Mark Wolford was highlighted in a November 2011 article in the Washington Post. This “flamboyant Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia” is not media-shy and was not reluctant to call attention to his crusade to keep the practice of snake-handling alive. Mark and his fellow followers take the words of Christ from Mark 16:18, “they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them,” as a command. Mark made the news again last Sunday, possibly for the last time, when he was bitten by a rattlesnake he had just handled. He died later that evening from the bite. He was forty-four.
Mark was practicing a religious tradition that is popular among a few believers. They handle snakes and some drink poison to prove their faith. In fact, Mark’s father had died in 1983 at the age of thirty-nine in the same manner. Those who believe like Mark interpret the words of Christ in the aforementioned passage literally. They think they are obeying the command of Christ, and are putting their faith in Him to the test, by handling poisonous snakes. They believe they will not be bitten, or if bitten, they will suffer no harm.
I believe in the literal meaning of Christ’ words also, but with a distinction. The words they believe are an imperative, I believe to be prophetic. In the twenty-eighth chapter of the book of Acts beginning in verse three we have an account of the apostle Paul, who along with his fellow travelers, is shipwrecked on the island of Malta. While gathering wood for a fire Paul is bitten by a viper. Paul shakes the serpent off into the fire and suffers no harm from the venom.
The words of Christ become clear in the light of this account. If a messenger of the Gospel is by chance bitten by a poisonous serpent, he will be divinely protected so that the spread of the Gospel is unhindered. The promise of protection is extended to those messengers who others may attempt to poison with a tainted drink. Jesus’ statements were His prophetic insight that such events would occur by chance, and the design of the enemies of the Gospel, not a command to deliberately subject ourselves to such things to prove our faith.
When Jesus was tempted by the devil to prove his faith by throwing Himself of the pinnacle of the temple He responded, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test (Matthew 4:7).” Jesus quoted these words from Deuteronomy 6:16 to show God the Father has commanded us to do nothing to deliberately put Him to the test or attempt to force His hand. We should not think that the Creator can be manipulated by His creatures.
Mark Wolford, and his father before him, and others like them, who have died handling poisonous snakes or drinking a poisonous concoction, did not die because they lacked faith. They died because they misunderstood the Scriptures.
In like manner, many today suffer physical and spiritual injury because they either do not understand or purposefully misinterpret the Scriptures. The apostle Peter addresses this issue when talking about the writings of the apostle Paul. He refers to Paul’s letters “which the untaught and the unstable distort, as they do the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Misapprehension of the Scriptures can be both deadly and damnable.
Peter warns against allowing the Scriptures to become “a matter of one’s own interpretation (2 Peter 1:20-21).” When God inspired the various biblical authors to write His Word, He was communicating a specific message within a historical context. The Bible is to be studied objectively. That is to say Bible scholars study to understand God’s specific message then, so they can understand how to properly apply its principles now. The Bible is not a book that is meant to be subjected to interpretation according to one’s personal perspective or philosophy, or their likes and dislikes. God’s word is not meant to be twisted and distorted to suit one’s politics, lifestyle, or culture. God says what he means, and means what He says.
Mark Wolford’s misguided understanding of the declaration of Jesus proved deadly, but I am not convinced his actions are damnable. Our first parents did not prove to be good serpent handlers either. Failing to trust God’s command and declared consequences of doing so resulted in Adam and Eve mishandling the serpent’s sales pitch. The result of their actions proved damnable, and that is why some serpents’ bite is deadly.
No matter how you look at it, man does not have good outcomes when he tries to handle serpents.