Why did Jesus say we could pick up snakes?

Q.  Why did Jesus say that those who believed in him would be able to “pick up snakes with their hands”?  Some people have tried this and gotten killed.

There’s actually some doubt among biblical scholars whether the longer ending of Mark, in which that statement appears, was originally part of Mark’s gospel.  However, whether or not Jesus really said this or something like it, a person could still get the impression from the Bible that they could and perhaps should try to pick up poisonous snakes to demonstrate their faith.

This is because all of the “signs” that Jesus says will accompany those who believe in him (according to the longer ending of Mark) can be found elsewhere in the Scriptures:
• Jesus and the apostles drive out demons throughout the gospels and the book of Acts;
• They also place their hands on the sick and heal them;
• Believers speak in new tongues (languages they have not learned) at several points in Acts;
• Earlier in the Bible, the prophet Elisha and his guests are miraculously protected from poisoning;
• And most directly to our point, in the book of Acts the apostle Paul is bitten by a deadly viper, but he suffers no ill effects.

However, it’s important to recognize that in all of these cases, the people are not doing something daring and dangerous in order to demonstrate their faith in God.  Rather, they are obeying God as they go forth to proclaim and serve, and God is providing the power and protection they need as they do so.

Running a deliberate risk in order to demonstrate God’s protection is precisely what the devil tempted Jesus to do when he said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple.”  Jesus replied, quoting the Scriptures from Deuteronomy, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

So the deaths that have resulted from the intentional handling of poisonous snakes are the result of a very unfortunate misunderstanding either of what Jesus said about this, or, if the longer ending of Mark doesn’t record his actual words, what the biblical narrative describes about God’s empowerment and protection.  We’re not supposed to put God to the test deliberately.  But we can count on God’s protection for as long as we still need to be alive and well on earth doing God’s work.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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