The Apostolic Sign Gifts
Following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father and the Son (Jn 14:26; 15:26). The recipients of the Spirit of Christ, at the beginning of this new era, were the apostles of Jesus (Acts 2:4). Pentecost was exceptional for them that year because it was the beginning of a special dispensation granted by God.
The apostolic era ended with the death of the youngest disciple of Jesus, the Apostle John. The disciples (followers of Jesus) became the apostles (those sent out by Jesus), as Jesus commissioned them to go and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19–20).
The disciples were now Spirit-filled missionaries, and Jesus was with them by His Spirit. The primary activity of these men of God was to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:16–17; 1 Cor 1:18; 2:2). They went out from Jerusalem, where signs and wonders were being performed by them. The power of God was upon them, even in them (Jn 14:17; Rom 8:9, 11).
The pinnacle account of the Spirit’s working through the apostles, as it pertains to miracles, signs and wonders, was Peter raising Tabitha from the dead at Joppa (Acts 9:36–43). Obviously, this has never been a common activity by anyone. Thus, even miracles appear to be on a graded scale. Even the healing event that immediately preceded Peter’s raising Tabitha pales in comparison.
In that event, Peter was traveling through Lydda, and he miraculously healed Aeneas of his paralysis, which the man had endured for eight years (Acts 9:31–35). Thus, we turn to the author of Acts to consider what literary ramp he has built and what it leads up to for climactic effect (Cornelius’ conversion/Gentile inclusion).
Immediately preceding Peter’s healing Aeneas and raising Tabitha, Luke wrote about Philip and his work in Samaria and the south (Acts 8). Our first observation is that the Apostles of Jesus had moved out and away from Jerusalem. Jesus promised this would happen when He gave His farewell address to them before His ascension into heaven (Acts 1:8).
Second, preaching the Gospel was the primary endeavor. When it was attended by the Holy Spirit, the recipients were believing and being baptized with water. The sacrament of water baptism is rightly seen as a visible sign of the powerful work of the Holy Spirit’s baptism, regeneration, and filling of the born again.
Third, the apostles’ preaching and baptismal ministries were not being received by all people. The Bible teaches that only God’s elect, who were redeemed at the cross by Jesus, are the recipients of the gracious and permanent abiding of the Holy Spirit. The world cannot receive the Spirit of Christ (Jn 14:17), nor does it love Jesus (Jn 7:7; 15:18–19, 24–25).
Fourth, Luke includes the attending miracles of this apostolic era, and it is for us to deduce what these signs and wonders represent for that first century church, why those miracles ceased, and why they are fabricated as claims by charlatans, today.
Some insist that Acts of the Apostles is merely descriptive but not prescriptive for the church throughout history and moving forward. This certainly aids the argument for the Cessationists, who say the sign gifts of the apostles were for that season, only. It appears inconsistent, however, when most of the rest of the activities of the church are emulated, today, in some form.
It may be preferred to claim that Acts is exactly what is prescribed for the life of the church, which is why we do what we do. Taking the cue from our fathers in the faith, we know we are to preach, baptize, fellowship, have communion, and continue the outward advance of the church and its message to the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Separating the Great Commission prescription to go and make disciples in this manner, we must ask those who claim the continuation of the office of apostle, and the accompanying sign gifts about the frequency with which these events occurred in Acts vs. Today. The fame of the event, the apostle working the miracle and the obvious beneficiary were known to whole cities even regions.
The burden of proof, today, is on those claiming they are healing the sick and the lame, along with giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. Of course, those who were resurrected from the dead should be among us as known entities. In every case, however, where research is done, the conclusion is fraud. Why?
The reason is that the apostles were a particular group of men, who had a certain relationship with Christ Jesus, the man who was God incarnate (Jn 1:14). Jesus specifically chose the twelve to be His disciples (Mt 10; Jn 15:16). The apostolic signs they performed, as recorded by Luke in Acts, were aids to validating the Gospel advancing from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and then to the uttermost parts.
Just as Jesus performed countless miracles to aid those who were believing in Him, so His apostles performed like miracles until they themselves were gone from the earth and their works of wonder with them. Church history supports the position of the Cessationists, not the Continuationists.
Until the 20th century invention of Pentecostalism, the apostolic sign gifts remained a part of the history of the first century church. The proliferation of the Pentecostal promotion of these gifts has only lessened the focus on the Word of God and the prescriptive works that remain. The anti-intellectualism of Pentecostalism is proof of this focus on emotions and experience rather than on the knowledge of Christ, the Word of God.
To baptize with water and to teach sound doctrine (Bible), just as the apostles did as missionaries, must again claim its rightful place in obedience to Jesus’ command. In this, the formula for the church is simple and prescribed by example in Acts and as an imperative in the epistles.
The taught disciples must go as missionaries into the world, both locally and far afield, to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Some will believe our report and others will not believe it. We are to baptize with water, those who believe in their hearts, the message we proclaim and who confess with their mouths that they are not ashamed of the Gospel of God’s grace toward them.
Following baptism, we teach our own children in our household, and those who join with the local church, to obey the Scriptures. As these are taught over many years, they will become the generation of those who go and follow this same prescription to preach Christ crucified, baptize with water, and teach those conjoined to the local church, where there is loving fellowship and communion until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again.
Spokane Valley, Washington
June 17, 2021