A few years ago, some people made a documentary about these churches where the congregants toss, like, rattlesnakes at each other. If you’re one of the uninitiated, you have to scratch your head and ask, “Why would anybody do such a thing?”
“Well,” the snake handler might say, “It’s biblical.”
And you might reply, “Prove it, buddy.”
With much confidence, the snake handler would turn to a very uncomfortable passage in the book of Mark. After hitching up his trousers, he reads out of the trusty and musty King James Bible, “Mark 16:17 and 18. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” Then he says, “Now those are the words of Jesus. You gonna argue with Jesus?”
And the truth is, you can’t. I mean, not really. Pretty much every translation of the Bible concurs. At the same time, why would God tell people to pass around venomous snakes?
It’s okay to admit that we don’t understand everything we read in the Bible our first time through. Or the second time through, even. It’s a highly textured book. There are threads and references and analogies and all sorts of things that keep it interesting. But it also means we can miss important factors in a casual read. Whenever I hear people quote Mark 16:17-18, they focus on the signs: cast out demons, speak in new tongues (or languages, depending on the translation you read), pick up snakes, drink poison and not die, lay hands on people and heal them. One day, I realized the part of the verse that really, really matters. “These signs will follow those who believe.” Believe what? Jesus said these words after his resurrection, just before his ascension into heaven.
In Matthew 12:38-39, “some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet.’” The sign of Jonah refers to that awesome Sunday School story where a man is thrown off a boat and gobbled up by a whale. After three days, God has the whale spit Jonah onto a beach. When Jesus referred to the sign of Jonah, he was talking about his coming death and resurrection.
The whole of Christianity rests on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let me see if I can sum it up quickly. God gave man free will. In free will, man chose autonomy. That is, he believed that he knew a better way to live than what God had instructed. Sin is man’s actions outside of God’s will. Man’s choice for autonomy separated him from God. Since God is the source of life, this separation introduced death into the world. Now, the Jewish people believe that a person’s life is in his blood, so a blood sacrifice was necessary to cleanse them of sin and death. They would sacrifice an animal as a symbol of that cleansing. But after the animal sacrifice, people would again sin, which would later require more sacrifice. Now, Jesus comes on the scene and gives himself as a sacrifice for sin. Here’s the kicker, though: Jesus got up. So the sacrifice still lives. This is why our sins are eternally covered. If we say, “Hey God, you were right. I really screwed up. So I want you to cleanse my sins with the blood of Jesus.” Now, as we try to live according to God’s direction, we’re going to screw up again. Every now and again, we’re going to do what we want even when we know it’s wrong. Thanks to the resurrected Jesus, our sins are always covered. I mean, the power of sin and death has been broken. And since sin is what separates us from God, that rift has closed. The apostle Paul made an important point of this new life in Romans 8:1. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”
This is the power of “The sign of Jonah”. Let’s go back to Mark 16. The signs would follow those who believe, what? What had just happened, Christ’s resurrection. By placing our trust in the resurrection, we now live in the law of Life and not the law of Death. The signs Jesus mentioned aren’t these neat tricks to prove God’s existence, or anything. Jesus was saying that the law of Life has changed things for those who believe. Look at each one of the Mark 16 signs.
Casting out demons: Man is separated from God under the law of sin and death. I don’t claim to fully understand this, but in the separation, sometimes men are oppressed or possessed by demons. Jesus gave his disciples authority over “unclean spirits” in Matthew 10:1. When a person accepts Jesus as their savior, they are also disciples of Jesus, and so they have authority. The point of casting out demonic spirits is to present the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Where sin and death once ruled, now life reigns. Freedom is a powerful sign. The Bible says in Galatians 5:1, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” Even though Paul was talking to the Galatians about freedom from extraneous rules and regulations, the point remains “It was for freedom that Christ set us free.”
Speaking in new languages: People sometimes get offended when I tell them that the language barrier came as a result of sin. I’m not trying to offend anyone, though, and I love the beauty in other languages. But seriously, I’m not wrong. Genesis 11:1-9 tells the story of a time when everyone spoke the same language. Then, the people decided to build a monument to their autonomy. God had told them to increase and move about, but they remained in one location and wanted to build a tower “into heaven” (by which they could close the rift between God and man on their terms), to make a name for themselves. Verses six and seven say, “The LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another's speech.’” Viola. Language barrier.
After Jesus died and came back to life, God’s spirit came to earth (John 16:5-15). The most popular example of this within churches is Pentecost, written of in the second chapter of Acts. When the Holy Spirit came to the disciples, they began to speak in other languages. Jerusalem held an enormous festival at the time, and people from all over the world heard these disciples speaking in their languages. A crowd of those attending the festival approached the disciples and asked if they were drunk. Then the Apostle Peter had an opportunity to explain the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Where God had set up the language barrier to keep people from sinning, now He allowed a way for people to communicate the truth. Remember what God said in Genesis 11. If the people speak with one language and have one purpose, nothing they propose to do will fail. Paul, writing to the church in Philippi, says, “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” When people live under the law of life, with the purpose of speaking the truth of the resurrection, it would make sense that the language barrier would begin to fade.
Lay hands on the sick and they will recover: Sickness is a product of death in the world, of nature in frustration. It is a product of sin. Like casting out demons, Jesus gave his disciples authority to heal the sick. This, again, proclaims the law of life over the law of death.
Pick up snakes, drink poison and not die: I’m lumping these two together because they’re the signs that typically freak people out the most. But think about them in terms of the law of life vs. the law of death. When we live under the law of life, we have given up autonomy and given God control of our lives. So if we were to accidentally drink something poisonous, or if someone tried to harm us, God decides what happens. We don’t live under the same rules given by the law of death. It gives opportunity for the miraculous to occur. Now, I don’t want anyone to pick up a bottle of lye and give it a go. That would be both stupid and unbiblical. You aren’t supposed to dare God like that. Besides, it wouldn’t glorify Him, which is the point of a sign.
And with snakes, well, there’s a pretty cool story in Acts 28:3-5. “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 itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they began saying to one another, ‘Undoubtedly this man is a murderer, and though he has been saved from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.’ However he shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm.” This was a sign to the natives of Malta. And in Isaiah 11, the prophet tells of a coming kingdom where nature is no longer in frustration. Verse eight says, “The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper's den.” This will come as a result of the law of life.
But does that mean we should chuck mambas at each other? Did God automatically make us impervious to all harm just so our “super-humanity” would impress people into believing? That’s pretty ridiculous, and I don’t mind ridiculing it. At the same time, I do believe in praying for healing and casting out spirits. So what makes me so different from them? What indeed.
During the famous sermon on the mount, Jesus tells the people in Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'” When we focus on the signs promised to believers, we neglect the very thing in which we should believe, that is the new life offered in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then we have missed the point of the signs and we have tried to bring ourselves glory instead of glorifying God. You know what that sounds like? It sounds like man using God in his autonomy. It sounds like the pride of the people at the tower in Genesis 11, making a name for themselves. It sounds like sin.
If we pay attention to the direction of the Holy Spirit in our day-to-day lives, God might direct us to pray for sick people, or cast out evil spirits, or whatever. But it is for God’s glory, for making His name known for people. The signs should follow, not drive, the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The law of life has changed things, and now death is working backwards, and the world is being redeemed.