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25 October 2018

“But in these last days”… prophecy stopped?

How people’s doubts got added to our bible translations.

Hebrews 1.2

In the New International Version, the book of Hebrews begins like so.

Hebrews 1.1-2 NIV
1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 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.

The English Standard Version translates it similarly.

Hebrews 1.1-2 ESV
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 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.

Other translations also present the similar idea: In the past God spoke through the prophets, but in the present he speaks through his Son.

So the argument goes whenever cessationists wanna insist God doesn’t speak through prophets anymore. Prophets, they insist, are an Old Testament phenomenon. A bible-times office. Not a present-day position; God doesn’t do that anymore. Like the Muslims deem Muhammad, Jesus is the last and greatest and final prophet. The title the NIV adds to this passage even says so: “God’s Final Word: His Son.”

I do agree Jesus has the last word on every controversy, disagreement, or discussion among his followers. He’s our Lord, so of course he has final say.

But what this title implies—and what cessationists totally mean—is prophecy stopped: There are no more prophets. We’re done with that. We don‘t even need them; we have a bible. That’s all the revelation we’re gonna get from God; he doesn’t see fit to add to it; and we’d better not claim we have further revelations from him. (And when they interpret what the bible means, and insist we gotta live by their doctrines, somehow them adding their 2 cents to the bible doesn’t count as further revelations.)

Doesn’t matter that there are New Testament prophets, particularly John of Patmos; doesn’t matter that Paul encouraged the Corinthians to prophesy; doesn’t matter that Christian history is dotted with prophets. Their proof text for why there aren’t prophets any more—one of many—is how the very book of Hebrews begins by saying God used to speak through prophets, but in the last days it’s just Jesus. And then Jesus got raptured to heaven and doesn’t talk to us anymore. And while the Holy Spirit might’ve permitted just a bit of prophecy in Peter and Paul‘s time, once those guys finished writing the New Testament, the Spirit stopped talking too.

Thing is, the whole basis of this argument hinges on one little word in their proof-text: “But.” In bible times God spoke through prophets, but now it’s just Jesus. Do we find this word in every bible translation? Nope.

WYCLIFFE: “…at the last in these days he hath spoken to us by the Son…”
GENEVA BIBLE (includes it in verse 1): “…in these last days he hath spoken unto us by his Son…”
KJV: “…hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son…”
ASV: “…hath at the end of these days spoken unto us in his Son…”
CSB: “In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son.”
DARBY: “…at the end of these days has spoken to us in the person of the Son…”
ISV: “…has in these last days spoken to us by a Son…”
MEV: “…has in these last days spoken to us by His Son…”
NASB: “…in these last days has spoken to us in His Son…”
NET: “…in these last days he has spoken to us in a son…”
NKJV: “…has in these last days spoken to us by His Son…”
NLT: “And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.”

Obviously that’s not every translation. A number of translations include “but,” though you’ll also notice an equal number of ’em have not. Including the oldest English translations.

’Cause cessationists, and those who lean in that direction, added “but” to the bible. And in pinning their arguments to the word they’ve illegitimately inserted into the scriptures, are they riding that “but” hard.

Why is “but” in the verse?

Basic grammar time: “But” is a conjunction. It’s like “and,” “for,” “though,” “then,” “or,” and other words which connect items, or connect one phrase to another.

“And” puts them together with no judgments: “I went to the store and bought candy.” Once you add “but” to such a sentence, you see something’s amiss: “I went to the store but bought candy.” In the sentence with “and,” candy’s no problem; in the sentence with “but,” candy appears to be a problem. It’s not a subtle appearance; “but” is always used to contrast things, not simply add. When we contrast, one of those things is better than the other. Or, in the minds of pessimistic people, one of those things is wrong.

What New Testament word gets translated “but”? That’d be allá. It’s not like first-century Greek had no such word. Sometimes Jesus and the apostles did wanna contrast stuff. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Mt 6.13 There are wholly legitimate uses of “but” in the bible.

The rest are up to the translator’s judgment. If it looks like a contrast, sometimes they include “but.” When Jesus talks about thinks the Pharisees teach, then responds, “And I tell you…” Mt 5.22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44 Jesus is legitimately comparing his teachings with theirs, nearly every translation changes Jesus’s transition to “But I tell you.”

Some of that might be because they think the word for “and,” de, should usually or frequently be translated “but.” Properly de is more like a semicolon. Greek authors used it to indicate one sentence is part of the same paragraph as the last sentence. Some translations don’t even bother to include it; I tend to skip it and start a new sentence. But every so often, because a translator is pretty sure two things are getting contrasted, or think de always means a contrast is coming, they’ll render it as “but.” As was done in John 1.

John 1.17 KJV
For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

The KJV’s translators at least italicized the word “but” (and I grayed it) to indicate it’s not derived from Greek; it was added to make the translation clearer. I would object it also makes the translation biased. It implies the Law is one thing, grace and truth another, and that’s not so. It implies Jesus brought stuff which opposes the Law, or even does away with it, and that’s also not so. It implies a lot of wrong ideas, which is why more recent translations correctly removed “but.”

John 1.17 RSV
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Okay. So which Greek word got rendered “but” in Hebrews 1? Oh, there isn’t one. At all.

Verse 2 begins with ep eskháton ton imerón túton elálisen imín en yío/“In these last days he spoke to us by a Son.” Doesn’t begin with any conjunction at all. The “but” was added by a translator who felt the first days and the last days need contrasting: Back then God did things one way; nowadays he does ’em another.

True, there are some things God does differently after Jesus came to earth. Jesus is everyone’s king and Messiah, not just Israel’s. Salvation is offered to everybody, not just explicitly to Israel and implicitly to everyone else. Jesus’s death makes every ritual sacrifice redundant (including all the Old Testament sacrifices—but to be fair, they didn’t know this), so Christians don‘t bother with ’em. The Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence in every Christian, not just in prophets, renders all the ritual cleanliness practices redundant too. But dispensationalism, the popular idea God saves different people different ways in different times, is heresy whenever it claims anyone was ever saved by good deeds instead of God’s grace; and cessationism, the idea God stopped intervening in human history till the End Times, regularly causes people to blaspheme the Holy Spirit every time they claim an obvious God-encounter was probably Satan.

The basis of these wrong ideas is unbelief. Not bible. And as you’ve seen, when unbelievers get to translate bibles, they insert their unbelief into its verses. Sometimes intentionally, because they want proof texts to back ’em up. I’m gonna give them the benefit of the doubt and figure they unthinkingly added their biases. Most of us are unaware of our own biases, or even that these ideas are biases—“No, that’s just how normal people think,” as if we’re the legitimate standard for “normal.” Cessationists presume they’re normal, and the vast majority of miracle-believing Christians are deluded freaks, and turn a blind eye to how their bible is obviously written by and for a miracle-believing people. It’s why, when they get to translate bible, they unthinkingly mute some of these miracles.

Jesus is one of the many and various ways.

My own translation doesn’t include any non-existent “but.”

Hebrews 1.1-2 KWL
1 God, who repeatedly variously spoke through the prophets to our ancestors long ago,
2 spoke to us in these last days through his Son,
whom he made heir to everything, through whom he created this age.

In the past, God spoke through his prophets all sorts of ways. In the first century, he became human and spoke to us directly. The man Jesus told us exactly what God thinks, for he is God, Jn 1.1 and explains the Father best. Jn 1.18

Which means Jesus… is yet another way God spoke to us. The best way, really. Jesus is unfiltered God. No, not filtered through a human; that‘d be any other prophet. Jesus presents precisely what God wants us to know, better than every other prophet ever.

Does that mean Jesus is the last we’re ever gonna hear from God? Obviously not. Hebrews itself got written after Jesus returned to his Father. Jesus still has prophets who speak on his behalf, in his name. That never stopped. Never ceased. Won’t till he returns, when he can speak for himself, and we’ll no longer need prophecy. 1Co 13.8 But that hasn’t happened yet—though the sooner it happens, the better. Come Lord Jesus!

Meanwhile we need prophecy just as much as we always have. And Christians are particularly equipped to give it. We have the Holy Spirit, remember?

Acts 2.16-18 KWL
16 “…but this is what the prophet Joel had said: 17 ‘God said this’ll happen in the last days:
“I’ll pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will give prophecies.
Your young ones will see visions. Your old ones will will dream dreams.
18 In those days I’ll pour out my Spirit even on my slaves, men and women.
And they’ll give prophecies!” ’ ”

Anyone who thinks Joel’s prophecy doesn’t apply to the present day—who claims the coming of Jesus ended prophecy altogether, who thinks God’s taking a millennia-long break between the first century and Jesus’s return—clearly doesn’t respect the scriptures as much as they claim to, and has let their unbelief get in the way of a proper understanding of the bible. Unbelief has become their context. And that’s absolutely the wrong context in which we interpret the bible.