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Hebrews 2:3-4 and the Sign Gifts

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In the sometimes heated discussions over the question of the duration of certain spiritual gifts, one argument has persisted from the side of charismatics: There is no prooftext that any spiritual gift has ceased. As impressive as this argument sounds, a couple of responses should be given. First, if the NT was written by men who in fact exercised these sign gifts, why should they say that such had ceased? It would be difficult to find a text in which this point would be explicit. Second, the NT apostles by and large expected the Lord’s return in their lifetime (cf. 1 Thess 4:15: “we who are alive, who are remaining until the coming of the Lord”). Hence, we should not expect them to make any statements regarding the cessation of gifts, since that would presuppose that they knew the Lord’s return would be delayed. In order to find such a statement, we would need to construct the following scenario: A member of an apostle’s band writes a letter after that apostle had died. Further, in the letter he finds some reason to explicitly mention something about sign gifts.

Such a scenario is difficult to imagine. Happily, the NT provides not only one, but two books that fit such a picture: Jude and Hebrews. And both address--to some degree at least--the issue of gifts and authority. Our purpose in this paper is to look more closely at one text, Hebrews 2:3-4.

Hebrews 2:3-4 is a text often put forth by cessationists that certain spiritual gifts have ceased. The text reads as follows: (3) πῶς ἡμεῖς ἐκφευξόμεθα τηλικαύτης ἀμελήσαντες σωτηρίας… ἥτι,ς ἀρχὴν λαβοῦσα λαλεῖσθαι διὰ τοῦ κυρίου, ὑπὸ τῶν ἀκουσάντων εἰς ἡμᾶς ἐβεβαιώθη, (4) συνεπιμαρτυροῦντος τοῦ θεοῦ σημείοις τε καὶ τέρασιν καὶ ποικίλαις δυνάμεσιν καὶ πνεύματος ἁγίου μερισμοῖς κατὰ τὴν αὐτοῦ θέλησιν.(“[3] How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which was at first declared by the Lord, and was attested to us by those who heard him, [4] while God was also bearing them witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will”).

The argument that this text refers to the cessation of certain gifts is based on an inference in the text, viz., that since the first generation of Christians were explicitly eyewitnesses to certain sign gifts, the second generation of Christians was not. Usually books that address the issue of gifts don’t go further than this point. One has to wonder how valid it is, however.

Several things in the text need to be examined to see whether this text has any validity for the cessation of sign gifts. First, the genitive absolute in v 4 (συνεπιμαρτυροῦντος τοῦ θεοῦ/ “God bearing witness”) needs to be addressed. A couple of points should be mentioned.

(1) On a purely syntactical level, the genitive absolute does not of course relate to anything. But it is not like the vocative--that is, it is not extra-sentential. Rather, it is virtually a constructio ad sensum. That is, it is merely a Greek convention for expressing adverbial relations, usually of a temporal nature.

(2) Thus, it is neither helpful nor accurate to leave a genitive absolute dangling. The genitive absolute exists precisely because the subject of the genitive participle is different from the subject of the verb in the main clause. But the genitive absolute construction is still dependent on the time of the main verb.

(3) So to what is it semantically dependent? The genitive absolute is most naturally subordinated to the aorist ἐβεβαιώθη (“was attested, confirmed”). To take it back to the future ἐκφευξόμεθα (“shall we escape”) in v 3 is stretching things, although the meaning would fit a continuationist position (“How shall we escape . . . while God bears witness with signs and wonders . . . ?”). Still, not only the distance, but the awkwardness of meaning poses a problem. That is, the conditional participle (ἀμελήσαντες) makes perfectly good sense (‘if we neglect. . .’) as the modifier of the future verb. But what is the relation of the genitive absolute construction to the verb? Over 90% of genitive absolute constructions are temporal (the next largest category is causal). If that is the case here, what is the meaning? Is it something like, “by what means can we possibly escape this great salvation while God is bearing witness to us”? The sense connection is lacking, no matter how you construe it. Take this a step further. It is even more improbable that the genitive absolute is subordinated to the conditional participle: “if we neglect . . . while God is bearing witness . . .” The force of the argument would have been considerably strengthened had the author said, “if we neglect so great a salvation which God bears witness to . . .” But that would require an adjectival participle--which, by definition, does not fit the genitive absolute construction. This leaves one of two options left: (a) the aorist indicative, ἐβεβαιώθη, as the word to which the genitive absolute is semantically (not technically syntactically; see above) subordinate to. This makes perfectly good sense; besides, the structure fits most naturally: “it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God bore witness . . .” Or (b) the substantival aorist participle τῶν ἀκουσάντων: the idea then would be that when eyewitnesses heard the message, God bore witness to them. This also makes good sense, and seems to be allowed for by the loose connection of the GA (genitive absolute construction) with the verbal element in the substantival participle. As such, it yields a nice text for cessationism. There are, however, three problems with it: (i) the aorist indicative is closer to the GA; (ii) GAs are normally semantically related to finite verbs (though they sometimes are attached to infinitives; I do not know of any examples off-hand in which they are attached to substantival participles, though this does not strike me as impossible); (iii) the overall meaning is more logically connected if the author is arguing that the confirmation was made by accompanying signs, rather than that the hearing was accompanied by such signs.

What complicates the issue is the meaning of the aorist indicative. The verb ἐβεβαιώθη of course can mean “was confirmed,” or even “was guaranteed” (cf. BAGD). If the latter, then it would make good sense to regard the GA as subordinate to τῶν ἀκουσάντων. The sense would be that those who heard could guarantee that their message of the gospel was from God because he also bore them witness. This is in line with other texts that imply the same idea (cf. 1 John 1:1-4; 2 Pet 1:12-16; etc.). (2) The GA participle συνεπιμαρτυροῦντος means “bearing testimony together with.” The associative idea, coupled with “was guaranteed” for the aorist indicative and a causal GA (see above) renders the following: “it was guaranteed to us by those who heard him because God also bore them witness with signs and wonders . . .” That is, a guarantee could be made by the eyewitnesses because they knew that the message was from God since they experienced these miracles.

But what if the meaning of the aorist indicative verb is simply “confirm” and the GA is merely temporal (“while”)? This would seem to mean that the gospel was confirmed “to us” when God simultaneously bore witness by performing signs. If so, who are the “us”? Two possibilities: (a) either the author(s) as distinct from the Christians to whom he is writing, or (b) both the author(s) and the believers to whom he is writing. Although there are no structural clues for detecting shifts for exclusive/inclusive “we”--indeed, sometimes the shifts happen very quickly amd without warning--it does seem that in this context ‘to us’ would make better sense if the author included his audience. Otherwise, the audience becomes a third party that requires further confirmation. In v 3, the “we” of “How shall we escape” is probably picked up again by the “to us.” The whole argument is strengthened if this is the case. But if this is the case, then doesn’t it mean that the audience experienced the sign gifts: the gospel was confirmed “to us” (audience included) while God bore witness with signs. . . ?

Yes, this seems to be the case. Does this mean that the sign gifts continued to exist for second-generation Christians? Not exactly. Three careful distinctions need to be made: (1) God bore witness with someone (the συν-prefix on συνεπιμαρτυροῦντος implies this) “to us.” The only option is “those who heard”--thus, eyewitnesses. Thus, these believers were recipients or observers of such sign gifts; they were not performers of them. The eyewitnesses seem to be the only ones implied here who exercised such gifts. This, in itself, may well imply that the sign gifts lasted only through the first generation of Christians: once the eyewitnesses were dead, so were these gifts. (2) The aorist indicative ἐβεβαιώθη loses much of its punch if the author intends to mean that these gifts continue.1 He so links the confirmation to the eyewitnesses--and the proof of such confirmation by the sign gifts--that to argue the continued use of such gifts seems to fly in the face of the whole context. If such gifts continued, the author missed a great opportunity to seal his argument against defection. He could have simply said: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which was . . . confirmed to us by those who heard and is still confirmed among us while God bears witness with signs . . .” By way of contrast, note Gal 3:5 (written when the miraculous was still taking place; two present participles are used): “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (RSV) This contrast is significant: The author of Hebrews, who is so articulate a defender of his position, lost a perfect opportunity to remind his audience of the reality of their salvation by not mentioning the current manifestation of the sign gifts. That is, unless such were no longer taking place. Though an argument from silence, I think the silence is fairly deafening. The sign gifts seem to be on their way out. (3) But what about this confirmation “to us”--second-generation Christians? I take it that Hebrews was written in the mid 60s (shortly after Paul had died), but that it was written to a long-established Jewish church which was waffling in their faith. If so, then we would expect some of the first-generation believers to have had some contact with them. (Good grief--first-generation folks even have contact with third generation folks at times!) There is no question that some of these folks had witnessed such miracles. There is a rather large question, however, as to whether they had performed them themselves. One simply can’t find support for such a view in Hebrew 2:1-4.

All in all, Hebrews 2:3-4 seems to involve some solid inferences that the sign gifts had for the most part ceased.2 Further, it offers equally inferential evidence of the purpose of the sign gifts: to confirm that God was doing something new. The whole argument of Hebrews rests on this assumption: there is a new and final revelation in Jesus Christ (cf. 1:1-2). He is the one to whom the whole OT points; he is the one who is superior to the Aaronic priesthood, to prophets, and to angels. He is indeed God in the flesh. Is it not remarkable that in this exquisitely argued epistle, the argument turns on Scripture over against experience? The strongest appeal the author makes to the audience’s experience is to what they were witnesses to in the past. If the sign gifts continued, shouldn’t we expect this author (like Paul in Gal 3:5) to have employed such an argument?

I do not pretend to think that this sole text solves the problem of the duration of the sign gifts. But whatever one’s views of such gifts, this passage needs to be wrestled with.

1 The aorist indicative means “it happened,” but we cannot legitimately extrapolate from that a meaning, “and it doesn’t happen now.” The aorist can’t be used to state a negative in the present time. However, the context often is sufficiently clear that one can extrapolate from the author’s overall meaning a once-for-all idea. Does not Paul say “Christ died for our sins”? Does not the author of Hebrews argue that “God has spoken to us in Son in these last days”? In such instances the aorist is used, but by itself a once-for-all idea cannot be meant. Nevertheless, we are on sure ground to argue that the author can use the aorist when he means a once-for-all idea. The tense is well-suited for such, even though corroborative data need to be supplied to see it.

2 To be sure, not all of them had yet: John was still to write his Revelation of Jesus Christ. (But since the author of Hebrews was most likely not from John’s circle of influence, for all practical purposes the gift of prophecy might even be viewed as dead as far as he was concerned.) At the same time, “signs and wonders and various miracles” is the normative description of healing and miraculous deeds, not prophetic words.

Related Topics: Miracles, Spiritual Gifts