Periodically it seems, the news comes that someone has died from snakebite while handling snakes. This time it is Jamie Coots, a Pentacostal preacher from Kentucky, who starred on a show called “Snake Salvation”. He was bitten and died after refusing medical treatment. The reaction to such a thing must run the gamut from thinking such people are crazy to wondering how such a thing could happen to a “man of God”.
Actually, the inquiring mind would have several questions. Are we to be handling snakes today as Christians? Did he show a lack of faith? Did God abandon him?
Let’s think about where this idea of snake handling comes from. In Mark 16:18 we read, “they will take up serpents”. This item is found in the larger context of the exercising of miraculous powers. It also includes the idea of not being harmed by drinking poison. First we must establish several facts. Who is speaking? Jesus? To whom is He speaking? The eleven apostles. Though he is speaking to the apostles, he is speaking about those who would obey the message of the apostles, “those who believe”. Does that include us today?
Let’s leave that for a moment and think about what Jesus is actually saying. Is Jesus saying that as part of belief, followers would “handle” poisonous snakes? Interestingly, we find no command in the Bible for us to handle snakes as part of worship to God or activity in His service. We also find no example of anyone’s doing such a thing. What we do find is an occasion surrounding the activities of Paul in Acts 28. Paul was on his way by ship to Rome and suffered shipwreck. He found himself on the island of Malta where the natives were kind to them and started a fire. The text says, however, that when Paul had gathered some sticks and laid them on the fire “a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand”. In verse 5, though, “he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm”. Here is that of which Jesus spoke. In a situation such as this one where a snake bites a believer, it would not hurt him.
If today I were bitten by a poisonous snake, would I expect the same thing to happen to me that happened to Paul? If yes, then why are those who “handle” snakes today dying from their bites? If no, then why not. Has something changed? The passage in Mark 16 speaks of other miraculous things such as speaking in tongues, casting out demons, healing the sick. Are Christians still able to do those things? Does it not raise the question that if a faithful “preacher” dies from snakebite that maybe we are not able to handle poisonous snakes? And if we are not able to handle poisonous snakes, then we also cannot heal or cast out demons or speak in tongues miraculously. We are either able to do them all or do none of them.
Why would we say that? The answer to this question is longer than space permits here, but suffice to say that the time of such things is over. And it is over, because the reason Jesus specifies in the passage in Mark has been fulfilled. As the apostles went out following the Lord’s command to preach, they were performing signs, miracles, and wonders. Jesus said they were doing so not for worship, not for leading a Christian life, but for the purpose of “confirming the word”, verse 20. (see also John 10:37-8, 14:10-11) What word, one might ask? Exactly. At that time the Bible had not yet been put together. The apostles and subsequent believers were preaching and teaching the word as they went. The writers of the New Testament were writing the Spirit’s words as they went. In order to prove the truth of this message, the ability to perform these signs was given by God/Christ. At the point when the word was finally and completely delivered, it needed no such confirmation. Ask yourself, do we really need the same miraculous confirmation of the word now as those of the first century did who did not have the entirety of God’s word revealed to them? Read 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. Paul clearly says that prophecies, tongue, and (miraculous) knowledge will fade away. Have they faded away, or are they yet to fade away?