In Mark 16: 17 the Lord stated that certain signs would follow those that believe. When these signs do not follow, does it mean that these persons have not believed and are not saved?

The previous verse “He that believes and is baptised shall be saved, and he that disbelieves shall be condemned” (Mark 16: 16) is clear. Faith and baptism are needed for salvation; only unbelief for condemnation. Faith saves me for eternity and heaven; baptism for time and earth (see 1 Pet. 3: 21). The word for “believes” in v16 is in the aorist tense in Greek and denotes the fact apart from any question of time. Thus it was true for those who were then addressed by the Lord, and it is just as true for us today centuries later.

   The following verses are a different matter: “And these signs shall follow those that have believed: in my name they shall cast out demons; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they should drink any deadly thing it shall not injure them; they shall lay hands upon the infirm, and they shall be well” (Mark 16: 17, 18). The Lord Jesus did not say that these signs shall follow those that
shall believe, nor that they shall follow those that believe but they shall follow those that have believed. The tense of the verb is not in the future, nor the present but the past. The English translation is fully justified by the Greek original. The clause “that have believed” is an aorist participle in the Greek. As already mentioned, the aorist generally denotes a fact apart from time (as in v16) but when we have an aorist participle that depends on a main verb (“shall follow”) as it does here, this changes things. In such cases it refers to an action that has already taken place. Hence vs 17, 18 refer to those who, when the Lord was then speaking, had already believed. It had no relevance to future believers. Who were these believers? They were the eleven. The Lord’s prophetic word in vs 17, 18 is confirmed by Mark in v20: “And they, (that is the eleven), going forth, preached everywhere, the Lord working with [them], and confirming the word by the signs following upon [it]”. This fulfilment is further attested to by Heb. 2: 3, 4 where the Greek word for confirmed is the same as that for confirming in Mark 16: “How shall we escape if we have been negligent of so great salvation, which, having had its commencement in being spoken [of] by the Lord, has been confirmed to us by those who have heard; God bearing, besides, witness with [them] to [it], both by signs and wonders, and various acts of power, and distributions of [the] Holy Spirit, according to his will?”

   These were not just miracles, but signs. The miraculous signs were for the Jew (see Ps. 74: 9; 1 Cor. 1: 22). When performed by the Lord, they were to identify Him as Israel’s Messiah and show that the establishment of the kingdom in power on earth (see Is. 35: 1–6) was imminent.

   When the Lord was rejected by Israel, crucified, risen and ascended, the offer of the Kingdom was again made (see Acts 3: 19–21). Hence writing to Jewish Christians, the Apostle says “how shall we escape if we have been negligent of so great salvation, which,
having had its commencement in being spoken [of] by the Lord, has been confirmed to us by those who have heard” (Heb. 2: 3, my emphasis). There is no one alive today who heard the Lord when He was on earth. Hence the signs confirming their testimony have ceased.

   The disciples had healed the infirm and had cast out demons (Matt. 10: 8) and although Luke 10: 19, being a reference to Ps. 91: 13, has a distinct spiritual connotation, it would be difficult to argue that the words “they shall take up serpents” had not been literally fulfilled. Even the conditional sign of drinking poison could hardly be excluded from the words “nothing shall in anywise injure you” (Luke 10: 19). The one sign of the five listed in Mark 16 that had not been exercised by the disciples was the sign of tongues. Strange tongues in the past had been a warning of coming judgment on Israel (see Deut. 28: 49; Is. 28: 11; Jer 5: 15). This miraculous sign of tongues was now to warn them of the coming judgment if they continued in unbelief. Indeed Is. 28: 11 is quoted by Paul in 1 Cor. 14: 22 to show that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, not believers. That judgment fell in AD70 when Titus sacked Jerusalem as foretold by the Lord (see Luke 21: 24).

   While there are those who maintain that we have signs now, the Scriptures do not support such claims. Indeed, while we read of Christians preaching the Word (see Acts 8: 4), there is no evidence that anyone apart from the apostles and the seven men of Acts 6 ever performed miraculous signs. Those who claim, for example, that I cannot be saved unless I speak in tongues, display a woeful ignorance of the Bible.