Why do some religious groups handle snakes? — Bob Prichard

The practice of handling snakes in worship comes from a misunderstanding of the words of Christ recorded in Mark 16:17-18. In this passage, Jesus said, 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. Some people take the words, They shall take up serpents, to be a promise to all Christians that they will be able to handle snakes without harm. Study of the context of the statement shows, however, that Christ did not make the promise to all believers, but to the apostles alone.

The two preceding verses record Christ’s words to the apostles. 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 (Mark 16:15-16). Verse 15 is addressed directly to the apostles, he said unto them [note the plural them]. Verse 16 speaks of what the individual believer may do: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved [note the singular he]. Verse 17 returns to the plural, these signs shall follow [or accompany (ASV)] them that believe. The promise of casting out devils, speaking in tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and healing the sick all applied to the apostles only, and not to all Christians.

There is no biblical evidence that anyone other than the apostles was ever able to perform this miracle. Acts 28:3-5 describes the fulfillment of this promise, as a deadly viper on the island of Malta bit the apostle Paul, with no harmful effect. Even if the promise to take up serpents without harm was made to all Christians in the early church, the promise would no longer be in effect today, because the New Testament age of miracles has passed. After discussing the miraculous spiritual gifts available in the early church (1 Corinthians 12), Paul stated, whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away (1 Corinthians 13:8). Paul was declaring that the gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge, representative of all the gifts he had discussed in the previous chapter, would cease. He continued, For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away (1 Corinthians 13:9-10). The miraculous spiritual gifts were necessary for the development of the early church and the confirmation of the gospel (as in Acts 28:3-5), but the gifts ceased with the completion of the perfect revelation of God in the New Testament.

When Satan challenged Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God (Matthew 4:7). Taking up serpents is dangerous and illegal, and would fall in the same class as what Jesus refused to do for Satan in leaping from the pinnacle of the temple. Taking up serpents is not scriptural worship!

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