four occur as rough synonyms in a sequence of four verses: 12:4-7, translated as follows:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

a. Charisma means “gift,” as in an object that someone gives you. Our sense of “gift” as a talent, as in a “gifted musician” presumably derives from the use here. I’m not sure it had that sense in Greek prior to this concept. It can also be an untangeable gift, a favor, as in “do me a favor.”

It is frequently tied to charis, grace, and indeed this is true, but it is more parallel to charis than derived from it, I think. Let me explain the derivation:

Both are derived from the verb charizomai, which has a variety of uses meaning to grant to give freely or generously, most especially to forgive. The etymology of this verb is also pretty clear, with the –iz– suffix (our –ize, Brit. –ise), suffixed to the root chara “joy.” To “joy-ize” someone is to perform an act which will immensely please or gratify them for its generosity. Thus charizomai (some kind of deponent middle voice).

The act of charizomai or quality of one doing it, is thus charis, “grace” as we ususally render it.

The ending -ma signifies a result or object of an action. So take –omai off chariz-omai and you get charis-ma (mutatis mutandis): thing given: gift.

b. Diakonia is a very general word for service, and a diakonos is a servant. This has become transliterated and technicalized in our word deacon. In the NT we do see it used for this office (Phil. 1:1 ESV), but probably never really dissociated mentally from the menial sense of “servant.” Deacon has nothing of this feel. Much less does minister, also a frequent translation of diakonos (e.g. Col. 1:25 ESV). Our word minister, meaning either a professional clergyman or a state official has moved far afield from what the Greek would convey.

c. Energēma has at its base ergon “work” (an actual cognate, originally wergon). With the prefix en– “in” it is obviously the source of our word energy. The verb energeo means “to be operative, at work, active.” Therefore, with the suffix –ma, it signifies and effect, operation, or activity.

d. Phanerosis indicates that which is normally invisible becoming seen or otherwise perceptible to the senses, i.e. becoming manifest, a manifestation.

3. Pneuma

You will recognize here the common word for “spirit,” which has a range of uses, such as:

a. God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit.

b. the human spirit

c. another spiritual being, i.e. an angel

d. an evil spirit, a demon

I submit there is an (e) sense of pneuma which refers to an instance of one of these gifts, services, effects, or manifestations, not so much the potential or ability (as we tend to think of a gift) but its actual use. We can see this in comparing two similar statements from ch. 14:

1. Pursue love, and earnestly desire (zēloute) the spiritual gifts (pneumatika), especially that you may prophesy. (v. 1)

2. So with yourselves, since you are eager (zēlōteai) for manifestations of the Spirit (pneumatōn), strive to excel in building up the church. (v. 12)

Note that the Greek underlying the ESV’s “manifestations of the Spirit” is not phanerōsis as in v. 7, but simpy the single word pneuma (in the genitive plural). Now this is translated “spiritual gifts” by such versions as NIV and NASB and KJV, just as pneumatika is, but with rather less justification. This is particularly true if we conceive of “gift” as an ability rather than an act or perceptible phenomenon.

Based on what follows then, examples of a “spirit” in this sense would be an utternce in tongues or a spoken prophecy. Or v. 26 may be a list of such:

…a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.

Now based on this usage of pneuma, I’d like to look at a couple of exegetical applications.

1 Cor. 12:10 makes the following reference: “to another the ability to distinguish between spirits.” Frequently this has been understood in terms of demonology. In other words, the ability to have supernatural insight into evil spirits that may be afflicting someone.

The underlying Greek is diakriseis pneumatōn, often rendered “discernment of spirits” and the word for “distinguishing” or “discernment” here corresponds exactly with the verb in 14:29:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh (diakrinetōsan) what is said.

“Discernment of spirits” then would not be so much identification of demons as it would be evaluating prophetic utterances. As such “distinguishing of spirits” in 12:10 would be the same as the “weighing” of prophecy is in 14:29.

This also impacts on our understanding of 1 John 4:1-3:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

(1 John 4:1-3 ESV)

I think this makes sense out of something that has bothered me. John says not to believe every spirit? We ought to believe the Holy Spirit, of course. What, are there a few others we should believe? Surely he doesn’t mean we might encounter an occasional demon who might be trustworthy.

But if “spirit” (pneuma) here be understood, for example as a prophecy, I think it makes rather more sense. And it explains why he mentions false prophets. So he’s not telling his readers to believe some demons and not others, but not just to accept every utterance of prophecy that someone speaks.

This may mean that the phrase which the ESV renders as “the Spirit of God” is not here actually a reference to the Holy Spirit. The phrase is to pneuma tou theou, and certainly does look as if it refers to the Holy Spirit, I grant. But John goes on to explain, referring to “every spirit” (pan pneuma), which certainly sounds like he means a plurality of spirits. And if this spirit confesses Jesus it is–now John doesn’t say THE Spirit of God, but “from God” (ek tou theou). By the flow of argument it seems to me he is rather saying:

By this you know a spirit (prophetic utterance) coming from God: every spirit (prophetic utterance) which agrees that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God. Every spirit (prophetic utterance) which does not confess Jesus is not from God. It’s a spirit (prophetic utterance) from antichrist which (neuter!!! i.e. antecedent is “spirit”!) you have heard was coming and is in the world already.

Understand, this is by no means my discovery (granted there’s even any truth to it), but I don’t think it is a well-known option.

I suspect though this is what lies behind the use of “private spirits” in the Westminster Confession. There is some controversy with this term. Some suggest it simply means “opinions.” Others do take it to refer to individual revelations, either accepted, tolerated, or else simply recognized as a claim by the Confession.

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (I.X.)

…with which I heartily concur.

How Firm a Foundation is the Argument from Ephesians 2:20?

By Marv

Ephesians 2:20 is a verse sometimes cited in support of the assertion that prophecy has ceased–which in turn serves as partial evidence for a more general cessationist position. One problem I’ve had writing on some verses relevant to the cessationist controversy is that I have difficulty seeing an actual basis for argument in the text. I don’t want to say that cessationists’ use of this verse gives proof-texting a bad name, but I am frequently amazed at how cessationism seems to create straw men in defense of it’s own positions.

What I mean is that the argument based on this verse is so weak that I am surprised when cessationists bring it up. The reason I say it is weak is that it requires a string of questionable inferences to get from A to B. A chain with nothing but weak links is manifestly a weak chain, one I wouldn’t care to place much trust in, if I were you.

The verse reads as follows:

…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone… (Ephesians 2:20)

The basic idea in the cessationist argument is that if prophets are said to be a component of the “foundation” that their function is limited to an initial stage of construction–a stage now completed–and therefore should no longer be expected to be present. It is, I suppose, satisfying to the already convinced, but is impeachable at multiple stages.

First inference: Paul is referring to contemporary–New Testament era–prophets.

If Paul is referring to the respective authoritaties in the Old Testament, the prophets, and the New Testament, the apostles, then the verse has no relevance to the question of people prophesying in the church. This understanding enjoys a healthy degree of probablity, in view of the context in which Paul is describing a new unity composed of formerly distinct elements:

 …at one time you Gentiles in the flesh…were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise… (Ephesians 2:11-12)

…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two… (Ephesians 2:15)

It is reasonable then that Paul would be presenting a combo platter, one from column A and one from column B. I actually think this is what is going on, though I do not purport the sampling of data I have cited is sufficient to demonstrate it–only to put into question a cessationist use of the verse.

I should say something at this point about Grudem’s argument on this verse, which in my opinion misuses the Granville Sharp rule. I have to admit I had thought he had long since retracted this argument, since being better informed on the grammatical point by Daniel Wallace. However, though he edited his text to reflect Wallace’s objection, he does stick with it. I think he takes the wrong tack here, the grammar being against it.

To recap what is involved, in Greek, when two nouns share a single article it forms a structure like one box containing two objects. If–and only if–those two nouns are singular, this forces identity of referent, both nouns necessarily indicate the same entity. This does not work if the nouns are plural. And in Ephesians 2:20 the nouns are plural.

Paul’s two-objects-in-one-box grammar does seem to be consistent, however with his both-are-now-together theme:

 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off [Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [Jews]. (Ephesians 2:17)

Furthermore, Paul could well have in mind, by metonymy, the authoritative writings of the two eras, summarized as “the prophets” for the Old Testament, and “the apostles” for the New Testament. This is similar to other phrases which refer to the Scriptures.

  • the Law and the Prophets (Acts 13:15)
  • the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44)
  •  the teaching and to the testimony (Isaiah 8:20)

One objection to what I suggest is the order of the nouns, that if Paul meant the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles he would have said “prophets and apostles” (i.e. chronological order) rather than “apostles and prophets.” I don’t think this is necessarily so from a psychological viewpoint. True, if he’s picturing a historical timeline, he’ll likely say “prophets” before “apostles.” But if he’s picturing his image of a temple with a foundation, he could well be starting at level and working down: this level is the apostles and below them the prophets. Basement and sub-basement, still a natural order.

Second inference: that the metaphor of the foundation implies that prophecy is not used in further building.

Let’s grant for sake of argument at this point that Paul did have in mind people prophesying in the church. The cessationist argument extrapolates from a metaphor. Certainly, Paul would mean that prophecy is foundational to the church. Is it a valid implication of this metaphor that prophecy is only foundational and not useful for building beyond the foundation? What does Paul himself say?

He uses the imagery of foundation and building elsewhere as well. In Eph. 2:20 the word for “built on” is the verb epoikodomeo, the basic word oikodomeo “build” with the prefix epi- “upon.” Note that a different prefix occurs with the same basic form two verses later (v. 22): sunoikodomeo= sun “together” + oikodomeo “build.”

In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.(Ephesians 2:22)

We see similar language in 1 Corinthians 3:

 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— (1 Corinthians 3:10-12 ESV)

Each instance of “builds upon/builds on” is epoikodomeo (likewise v. 14). Note also that the metaphor varies. Here Christ is said to be the only foundation, with nothing about apostles or prophets being part of the foundation, as in Eph. 2:20, where Christ is said to be the cornerstone. A metaphor is a metaphor, and serves its purpose in its context. Is there some reason to take Eph. 2:20 as the definitive description? Such an all-encompassing description of reality that we can draw inferences of cessation from it?

Two chapters later we find similar language making a related point.

 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up [oikodome]the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12)

from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up [oikodome] in love. (Ephesians 4:16)

And in the same context:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up [oikodome], as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)

Does Paul mean to say that prophecy is limited to foundation laying or does he recommend it for continued building? He makes himself clear on the subject elsewhere:

The one who speaks in a tongue builds up [oikodomeo] himself, but the one who prophesies builds up [oikodomeo] the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up [oikodome]. (1 Corinthians 14:4-5)

The impact of these verses is often obscured by the rendering “edify” in some translations, but this is simply an anglicized form of the Latin aedificare, which means “to build,” like its Greek cousin oikodomeo, with both figurative and non-figurative uses. But at the very least 1 Corinthians 14 calls into serious question the limitations purported for prophecy based on Eph. 2:20.

Third inference: that the metaphor in Eph. 2:20 takes precedence over other Scriptural statements.

I have in mind chiefly Acts 2:17-18:

And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

But also:

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. (1 Corinthians 14:1)


But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Corinthians 14:24-25)

as well as

For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged (1 Corinthians 14:31 ESV)

Not to mention this pretty important statement:

 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)

Where’s the controlling center to be? In the one metaphor of Ephesians 2:20? Why?

Fourth inference: if prophecy has ceased, being foundational, it is reasonable to suggest that other gifts have ceased.

I’m not saying this one would be asserted in a careful argument, but I can testify to hearing Eph. 2:20 being tossed out as evidence for cessationism in general, though strictly speaking it refers only to apostles and prophets.

It certainly is not from this verse that we learn of the cessation of the gifts tongues, healing, miracles or any of the usual suspects. In fact, if anything the verse would imply that all other gifts continue. If the foundation consists of apostles and prophets, then everything else, including tongues, healing, and miracles are by definition non-foundational. They are building material. The verse then–if we grant the basic premise–is a subtantially useful one for the continuationist perspective.

In point of fact, whereas the foundation of the church is a solid one, Eph. 2:20 makes a poor foundation for a cessationist perspective. It simply cannot support the weight put on it by some who draw from it inferences without logical basis. Let each man be careful how he builds. The wise man does not build upon sand.