Handling Snakes and Drinking Poison

Sunday morning as were closing the book of Acts I compared Paul’s snakebite to Jesus’ words to His disciples concerning the divine protection that would accompany their missions. It’s a dicey and very particular bit of theological detail. I expected questions and I started receiving them right away.

The following email exchange is demonstrative of the sort of concerns people voiced. So, I thought I’d post the question and my reply here on my blog in the hope of clearing up any consternation my perspective may have caused.

It’s my constant purpose to be clear and I assume that every person who raises a question represents many more people with the same concern who didn’t write or ask. So, I’m grateful for the question and the opportunity to follow-up on our Sunday morning discussion.

Here’s the email

Hi Jim,

I’m sitting here listening to your Sunday sermon and have a question. You seem to be stating that we are not (since it was only tossed at only the 11) supposed to be following the “Great Commision.”

Mar 16:15 15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.

Or am I hearing you wrong?

Blessings,

C. D.

And my reply —

Howdy,

I knew as I approached this passage in Acts and compared it to Jesus’ statements concerning handling vipers it was going to take a fair bit of explaining. But, my position is not complicated. From a very simple, pragmatic point-of-view we must understand our Lord’s statement “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them” (Mark 16:18) one of two ways. Either (1) Jesus intended that every believer would be impervious to snakebites and poison or (2) those words contained an inherent limitation. Since even “snake handlers” die when bitten, it’s hard to make the case for Christian invulnerability. Even as much faith as I have in Christ’s finished work and God’s sovereign mercy, I’m not ready to swig a glass of poison. So, I conclude that Jesus’ words were meant to be understood in a limited fashion. And since he was talking to a particular group of people, I assume that His words were limited to His apostles.

Now, even as I talked of this on Sunday morning, Jennifer asked about the fact that other gifts mentioned in this same passage did manifest to the church-at-large, such as speaking in tongues and healing the sick. And she’s right. But, those gifts are mentioned in later epistles written to the church as a body. So, I see no conflict from a textual standpoint. Some gifts were given to the apostles that were later also given to a larger body of believers — such as tongues, healing, etc. But, other gifts given to the apostles — such as taking up serpents or drinking deadly things — are not mentioned beyond Jesus’ initial impartation of power. So, inasmuch as they do not seem to be promised to the whole corpus of the Church, I conclude that it’s a mishandling of Scripture (and a form of “tempting God”) to assume those words have universal application and start flinging snakes around.

So, within that framework, I can address your question concerning the “Great Commission.” It is true that Mark 16:15 is directed at Christ’s apostles. That instruction was primarily theirs. However, as we read the epistles from Acts forward we find further instruction from those apostles adjuring believers to spread the gospel of God’s grace. For instance, Paul’s instruction to Timothy, “… do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.” (2 Tim. 4:5)

The necessity to teach and preach is passed on to the Church —

Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men … And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:8-13)

So, it’s biblically consistent to argue that certain aspects of Christ’s instruction in Mark 16 were meant exclusively for those men standing in His presence as the words were spoken, whereas some of what He spoke was also expanded out into the Church body. That perspective solves the confusion caused by those who see every word uttered by Christ as applicable to every believer in every age under every circumstance. That’s one reason I emphasized the contrast between Paul healing the residents of Malta while failing to heal Epaphroditus. We cannot argue that God’s gifting of miracles is readily available to every person of faith to exercise at their discretion.

So, the long and short of this discussion is simply this: Jesus said certain things to His apostles exclusively and it is an error to usurp His words and apply them indiscriminately. However, certain commands and gifts that Christ gave His immediate disciples were also conveyed to “the body of Christ,” His Church, by the Holy Spirit — including the charismatic gifts and the necessity to preach the gospel of God’s grace. And I am willing to preach both aspects of that equation.

I hope that helps to clear things up.

Thanks for writing! I’m sure you’re not the only one who wrestled with that question.

Yours for His sake,

Jim Mc.

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