Thursday
May312012

Handle With Care

Snake-handling is an increasingly uncommon function of certain extreme forms of Pentecostalism, an oddly dangerous misapplication of a sacred promise made by Jesus in the age of miracles.

Mark Randall Wolford was a snake-handler, past-tense. He lived, ministered, danced, preached, and died a snake-handler, as his father had done, and with his mother’s blessing. The West Virginia minister died after handling a yellow timber rattler over Memorial Day weekend, the victim of a venomous snakebite and a classic misunderstanding of a biblical text.

Between his resurrection and ascension back into Heaven, Jesus met frequently with his followers, preparing them for his departure, and issuing the Great Commission to, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

The eleven apostles, soon to be joined by Judas’s successor, Matthias, were also promised that certain supernatural signs would follow them: exorcism, glossolalia, snake-handling, poison-drinking and healing.

 

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:17-18 ESV)

 

It is a strangely dichotomous catalog of abilities – on the one hand are supernatural gifts that were proactively used to confirm the divine origin of the word the apostles preached, but on the other hand, there are abilities that appear to be only reactive to incidental circumstances. 

Glossolalia, exorcism, and healing are regular gifts of the first century age in which the New Testament was in the process of revelation and required confirmation. Drinking poison and handling venomous snakes without injury, however, never appear in those lists (First Corinthians 12:1-11, Acts 2:3-4, 16:16-18).

Where glossolalia, exorcism, and healing fit neatly into a category of confirmatory gifts available to first-century disciples through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, snake-handling and poison-drinking are very different. Both are promises of protection in a dangerous age, never intended to become the subject of planned spectacle. Most importantly, neither ever appears as part of any command or requirement of disciples.

Instead, Jesus had promised protection from such things for his apostles: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you” (Luke 10:19). Serpents and scorpions were very real dangers, but they would not be permitted to slow the progress of the gospel. The only recorded occasion in which this promise was activated occurs toward the end of Luke’s second historical volume, the Acts of the Apostles:

 

When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god. (Acts 28:3-6)

 

The only snake-handling in the New Testament is clearly not an act of worship or intended as a religious spectacle. Paul was not commanded to swing the viper around by the tail, nor did he even make its acquaintance on purpose. Paul’s experience was very different from the willful snake-handling that still occurs in some places today.

It is also interesting that poison-drinking has never enjoyed as much prominence as snake-handling. Few preachers go before a crowd, down a pint of Strychnine or nibble on cakes laced with cyanide, and then wait for the vainglorious results. Exceptions are mostly limited to suicide cults like the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Jonestown, Guyana, or the drawn-out murder of mithridatic monk Grigori Rasputin.

Wolford, leader of House of the Lord Jesus church in Matoaka, West Virginia, waited more than eight hours while the venom made its way through his body. The promise issued by Jesus to the apostles did not apply to him, and he died Sunday night at the Bluefield Regional Medical Center. 

The age of miracles has passed with the completion of the New Testament revelation, as the church passed from its infancy to maturity (First Corinthians 13:8-13). Abilities like tongues speaking, supernatural healing by imposition of hands, prophecy, and exorcism faded away with the demise of the apostles (Acts 8:18). 

Snake-handling and poison-drinking – intended only as reactive curatives anyway – also disappeared. When done purposely, both suggest a failure to follow the example of Christ, who when tempted by the devil to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, replied, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:12). The devil had tried to twist a psalmic promise that angels would protect the messiah from stubbing his toe on a stone, but Jesus rightly understood what modern snake-handlers only learn the hard way.