Difficult Bible Passages: Mark 16:17-18

This passage is as much a misused passage as a difficult one. And its misuse can often be deadly. There have been a number of fringe Christians who have died because of its misuse and abuse. Often found in America’s south, they have managed to blow this text way out of proportion, and make it a major mark of the Christian life.

The passage is this: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

Some rather undiscerning and unbalanced Christians have managed to major in minors here. Thus there are a number of regular snake-handling services in some of these Southern churches. And of course many of these snake-handlers have been killed by playing with poisonous snakes.

Consider this very recent news story: “A ‘serpent-handling’ West Virginia pastor died after his rattlesnake bit him during a church ritual, just as the man had apparently watched a snake kill his father years before. Pentecostal pastor Mark Wolford, 44, hosted an outdoor service at the Panther Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia Sunday, which he touted on his Facebook page prior to the event….

“Robin Vanover, Wolford’s sister, told the Washington Post that 30 minutes into the outdoor service, Wolford passed around a poisonous timber rattlesnake, which eventually bit him. ‘He laid it on the ground,’ Vanover said in the interview, ‘and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh.’ Vanover said Wolford was then transported to a family member’s home in Bluefield about 80 miles away to recover. But as the situation worsened, he was taken to a hospital where he later died….

“Wolford told the Washington Post magazine in 2011 that he is carrying on the tradition of his ancestors by engaging in snake handling. ‘Anybody can do it that believes it,’ Wolford said. ‘Jesus said, “These signs shall follow them which believe.” This is a sign to show people that God has the power.’ Wolford said he watched his own father die at the age of 39 after a rattlesnake bit him during a similar service.”

So what are we to make of all this? More particularly, how are we to understand this passage? Several things can be stated. Perhaps most importantly, these verses are not even in the best New Testament manuscripts. We have in fact two questionable endings to Mark. One is a longer one (vv. 9-20) and one is quite short. Neither seems to be part of Mark’s original gospel.

Most good Bible translations will mention this fact, whether or not they actually run with these final dubious verses. The technical details are not something to be fully entered into here, but a few quick thoughts. The content of the longer ending seems to be a collection of bits and pieces from the resurrection narratives of Matthew and Luke.

Given that most scholars believe that Mark was written before these two other Synoptic gospels, then it does seem to be a later addition. And the various extant manuscripts have a number of differing arrangements of these suspect verses. Most good critical commentaries discuss the various bits of textual evidence and concur that the Gospel as we now have it ends at 16:8, and most therefore do not comment on the extra verses.

Thus most of modern textual scholarship is settled on this much: there is almost no scholarly debate about the textual reliability of either the shorter or longer endings. Genuine debate however does still exist over whether or not we should understand v. 8 to have been Mark’s intended final verse.

So it looks like this passage may not be part of the inspired original text. Thus we could end our discussion here. But let’s look at the passage anyway, and see how it lines up with the snake handlers’ claims. Even if it were part of the canonical Gospel of Mark, it is clear right away that this is not a command.

What Jesus says about poisonous drinks – “if they drink any deadly thing” (KJV) – would seem to also apply to the issue of handling snakes. It is not something we are to go out of our way seeking, but if it does occur, there may be healing power available in Christ.

Indeed, there are hardly any other passages which even speak of such things, let alone command believers to make this a vital part of the Christian life. We certainly have no New Testament account of drinking poisons. We do have one narrative account of a snakebite occurring accidentally – and not being sought after.

Paul was bitten by a serpent in Malta while tending a fire, but he flicked it off and was not harmed (Acts 28:1-6). He certainly did not go out of his way looking for dangerous serpents. Indeed, he did not devote entire church services to messing around with a bunch of deadly snakes.

The only other similar sort of text is Luke 10:18-20, where Jesus speaks of having authority over serpents and scorpions. It is mentioned in the context of the downfall of Satan. But both these passages can be taken metaphorically, given how Satan is portrayed as a serpent in Scripture, going back to Genesis 3.

As James Edwards says about the Markan passage, there is the question of “whether the image of ‘picking up snakes in their hands’ cannot be understood metaphorically, that is, that in the age of salvation the curse of the serpent has been overcome.”

Darrell Bock comments on the Lukan text: the disciples “have the right to overcome hostile creation as represented by serpents and scorpions, as well as overcome the enemy’s power, an allusion to Satan. . . . The point is not so much that such beings can be handled safely, as much as that such forces and what they represent can be opposed and crushed. The disciples are secure in God’s hands. Nothing can really hurt them.

“The picture is drawn from OT figurative language, which describes God’s protection in terms of trampling over created beings. . . . This emphasis on power is not the one Jesus wants the disciples to have. He wants them to focus on their gracious and secure standing before God. There is joy greater than their authority: their names are written in heaven.”

Or as David Garland says about the passage in Luke: “Jesus is using these as metaphors for God’s divine protection (Deut 8:15) and the crushing of evil; ‘the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet’ (Rom 16:20). Jesus is not giving clearance to handle snakes (Mark 16:18) to prove one’s invulnerability. The point is that ‘a powerful and resourceful enemy,’ including the forces of nature, will not be able to stop the success of the Christian mission.”

Many scholars take this metaphorical understanding as a valid option. But even if this is not the best way to proceed, surely the emphasis is on having victory over Satan in general, and not in spending time holding snake handling meetings. This is not only presumption and foolishness, but it is losing track of biblical priorities.

Church services are meant to be about worship, ministry of the word, and the sacraments. They are not about foolish displays of human bravado and unnecessarily tempting the Lord in this way. How some Christians can get their priorities so bent out of shape is quite remarkable.

We don’t need more gullible church leaders dying from snake bites to prove their faith. Simply dealing with a congregation with the problems and difficulties which that entails needs faith enough as is. That is where we prove our faith, in faithful service to the body of Christ, not in spectacular stunts and gimmicks.

To say all this of course is not to deny that God can and does heal. In any time of crisis, we pray and seek God’s healing power. But we are not to major in minors, nor spend our time playing with snakes when much more pressing needs, challenges and callings exist.


[1384 words]

21 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Mark 16:17-18”

  1. Matt 4:7 Jesus answered him “It is also written ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’.” The only exception I know of is Mal 3:10 regarding tithing “…’Test me in this’ says the Lord.”

    John Bennett

  2. Thanks Bill. Sometimes people can almost stymie a conversation about simple Christian faith with the question ‘Aren’t they the people who handle snakes and speak in tongues?’ This article is quite helpful.
    Terry Darmody

  3. Good article Bill, just more support of the fact that there are idiots in the church as well as outside it!
    Steve Davis

  4. But the problem is Bill, these are the people the knockers focus on, they do not bother to see the fact that probably 95% of Christians are quite sane, normal people who do all their shopping at the same places as everyone else, drive the same cars, wear clothes, etc. etc. We really are not all that bad are we?
    Steve Davis

  5. The underlying reason why non-Christians go through our actions with a fine tooth comb and hold up the bad ones they inevitably find is to find any excuse to not have to bow the knee to the Lord Jesus Christ, just another deceptive ploy of the devil. But it is a good reason for us to truly “live worthy of our calling” (Eph 4) to take the weapons right out of the devil’s hands.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  6. Just as the 1st poster said:
    Matthew 4:7, King James Version: Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
    However, just as Paul was bitten, and not affected. I believe that God is quite capable of delivering a TRUE disciple (missionary) of the Word from such hazards should it occur as a accident, and not of a deliberate nature (test).
    John Phillips

  7. Hi Bill.

    I have a book in my collection by a British author by the name of Alan Morrison. His perspective on this text is that the greek is in aorist tense, that is, Jesus’ words were for those who already believed, not for future believers. I have also read a number of reformed authors who take the same or a similar position, that is it relates to/is directed at the apostles only. This makes sense to me.

    Rgds: Mick Koster

  8. I find it hard to believe that nobody talked about the second part of this statement. That is AND THEY SHALL SPEAK WITH NEW TONGUES. I’m trying personally to find meaning to that part of the scripture. Does anybody out their have an opinion on what that means?

    Robert Giesecke

  9. Every translation I can find is in third person plural, even Young’s Literal. He is directly addressing the disciples in this text, but then instead of saying “you” (as he does in the earlier passage as it pertains to demons, scorpions, etc) he moves to third person plural “They”. “Those who believe. They shall”.

    That being said, I believe that snake handling definitely falls under “putting God to the test”. For instance, we believe that God can heal. I hope that even those who don’t believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit today will acknowledge that God can and does heal people’s bodies even today. But you don’t see rational people going around deliberately becoming sick – or crashing our cars…or jumping off of buildings because the Bible states that the laying on of hands in Jesus name will heal the sick. Even Jesus rebuked Satan when he told him to hurl himself off the cliff. This to me, is the exact same thing as deliberately handling snakes.

    Kel Wenarsky

  10. the verse “and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them;” in Mark 16:18, i think is a spiritual gift: those true believers will not be hurt by the false teaching (poisonous) of the Scriptures.

  11. One passage in the New Testament, which has been so problematical that some claim that it is an unauthorized addition, is Mark 16:18 – “And they will handle serpents, and if they should drink a deadly poison, it will not harm them. And they will place their hands on the sick, and they will be healed.” Jesus was speaking in Hebrew (maybe Aramaic) to people who were familiar with Hebrew – Aramaic figures of speech (the majority of Biblical scholars agree that the thought-form of the New Testament is Hebrew – Aramaic). See “Figures of Speech Used in the Bible” by E. W. Bullinger.
    Many of the listeners would have realized that Jesus had changed up from literal to figurative speech, and understood His words to mean: To “handle serpents …” meant to encounter, and have to deal with teachers of false doctrines, such as the Pharisees were. To “drink a deadly poison …” meant that the true believers did not have to fear being led astray if they heard any false teachings, for they would not be persuaded by them. And to “place their hands on the sick …” meant that when the true believers counseled those who had been led astray by false teachings, that the ones which were led astray would be brought back into the truth.
    While Paul, in Acts 28:3-6 was not harmed when bitten by a poisonous snake, that passage cannot be used as an authority, to change the meaning of the figures of speech in Mark 16:18. A few churches take Mark 16:18, and Acts 28:3-6 literally, dancing with poisonous snakes and drinking poisons, but they are tempting God. The average Christian has little difficulty in seeing this for what it is; but then again, many of these same Christians fail to see their own areas in which they are blinded from the truth.

  12. About snake handling, I’ve seen a documentary on TV about this in Tennessee, a group of Pentecostals who traditionally have been doing this for generations along with their share of casualties, although they adamantly say Jesus mandates this in the Bible as proof of faith. I always felt there was something wrong with this. Why would God want proof of faith doing this when there are other means of proving ones faith without dying? God loves us why would He want to put us in danger this way when there are other ways just as effective but much safer?

  13. This passage is a mix of things that we seem to take as useful, like laying on of hands and tongues, and things that we discard as not useful, like drinking poison and handling snakes. This would be a more useful commentary if all the elements of the verse were addressed. Well done as far as it goes.

  14. Countless unchristian jungle tribes handle snakes without any side-effects. Are these the believers mentioned in the Mark 16 verse? They are expert handlers, plain and simple. Successfully handling snakes (without being bitten) is not a measure of Christian maturity, holiness, or divine blessing.

  15. I agree, it believe it just the devil trying to deceive people. And taking the focus away from Jesus. Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except the through me. This is an example why so many people don’t believe. These crazy things that they see at church now a days. Let’s ask the Lord for wisdom and understanding of his word. Let’s go back to the basics. Let’s pray, let’s fast, lets seek the Lord with all our hearts.. God bless you all!?

  16. I am surprised no one has mentioned the possibility that Mark Wolford, the West Virginian pastor, was simply a product of his own ego. Trying to impress others and make himself popular. Think of how many people in the new testament died putting their egos first.

  17. The Bible has many passages that cause us to carefully consider what is being said and why. Sometimes it is difficult to know with certainty precisely what is meant. The truth is that we imperfect humans often struggle to understand Jehovah’s will but the point is we must keep on asking and trying to understand. It heartens me to see folks on sites like this who are continuing to struggle, continuing to seek a correct understanding of Jehovah’s will:

    Matthew 7:7-8
    7Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you: 8For every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened.

  18. The Bible says that these remain–faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love. Christians show love not stunt.

  19. In the true story of Brother Yun, (The Heavenly Man), a Chinese apostle for Christ, he relates an incident in which one of the pastors of an underground church was threatened with punishment if he continued to hold meetings or witness for Christ. At one point, a group of officers come pressure him to denounce his faith or be made to drink their combined urines out of a container. He prays and drinks all of it, with no subsequent effects… just interesting… it may we’ll be that Mark Is guided to mention these as examples of God’s power to intervene as He chooses in specific future situations to demonstrate His reality to unbelievers . Another is that of Paul’s experience with the viper after the shipwreck, as he stands surrounded by the ship’s crew of heretofore unbelievers…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *