The topic of miraculous sign gifts has generated significant discussion and controversy in the last one hundred fifty years. In this article, we would like to consider this topic in conjunction with the ministry of the twelve Apostles rather than focusing on the sign gifts alone. We want to note at the outset that this article will not be addressing the spiritual gifts (referenced in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, and Romans 12:3-8) which are given to all believers. Rather this article focuses on sign gifts, such as miraculous healings, that confirmed the apostolic ministry. Perhaps if we observe the role of the Apostles in relation to the sign gifts, we may gain a better understanding of both the function and purpose of the sign gifts as well as the role of the Apostles.
1. The Prominent Role of the Apostles as Eyewitnesses
The ascension of Christ to Heaven moved the Apostles to the forefront of responsibility in establishing the Church on earth. The Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost giving the Apostles the power they needed for their ministry. Let’s examine the Apostles’ calling to their ministry and notice how they became the key witnesses for Christ.
a. The Apostles were eyewitnesses of Christ
Matthew 10:1-4 records the names of twelve men that were called and commissioned by Christ to apostleship. Jesus refers to them as the twelve that He called (John 6:70). These Twelve were called in distinction from the other seventy commissioned disciples (Luke 10:1).
The twelve Disciples formed an inner circle around Christ. Mark 14:17 records that the Last Supper was eaten with only these twelve Apostles. The context of the intercessory prayer recorded in John 17 is focused on the Eleven who were yet at the supper table. (It was not until John 18:1 that they left the supper for the garden.) The wording of the prayer references these twelve men, while noting the loss of Judas (John 17:6,8,12). Verse 8 mentions that they had received the word of the Lord through Jesus Christ—indicating the importance of their future teaching role.
The Eleven later decided that Judas needed to be replaced to preserve Christ’s original number of twelve witnesses. Acts 1:21-22 indicates that the replacement of the apostleship of Judas had specific requirements. The candidates had to be personal witnesses of Christ’s earthly ministry (which continued from the baptism of John until Christ’s ascension) and witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. This means the basic eyewitness qualifications for apostleship were understood by the Eleven. Calling Matthias by lot made him the only Apostle not personally called by Christ, yet the basic requirements for being an apostolic eyewitness were still met.
Peter opens his second epistle by calling himself an Apostle and then later in the epistle provides proof of his apostleship by referencing that he was an eyewitness of Christ (2 Peter 1:16-19). John also identifies his eyewitness credentials in his first epistle before claiming to speak the Word of Christ (1 John 1:1-5).
The resurrection of Christ is defended on the basis of the twelve Apostles (including Matthias) witnessing the risen Christ on (at least) two occasions (1 Corinthians 15:5,7). The Apostles were the key eyewitnesses to the gospel accounts.
Since Paul was not an eyewitness during Jesus’ teaching ministry, Paul’s defense of his apostleship in Galatians 1:11-12 indicates that the gospel he preached came from a direct revelation of Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 9:1 he defends his apostleship by saying, “Have not I seen the Lord?” He was uniquely qualified to be an Apostle by hearing an audible call from Christ, by seeing Christ in His resurrected body, and by receiving Jesus’ gospel by direct revelation.
The Apostles were not making unsubstantiated eyewitness claims, for in each case there were other people that could testify to them being true eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ. In the case of Paul, his companions saw him fall to the ground, saw a great light, and heard a voice that was speaking to Paul.
In 1 Corinthians 15:8 Paul again claimed his right to apostleship because he had seen Christ, though he acknowledged that he was born out of due time (after the time when the original Twelve were called). In other words, he was the only exception to the rule that the Apostles had to have seen and accompanied the Lord from His baptism to His resurrection (Acts 1:21,22). The Church would come to recognize that his call and commission came from Christ (Acts 9:15; Galatians 1:1,15-16, 2:9). Paul communicated to the other Apostles the gospel that was given to him by revelation, and they confirmed with a right hand of fellowship that it was the true gospel, the same that they had heard from Christ (Galatians 2:2,7-9). The Apostles were the key witnesses and safeguards of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
As previously noted, Matthias was chosen to apostleship by lot as opposed to a direct calling from Jesus. This may account for him never being mentioned again in Scripture by name as an Apostle. There are various church traditions about Matthias’ ministry. Paul may have replaced Matthias as one of the Twelve since he vigorously defended his apostleship, while Matthias seemingly passed into obscurity. Matthias’ tenure as an Apostle may have been interim until Paul’s calling. In Revelation 21:9-14 we notice that the Lamb’s bride, which is the New Jerusalem or the Church, has the twelve Apostles’ names in the twelve foundations. This seems to set a definite number to those set apart for a distinct apostleship. No matter how a person might reckon the accounting with Paul and Matthias, the criteria for being an Apostle is still highly consistent and still constrained to the apostolic era.
It is important to recognize that the word apostle is also used in a more general sense, as in the case of Barnabas (Acts 14:14). In the common usage of the word at that time it meant a “delegate” or “messenger” commissioned for a particular mission. The general term apostle is sometimes translated in our Bible as one who was “a messenger” or “sent” to a specific work (see John 13:16; 2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:25). From the general definition and usage of the Greek word for apostle comes the Latin word missio from which we derive the term missionary. We believe there are apostles today in the general sense meaning “men having a special call from God to be commissioned for a specific mission of the Church.”
However, the word apostle, as it relates to the office of the Twelve, is used in a very specific context to refer to men who met specific criteria and who lived in a specific era.
b. The Apostles’ role and teachings were authoritative
Acts 2:42 declares that the early believers continued in the Apostles’ doctrine, showing that apostolic teachings were considered gospel. In Acts 2:43 many supernatural signs were done by the Apostles to validate their authority. Acts 4:33 speaks distinctly of the Apostles’ powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Acts 4:35 reports that people laid goods at the Apostles’ feet, showing submission to apostolic authority.
In the following Scriptures we see more indications of their unique role:
- Acts 8:1 records that persecution scattered everyone but the Apostles, showing a distinction between them and the others who were scattered.
- Acts 16:4 illustrates that, in conjunction with the elders, they exercised the greatest corporate church authority.
- The Apostles ordained elders, but elders never ordained Apostles (Acts 14:23).
- Second Thessalonians 3:6,14 and Jude 17 illustrate the necessity for the Church to obey apostolic teaching. Their teachings would become inspired Scripture (1 Corinthians 11:2,23, 14:37).
2. The Sign Gifts Confirmed the Apostolic Ministry
To consider the role of the sign gifts in the apostolic ministry we want to begin by examining the passage in which Jesus indicated that confirming signs would accompany the ministry of the Apostles. In Mark 16:14-20, Jesus appeared and spoke with the Eleven and commissioned them to preach the gospel to the world. Jesus declared that miraculous signs would be present when the Apostles taught the gospel and when the people believed:
“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:17-18).
The commission to preach and the promise of signs are given to the eleven Apostles. The signs would “follow” or “accompany” those who believed the gospel. If we were to isolate these verses from the rest of the New Testament, we might think that everyone who believes will have all the sign gifts. But we learn from later Scriptures that not all believers had all the sign gifts and perhaps some did not have any sign gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7-11,28-31). The intent for the sign gifts was primarily to confirm that the apostolic ministry was under divine commission. These signs validated that the Holy Spirit was given to the Samaritans, then to the Gentiles, and then given to the uttermost parts of the earth wherever the Apostles preached. Mark 16:20 indicates that this promise was fulfilled in the apostolic ministry:
“And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following” (Mark 16:20).
The apostolic sign gifts were evident also in the Gentile congregations they planted (Romans 15:18,19; 1 Corinthians 1:7; 1 Corinthians 12 and 14). This confirmed that the Gentile congregations they planted were also of the true household of faith, rather than just the Jewish congregations.
“If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:2 NKJV).
The Lord used the sign gifts within the presence and jurisdiction of apostolic preaching to confirm that the Apostles’ word was authoritative, and that the Gentiles were equally accepted into the kingdom of God (see Acts 11:17,18).
If all the elders and believers of that era practiced the sign gifts to the extent of the Apostles, then the Apostles’ ministry would not have received special confirmation. Otherwise anyone practicing the sign gifts could have made a strong claim to have Jesus’ call and to have apostolic authority, if they also had been a witness to Jesus’ ministry on earth. But the early Church understood that the Apostles were operating in a unique role and that the sign gifts were used by God to validate their special ministry. In Acts 5:12-13 the Apostles performed great signs and wonders that other believers dared not try to replicate as an apostle; but instead they regarded the twelve Apostles as a distinct body and held them in high esteem.
“And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people; (and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch. And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them)” (Acts 5:12-13).
Paul’s apostolic ministry was confirmed in the same way and was set apart by the signs of special miracles. “And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul: so that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them” (Acts 19:11-12).
These special miracles and signs are called “the signs of an apostle”: “Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds” (2 Corinthians 12:12).
Hebrews 2:1-4 sums up the apostolic ministry by referring to the Apostles as those who heard the word of Christ, preached that word, and then had their message confirmed by the sign gifts of the Holy Ghost. The scriptural evidence indicates that the sign gifts of the Holy Ghost were distributed in the era and under the supervision of the apostolic ministry to confirm the teaching of the Apostles as the authoritative Word of Christ. The Old Testament was given by prophets spanning over many centuries, while the New Testament Scriptures were all given in one era under the supervision of the Apostles.
The sign gifts were God’s way of confirming that the apostolic teaching was the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the inspired Word of God, and that the Gentile churches they planted were part of the kingdom of God.
3. The Cessation of the Apostolic Ministry
People came to know Christ through the teachings of Christ that were preserved by the Apostles and proclaimed under the unction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:5-15). Those teachings were recorded as Scripture before the last Apostle (John) left this earth, thereby closing the canon of Scripture.
Revelation was the last book written by the last living Apostle. His words concerning this are significant. In Revelation 22:18-19 John indicates that any additions to this book will bring judgment. Similarly, in John 20:30-31 and 21:24-25 he declares that many more books could have been written, but there is no need for more books because these are sufficient for us to believe in Christ. The Apostle John wrote the last gospel which tells us it is sufficient for us to believe and have life (John 20:31). John also wrote the last epistle which warns us not to add to or take away from it (Revelation 22:18-19). John both closes the canon of the gospels and closes the canon of the epistles before he dies.
In John’s last revelation he sees the future New Jerusalem (the Church) being built on a foundation of twelve Apostles (Revelation 21:14). He is looking into the future to the end of time, and in that vision of the end there are no more than twelve Apostles. There will be no more foundations and no more written scriptures. To seek new scripture is to deny the authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures given to us by the Apostles.
In 2 Corinthians 11:12-15 Paul records that there were false apostles in his time who were agents of Satan. In Revelation 2:2 Jesus commends Ephesus for testing and rejecting men who claimed to be apostles but were not. As the original Apostles were dying, men were fraudulently trying to take their place.
Today, anyone who claims the original apostolic authority and office cannot pass the apostolic litmus test. There are no living men today who personally walked and talked with Christ from His baptism to His ascension. No one can demonstrate the confirmation of their apostolic office with the apostolic sign gifts. Therefore no one today can make a legitimate claim to the authority of the original Apostles to produce inspired teachings or writings.
Certainly, we would acknowledge that God is able to and does perform signs and miracles today. While God still does perform miracles through men, He has chosen to limit them to significantly fewer in number than what the Apostles performed. If God had continued the same number of miracles today as were performed by the Apostles, we would have people claiming to be apostles, and claiming to have direct revelations that are just as authoritative as the Scriptures. In fact, at the end of the age there will be a proliferation of false christs and false prophets (Matthew 24:5,11), false signs and wonders (Matthew 7:21-23), and false gospels (1Timothy 4:1).
God finished the New Testament, confirming it with the miraculous sign gifts, and closed the apostolic age.
4. The Professed Continuance of the Apostolic Office
Some of the major religions of the world which profess to believe and follow Christ have ruling bodies which claim for themselves the same level of authority that Jesus gave to the Apostles. For example, the Roman Catholic Church believes that its popes are the direct successors of the Apostle Peter. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church credits the Pope with the charism to invoke infallibility when teaching on faith and morals. The Roman Catholics also believe the Sacred Traditions which come from their councils are as equally inspired and authoritative as the Holy Scriptures.
While the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not claim apostolic succession (because they cannot show a physical lineage from the Apostles), yet their governing body claims an authority similar to that of the Apostles, and they judge themselves to be the only authoritative speakers for the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. Consider the following:
The Governing Body follows the pattern set by “the apostles and elders in Jerusalem” in the first century, who made important decisions on behalf of the entire Christian congregation. (Acts 15:2)1
Consider, too, the fact that Jehovah’s organization alone, in all the earth, is directed by God’s holy spirit or active force. (Zech. 4:6) Only this organization functions for Jehovah’s purpose and to his praise. To it alone God’s Sacred Word, the Bible, is not a sealed book.2
The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) also lays claim to the apostolic office and authority. President Gordon Hinckley stated:
The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles, called and ordained to hold the keys of the priesthood, have the authority and responsibility to govern the Church, to administer its ordinances, to expound its doctrine, and to establish and maintain its practices.3
All three of these organizations of men claim the apostolic office and authority and have used that authority to alter or add to Scripture. But none of them has the apostolic credentials or the witness of miraculous sign gifts to divinely confirm their claims.
Ephesians 2:19-22 states that the Church is built upon the foundation of the Apostles (New Testament) and prophets (Old Testament) with Jesus being the chief cornerstone. That Church has twelve foundations with twelve true Apostles. Any organization which claims to possess the authoritative apostolic office is laying a different and corrupt foundation from what has been laid by Christ. “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11 NASB).
The true Apostles were personally called by Christ (except Matthias) and were witnesses of Christ’s baptism, ministry (except Paul), and resurrection. They were all given the ability to perform miraculous signs and wonders to validate that their message was inspired and would become the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament. The foundation is no longer being laid; it has been completed in the apostolic era. The sign gifts diminished with the passing of the Apostles. Today we are building up the Church upon the foundation that has been laid in God’s written Word—the complete canon of the Holy Scriptures which the Lord has given to us through the Apostles!
1. Official Website of Jehovah’s Witnesses, “Frequently Asked Questions,” (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2022), https://www.jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/faq/governing-body-jw-helpers/.
2. Watchtower, (1 July 1973): 402, https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1973484.
3. Gordon Hinckley, “God Is at the Helm,” (general conference, April 1994), https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1994/04/god-is-at-the-helm?lang=eng.