WHAT ABOUT SNAKE-HANDLING?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:18).
Friend, have you ever heard of handling venomous serpents in religious services? As you read in the above verse, the Holy Bible indeed mentions such a practice. Yet, should we participate in it? “For what saith the Scriptures?”
Situated mostly in the “Appalachian” (eastern) and southeastern United States, roughly 100 snake-handling churches exist today on the North American continent. They are usually small assemblies with a Pentecostal or Charismatic background. A special room is maintained to keep the snakes until such “ceremonies.” Some practitioners say that snake-handling demonstrates one’s faith and salvation. Others believe it is necessary for salvation. Whatever the case, they all believe the “Holy Ghost” has come upon them and is now manifesting Himself. They supposedly express their faith in a literal interpretation of the Bible by picking up serpents. (Later, we will treat the Scripture verses to which they appeal.)
Obviously, such endeavors involve great risks. “Worshippers” will pet venomous vipers, hold them, let them slither across their bodies as they dance, sing, roll on the floor, jump, and perhaps “speak in tongues.” There are dozens upon dozens of documented reports of people dying from snakebites in such religious ceremonies. These injuries do not have to be fatal, as medical treatment can be sought. However, that treatment is often refused. They believe God will get them through the pain and help them survive, or He will take their life if it is their time to go. It is better to “do the will of God,” they say, than go to a hospital and receive anti-venom. One such minister, who died some years ago, was bitten nine times before a venomous snakebite killed him. He never once received any medical help and actually lost a part of a finger—then he ultimately lost his life!
SHOULD WE FOLLOW THE BIBLE LITERALLY?
Snake-handling religionists say that they “take the Bible literally.” At first glance, it seems they are correct. But, do they really follow the Bible literally? In the ensuing pages, we aim to evaluate that claim by examining the two passages they quote to defend their practice.
Their primary proof text, of course, is Mark chapter 16: “ He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.  And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;  They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
Indeed, the Bible does say that the above miracles “shall” result. Notice the certainty—it is not “might” or “may,” as in maybe so and maybe not. These supernatural abilities “shall” (not “may” but “shall”) be given to “them that believe.” There is a 100% probability—no question!—that these events will occur. If we take the Bible literally, it does endorse casting out devils (evil spirits). If we interpret the Bible at face value, it does sanction speaking with new tongues (languages never formally learned). If we take the Bible at face value, giving it the literal meaning, it says people will take pick up snakes and not be harmed. If we take the Bible literally, people will drink “any deadly thing” (poison) and they should have no fear of dying. If we are believers in a literal Bible text, we know people will “lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (rather than die). What are we to do, then? Should we practice these things?
Friend, here is what we cannot do. We cannot deny the Word of God. The Bible speaks of exorcism in Mark chapter 16. It mentions speaking with “new tongues.” God’s Word says to “take up serpents.” It speaks of “drink any deadly thing” and “it shall not hurt them.” It supports physical healing—laying lands on the sick and them being cured. By this point, friend, you may find the Bible revolting. You might even want to throw it away completely! Would it surprise you then that some, to sidestep this most vexing passage, have actually argued (because they firmly believed) that Mark 16:9-20 does not belong in the Bible text? Indeed, such people exist… more than you and I realize!!
FAULTY BIBLE TEXT? OR FAULTY ASSUMPTIONS?
It is a sad commentary, but people have been trained to discard any Bible verses they do not understand. Here is an excellent case in point. Textual critics have influenced many to believe and claim that Mark 16:9-20 is not (!) inspired of God because it is “not in the two oldest and most reliable manuscripts.” Of the 600-plus surviving manuscripts that contain Mark, only two omit the passage in question—Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. How can two manuscripts overrule the testimony of 600-plus others? “Scholars” argue that those two are “the most ancient” manuscripts, preferred because they are assumed to be closer to the original writings of the Apostles. This, of course, is a faulty assumption for two reasons.
Firstly, the notion that “minority is best” is silly. If God’s intention was to use two manuscripts to preserve His Word, then why did the saints of old bother to make all the thousands of copies we presently have? Why do textual critics scrutinize 5,500-plus New Testament manuscripts when all they “need” (claim to need) are Vaticanus and Sinaiticus? By their own admission, those two manuscripts have tainted and divergent texts—and the blemishes and discrepancies are “settled” by appealing to other manuscripts. Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are not as reliable as they declare!!
Secondly, “oldest is best” means that alterations to the Bible text occurred long after it was written rather than immediately after. Such a claim is utterly foolish. False prophets and false teachers were conducting “ministries” while Jesus’ Apostles preached in the first century! It would be downright absurd to assume no one corrupted the Bible text until centuries later… especially since we have verses to prove there were Bible corrupters during the days of the Apostles!
Second Thessalonians 2:2 says, “That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.” Here is a false letter—someone forged it and pretended like Paul wrote it! Paul himself reminded us in 2 Corinthians 2:17, “For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.” Finally, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15: “ For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.  And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.  Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”
IF MARK 16:9-20 BELONGS IN THE BIBLE TEXT, THEN SHOULD WE PRACTICE IT? (PART I)
At this point, you sense that this author is advocating the retention (rather than the deletion) of Mark 16:9-20. We should not throw it away simply because two faulty manuscripts eliminate it. The Bible shows us that God the Holy Spirit will preserve His Word through a multiplicity of manuscript copies (Deuteronomy 17:18-20; Psalm 12:6-7; Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27; et cetera). We do not “re-construct” a “lost” Bible text using a few ancient manuscripts. This is where the textual critics are in their thinking, and it is nothing but human viewpoint. It is not how God views His Word, and it is not how we should understand it either.
Dear reader, maybe you think of this author as a “kook” or “nut” for claiming the bizarre passage of Mark 16:9-20 as inspired of God, genuine, and worthy of our faith as the rest of Scripture. If we keep it in the Bible, does that mean we have to practice its baptism for salvation, casting out devils, speaking with new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking any deadly thing, and laying hands on the sick for them to recover?
Let it be known that this passage is actually a “Bible buffet” like none other—a “pick-and-choose” frenzy!!! You will never find someone doing all of verses 16-18, but only snippets. Most Protestants reject the baptism for salvation, but Roman Catholics and Catholic-sympathizing Protestants enjoy verse 16. Some people like to cast out devils and speak in gibberish today in religious services (verse 17). As noted earlier, an even smaller group of church members will pick up snakes (verse 18). Who drinks the poison and survives (verse 18)? Of course, a great number will grab the end of verse 18—lay hands on the sick to heal them. Mark 16:16-20 is not this either/or situation that Christendom has made it out to be. One or two sections of the passage should not be seized; all of it goes together, and all must be taken. All of it is valid at once and it all works exactly as the verses say.
If you have been following thus far, another question has been surely prompted. “Brother Shawn, if these verses are true, then why do people die while joining in ‘faith healing,’ why do they perish from snakebites, why do they lose their lives after drinking poison? Is this not contradictory to the Bible’s declarations? Does God not care to keep His people from such evils? Did He not promise to protect believers in Jesus Christ?” Dear friend, these are wonderful questions. As Bible believers, we have no need for embarrassment or disappointment. God’s Word has the answers. If we are truly willing to look in His Book with open hearts and minds, sincere in our quest, we will be inundated with a flood of illumination. Watch and see!
Whenever the verses do not work like they say they will, religionists dismiss the activity and dispel the awkwardness by declaring, “The sick person died because of a lack of faith! If he had faith in God, the snakebite would not have been fatal! She should have drunk that poison believing the Lord would protect her! It was just that person’s ‘time to go!’” As you can imagine, friend, these comments are but little comfort to grieving loved ones. Furthermore, such excuses draw the mockery and ire of Bible-haters and Christ-rejecters everywhere. Their response runs along the lines of: “Look at those ignorant hillbillies believing in their book of fairytales! We are people of logic and not blind superstition! Organized religion is the enemy of progress in our society! I abandoned the Bible years ago because of such nonsense! No thank you, I can do without that ‘Jesus’ they praise and worship with snakes and poison!”
How can the average Christian respond? Other than silence, there is a weak answer. They adopt the aforementioned view of the textual critics: “That passage of Mark 16:9-20 is not inspired of God, so it was not backed by the power of God anyway.” This position, while often assumed to be the “safe” one, just undermines the authority of the Bible. It further confuses the minds of the lost people mocking the Book they already hate! To take a negative view of Holy Scripture is to agree with them. As they see it, if Mark 16:9-20 is not of God, why bother to believe ANY of the Bible is? We want to be careful here, friends. Be quite careful here. The Gospel of Grace is in jeopardy.
Mark 16:9-20 belongs in the Bible text, but that still leaves us with a problem. Suppose you take the verse of snake-handling as your own, and you have full confidence in God’s Word—“They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them…” (Mark 16:18). So, you take up a rattlesnake, you let it slither on your body, and then it strikes you, sinking its fangs deep into your skin. As you collapse to the floor, the venom coursing through your veins, you cry out with your last breath, “Oh, God, You said nothing would happen! I trusted Your Word and you failed me!” You die.
Any Bible skeptics observing the above situation have all the “proof” they need (they believe) to show “God” is nothing but a figment of our imagination. Snickering, they shake their heads. “Me? Believe the Bible? Never in a million years!” For the rest of their lives, they carry the memory of this appalling experience with them. They venture out on a perpetual crusade, shouting at every Bible-believer, “Go away! What foolishness your Christianity is! Let me tell you about that snake-handling episode I witnessed….” What is saddest of all is that they have been just as deceived as the snake-handlers—confusing Christianity with religion—and now they go around confusing millions of others. More and more people grow opposed to Scripture, all because of misunderstandings.
IF MARK 16:9-20 BELONGS IN THE BIBLE TEXT, THEN SHOULD WE PRACTICE IT? (PART II)
Does the existence of a passage in God’s Word automatically necessitate that we follow it as though it is applicable to us? To wit, can we be Scriptural (follow the Bible) and not do God’s will? Indeed, friend, we can. How dangerous it is to mishandle God’s Word! If we isolate Mark 16:18, we can say, “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” Yes, that is what the Bible says, so now let us go do that! Hold on just a second. There is another verse we should look at first.
“Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch” (Genesis 6:14). Friend, God says to go and build a giant boat of gopher wood. Man did not say that—GOD said it! When are you going to follow the Bible as it reads here? If you have any common sense at all, you would say, “Brother Shawn, God did not tell me to built that boat. God told Noah to build it.” You would be right, my friend. How silly of this author to grab a verse out of context! Maybe he should have read verse 13 first? “And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” Yes, you are correct. This author was wrong. A Bible verse is not necessarily written to us to follow.
You ask any snake handler, faith healer, or poison drinker if they follow Genesis 6:14 and they will laugh at you. They would be justified in finding levity in the matter, too. However, they are manifesting inconsistency. They refuse to take Noah’s verse as their own but they will steal Israel’s verse! They laugh at one instance of folly yet claim another for themselves! Such is the madness of religion, dear friend, the subtlety of Satan’s policy of evil and the deception of human emotions. Not only must we use the Bible, we must also rightly divide the Bible. It is most hazardous to be Scriptural and not also be dispensational.
Whether you recognized it or not, friend, you just rightly divided the Word of Truth! Instead of trying to follow Genesis 6:14, you knew God was speaking to Noah. You understood God was not addressing you. The LORD God gave Noah some information to believe and act in accordance with, but that was God’s Word to Noah. This is a simple illustration of the heart of dispensational Bible study. Second Timothy 2:15 says, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” When we “rightly divide” the Bible, we recognize distinctions God has made in His Word. It is important to see that God says different things to different people at different times in history. The Bible is a progression revelation; more information is disclosed as time passes.
The most fundamental right division that God has made in His Word—and we would do extremely well to recognize it—is between prophecy and mystery. We need to compare two verses to begin to comprehend how God has set up the Holy Bible. We will look at Acts 3:21 and Romans 16:25.
Acts 3:19-21: “ Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.  And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you:  Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.”
This is the Apostle Peter preaching to the nation Israel. It is what the Bible calls “prophecy”—defined as that “which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” When God created man and commissioned him to function on the Earth, Adam was given revelation as pertaining to God’s earthly purpose. Notice Matthew 25:34: “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:….” Since man’s creation, God has endeavored to establish His kingdom on the Earth. When Adam sinned, sided with Satan (the Devil), mankind became God’s enemy. Once the nations rebelled against God at the Tower of Babel, He responded by forming the nation Israel (Genesis chapter 12). Israel is the means whereby God will have an earthly people, individuals who can then accomplish His will on the Earth.
Now, we will look at another passage of Scripture. Turning to Romans 16:25-26, we read: “ Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began,  But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:….”
In addition to prophecy, we have something in Scripture called “the mystery.” While God was unveiling prophetic information, He was simultaneously withholding mystery information. He never told anyone that secret until a certain point in time in the Bible. In Acts chapter 9, He began to show that secret to man. This event was the salvation and commission of the Apostle Paul. Paul thus wrote Romans 16:25-26—“the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now [as in Paul’s ministry] is made manifest.”
As we already discussed, God instituted the prophetic program to concentrate on establishing His earthly kingdom. However, what about Heaven? After all, Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” There is more to creation than Earth, so what is God’s method for establishing His kingdom in the heavenly places? We know nothing about that until we come to Paul’s apostleship. In Pauline doctrine, God reveals the secret of His will—how He will gather all governmental authority in His Son Jesus Christ, not just on Earth (prophecy), but also in the Heavenly Places (mystery). Paul’s books, Romans through Philemon, speak of God’s heavenly people. This group is called the Church the Body of Christ. We would do well to read summary verses.
Ephesians 1:9-10: “ [Father God] Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself:  That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him:….”
Colossians 1:16-20: “ For by him [Jesus Christ] were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:  And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.  And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.  For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;  And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.”
As Peter addressed the nation Israel (Acts 3:19-21), so Paul addressed the Gentiles or all nations. Romans 11:13 says, “For I [Paul] speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office:….” What happened to God’s earthly program with Israel? Will He ever bring it to fulfillment? Is it abrogated forever because Israel crucified Christ? Have we replaced Israel? What is God doing today? Paul’s ministry and writings, Romans through Philemon, provide detailed answers. We have no reason to be ignorant, and yet that is exactly where most church members are today. They have not used the Bible rightly divided, and thus split off into thousands of opposing sects, denominations, factions. Immense spiritual darkness covers their hearts and minds. It is like they have no Bible, no revelation from God, at all!
Now, let us return to our previous comments about God’s earthly kingdom. The Bible says, “the Jews require a sign” (1 Corinthians 1:22). In other words, God uses miraculous demonstrations—signs and wonders—to teach Israel various and sundry lessons (doctrine). When the Lord Jesus Christ showed up in the Books of Matthew through John, His earthly ministry, He had come to convert idolatrous, deceived Israel to Father God. Jesus was Israel’s long-promised King, so the good news God had for Israel was aptly termed “the Gospel of the Kingdom.”
Matthew 3:1-2: “ In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,  And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17: “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 9:35: “And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.”
Matthew 10:5-8: “ These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:  But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.” Luke 8:1: “And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him,….”
The common theme in the above verses is, obviously, “the Gospel of the Kingdom,” but also miracles that confirm that message being preached. To demonstrate that God’s earthly kingdom was within Israel’s grasp, the signs of that kingdom were unmistakably evident. There would be no devil possession in the earthly kingdom of God (Zechariah 13:1-2); therefore, Jesus and His Apostles cast out evil spirits. There would be no bodily illness in the earthly kingdom of God (Isaiah 35:3-6); consequently, Jesus and His Apostles performed healing miracles. These were “the powers of the world to come,” Hebrews 6:5 remarks. Such “gifts of the Holy Ghost” signified that God’s earthly kingdom, “the world to come,” was near (Hebrews 2:3-5). Israel could have entered by faith in Jesus Christ!
All this was said—and yes, this author understands, it is a lot—simply to bring us back to Mark 16:16-20. The background has been painstakingly laid (thank you for your patience, dear reader), so now we can notice and better understand the context of the passage under consideration. Verse 15 is the context, so we need to begin there. Jumping in at verse 16, 17, or 18 is completely unwise!!
Mark 16:15-20: “ And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.  He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.  And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;  They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.  So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.  And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.”
Verse 15 introduces this whole section as involving the preaching of “the gospel.” What is that Gospel message? Is it the Gospel of Grace that we preach today, as commonly assumed? No! Just days earlier, the Lord Jesus spoke of “this gospel of the kingdom” in Matthew 24:14—“this” is a highly important word. The signs and wonders of Mark chapter 16 do not apply to our Gospel. It applies to “the gospel of the kingdom”—if, if, and I know that is a big if!!!—we believe the Bible instead of blindly following religious tradition. Look at the close of Mark chapter 16: “ And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.” Does this not sound like what we were just discussing about validating the Gospel of the Kingdom? Indeed, it does! Do you see, friend, how the Bible just flows together so beautifully when we rightly divide it, comparing Scripture with Scripture, and keep religious tomfoolery and church tradition out of it?
Some argue that there is not one instance of snake-handling in Scripture (this, other than their “oldest is best” textual argument previously mentioned, is their “strongest” reason for rejecting Mark 16:18). While it is true that no Apostles ever took up venomous serpents to “worship God,” there is an interesting account in the Bible of a deadly viper attacking Paul and it not harming him. This is the second proof text of today’s snake-handling crowd, so it behooves us to examine it now.
Acts chapter 28: “ And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.  And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.  And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.  And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.  And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.  Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.”
It may help if you re-read that lengthy excerpt, dear friend. What was Paul doing? Was he handling snakes while singing hymns and dancing around that campfire? Of course not! He was gathering wood for the fire, and, without warning, a snake lashed out at him and bit him. This is certainly not like the serpent-handling of modern religion. Paul was not playing around with snakes to “praise God.” He was not seeking injury or deliberately attempting to put himself in harm’s way as fools do in religion today. Now, that may sound harsh, but it must be said. Today’s snake-handling is just plain foolishness.
There is no one operating in faith with snake-handling today. It is not the God of the Bible working. The Spirit of God will only do what the Word of God says, and the Word of God says the Holy Spirit is not doing this today. Such abilities have no relation to us the Church the Body of Christ. We are not waiting for the earthly kingdom of God. We are not looking for the signs of the coming kingdom on Earth. We are not preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom. Hence, we never read in Paul’s epistles (Romans through Philemon) about laying hands on the sick, casting out devils, and picking up venomous serpents. They are signs of Israel’s kingdom program, and that program is temporarily suspended while God is dealing with us in the Dispensation of Grace. Read Romans chapters 9-11 for all the details. Also see our “Can you explain Paul’s ‘Acts’ ministry?” article linked at the end of this study.)
So, you probably want to ask another question: “Brother Shawn, what is the explanation for what snake-handlers are doing today? If it is not God the Holy Spirit, then who or what is behind such a practice?” Such people feel an adrenaline rush, an emotional high, and they misinterpret it as the Holy Spirit of God coming upon them. “His presence” is actually nothing but deceptive emotions completely out of control! We naturally fear wild and dangerous creatures, and our bodies react by producing adrenaline (which “stirs us up” to fight or take flight!). Moreover, religion can have an extremely powerful influence over our hearts and minds, just as alcoholic beverages (Revelation 17:2). Therefore, we have to constantly (daily) stay in the Bible rightly divided. It guards our minds and hearts against Satan’s policy of evil. Do not forget, you can follow God’s Word and be completely out of God’s will. Not only do we use and quote the Bible, we use and quote the Bible rightly divided!
In addition, here is something else to consider about Acts chapter 28. Notice how the Holy Spirit is careful to write in verse 6 that there was not so much as swelling on Paul’s body. Not only did he not die, there was absolutely no indication he was even bitten!! He did not cry out in pain or fall to the ground. You look at snake-handling religionists’ bodies today, friend, and you see various scars. Some have permanent bodily impairment—missing or deformed fingers, limited hand dexterity, and so on. (And, of course, you can find them in the cemetery as well!!) They speak of suffering “excruciating” pain. One such minister claimed he hoped to never die in such a horrible manner. He eventually died from… of all things… a fatal snakebite!
Okay, so we understand that Mark chapter 16 is indeed God’s Word, but it is not God’s Word to or about us. What do we do now? Is there any hope in understanding this mysterious passage as it relates to Israel’s program? Will anyone ever successfully/safely practice the snake-handling passage of the Bible? Yes! (Just not us, and just not today!)
IF MARK 16:9-20 BELONGS IN ISRAEL’S PROGRAM, THEN WHAT PURPOSE IS THERE OF SNAKE-HANDLING?
The operating system of Israel’s program is the Mosaic Law (also called the Old Covenant). If Israel disobeyed God’s Word, she would be punished. He would use hardship to try to correct her misbehavior. Leviticus chapter 26 details those curses or chastisements. Notice: “ And if ye walk contrary unto me, and will not hearken unto me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins.  I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number; and your high ways shall be desolate.  And if ye will not be reformed by me by these things, but will walk contrary unto me;  Then will I also walk contrary unto you, and will punish you yet seven times for your sins.”
Did you catch verse 22? What will the LORD God do to rebellious Israel? Will He not send wild animals to attack and kill them? Yes, He will. As an illustration, read 2 Kings chapter 2: “ And he [Elisha the Prophet] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.  And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.  And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria.” These young people mocked JEHOVAH God’s messenger, and so the LORD God introduced a new phase of intensified judgment (the chastisement phase described in Leviticus 26:22).
Numbers chapter 21 speaks of God judging Israel for her unbelief and wickedness: “ And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.  And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.  Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.  And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.  And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Paul’s commentary in 1 Corinthians 10:9 summarizes—“Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents.”)
Before the Lord Jesus Christ ever spoke of those serpents in Mark chapter 16, God had already judged Israel with wild beasts—including venomous snakes. He used His creation, the animal kingdom, to punish the faithless, idolatrous Jews. Notice now Jeremiah 8:17: “For, behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you, which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you, saith the LORD.” Remember, God sent literal snakes to kill rebels amongst the Jews in Moses’ day, and Jeremiah says it will happen once more.
As we look beyond our Dispensation of Grace, friend, to when Israel’s program resumes, God must finish Israel’s stages of punishment. The curses of Leviticus chapter 26 and Deuteronomy chapter 28 will be brought to the full, and then God will cause all these times of suffering to disappear with the Second Coming of Christ. Israel, believing Israel, will be blessed of God as they enter His earthly kingdom. Unbelievers will be consumed in His wrath, but Israel’s believing remnant will survive!
The Apostle John provides the final piece of the “snake-handling” puzzle. We read in chapter 6 of the Book of the Revelation, yet future from us: “ And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.  And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” Notice the wild beasts are consuming humans like never before. Unbelievers will perish. However, believing Israel will physically survive because God has promised them victory over serpents (and, by extension, all harmful creatures). Mark 16:15-20 is part of the Divine commission that Israel will follow in the end-times. Friend, it has nothing to do with us! Remember, dispensational Bible study! Notice the audience of the passage before you claim the passage as your own!! This is taking the Bible literally!
By the way, before we summarize and conclude, let us listen to Exodus chapter 4: “ And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The LORD hath not appeared unto thee.  And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod.  And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.  And the LORD said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand:  That they may believe that the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee.”
Snake-handling was one of the signs the LORD God gave Moses the ability to perform to convince unbelieving Israel. If you continue reading the passage, the second was the miracle of physical healing (verses 6-7—another Israeli kingdom sign, remember!!). Snake-handling symbolizes spiritual deliverance, exorcism (casting out devils—Satan is a snake or deceitful being in character, as Genesis 3:1, 2 Corinthians 11:3, and Revelation 20:2 show). No matter what Satan would do, God would ultimately deliver Israel from Satan’s grip. This was the purpose of Moses’ snake swallowing up the snakes Egypt’s satanic magicians had “conjured” (Exodus 7:10-13). Israel will have similar victory in the end-times, freedom from Satan’s control. The snake will harm the unbelievers, but Israel’s believing remnant will survive!
Particularly in the southeastern United States, one will discover small religious groups that participate in snake-handling ceremonies. Why this extreme behavior? Is it Scriptural to handle venomous vipers with the understanding that they will not harm us? What are we to believe if deadly snakes do strike and kill Christians?
If you follow religious news, you will occasionally find an article about an individual who has died at church because of a snakebite. This person was said to be “weak in faith.” Had he or she believed God when holding the snake, the snake would not have bitten. While we should certainly take the Bible literally—as we do any book, right?—there is a second key to keep in mind when approaching the Scriptures. We have to be very careful to look at contexts. If we take the Bible literally when it endorses snake-handling, should we not also take it literally when it says such a practice is not given to or about us members of the Church the Body of Christ?! We cannot claim a passage in “faith” when faith is also believing the passage when it says we are not its audience! Mark 16:15-20 is all about the Gospel of the Kingdom; it has absolutely nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with Israel during the end-times.
First Corinthians chapter 14: “ If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.  But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.” In snake-handling circles, “the Holy Ghost takes control of them.” It is all about “feelings.” Yet, if the Holy Spirit were truly leading them, they would listen to these verses that the Holy Spirit penned! Paul is our apostle (Romans 11:13), and God through him commands us no such things about handling snakes, drinking poison, healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out devils, water baptizing, and so on.
The test for spirituality today in this the Dispensation of Grace is not whether or not one handles venomous snakes, speaks in tongues, drinks poison, heals the sick, raises the dead, or even keeps the Saturday Sabbath. According to the Holy Spirit (see verses above), spirituality today is measured according to whether or not an individual pays attention to Pauline revelation. The Lord Jesus Christ committed to Paul the Dispensation of Grace (Ephesians 3:1-2), so it naturally follows that the Spirit of God would lead us to listen to the words He spoke to us in the Pauline epistles, Romans through Philemon. Again, there is nothing in Pauline revelation about taking up venomous snakes. Such instructions have a special place on the Bible timeline (future from us). When we “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), we recognize that those directions do not apply to our time. Friend, right division is literally a life-or-death situation in this case. Playing with harmful snakes may be fatal… and we will die such a painful death while quoting Scripture!!
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