Jesus said: “These signs shall follow them that believe” (Mark 16:17) (Part 2)
In the previous article (here), we gave four reasons why modern snake-handling as a religious act is not what Jesus was referring to in Mark 16:17-20. In this second article, we will continue the exploration of the modern phenomenon of snake-handling, and why it is not the fulfillment of what Jesus prophesied.
Jesus certainly said that miracles would accompany the disciples in their ministry. He listed several examples of the kinds of things they might expect:
In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover (Mark 16:17-18).
This list is likely not comprehensive, but rather a sampling of the kinds of things that the apostles and early disciples might experience. But it is hardly a foregone conclusion that all of them experienced each of them. Further, we do not have New Testament evidence for all of them happening. We have no biblical record of anyone being forced to drink hemlock, a la, Socrates, for example.
Beyond the Gospels, there are approximately 18 miracles mentioned in the book of Acts. Drinking deadly things is not among them. That’s not to say it never happened. It may well have. Hemlock, henbane, mushrooms, were all in use through the reigns of the Roman Caesars. They were used for both suicide and executions.
Some would have us believe that the phrase “they will take up serpents” implies that the apostles, or some early church members, spent their Saturdays turning over rocks in the Judean hills or along the Mediterranean coastline, looking for poisonous serpents to use in demonstration in worship the next day. There is no New Testament evidence of such a spectacle taking place in early Christian worship. But Christian worship was never designed to be a freak show, and apostolic ministry was no traveling circus.
The only thing that closely resembles the passage is Paul’s experience on Malta, following a shipwreck (Acts 28:3). But this can hardly be viewed as Paul “picking up serpents with [his] hands” (ESV), and is certainly no preview or parallel to the modern phenomenon. Rather, Paul is passive to the event, and caught off guard. It is more of a providential occurrence, God providing miraculous benefit over the harmful poison, rather than Paul putting on a show. But yet, I have no problem seeing it as fulfillment of the promise Jesus made. Jesus spoke of it as an active event (they shall take up serpents), but the instance we have is passive, Paul was bitten. Passive and active are often exchanged in Scripture. God is at work miraculously in either case.
What about the other miracles of the passage? Did the apostles literally raise the dead? Yes. We know this happened, and there is record of it (Acts 9:36-41; 20:9-12, etc.). Did they heal people of malady? Indeed (Acts 14:8-10). They also miraculously caused malady on occasion, something not in the Mark 16 list, but certainly implied (cf. Acts 13:6-11). Did they cast out demons? There is record of “evil spirits” being cast out (Acts 16:16-18). Is “evil spirits” identical to the “demons” of Mark 16? Could be. If not the same type of entity, certainly the miracle is of the same category and quality. Did they literally speak with new tongues (languages)? The apostles certainly did, on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-8), as well as the Gentile converts of Acts 10:44-46.
Is there any instance of the early saints drinking hemlock (deadly thing) and surviving it? None. However, Metzger and May in the New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha reveal that such was reported as early as the 2nd Century A.D. Could it have happened? It most likely did. Must we have an inspired record of it occurring for it to be true? No.
Finally, do we know if these miracles are still happening today? We begin answering this question in the next article.
(Part 3 of this series can be found here)