When we speak of the biblical sign gifts, we are referring to miracles like  speaking in tongues, visions, healing, raising the dead, and prophesying. There  is no question among believers whether or not they existed, for the Bible  plainly describes them. Where disagreement arises among believers is their  purpose, as well as the question of whether we should experience them today.  Some say that these gifts are a sign of one’s salvation, while others say they  are a sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and yet others say their purpose  is to authenticate the message of the gospel. How can we know the truth? We must  search the Scriptures to find God’s purpose statements about these  things.

One of the earliest references to sign gifts in the Bible is  found in Exodus 4, when Moses is being instructed by God about the impending  deliverance from Egypt. Moses worried that the people would not believe that God  sent him, so God gave him the signs of the rod becoming a snake and his hand  becoming leprous. God said these signs were “that they may believe that the  LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the  God of Jacob, has appeared to you” (v. 5). If the people still did not believe,  God told Moses to take water from the Nile and pour it on the ground, where it  would turn to blood (v. 9). The purpose for the children of Israel was that they  would believe God’s messenger.

God also gave Moses miraculous signs to  show Pharaoh, in order that he would let the people go. In Exodus 7:3-5, God told  Moses that He would multiply His signs and wonders in Egypt, so “the Egyptians  shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and  bring out the people of Israel from among them.” God wanted the Egyptian people  to know that He was the one working to deliver the Israelites. In Exodus 10:7, Moses told Pharaoh that the final plague,  which would kill the firstborn, was to show that God distinguished between the  Egyptians and the Israelites. The signs and wonders confirmed God’s message to  Pharaoh and the Egyptians, so they would know that Moses was sent by  God.

When Elijah confronted the false prophets on Mount Carmel (1 Kings  18), he prayed for God to miraculously send fire from heaven so the people would  know “you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done  all these things at your word….that this people may know that you, O LORD, are  God” (v. 36-37). The miracles he and the other prophets performed were a  confirmation that God had sent the prophets and that God was at work in Israel’s  midst.

Joel was given a message of God’s judgment on Israel, and within  that message was a prophecy of mercy and hope. When the judgment came as  prophesied, and the people responded with repentance, God said that He would  then remove the judgments and restore His blessing: “You shall know that I am in  the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And  my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:27).  Immediately after that statement, God spoke about pouring His Spirit on the  people, so they would prophesy, see visions, and see wonders happening. When the  disciples began speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21), Peter declared, “This is that which was  spoken by the prophet Joel.” What was the purpose? That the people would know  the message brought by Peter and the others was God’s message.

Jesus’  ministry was accompanied by various signs and wonders. What was the purpose of  His miracles? In John  10:37-38, Jesus was responding to the Jews who wanted to stone Him for  blasphemy, and He said, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not  believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the  works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the  Father.” Just as in the Old Testament, the purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to  confirm God’s hand on His Messenger.

When the Pharisees asked Jesus to  show them a sign, Jesus said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a  sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For  just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so  will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn  it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater  than Jonah is here” (Matthew  12:39-41). Jesus was very clear that the purpose of a sign was so people  would acknowledge God’s message and respond accordingly. Likewise, in John 4:48, He told the nobleman, “Unless you see signs  and wonders, you will not believe.” The signs were a help to those who struggled  to believe, but the message of salvation in Christ was the focus.

This  message of salvation was outlined by Paul in 1  Corinthians 1:21-23: “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to  save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we  preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” Signs  have their purpose, but they are a means to a greater end—the salvation of souls  through the preaching of the gospel. In 1  Corinthians 14:22, Paul states clearly that “tongues are a sign not for  believers but for unbelievers.” God used miraculous signs like speaking in  tongues to convince unbelievers that the message of Christ was true, but as the  rest of the context shows, the more important thing was the clear declaration of  the gospel message.

One thing that is often overlooked in discussions  about signs and miracles is the timing and placement of them in the Scriptures.  Contrary to popular belief, people in Bible times did not see miracles all the  time. In fact, the miracles of the Bible are generally grouped around special  events in God’s dealing with mankind. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and  entrance into the Promised Land were accompanied by many miracles, but the  miracles faded away soon afterward. During the late kingdom years, when God was  about to place the people in exile, He allowed some of His prophets to do  miracles. When Jesus came to live among us, He did miracles, and in the early  ministry of the apostles, they did miracles, but outside of those times, we see  very few miracles or signs in the Bible. The vast majority of people who lived  in Bible times never saw signs and wonders with their own eyes. They had to live  by faith in what God had already revealed to them.

In the early church,  the signs and wonders were primarily centered on the first presentation of the  gospel among various people groups. On the day of Pentecost, we read that there  were “Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven” gathered in Jerusalem  (Acts 2:5). It was to these  Jews, who had been raised in other lands and spoke those foreign languages (v.  6-11), that the sign of tongues was first given. They acknowledged that they  were hearing in their native tongues about the wonderful works of God, and Peter  told them that the only appropriate response was to repent of their sins (v.  38). When the gospel was first presented among the Samaritans, Philip did signs  and wonders (Acts  8:13).

Again, when Peter was sent to Cornelius, a Gentile, God gave  a miraculous sign to confirm His work. “And the believers from among the  circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy  Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking  in tongues and extolling God” (Acts  10:45-46). When Peter was questioned by the other apostles, he gave this as  evidence of God’s leading, and the others “glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the  Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18).

In every instance, the sign gifts  were a confirmation of God’s message and messenger, in order that people might  hear and believe. Once the message was confirmed, the signs faded away. We  typically don’t need those signs to be repeated in our lives, but we do need to  receive the same gospel message.