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Bible Encyclopedias

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia


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sı̄n ( אות , 'ōth "a sign" "mark" מופת , mōphēth , "wonder"' σημεῖον , sēmeı́on , "a sign," "signal," "mark"): A mark by which persons or things are distinguished and made known. In Scripture used generally of an address to the senses to attest the existence of supersensible and therefore divine power. Thus the plagues of Egypt were "signs" of divine displeasure against the Egyptians ( Exodus 4:8 ff; Joshua 24:17 , and often); and the miracles of Jesus were "signs" to attest His unique relationship with God (Matthew 12:38; John 2:18; Acts 2:22 ). Naturally, therefore, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, "signs" are assimilated to the miraculous, and prevailingly associated with immediate divine interference. The popular belief in this manner of communication between the visible and the invisible worlds has always been, and is now, widespread. So-called "natural" explanations, however ingenious or cogent, fail with the great majority of people to explain anything. Wesley and Spurgeon were as firm believers in the validity of such methods of intercourse between man and God as were Moses and Gideon, Peter and John.

The faith that walks by signs is not by any means to be lightly esteemed. It has been allied with the highest nobility of character and with the most signal achievement. Moses accepted the leadership of his people in response to a succession of signs: e.g. the burning bush, the rod which became a serpent, the leprous hand, etc. (Exodus 3,4 ); so, too, did Gideon, who was not above making proof of God in the sign of the fleece of wool (Judges 6:36-40 ). In the training of the Twelve, Jesus did not disdain the use of signs (Luke 5:1-11 , and often); and the visions by which Peter and Paul were led to the evangelization of the Gentiles were interpreted by them as signs of the divine purpose (Acts 10 and 16).

The sacramental use of the sign dates from the earliest period, and the character of the sign is as diverse as the occasion. The rainbow furnishes radiant suggestion of God's overarching love and assurance that the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy the earth (Genesis 9:13; compare Genesis 4:15 ); the Feast of Unleavened Bread is a reminder of God's care in bringing His people out of bondage (Exodus 13:3 ); the Sabbath is an oft-recurring proclamation of God's gracious thought for the well-being of man (Exodus 31:13; Ezekiel 20:12 ); the brazen serpent, an early foreshadowing of the cross, perpetuates the imperishable promise of forgiveness and redemption (Numbers 21:9 ); circumcision is made the seal of the special covenant under which Israel became a people set apart (Genesis 17:11 ); baptism, the Christian equivalent of circumcision, becomes the sign and seal of the dedicated life and the mark of those avowedly seeking to share in the blessedness of the Kingdom of God (Luke 3:12-14; Acts 2:41 , and often); bread and wine, a symbol of the spiritual manna by which soul and body are preserved unto everlasting life, is the hallowed memorial of the Lord's death until His coming again (Luke 22:14-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-28 ). Most common of all were the local altars and mounds consecrated in simple and sincere fashion to a belief in God's ruling and overruling providence (Joshua 4:1-10 ).

Signs were offered in proof of the divine commission of prophet (Isaiah 20:3 ) and apostle (2 Corinthians 12:12 ), and of the Messiah Himself (John 20:30; Acts 2:22 ); and they were submitted in demonstration of the divine character of their message (2 Kings 20:9; Isaiah 38:1; Acts 3:1-16). By anticipation the child to be born of a young woman (Isaiah 7:10-16; compare Luke 2:12 ) is to certify the prophet's pledge of a deliverer for a captive people. See IMMANUEL .

With increase of faith the necessity for signs will gradually decrease. Jesus hints at this (John 4:48 ), as does also Paul (1 Corinthians 1:22 ). Nevertheless "signs," in the sense of displays of miraculous powers, are to accompany the faith of believers (Mark 16:17 f), usher in and forthwith characterize the dispensation of the Holy Spirit, and mark the consummation of the ages ( Revelation 15:1 ). See also MIRACLE .

For "sign" of a ship ( παράσημος , parásēmos , "ensign," Acts 28:11 ). See DIOSCURI; SHIPS AND BOATS , III., 2.

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Sign'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915.

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