The Signs of an Apostle
by Mitch Cervinka

The signs of a true apostle were performed among you
with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.
2 Corinthians 12:12

In 2 Corinthians 12:12, the apostle Paul speaks of "the signs of a true apostle".  What were the signs that distinguished an apostle from other sign-working Christians of that day?  Paul makes it clear, in 1 Corinthians 12:28-30 that all are not apostles, yet many besides the apostles were given various kinds of miraculous gifts.  Were the apostles given certain gifts that others did not have, and, if so, what were they?

The thesis of this article is that Christ and His apostles alone had the authority to impart miraculous gifts, and that this authority set them apart from other Christians.  Yet, the expression "the signs of a true apostle" is not limited merely to this authority to impart the gifts, but extends as well to the gifts thus imparted.  In other words, the thing that vindicated the apostleship of the apostles was that, wherever they went, they left behind them gifted Christians who could speak in tongues, heal infirmities, utter prophecies, etc.  Thus, when the apostle says "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you ...", he does not mean merely that Paul performed wondrous signs in the presence of the Corinthians, but that they performed wondrous signs, due to the gifts that he imparted to them. Their ability to exhibit the sign gifts were evidence that the apostle had come into their presence.  Hence, their gifts were "the signs of a true apostle".

I am not suggesting that those who received miraculous gifts thereby became apostles themselves.  Not at all!  We must understand this point carefully:  the signs they did were "the signs of a true apostle", not in the sense that those who performed these signs were apostles, but rather, in the sense that they received this gifting from a true apostle.  The gifts therefore vindicated, not primarily the worker of the gifts, but the human agent who imparted the gifts to them (and, of course, the risen Lord who commissioned and empowered them).

An important corollary to this thesis is this:  Since the apostles were strictly a foundational institution, intended solely to establish the church, and since no one receives miraculous gifts apart from the earthly ministry of the apostles, then there could have been no miraculous gifting of Christians after the death of the last living apostle.  This conclusion agrees with the testimony of Church history, which records no credible accounts of Pentecostal miracles since the first century events recorded in the pages of the New Testament.  God has caused great revivals to occur at various times in church history, but the genuine revivals were never, after the close of the apostolic period, accompanied by tongues-speaking, physical healings, prophesying, raising the dead nor any of the other miraculous signs identified with the Pentecostal period of the church.

When we carefully examine the New Testament scriptures, we find that believers received the miraculous sign gifts in one of the following ways:

  1. During Christ's earthly ministry, He gave the gifts to certain of His disciples (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1-17).
  2. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the gathered assembly of Christians, which included the apostles (Acts 2:1-4).
  3. Subsequent to Pentecost, one additional apostle (Paul) saw Christ in a vision, and received the sign gifts from Him (Acts 9:1-6; Galatians 1:11-20).
  4. Subsequent to Pentecost, Christians typically received the sign gifts, through the laying on of the apostles' hands (Acts 8:14-20; 19:1-6).
  5. In some cases, God gave the gifts simply in the presence of the apostles, without the laying on of hands (e.g. Acts 10:44).
In all cases, a Christian received the sign gifts, either directly from Christ on earth or else through the agency or presence of the apostles.  The only exception was the apostle Paul, who saw Christ in a vision and was appointed by Him to be the apostle of the Gentiles.  In no case did anyone receive the gifts without being in the immediate visible presence of Christ or His apostles, and no one except the apostle Paul ever received the gifts directly from the ascended Christ except in the presence of one or more of the apostles.

Point number 4 above is the one that represents the typical situation in the book of Acts, and this is the one we want to consider.  The main passage in support of this is found in the eighth chapter of Acts...

Acts 8:14-20 - Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, "Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." But Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!
Notice here that, although many of the Samaritans had believed in Christ, none of them received the sign gifts until the apostles, Peter and John, came from Jerusalem to impart these gifts to them.  Had it been possible for any gifted Christian leader to give the sign gifts, then certainly Philip could have laid his hands on the Samaritans and thereby imparted the gifts to them.  But he did not do this, and it appears that he could not do this, for Peter and John were sent to do this very thing.  Notice also that Simon saw that it was "through the laying on of the apostles' hands" that the Samaritans received the gifts.  We must not overlook the force of this statement, that it was the apostles' hands by which the gifts were bestowed.

Paul tells us that the gifts of apostles and prophets were foundational gifts of the church, intended to initially establish the church in its earliest years...

Ephesians 2:20 - having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone,
Church history corroborates this statement, for the church "fathers" did not claim apostleship for themselves, nor is there any evidence throughout the history of the church that the sign gifts were active.  Of course, Rome lays claim to the occasional "miracle worker", and the modern charismatics claim to have the gifts of tongues, healing, prophecy, etc.

However, all such claims are highly suspect. When Jesus and His apostles performed a miracle, even their harshest critics could not deny that a great miracle had been performed...

Acts 4:16 - saying, "What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it.

Matthew 12:24 - But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons."

John 9:16 - Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, "This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath." But others were saying, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" And there was a division among them.

John 9:26 - So they said to him, "What did He do to you? How did He open your eyes?"

John 11:47-48 - Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, "What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation."

In contrast, the "signs" performed by modern charismatics are typically convincing only to those who are already sympathetic to charismatic teaching.  In some cases, there has been deliberate deception by unscrupulous preachers.  In other cases, it seems that self-deception is the clear explanation—people wanting to speak in tongues making some vocal sound in an attempt to get the tongues started, and this attempted vocalization is then instantly labeled "speaking in tongues", which then deceives the unsuspecting novice into thinking that he really has received the gift of tongues.  In yet other cases, there may be supernatural demonic activity at work.  Even cultists sometimes claim to "speak in tongues", and so we should not be surprised if those who hold such heresies as "Word of Faith" teaching or Pelagianism would likewise be capable of demonic charismata.

We should not take lightly the warning that our Lord gave to His apostles...

Matthew 24:24 - "For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.
Is it legitimate, then, to say that God does not work miracles today?

We must be careful to distinguish between a divinely-wrought miracle and a sign gift. Our sovereign, omnipotent God is fully able to perform a miracle any time, anywhere, and any way He pleases. But not all miracles are meant as signs, and a miracle is not necessarily the result of a charismatic gift.

When such gifts were active, a gifted individual would be the medium or instrument God used to work a particular kind of miracle on a repeatable basis. Those who had the gift of tongues could speak in tongues on a regular basis. Those who had the gift of healing could impart healing to various people at various times. The thing that characterizes a charismatic gift is not merely that God does something miraculous, but that He uses a human agent as a vessel or messenger to bring about that miracle, so that, in some sense, the gifted individual is said to have worked the miracle.

By way of contrast, a one-time miracle does not constitute a sign gift—especially if there was no human agent involved. It is appropriate to pray to God for help when we are sick, impoverished, or threatened by our adversaries, and to have the confidence that He is fully able to provide that help. Often, He comes to our aid through the ordinary course of providence, in ways that are not overtly miraculous (although the eye of faith may see more of a miracle in the timing of a providential mercy). God is often pleased to provide healing to one diagnosed with an incurable disease, or to provide unexpected victory to an army that is hopelessly outnumbered.

Miracles, then, do occur in our day, but not as the result of individuals having a special gifting to work miracles. When miracles occur, they are intended as expressions of divine mercy to those in distress, and are not intended as extravagant displays of divine power to the unsaved world at large.

As we examine the history of the Christian church subsequent to the apostolic era, we find that the period of her spiritual zenith was during the time of the Protestant Reformation and of the Puritans.  Yet, none of the Reformers or Puritans exhibited any of the sign gifts.  There were periods of great spiritual revival during the Reformation, and later, during the First and Second Great Awakenings.  However, the most powerful and lasting revivals were not accompanied by tongues, healings or prophesy (much less by fits of "laughter" or "barking" or "being slain in the Spirit").  They were, to be sure, great manifestations of the Holy Spirit's power—but this power was expressed in deep conviction of sin, and radical conversion of the people who came under the Spirit's manifest heart-transforming power.

We would do well to emulate the great Puritan and Reformed preachers of past years—Calvin, Knox, Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon and others—recognizing that genuine sign gifts came only through the personal, visible presence of Christ or His apostles.  The apostolic period is long past, and we would do well to keep our heart and ministry focused on the lasting, eternal gifts of redemption, justification, sanctification and glorification.

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