The Lord Jesus was about to be received up into heaven and leave His apostles behind. He had delivered to these 11 very human apostles an overwhelming commission: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). How would they be able to fulfill such a large responsibility? How would they be able to convince "every creature" that the message they were preaching was true? Only a very small group of people had witnessed the Lords miracles during His earthly ministry. Perhaps as they listened to the Lord Jesus charge them with this great work of preaching the gospel they pondered these questions. What would they do without Him?
Mark, the gospel of the Perfect Servant, begins with these words: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (1:1). What a wonderful proclamation! As we move down the chapter, we quickly find that the Father confirms the Sonship of Jesus Christ, declaring from heaven: "Thou art My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased" (1:11), with the Spirit descending like a dove, giving double testimony. But at the end of Marks gospel we find that the apostles are preaching "everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the Word with signs following" (16:20). They continued the work that the Lord Jesus had begun while in the world, but not without His power.
The Lord said that "signs shall follow them that believe," but we need to ask ourselves, what is a sign? Why were signs necessary during the earthly ministry of Christ? John frequently mentions signs in his gospel and he perhaps sums it up very well for us: "And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name" (John 20:30-31).
In Mark 16:14, He has just upbraided these same men for their unbelief and hardness of heart. So, a sign was not just a miracle for the sake of doing a miracle and manifesting His power over sickness and disease, nature, demons, or even death itself, but rather a specific act to bring people to faith in Him. Mankind was to understand, upon witnessing a miracle, that God was validating the Man Who had performed it and the message that accompanied the miracle. Consider Moses as he was sent by God to save the nation from slavery in Egypt, or Elijah and Elisha as they told the nation that they had departed from the true God. Signs were given to authenticate the man who was sent from God with a message from God.
"The Jews require a sign" is what Paul writes to the Corinthians (1:22). Is this not what we see as we read through the gospels as well? The Pharisees came to the Lord Jesus in Mark 8, "seeking of Him a sign from heaven, tempting Him" (8:11). It grieved the Lord to see such unbelief, and "He sighed deeply in His spirit, and saith, Why doth this generation seek after a sign?" (8:12). Four of His own apostles asked Him on the Mount of Olives, "Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall come to be fulfilled?" (Mark 13:4). John, whose gospel records many signs, also mentions that the result was faith in the Lord Jesus. "This beginning of miracles (signs) did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth His glory, and His disciples believed on Him" (John 2:11). "Many believed in His Name, when they saw the miracles (signs) which He did" (John 2:23). The apostles had witnessed many signs during the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus, and as they anticipated fulfilling His commission, the promise of the Lord Jesus that they would be able to perform signs as well would be a wonderful encouragement to them.
All through the gospel of Mark, the Lord Jesus performs miracles. As we move through this fastpaced gospel, the Lord is presented and confirmed as the Son of God, both by the affirmation of the Father from heaven on two occasions as well as by the many miracles He does. Now the disciples will go into all the world, starting in Jerusalem and all Judæa, with signs accompanying them. Among these signs we will find them "speaking with new tongues." We must remember that "tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers" (1Cor 14:22). We will see that new tongues will be very necessary in a few days when Jewish unbelievers from many different areas will be present in Jerusalem.
The nature of this promise in regard to accompanying signs is temporary, not something that will continue until the end of the age. In Matthews gospel, "the end of the age" is in view and there is no mention of signs, but rather the authority of the Lord Jesus and the need of teaching the new believers to observe all that He had taught the apostles. In Marks gospel we find "the Lord working with them, and confirming the Word with signs following" (Mark 16:20). Helping us to understand the temporary nature of the different signs mentioned in Mark 16, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that this great salvation of which we have been made partakers at first was "spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard Him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost" (Heb 2:3-4). God tells us that those who heard the Lord Jesus gave special witness by means of signs, including the use of new tongues. It is obvious, then, that the need for the sign of tongues had to do especially with the Jewish nation, and that the apostles would have the great joy of being conscious of the Lord working with them as they traveled and preached the gospel. Gods immeasurable interest in the well-being of souls is seen as Christ promises confirmation of the message of the gospel of the grace of God by means of these signs. What anticipation as the apostles contemplate the great commission!
We must remember that we are responsible to continue the fulfillment of the great commission even today. Even though we no longer have these sign gifts, we have the full confidence that God is still intensely interested in the salvation of souls, and that Christ is still completely able to save.