Thursday, May 30, 2024

Does Hebrews 1 say that prophecy ended?

I recently saw (once again) the oft-repeated claim made by cessationists that Hebrews 1:1-2 proves  the gift of prophecy is no longer valid, or that there are no more prophets. I intend to briefly demonstrate why that claim is in error. Buckle your seat belts, though, because we're going to get a little nerdy, diving into the biblical language of Koine Greek.

Here are the verses under discussion in a handful of common English translations:

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. (ESV)

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. (NIV)

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son. God has appointed him heir of all things and made the universe through him. (CSB)

First off, notice that not all the translations include the contrastive conjunction "but" before "in these last days." While one can make the interpretive argument that the writer of the epistles is making a contrast between how God spoke in times past and how He has recently spoken through the incarnate Christ, the contrast is not explicit in the wording used in the Greek. Neither the common conjunction δέ (de—which can be "and" or "but" depending on usage in context), nor the more forceful ἀλλά (alla—which is a stronger form of "but") is found in the Greek text. 

Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως πάλαι ὁ θεὸς λαλήσας τοῖς πατράσιν ἐν τοῖς προφήταις  ἐπʼ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων ἐλάλησεν ἡμῖν ἐν υἱῷ, ὃν ἔθηκεν κληρονόμον πάντων, διʼ οὗ καὶ ἐποίησεν τοὺς αἰῶνας (1)

Here is my rudimentary translation into English, using my 2 semesters of Greek and the tools in Logos Bible Software, maintaining the Greek word order as much as possible:

In many parts and in many ways formerly/long ago God having spoken to the fathers in/through/by the prophets in these last the days He has spoken to us in/by a Son. 

Grammatically, λαλήσας is an aorist active participle. while ἐλάλησεν is an aorist active indicative verb. Generally speaking in Greek grammar as I was taught (I make no claims to being in line with the most recent scholarship here), when a sentence includes both an indicative verb and a participle, the participle functions as an adverb modifying the main indicative verb. When the participle is aorist, it signifies that the action depicted by that participle is before the action depicted by the primary verb. Which brings us to the NASB translation, often considered to be the most literal English translation (note: I made my own translation above before looking at the other English translations presented here, so I did not "cheat" by looking at the NASB first):

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom He also made the world. (NASB)

Note that there is nothing explicit here stating that because God has now spoken by His Son, all prophecy has necessarily come to an end, or there are no more prophets. If, as cessationists claim, these opening verses of Hebrews mean that prophets and prophecy ceased once God spoke through the incarnation of Christ, then we run into difficulties with other New Testament passages.

How can we square the cessationist claim with the fact that, after Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension, there are multiple individuals with the prophetic gift mentioned in the book of Acts (1:27-28, 13:1, 21:9-10). Additionally, we have Paul's instructions to the church in Corinth concerning the proper use of prophecy in the local assembly, as well as his mention in Eph. 4:11 of prophets being given by Christ for the building up of the saints. All of these mentions of prophets who still exist at the time these books were written come after the completed revelation of the incarnate Christ. 

Now, I realize that many cessationists will counter that their claim is actually that the gift of prophecy died out either with the death of the last Apostle, or after the completion of the New Testament canon, or after the death of the last disciple of the original Apostles who had received the gift through the laying on of an Apostle's hands. 

But that doesn't line up with trying to claim that Hebrews 1:1-2 says that prophets and prophecy have ceased because God has spoken through His Son. If one wishes to interpret the opening verses of this epistle as a claim that prophecy has now ceased, then the logical conclusion based on a plain reading of the text is that prophecy ceased once Jesus' earthly ministry was completed. But that is a plain contradiction to other New Testament passages. Either the cessationist interpretation of these verses is incorrect, or the Scriptures contradict themselves. I'm going to play it safe and say it's the interpretation that is flawed, and not the biblical canon.  

Looking at some resources on the epistle to the Hebrews in Logos Bible Software, I noted that the United Bible Society's Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews (a guide for workers doing Bible translation) points out that the writer doesn't simply say that God spoke in the past "through prophets," but "through the prophets," which is more particular, most likely referring to the canonical prophetic writings of the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians commonly call the Old Testament). (2) So God, who spoke through the Jewish prophets in the former times, has now spoken through His Son. 

The prophets were only inspired men; this is a Divine Person. The prophets were only servants; this is the Son. The prophets were only God’s spokesmen; this is God himself speaking. The Son is the Logos—the “Word,” the manifested God. (3)

This does not necessarily imply that there are no more prophets or prophecy after the Christ event, as cessationists claim. It simply means that someone with higher authority, God's own Son, has now revealed God's message. As Baptist scholar David L. Allen points out, "The focus is not on the content of the revelation, or on the way God spoke to the prophets, but on the nature and relationship of the mediators (prophets and Son) to God himself and on the way God spoke." (4)

Another evidence that these opening verses are not necessarily about the supposed cessation of prophecy and prophets is the fact that the author of Hebrews later points out that if it was important to hear the prophets and the angelic messengers before, it is even more important to listen to God's own Son. Many scholars and other serious readers of the Bible believe that this epistle was written to Jewish-background believers in Jesus who, when persecution against Christians was increasing, were seeking to go back to standard Judaism for the sake of the status it had as a recognized ancient faith that enjoyed a level of tolerance and protection under Roman law.

Cessationists claim that if the gift of prophecy is still active today, it would present a threat to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Some will even say we might as well have blank pages in the back of our Bibles to add what is spoken through prophetic messages in church gatherings. But as Craig Keener points out, the prophecies of the Corinthian church and Philip's four virgin daughters are not recorded in Scripture, and there is no indication in the text of the New Testament that these prophecies were any kind of threat to the revelation of written Scripture the early church possessed at that time (which would have consisted of the Old Testament and possibly some already extant epistles from Paul and other Apostles).

I looked at multiple commentaries on Hebrews in Logos Bible Software, and of all the ones I surveyed, the only one that even hinted at giving a cessationist take on these two verses was by John Calvin, and his wording seems to be specifically in relation to the Roman Catholic Church's claims to authority through church tradition. Without investigating every commentator's pneumatological views, I'm fairly certain some of the ones I read would be cessationists; none of them, however, proffered a cessationist argument from these verses, which implies to me that even if the commentators hold to cessationism, they realize there is not a solid case for that position in this text.

Those who would utilize the first verses of Hebrews as an argument for cessationism are guilty of eisegesis. The passage does not clearly state what the cessationists would like it to say. They come to the text with their minds already made up, and then find what they are seeking. For people who claim to have a high view of Scripture and to desire to follow the text for what it says, cessationists in reality do violence to the text, twisting it in an attempt to force it to say something it does not intend to tell us.

Now, while I believe the prophetic gift is still valid, this certainly doesn't mean that I take the claims of every modern-day "prophet" at face value. As Paul tells the Corinthians to do in 1 Cor. 14:29, I weigh carefully any and all claims that someone has a message from God, comparing what they say to what has already been revealed in inspired Scripture. As the leader of the Azusqa Street Revival, William Seymour, said, 

We are measuring everything by the Word, every experience must measure up with the Bible. Some say that is going too far, but if we have lived too close to the Word, we will settle that with the Lord when we meet Him in the air. 

I'll be the first to say that a lot of what gets presented as "prophetic" by people with YouTube channels is nothing more than a bunch of hooey (I believe the technical Greek term is skybalon). Yet at the same time, I have been in situations in a local church setting where I have heard devoted servants of God give a word that was timely and on target for the situation at hand, without their having any prior natural knowledge of what was going on in someone's life, and without contradicting the revelation recorded in Scripture..

One good resource I can recommend on this topic is Keys to the Apostolic and Prophetic: Embracing the Authentic-Avoiding the Bizarre by Dr. Carolyn Tennant and Dr. Joseph Girdler. The authors do a good job of looking at contemporary prophecy through a biblical lens, embracing what the Spirit is still doing in our day, while also warning about the fake and people who try to take the title "prophet" for self-aggrandizement. 

1) Michael W. Holmes, The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition (Lexham Press; Society of Biblical Literature, 2011–2013), Heb 1:1–2.

2) Paul Ellingworth and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 5

3) H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed., Hebrews, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 18.

4) David L. Allen, Hebrews, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2010), 101.

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