You might know the saying, “a text without a context is a pretext.” In the case of Mark 16:18 it can be a pretext for dangerous practices. On February 15th, Pastor Jamie Coons of Kentucky died from an untreated snakebite. Determined to stand on his faith in a promise found in Scripture, he refused medical attention. Should we admire his faith? Or was it out of context?
[Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. 17 These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:15-18)
These verses are part of one of the most questionable passages of the Bible. The last eleven verses of Mark’s gospel are not in the oldest manuscripts, so some people reject them. But let’s assume the words really were spoken by Jesus to His disciples. Was Jesus presenting snake handling as one of the marks of faith, along with exorcisms, speaking in tongues, drinking poison, and healing the sick?
The context is Jesus’ message to disciples, which prepared them to take over the mantle of preaching and demonstrating the gospel of the kingdom. Each one of the gospels, and Acts, has a version of the message, which is often called the Great Commission.1
The Great Commission is a simple directive from the King to His servants: “Go and tell the world the good news about me. As people believe in me, they will become part of my kingdom family.” Like any good King, Jesus promised that He would be on hand to take care of any needs that arose, and that His Holy Spirit would empower the messengers as they served in His name. That’s the best kind of boss to have! He gives us a worthwhile task, with all the resources and authority we need to accomplish it.
Mark emphasized four results of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit: demons scattering, sickness vanishing, new languages spoken, and evidence of divine protection—immunity from poison and venom. The last has its place. There is a battle for the kingdom of God; people might try to poison the messengers, or conditions on the mission field might include exposure to food poisoning and an occasional snakebite. Jesus assures us that He is with us as we do His work.
Texts out of context are sometimes used as excuses for religious party tricks. Does God heal people and free them from demons? Sure. Is the gift of tongues for today? I believe so. Can God protect us from poisons and snakebites? Absolutely. But tongues are not proof of spiritual maturity; healing and deliverance ministries are not intended to glorify the minister; and snake-handling is not meant as a test of faith.
- Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 24:44-48; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8. [↩]