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In the midst of our Tough Stuff series, there are topics that people often have questions on, and we want to make sure you understand well. We want to help you look at life, marriage, relationships, God and the church differently–to see things as God does, and for your life to change as a result.
Last week Chris taught on the gift of tongues, and we were both encouraged by the response we heard, and the questions that were asked. Long ago we planned for this to be a two part-er. The gift of tongues comes up so often, we wanted to dedicate a whole Sunday to it. But we also wanted to spend another Sunday talking about the sign gifts–a set of supernatural gifts about which debate has increased in the last hundred years.
There’s so much heat and fire about this topic that we wanted to try and bring a little light–we want to help you understand what the Bible says about this topic. I know that people in our body have differing beliefs on the gifts. Some of you are cessationists–you believe that certain gifts have ceased to function. Some of you are continuationists–you believe that those gifts continue today in some form, but you don’t think that you’re personally gifted. A few of you are charismatics–you believe that all the gifts have continued, and you personally practice one of the more miraculous gifts in some fashion. And some of you are uncomplicated–you’ve never bothered to think on it. You just know that those guys on TV are whackos.
Well because of all the differing beliefs that exist within our own church, I want to start by acknowledging some common ground we all share. Here’s what every evangelical Christian agrees on:
At salvation, everyone is gifted uniquely and supernaturally. At the beginning of Paul’s three chapters on spiritual gifts, he writes this, 1 Corinthians 12:11, “All these [gifts] are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” (ESV)
At the time of salvation, the Spirit of God came into your life and heart, and He gifted you. You may not know how yet, but He did. It’s a supernatural gift–it can be developed further, but it’s already there. It’s not the result of simple training. Your gift is something that energizes you–a person gifted with mercy gets happy when they’re doing a hospital visit, and while they’re full of compassion, they don’t come away feeling drained.
Likewise, the person they’re ministering to is uniquely blessed. If I visit them, they think it’s nice. If a mercy person visits them, they feel encouraged and refreshed. You may have a talent like piano playing, or singing, or be hired as a school teacher, but those aren’t spiritual gifts. Those are God-given abilities and talents. A spiritual gift is a unique and supernatural gift, given by God through His Spirit, so that you could fulfill certain tasks that God has called you to do.
Everyone is unique. No two people are alike. The Spirit distributes these gifts individually to each believer, in different measure and type to each. These spiritual gifts are for the health of the Church body. First Corinthians 12:7, “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” God gifted you for the health of the church, Christ’s bride. The gifts which He gave to each person were not for that person, but for the Church.
Ephesians 4:16 says, “The whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” Get this, the health of the whole Church body depends on each person using their gifts for the growth and maturity of the body. This is the reason we push people to serve at church. Paul says that the spiritual health of the Church depends on you using your gifts to bless others.
Some churches have you serve due to great need. Some churches have you serve because it makes you feel ownership. Our motivation is Scripture–you’re commanded to (1 Peter 4), and our church’s health depends on it. So everyone is gifted at salvation, and it’s for the health of the church. Everyone agrees with this. Scripture lists a wide variety of spiritual gifts (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12).
Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 are the two major passages on spiritual gifts. Romans 12 lists prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and mercy; and 1 Corinthians 12 adds wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues, helps and administration. There is some debate over whether these lists are exhaustive. If you believe that multiple gifts can exist in one person, then these categories are sufficient to describe people’s gifts.
So let’s pretend–wow! Chris is a gifted preacher. Uh oh–there’s no gift of preaching listed. Well, either the list is incomplete, or preaching falls into prophecy or teaching or exhortation, or (and I think this is the most likely) preaching is a combination of a teaching gift and exhortation gift. Regardless, Scripture lists a wide variety of gifts which God has given.
Spiritual gifts do not all continue into eternity–in fact none may. This is not controversial. This is universal fact. First Corinthians 13:8 says, “Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.” Scripture clearly states that prophecy, tongues and the gift of knowledge will end. When God brought those gifts into being, he stamped an expiration date on them. Scripture says this really clearly. Certain gifts have a definite timeframe. And it seems quite likely that all spiritual gifts will eventually cease. Let me explain . . .
1 Spiritual gifts were given to authenticate the messenger of God’s Words
2 Spiritual gifts were given as a sign of judgment on unbelieving Jews
3 Spiritual gifts were given to edify and mature the church
Those were the three primary purposes of the gifts. Now think about heaven–will we need to validate whether someone speaks on God’s behalf? Will there be unbelieving Jews there? Will the Church be immature and incomplete? It seems quite likely that all spiritual gifts are temporary in nature. The big question is . . . when? When do they end? And which ones?
First Corinthians 13:8 clearly acknowledges that they do end. Many people look to 1 Corinthians 13:10 to answer this, (starting in verse 9), “For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” And they make the case that either, (a) the perfect is the maturity of the church, when the canon of Scripture is complete, or (b) the perfect is heaven, when we’re all perfected.
Personally, in studying this, I think that there are some very strong reasons to believe that “perfect” means “mature”, and refers to the completion of the canon. At the same time, I do not think that this verse can provide the conclusive answer to the question. Let me be clear–there is not a clear kill verse for the sign gifts. There’s not a passage that says exactly when . . . “It will be three years from the Day of Pentecost.” There’s no clear kill verse.
But, I think that Scripture presents a very clear, evident, and compelling testimony that certain gifts would cease in the apostles’ lifetime. And when I say that certain gifts have ceased, your ears may have closed, and your heart may have developed a bit of a shell around it. You see, in the past, conversations about the gifts have not gone well. We have problems talking about this. Let me identify what some of them are:
The gifts can replace Jesus as the center of life and faith.
For some people, the manifestation and practice of certain gifts like tongues, prophecy or healing have replaced Jesus as the center of their life. So for me to say that certain gifts have ceased means that I am taking away or speaking against the very thing which defines their Christianity. If you have a view of the Gospel that involves your personal prosperity, health and well-being, then for me to say that the gift of healing has stopped is painful to hear. If you were told that the gift of tongues was required as a mark of salvation, then I am calling for you to change your doctrine of salvation. It’s possible for cessation and charismatic alike to have a spiritual gift replace Jesus as the most important thing in life–and that makes messages like this hard to hear.
Cessationists can appear anti-supernatural or anti-Spirit
We can come across as so rationalist and unemotional that we almost refuse to acknowledge that God actually still works and does things in the world today. We want verified medical evidence of healing. We want the gift of tongues to be a known language and understood by others. We want a miracle to be so stinking supernatural that no other explanation is possible, and then we still may doubt that it happened. Even worse, we can appear to deny the role of the Spirit of God in our lives. We seem immune to hearing Him speak to us. We love the Father, and are thankful for Jesus, but we don’t mention the Spirit much. This is how I can appear, so I’m betting that some of you do too. This doesn’t help the conversation.
Fear of excess can drive beliefs rather than Scripture
Many of us have seen wacky, crazy, clearly-not-of-God, out-of-control Pentecostalism. Let’s admit that this can taint how we think about things. I knew a great guy who pulled his family from the church where I was because we sometimes clapped during worship. He felt that it was a slippery slope from there to charismatic practices. Fear of excess can drive our beliefs rather than Scripture.
Likewise, there are some who believe in the gifts who fear what life without them might look like. They fear that there’d be no joy, no intimacy with God, no evidence of the supernatural in life anymore. And last, let’s not forget that . . .
Personal experience is difficult to explain away
Either you or a friend, or a friend of a friend, had an experience that seemed to match what we read about in the early Church. For that reason, although you don’t feel personally gifted, you are unwilling or unable to say that the experience didn’t happen. So you’re more comfortable in a cessationist church, but you feel a bit uneasy about it.
Personal experiences are difficult to just explain away. The concerns that people have (on both sides) are grounded in past realities, experiences and perceptions. So let me give you these three guiding principles for any future discussion you have.
Determine that the text is authoritative over everything else. One of the defining marks of any true Christian is that the Bible is our singular authority for life. We look to God in His Word to define what’s true. As Chris spoke of last week, we even submit our own experiences to the Word. The Bible informs us what is true, and what God wants, but . . .
1 We recognize that it’s not always easy to understand.
2 There’s not always one clear verse that says exactly what we should do or believe. (Often there is, but not always.) And because we’re all in various stages of maturity and understanding of the Word, choose to love Christians who differ on secondary issues. If they’re solid on the Gospel, and in love with Jesus . . . if they read and obey His Word and love the Bible . . . then love them. Have affection for them.
There were times in the past when Christians killed each other over their views of baptism and the gifts. We don’t have to do that–in fact, loving them can be more effective than killing them. There are many men whom I love, and whom God has used in my life though they hold to a different view of the sign gifts. There are churches which preach the Gospel faithfully, though they believe the gifts continue. Have affection for them. Be friends with them. This is not a cause to break fellowship.
3 Don’t be quick to write off experiences, but don’t validate what’s not in Scripture. In our day, our experiences reign supreme. We are prone to believing our senses and the stories of those whom we trust, and that’s understandable. Don’t be quick to write off what they say. When you hear of something supernatural, don’t be visibly dismissive.
At the same time, those experiences are subordinate to the Word. As Chris mentioned last week, Peter had a far superior experience than us, and he states that the Word is more certain than that.
Second Peter 1:18-19 says, “We ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19and we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention.” (ESV) The fact that something happened doesn’t mean that it’s true. It may have actually happened, but if you can’t find evidence in Scripture that it should happen, then please don’t validate it or attribute it to God.
On the other hand, don’t be quick to attribute the supernatural to God. Acts 16 tells of a slave girl who would cry out whenever Paul and Silas passed by, shouting “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.” But we learn a bit later in the story that her words were not from God, but a demon. Now I’m not saying that everything supernatural is demonic, only that we can’t be certain of the source if the Bible doesn’t clearly tell us.
Maybe a more typical example would be if I have a dream where I take Beth on a date to Prado, and wake up feeling like I should take her to Prado, and then Steve Schweizer asks me when I’m going to take Beth to Prado again. Does this mean that God wants me to take her to Prado? No. But I still might take her. Don’t be quick to write off experiences, but don’t validate what’s not in Scripture. Let’s keep the Word as the authority in our lives, even as we love other Christians who view this differently.
So, with that in mind, let’s talk about, why we believe certain sign gifts have already ceased. Here’s the typical dialogue on this issue.
“We believe sign gifts have ceased.”
“Can you point me to a verse?”
“No.” (with mild look of embarrassment)
Because we lump the gifts together, people expect that there will be a single verse that deals with them. But get this, there is no central reason. Each gift had a unique purpose, and therefore has a unique reason for its end. So there is not an overarching kill verse with a time stamp on it for clarity. Instead, we want to look at them individually and see what Scripture says.
What it was
~ a known language (Chris did a great job on this last week)
Acts 2 makes this very clear–they spoke in languages that other people understood
~ given to authenticate an inspired message from God
Authenticated the message of the gospel (Acts 2)
Authenticated the conversion of Cornelius to Peter (Acts 10)
Authenticated the conversion of John’s disciples to Paul (Acts 19)
~ a sign to unbelieving Jews (1 Corinthians 14:21-22)
The gift of tongues was the final fulfillment of earlier prophecies in Isaiah 28 and Jeremiah 5 that judgment was coming on Israel.
Paul says that tongues served as a sign to unbelievers of God’s judgment on them–consequently, it was not for edification.
It was of little value to the Church.
1 Corinthians 14:18-19 says, “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; 19however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
How We Know It Ceased
~ the purpose was not edification, but authentication and judgment
~ those purposes were fulfilled (the message of the Gospel spread, and judgment came by Rome)
~ as the Church matured, the gift of tongues fades from mention–its latest mention is Ephesus in Acts 19 and in 1 Corinthians, both during the 3rd missionary journey
Acts was written almost a decade after 1 Corinthians–its testimony of earlier happenings is the final mention and last information we have. In Acts we see it portrayed as a known language, with interpreters, and for authentication and judgment.
What about 1 Corinthians 13? Isn’t Paul saying that there’s also the ability to speak in an angelic tongue? No–he’s really not. He’s speaking in hyperbole. Let me help you see this more clearly…
|Speak with the tongues of men||And the tongues of angels||I do not have love||Only noise|
|Have prophecy||And know all mysteries, and have all knowledge, and all faith||I do not have love||I am nothing|
|Give all my possessions||And my body to be burned||I do not have love||No profit for me|
Paul is making a point about the priority of love. If you want to use this verse to argue for the existence of an angelic prayer language, then you need to affirm that Paul was the most brilliant man in the world ever. And that he tried to be burned to death, but failed. The point of 1 Corinthians 13 is that the most amazing gifts, if not motivated by and grounded in love, are useless–utterly useless. We believe that Scripture is clear on the nature and purpose of tongues, and that those purposes have ceased.
What it was
~ a prophet was one who spoke for God, and declared His will to His people (Jeremiah 23:21-22)
Jeremiah 23:21-22, “I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied. 22But if they had stood in My council, then they would have announced My words to My people.”
Note the word choice. God sends them. He speaks to them. They stand in His council. They announce God’s words to His people. That’s a perfect description of a prophet–a preacher is not a prophet. A prophet speaks by direct revelation from God, and not from insight into Scripture.
In the Old Testament, a prophet spoke from God and carried a measure of authority over the community in which he lived. In the New Testament, a prophet speaks from God, but lives as one of the community and is under the authority of the apostles. In the same way that tongues required interpreters, his prophecies were subject to affirmation by those gifted in discernment.
As Chris mentioned last week, the gift of prophecy was incredibly necessary for the early Church. They did not carry Bibles. The scrolls of the Old Testament were not very accessible to them. The Church needed prophets to declare God’s will for them. Much of their prophecy was localized and specific to their particular audience. Some of their prophecies became Scripture. Like Old Testament prophets, those gifted in prophecy were able to predict (foretell) the future. Deuteronomy 18:22 says, “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken.”
There are only a few New Testament examples of prophecy, and they all involve prediction (Acts 11:27-28, 21:10-11; 1 Timothy 1:18; Revelation 1:3). There is no indication in Scripture of a lesser-type prophet who is sometimes accurate. There were not two classes of prophet–the inerrant kind, and a localized one. Scripture only knows one gift of prophecy. Their predictions were not vague, general statements, but specific predictions that could be verified within a reasonable period of time.
Acts 11:27-28 says, “Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius.” Secular history writers testify of a great famine in the land during the years of 45-46 AD.
Together with the apostles, God appointed prophets to provide the foundation of the Church, and this is why we believe that the gift of prophecy has ceased.
How We Know It Ceased
Ephesians 2:20, “[the Church has] been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone.” Along with the apostles, the prophets were given as a gift for the establishment of the Church. This is the plain and clear meaning of Ephesians 2:20. Grammatically, they are linked together as related but separate groups.
When Chris said that Corinth would have had no gospels, and at best four epistles, he was being very generous. It took multiple decades for what you hold in your hand to be written, and then to be circulated among the churches. Prophets stood in the gap. Just as Paul did to the Thessalonians, they would provide direct revelation from God to particular congregations for their edification and instruction. Historically, their role in the church began to die out with the establishment of the canon.
The book of Revelation really closes off the whole deal. John’s prophecies address his local churches in that time (around 90 AD), and they extend forward to the return of Christ and the new heavens. It covers the entire time period from back then to now to the future kingdom, and at the close of the book, John says this–Revelation 22:18, “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; 19and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.”
Now think about this–the book of Revelation reveals God’s plans for the world from the New Testament Church up to the return of Christ, and even describes heaven and life with God there. At the end of the book, the Scripture declares a severe penalty on anyone who attempts to add to its prophecies. Do you think, maybe, that the gift of prophecy has ended?
Its purpose is over. It is no longer needed for our edification, as we now have the complete canon–“the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” as Jude puts it. We believe that Scripture is clear on the nature and purpose of the spiritual gift of prophecy, and that those purposes have ceased.
Now at the very mention of this one, some of you may be getting very concerned. You’re thinking, he doesn’t believe that people can be healed. I bet he doesn’t even pray for me when I’m sick. This is where cessationists sound very anti-supernatural. So let me try to be super clear.
I very much believe that God heals. Scripture says that He hears our prayers, and He answers them. Two weeks ago, Izzy, our six-month-old girl, pushed her chair off the dining room table, and hit our tile floor hard. At first we were sad, but then she threw up, and started getting cold and clammy, and her breathing grew very shallow, and she became increasingly unresponsive. As we rushed to the ER, we thought she was going to die. I believe that God heard our prayers and healed her. Shortly after arriving at the ER, she threw up again, and she began to gradually come back to life. She has no red marks, no bruises and a CAT scan of her brain came back with no damage. God hears our prayers and answers.
Steve Schweizer was diagnosed with Parkinson’s by multiple doctors. After a year of treatment, lifestyle changes and much prayer, the doctors are now not so sure that he had it. They can’t find evidence for it in him anymore. Was this simply misdiagnosis? Could be. But it sure does seem like God healed him.
So when you hear me say that the gift of healing has ceased, I am not saying that God doesn’t heal people anymore. No, what I am saying is that Christians are no longer supernaturally gifted with the ability to heal others. I don’t care what you saw on TV. It doesn’t matter what your friend told you about. The gift of healing existed for a time, during the establishment of the Church, for a specific purpose.
The goal was not to bring health to everyone. If that was the goal, it was quite a failure. Paul’s eyes were never healed. Luke, a physician, still was needed by Christians. Thousands of sick people in Israel were never helped. And those who were healed still eventually died.
What it was
In a day of false messages and pretend Messiahs, the gift of healing was given to attract attention and make certain men stand out from the rest. When John the Baptist wasn’t yet confident that Jesus was the Messiah, he sent guys to ask him, “Are you the one we’ve been expecting?”
Jesus answered, Matthew 11:4-5, “’Go and report to John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.’” The gift of healing was used as a sign that a particular individual bore a message from God.
People who could heal didn’t all the time. Healing was not used in the context of the Church. Healings that took place were typically public and visible and then followed by a Gospel message. Healings were not what you see on TV. They were major health issues like blindness and being lame with severe atrophy from decades of non-use. Healing was instantaneous, without fail, without side effect, and beyond the reach of medicine–even modern medicine. The gift of healing was for certain individuals who, discerning the will of God, chose to heal particular severely diseased people, to authenticate the message from God, which they would then share.
How We Know It Ceased
The last Scriptural mention of healing took place right around 60 AD. As Scripture progresses, we actually see a diminishing mention of healing, and an increased call for medicine and prayer–both.
James 5:14, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church.”
1 Timothy 5:23, “Use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”
2 Timothy 4:20, “Trophimus I left sick at Miletus.”
The purpose of the gift was fulfilled, and so it begins to cease. As the Gospel spread, there was no longer a need for a miraculous sign that a particular individual bore a message from God. The canon was being written. Christians were being persecuted and killed. Their own martyrdoms often provided the testimony that healings had earlier.
God still heals people. He hears our prayers. He acts in unusual and unexpected ways. But no longer are people particularly and specifically gifted as healers in order to promote the Gospel message.
Alright, so now you know the standard disclaimer. Yes, God does miracles. No, he doesn’t gift particular individuals as miracle workers.
Today we’ve lessened the term “miracle” to mean anything extraordinary. Braves pitcher has a miracle elbow. There is now miracle technology. Bipartisan support is labeled a miracle. We can buy Miracle-Gro. Those aren’t miracles. Here’s what a miracle was.
What it was
Bringing someone back from the dead, like Peter did in Acts 9
Declaring blindness as judgment on someone, like Paul did in Acts 13
Being bitten by a deadly viper with no side effects, like Paul was in Acts 28
A miracle is something so profoundly supernatural that there is no explanation for it, apart from divine intervention. Certain people were gifted as miracle workers. It was a means God gave them to gain a hearing for their message. It would provide verification of the inspired message that came through the apostles and prophets. Just like healing, it would be used to attract hearers, and give them a basis to trust the message which they would hear.
How We Know It Ceased
These confirmatory gifts were necessary before the close of the canon. There was no document available to measure or test the truthfulness of what they were saying. God provided external means, like healing and miracles, to authenticate his messengers. Once the canon was finished, the purpose of this gift was completed.
That’s not to say that God has stopped doing miracles–He still does. But He does not need to use specially-gifted miracle workers to reveal new truths.
Listen–there is a reason this category of gifts is called the sign gifts. Overall, these gifts served to authenticate a message from God so that the messenger would be trusted. Peter acknowledges this same role for miracles and supernatural signs in Acts 2:22, “Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst.”
The apostles and prophets had a foundational role in the spread of the Gospel and the establishment of the church. The primary purpose of the sign gifts was to verify their authority and message (Acts 2:43, 5:12-16, 19:11).
Scripture is really clear about that in Matthew 10:1, “And having summoned His twelve disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.”
Mark 16:20, “And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed.”
Acts 2:43, “Many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.”
2 Corinthians 12:12, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.”
Hebrews 2:4, “God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.”
These gifts were particularly for the early church–they were given to authenticate the message being preached, and to lay a strong foundation for the establishment of God’s church. The specific purpose of each of the sign gifts–tongues, prophecy, healing, miracles and their corollary gifts–has ceased. There’s not a universal verse that addresses them, but we believe that Scripture is very clear about each of them individually. There is more that could be said about each of them, but let me try to speak to what’s running through your head now.
Thoughts You May be Having by Now
I think charismatics are whackos
Love all who love Christ, even if they’re not yet convinced cessationists
Don’t be quick to dismiss the supernatural
Your concern should not be for others, but for your own heart and walk before God
How are you doing at using the gifts which God has given to you?
I think cessationists are dry as toast
Keep Christ at the center and not these gifts
Don’t love the gifts more than the giver
Know that gifts are not a sign, nor guarantee of spirituality (Matthew 7:21-23; 24:24)
Be willing to study this again more carefully
I’ve never studied this topic before, and I feel like I just drank from a fire hose
Buy the book
Please commit to working through Scripture, in-depth, on this–ask questions of others from both camps, and consider carefully what they say about the text
What if you don’t know how you’re gifted?
You’re not commanded to figure yourself out–you’re commanded to serve
Look for joy, affirmation and fruit
Best way to identify and develop your gifts is to serve now
I already know how I’m gifted
Recognize your gifts are a stewardship from God
Use your gifts to benefit the Body–our spiritual health depends on it
Your gift (large or small, visible or invisible) matters greatly and is necessary
Why all this talk about gifts?
Because they’re rooted in Jesus
Ephesians 4:8 says that Christ gave these gifts at the time of His ascension
Every spiritual gift is a sign of God’s love and favor towards us, which was purchased at the cross