charismatic use of Hebrews 13:8

An Examination of the Charismatic Use of Hebrews 13:8

Some fields of study require more precision than others. The structural engineer must be exact in his calculations when he determines the load that a beam must carry. Inaccurate calculations can lead to devastating results. This was tragically illustrated by the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapse on the evening of July 17, 1981, during a tea dance. A subtle design change by the contractor doubled the load on the supporting beams for the second and fourth floor walkways. This new design could barely handle the dead load of the structure itself, much less the weight of the spectators watching from it. The supporting beams failed, sending one walkway crashing on top of the other, then into the lobby below, killing 114 people, and injuring more than 200 others, making it at the time the deadliest structural collapse in U.S. history.

As tragic as an event like this is, it pales in comparison to the possible eternal ramifications of an inaccurate interpretation of the Bible. The former may result in the loss of physical life, but the consequence of the latter may be the loss of one’s eternal soul. Even if the misinterpretation does not lead to heretical and apostate belief, it can lead to serious error which often winds up having a detrimental impact on one’s faith and view of God. Misinterpreting God’s Word is the same as misrepresenting His Word, something which God does not take lightly (Jeremiah 23:22, 25, 26, 32). Unfortunately, this has been the case with the charismatic interpretation of Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever.”

Charismatic theology finds in this verse a justification for its belief in the continuance of miraculous gifts within the church. It is reasoned, since the miracle working Jesus has not changed then why should miracles worked through specially gifted individuals have ceased? Donald Lee Barnett and Jeffery P. McGregor represent this interpretation of Hebrews 13:8 when they write,

“Many today act as if it were a sin to ask God for power, while the opposite is actually the case, for we are commanded to tarry for the Promise of the Father and power from on high … The early saints prayed not just for ability to preach, but that signs and wonders might be done in the name of Jesus … And Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!” (Hebrews 13:8).[1]

Sound Hermeneutics

The charismatic interpretation of this passage is indicative of the entire movement’s approach to hermeneutics. Rather than interpreting a passage by sound hermeneutical principles, Scripture is typically bent in order to match the charismatic’s experience, or the way they want things to be.

Gordon Fee, himself a Pentecostal, has acknowledged this charismatic trend, pointing out “that in general the Pentecostals’ experience has preceded their hermeneutics. In a sense, the Pentecostal tends to exegete his experience.”[2] Does Hebrews 13:8 teach the perpetuation of miraculous gifts in the church beyond the apostolic era? An examination of the passage in light of its context reveals that it does nothing of the kind.

Examining the Text

Hebrews 13:8 is set in the midst of a series of commands by the author to his readers. In verse one, he instructs his readers to continue in their love for their fellow Christians, then, in verses 2 through 6, he gives them specific examples as to how they should do this. In verse seven, the author turns his attention to the leaders who have faithfully led them, and how they are to show love toward these leaders. The term “leaders” is a generic one, used to describe both religious and secular leaders, so it is not clear whether the author is referring strictly to the apostles, or to both the apostles and other leaders, such as elders, within the church.

Whoever these leaders were, they “spoke the word of God” to the readers, indicating that their primary duty was teaching and preaching. The readers are exhorted to “remember” their former leaders, to “consider the result of their conduct,” and to “imitate their faith.” The recipients of this letter were being pressured to renounce their faith in Jesus and return to Judaism. Rather than listening to their detractors, these persecuted Christians needed to recall the faithful lives of their leaders, and to examine them in order to see how these leaders had lived in conformity to the truths they taught.

As such, the writer wanted his readers to consider the faith which these leaders exhibited as worthy of emulation. It is in the context of these commands concerning his reader’s attitude toward their leaders that, in verse 8, the author turns their attention to Jesus Christ.

Earthly leaders come and go, but Jesus Christ remains forever. Even though their earthly leaders may die, the faith which they taught was based on the immutable eternal Son of God. Their earthly examples for Christian conduct will perish, but the example of Christ is unchanging (Jude 17; 1 Peter 2:21). The author is not teaching the immutability of Christ per se – a concept to which he has already referred when he quoted Psalm 102:27 (cf. 1:12) – but rather he appeals to Jesus’ immutability as the reason their faith may remain unwavering, just as their leaders’ faith had.

The same source of strength that supplied their leaders can also supply the faith necessary for their perseverance. Despite the uncertainty of the times and their circumstances, the recipients of this letter could depend on Christ to remain true to His word. He will never leave them nor forsake them because He remains unchanged and true to Himself. Their heart was to be strengthened by grace (13:9) which comes only from the unchanging Christ. It should be obvious from the context that Hebrews 13:8 has absolutely nothing to do with the perpetuation of miraculous gifts in the church. The immutability of Jesus is referred to as a means of encouraging the recipients of this letter to persevere in their faith. The same Lord who strengthened their leaders is there to strengthen the readers in their faith.

Problems with the Charismatic Interpretation

By using this verse to support their belief in the continuation of miraculous gifts, charismatics are forced to ignore many glaring problems presented by this interpretation. First, the fact that Jesus is unchanging in His nature and character does not equate with Him being unchanging in His acts. The decrees of God are immutable, but what God decrees is not.

God decreed that Jesus die on the cross, not that He always die on the cross. He decreed that Israel wander in the wilderness, not that they always wander in the wilderness. God’s plan of redemption has been progressively revealed throughout Scripture. What was required in the Old Testament is not required in the New. We are no longer under dietary restrictions, nor obligated to offer animal sacrifices. The church is no longer led by apostles, but by the Word of God revealed in Scripture. Miraculous signs are called “the signs of an apostle” (2 Corinthians 12:12), and the apostolic office ceased with the death of the Apostle John.

Second, Jesus has not remained unchanged in His form. Prior to His incarnation He is seen as the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament (Genesis 16:1-13; Joshua 5:13-15). During His earthly ministry, He was not omnipresent, and His glorified body bears no resemblance to His earthly body (Revelation 1:12-16).

Third, there is no logical connection between past and present miracles. Throughout biblical history, miracles have been the exception, not the norm. God performed miracles through Moses in order to lead the people out of Egypt, to provide for them in the wilderness, and to take the Promised Land, then again during the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and finally during Jesus’ earthly ministry and the early apostolic era.

The common thread that links these periods is they were times when new revelation was being given by God. The time between these periods of miraculous activity is devoid of any record of supernatural phenomenon. As a matter of fact, there is compelling evidence to suggest that miracles performed at the hands of the apostles had ceased by the time of Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. Why did Paul not heal Timothy of his stomach problems (1 Timothy 5:23), or Epaphroditus of his nearly terminal illness (Philippians 2:25-27) if he still had the gift of healing?

Finally, the claim that miraculous sign gifts are for today fails to distinguish between the fact of miracles and the gift of miracles. Very few Christians would deny that God still works miracles today; however, this is far different than saying that God still empowers individuals with the special gift of performing miracles. The purpose of miraculous gifts was to confirm the divine origin of the apostle’s message (Hebrews 2:3-4). Once the divine authority of the apostles was established, the need for the sign gifts ceased to exist.

A Divisive Teaching

The insistence that miraculous sign gifts are for today has tended to be a divisive, rather than unifying teaching of charismatic theology. Barnett and McGregor go so far as to assert that those who lack the manifestation of miraculous gifts in their ministries demonstrate the absence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

The reason why this power is so conspicuously absent from the ministries of those who reject the baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues is that they have failed to receive the Giver of the power (the Holy Spirit) as is evidenced by both the absence of other tongues (the Biblical sign) and by the lack of supernatural gifts in their ministries. Sadly, their theology precludes them from receiving the very thing they need.[3]

This is circular reasoning to the extreme. Jesus never pointed to the presence of miraculous gifts as the tell-tale sign of His true disciples. The mark of a true disciple who is indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit is a genuine, unhypocritical love for God, His word, and fellow Christians (John 13:34-35; Romans 12:3, 9). Not content with seeing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) manifested in the life of the believer, many charismatics in search of a more “spirit filled” life have attempted, by means of proof texting, to assert that miraculous sign gifts are for the church today.

As a result, they have created a subclass of Christian who is not as spiritual as those who “possess” such gifts. Unfortunately, the habit of divorcing the text of Scripture from its context has left much of the church confused and unsure as to how one interprets the Bible. The fact of Jesus’ immutability should be a source of great comfort to the church, not used as a proof text for aberrant theology or spiritual one-up-man-ship.

[1] Donald Lee Barnett and Jeffery P. McGregor, Speaking in Other Tongues: A Scholarly Defense (Seattle, WA: Community Chapel Publications, 1986), 203. (Emphasis added)

[2] Gordon D. Fee, “Hermeneutics and Historical Precedent – a Major Problem in Pentecostal Hermeneu-tics,” in Perspectives on the New Pentecostalism, ed. Russell P. Spittler (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 122.

[3]  Donald Lee Barnett and Jeffery P. McGregor, Speaking in Other Tongues: A Scholarly Defense (Seattle, WA: Community Chapel Publications, 1986), 203. (Emphasis added)

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