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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Various Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Don Stewart :: What Were The Signs of an Apostle?

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What Were the Signs of an Apostle?

The Various Gifts of the Holy Spirit – Question 3

One of the crucial questions regarding Jesus’ apostles concerns the signs that would characterize them. When writing to the Corinthians, Paul spoke of the signs of an apostle.

Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds (2 Corinthians 12:12 NKJV).

According to Paul, there were certain signs that characterized the apostles.

The Various Explanations of the Signs of an Apostle

What does this refer to? What specifically were the signs of an apostle? There are two basic views that Bible believers hold.

  1. One view sees the signs as exclusively referring to miracles. Miracles were the unique signs that separated apostles from all other believers. In other words, only this select group of people was able to perform these supernatural signs.
  2. Another position believes that the signs did not include miracles. Paul actually makes a distinction between miracles and the signs of an apostle.

Option 1: The Signs Were Miracles They Performed

It is thought by some that the signs of the apostles were the miracles which the apostles performed. The apostles were given unique authority in the early church to receive divine revelation and to write Scripture. The way in which these apostles were identified was by the miraculous gifts given to them. The only way that believers could be certain who was a genuine apostle was by means of the miracles they performed. These unique signs separated the apostles from other believers.

We find that there were some in Corinth who challenged Paul’s authority. He wrote the following to the church.

I have already warned those who had been sinning when I was there on my second visit. Now I again warn them and all others, just as I did before, that this next time I will not spare them. I will give you all the proof you want that Christ speaks through me. Christ is not weak in his dealings with you; he is a mighty power among you. Although he died on the cross in weakness, he now lives by the mighty power of God. We, too, are weak, but we live in him and have God’s power—the power we use in dealing with you (2 Corinthians 13:2-4 NLT).

He reminded the believers in Corinth of the miracles that he performed in their presence – the signs of an apostle.

Since the signs of an apostle were given to only a limited group, these signs stopped when the apostles died.

Option 2: The Signs Did Not Include Miracles

A different view sees the signs as not including miracles. Those holding this view argue that Paul was contrasting signs, wonders and mighty works to the signs of an apostle – they are not the same thing. A number of points need to be made.

Paul Is Comparing Himself to Non-Believers, Not Other Believers

For one thing, Paul is not writing to the Corinthians in an attempt to prove that he is an apostle while comparing to other Christians who are not apostles. He is not saying that his miracle-working power separates him from other Christians who are unable to work miracles. Rather, he is trying to show that he is a true apostle compared to false apostles. These false apostles were not believers but rather masqueraded as leaders in the church. They preached a false Jesus, and a false Holy Spirit. They were servants of Satan, not of God.

Paul wrote the following words about them.

But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3 NRSV).

Therefore, his discussion is concerned with who is a genuine apostle and who is a counterfeit. Consequently, Paul is distinguishing himself from non-Christians. This means the passage is not addressing certain miraculous abilities that only the apostles had that other believers did not possess. Thus, his statement cannot be used to prove miracles were unique to the apostles.

Paul Distinguishes between the Signs of an Apostle and Miracles

It is also argued that Paul actually makes a distinction between the signs of an apostle and the ability to work miracles. He is saying that miracles were done along with the signs of an apostle. Consequently the signs of an apostle must refer to something other than miraculous signs.

The Word Sign Is Used in Scripture for Things Other than Miracles

As we search the Scripture, we find that the word translated here as “sign” is used for things other than miracles. We can give a number of examples.

At the birth of Jesus Christ, the angel told the shepherd where to find the baby Jesus. Luke records him saying the following.

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger (Luke 2:11, 12 TNIV).

In this instance the “sign” was not referring to anything supernatural. Instead the sign was finding a newborn lying in a manger.

In another example, the Apostle Paul himself used the word “sign” to refer to his own signature. We find this in Second Thessalonians. It says.

The salutation of Paul with my own hand, which is a sign in every epistle; so I write (2 Thessalonians 3:17 NKJV).

The New Revised Standard Bible puts it this way.

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write (2 Thessalonians 3:17 NRSV)

Again, we have a reference to a sign which is not supernatural.

Therefore, we do not necessarily have to assume the word “sign” refers to something miraculous.

Certain Signs Characterized Paul’s Ministry

Therefore, it is contended that we should understand the signs of an apostle as the things that characterized the ministry of the apostle Paul. It was impossible for unbelievers, or false apostles to display these signs. They include the following.

Paul Had Correct Knowledge of Jesus Christ and the Gospel

Paul correctly proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, he knew what he was talking about. We find that Paul emphasized this fact when he wrote to the Corinthians. He explained it in this manner.

I don’t think I’m inferior in any way to your super-apostles. Even though I’m not good with words, I know what I’m talking about. Timothy and I have made this clear to you in every possible way (2 Corinthians 11:5, 6 God’s Word)

The false apostles would not possess or proclaim the true knowledge of Jesus. Instead they would proclaim a different Jesus, a false Jesus.

Paul Demonstrated Genuine Spiritual Power

In addition, the genuine apostle of Jesus Christ had spiritual power. Paul wrote about this to the Corinthians about this. He said the following.

Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments (2 Corinthians 10:3, 4 NRSV).

False apostles would possess no such spiritual power.

Paul Spoke with the Lord’s Authority

Furthermore, Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the authority of the Lord which was present with the apostles. He said.

Now, even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it (2 Corinthians 10:8 NRSV).

The genuine apostles spoke with the authority of the Lord Jesus while the false apostles did not. This is another factor which separated the true from the false.

Paul Suffered for Jesus Christ

As a genuine apostle, Paul suffered for the cause of Jesus Christ. He listed some of the hardships that he endured for the sake of the gospel. They included the following.

They say they are Hebrews, do they? So am I. And they say they are Israelites? So am I. And they are descendants of Abraham? So am I. They say they serve Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in jail more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jews gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled many weary miles. I have faced danger from flooded rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the stormy seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be Christians but are not. I have lived with weariness and pain and sleepless nights. Often I have been hungry and thirsty and have gone without food. Often I have shivered with cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of how the churches are getting along (2 Corinthians 11:22-28 NLT).

A false apostle would never do these things. Indeed, they would not suffer at all for the cause of Christ.

Paul Was Content in Suffering

There is something else to be considered. Paul not only suffered for Jesus Christ, he was content in his suffering. Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians.

Therefore, to keep me from becoming conceited, I am forced to deal with a recurring problem. That problem, Satan’s messenger, torments me to keep me from being conceited. I begged the Lord three times to take it away from me. But he told me: “My kindness is all you need. My power is strongest when you are weak.” So I will brag even more about my weaknesses in order that Christ’s power will live in me (2 Corinthians 12:7-9 God’s Word).

Again, a false apostle would never be content in suffering for the cause of Christ.

Thus, a case can be made for the signs of an apostle referring to something other than supernatural signs which would make them distinct from ordinary believers.

There Is Strong Disagreement with This Assessment

However, not every Christian would understand the signs of an apostle in this manner. Instead they would argue that it referred primarily to the miracles they were able to perform. Indeed, they would argue that it is hard to get around this clear statement of Paul.

I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles (2 Corinthians 12:12 TNIV).

Many find this statement to be as clear as can be. The signs or marks of a genuine apostle included signs, wonders, and miracles.

As we mentioned, Bible-believing Christians differ on this issue.

Summary – Question 3
What Were the Signs of an Apostle?

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church he said he had the “signs of an apostle.” He did not explain what he meant by this. There are a couple of views as to what Paul meant by the words “signs of the apostles.”

One view holds that Paul was speaking about only about miracles. The people at Corinth were questioning his authority as a true apostle. Paul argued that the signs of an apostle were performed in their presence. These signs consisted of the miraculous deeds God allowed him to do. Since these signs were limited to the apostles and their close associates, they demonstrated that he could speak with the authority of the Lord. Once the apostles and their associates died, so did the miraculous abilities. Therefore, there are no more apostles today neither are there any “signs” of the apostles.

Another view does not believe Paul had miracles in mind. In fact, Paul contrasts miracles with the signs of an apostle.

This theory argues that Paul is not comparing himself to other believers and claiming that he has authority over them. Rather he is comparing himself to false apostles that masquerade as genuine apostles of the Lord. Consequently the issue he is addressing is false apostles rather than which genuine believer in Christ possesses supernatural signs.

According to this view, the signs of an apostle are not miracles but rather consist of the things that characterized the ministry of the Apostle Paul. This includes such things as preaching the true message of Jesus. Indeed, a false apostle would never present the message of the genuine Jesus. Paul and the true apostles did proclaim the “real Jesus.”

We also find that the authentic apostles demonstrated genuine spiritual power. The counterfeit apostles would not be able to do this.

True apostles spoke with the authority of the Lord. The power of the Holy Spirit was with their words. There would be no such authority coming from these false apostles.

Like Paul, the genuine apostles suffered for the cause of Jesus Christ. In addition, they would be content in that suffering. A false apostle would do none of these things. Indeed, a false apostle would attempt to take advantage of the office of apostle for their own selfish gain. They would never suffer for Jesus Christ.

Therefore, according to this view, this passage does not speak, one way or another, whether or not miracles were to continue after the death of the apostles. It was not the issue Paul was addressing. Instead he was warning the believers about the counterfeit apostles who were circulating among the churches.

As is true with so many issues regarding spiritual gifts there is no agreement among Bible-believing Christians on what Paul meant by the phrase “the signs of the apostles.”

What Is the Exact Nature of the Ministry of an Apostle? ← Prior Section
Who Were the Twelve Apostles? Next Section →
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