And these signs will follow those who believe: 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]
Attention has been drawn to Kentucky – and to our part of Kentucky in particular – by the recent death of the snake-handling pastor. Since the story is so prominent – and especially around here – and since people are talking about it – and since you will probably be asked about it, I want to make some observations.
None of what I will say here is motivated by any personal animosity toward those who practice snake-handling in their religious exercises. I have no need to ‘tear them down’ just for the sake of tearing them down. And, I have no doubt they are very sincere in what they believe. They sincerely believe they are obeying Jesus Christ and exercising necessary ‘faith’ in Christ by their practices. Even the producers of the National Geographic series [“Snake Salvation”] that featured them testified that they were genuinely impressed with the religious beliefs of these snake-handling churches and pastors. One of the producers of the series said something to the effect that their beliefs were not just Sunday-beliefs, but every-day-of-the-week beliefs.
But, mere sincerity in what one believes is not saving faith. The Scripture is full of examples of religious practitioners of malpractices who believed very strongly and were deeply sincere, but wrong. Witness Paul’s testimony to his former sincerely-believed and strongly-held religious beliefs before Jesus Christ called him to true saving faith
Galatians 1.13-14: For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. 14 And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
But, I do feel compelled to differentiate between ‘religion’ and the Gospel, and between religious works [however sincere they may be] and true saving faith in Jesus Christ.
1. SNAKE-HANDLING IS NOT THE GOSPEL.
Jesus Christ has not commanded us to handle snakes. He has commanded His churches to preach the Gospel. The Gospel is one thing, and one thing only – and that is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to put away our sins.
1 Corinthians 15.1-4: Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures…
The Great Commission to the churches is NOT “Go into all the world and handle serpents” or any other such practice. Jesus’ commission and mandate to His churches is “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel…”
Believing, preaching, and practicing any belief system other than the Gospel as your core religious tenet is not just eccentric, fringe, irregular, or off-beat – it is ‘not the Gospel’ and is cursed by God!
Galatians 1.6-9: I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
2. SNAKE-HANDLING IS NOT HOW WE ARE SAVED FROM OUR SINS
The church’s primary mission and message is to proclaim to the world that Jesus Christ saves us from our sins by our believing in and trusting in His substitutionary death on the Cross and resurrection from death.
The handling of snakes is in no way related to our most essential need: to be saved from our sins. But, for some reason, when these same snake-handlers participated and were featured in their National Geographic series, they called it ‘Snake Salvation.’ I really don’t know what they believe or preach about how sinners are saved from our sins, but it is obvious that the handling of snakes cannot be separated from their way of salvation.
When our local newspaper printed a front-page story and featured article on the death of the pastor, there was a very prominent picture with the story. It showed the deceased pastor’s son who is now leading the church. They were in one of their services. And, of course, he was handling a rattlesnake. Also, on a table behind him were the other symbols of their ‘faith’: jars of poisons to drink and a propane blowtorch to pass their hands through. So, what is their message? The message is that those symbols represent the core beliefs and practices of their ‘faith.’ Whatever else they may say or do, the essential message is that these practices define and identify who they are. They could not maintain their existence and identity without handling snakes.
The essential message that Jesus Christ has given His churches is how we are saved from our sins. That is the message of the Gospel. That is evangelism. And, when any other belief or practice takes priority and preeminence over how we are saved from our sins, then that distracting message becomes their way of ‘salvation.’
3. SNAKE-HANDLING IS NOT ESSENTIAL TO OBEYING CHRIST.
The very foundation of their ‘orthodoxy’ is that Jesus Christ commands us to take up serpents. The deceased pastor has stated that “Jesus’ command to take up serpents is just as much a commandment to be obeyed as ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ ”
The only problem is: “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is a commandment. The words “Thou shalt take up serpents” is not a commandment. Even assuming the words of the text in Mark 16 were in the inspired original writings [it is questionable that they were], it is still not a commandment that Jesus’ followers must handle snakes to be obedient to Him.
If it is anything, it is a Jesus’ promise to His apostles [miraculous signs to authenticate and credentialize an apostle of Jesus Christ, 2 Corinthians 12.12 and Acts 4.30] that if they should encounter a venomous serpent in the course of their obedient service to Him, that He would supernaturally deliver them from harm. And, there is no record or evidence that even any apostle deliberately sought out a snake to handle or handled serpents in any of their preaching of the Gospel to either demonstrate their faith in God or His power to deliver them. The only instance at all of this sign being experienced is when the viper unexpectedly sprang out of the fire that Paul and the shipwrecked party were setting at Malta to relieve them from the discomfort of the rain and cold.
Here is that story recorded in Acts 28.1-6:
Now when they had escaped, they then found out that the island was called Malta. 2 And the natives showed us unusual kindness; for they kindled a fire and made us all welcome, because of the rain that was falling and because of the cold. 3 But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. 4 So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.” 5 But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
The Lord Jesus did save him from harm at that time. But, even then, Paul did not deliberately ‘take [it] up’ to handle it. He didn’t go looking for this serpent. It came to him in the course of his faithfully obeying following and obeying Jesus Christ to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel…”
4. SNAKE-HANDLING IS DELIBERATELY TEMPTING GOD.
“Tempting God’ means to deliberately put yourself in some situation of danger or jeopardy and then impose on, require, or expect God to save you from the harmful consequences. When Satan tempted our Lord in the desert, one of his tests for Him to ‘prove’ He is the Son of God was to climb up on one of the pinnacles of the temple and throw Himself down, expecting God to save Him from smashing and killing Himself on the pavement below.
Jesus rejected that unnecessary and disobedient demonstration of His ‘faith’ by responding to Satan with the words of God from Deuteronomy 6.16: “You shall not tempt the LORD your God…” NOT tempting God is, by the way, another clearly-expressed commandment from God that we must obey just as much as “Thou shall not commit adultery.”
Any time we deliberately place ourselves in any situation God does not expressly command us to do – and which is not necessary for us to do in our course of obedient service to Christ – and expect God to deliver us from the dangers and harmful consequences of that activity, we are overtly DISOBEYING rather than obeying God by tempting Him.
5. SNAKE-HANDLING IS ANOTHER PART OF ‘THE LIE’
Satan has a very simple approach when he wants to lead his blinded followers into his destructive deceptions to blind them to the true Glory of Christ and true faith in Jesus Christ and His Gospel [2 Corinthians 4.3-5]. Satan’s philosophy of religious deception is “as simple as A-B-C” and here it is: “Anything But Christ.” Paul sums up all the un-truths Satan propagates in the name of ‘religion’ as ‘The Lie’ in 2 Thessalonians 2.11: And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe The Lie…
We pray for you, that God will keep you from this part of The Lie, and all the other deceptive beliefs and practices of the same Lie – and that He will give you true faith to see your need of believing in Jesus Christ and His true Gospel.
“But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the Truth, to which He called you by our Gospel, for the obtaining of the Glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Thessalonians 2.13-14.