Hollywood has purportedly produced a new movie titled, “Them That Follow.” The movie is couched in the cultural context of an Appalachian town where a local church practices snake handling.
Snake handlers take the words of Christ in Mark 16:18, “they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them,” as a command. They view handling snakes as a test of their faith and believe they will not be bitten, or if bitten they will suffer no harm.
Mark Wolford was a “flamboyant Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia” and a snake handler. I write, “was” because he died at the age of forty-four from a snake bite. He was following in the footsteps of his father who died from a snake bite at the age of thirty-nine.
What these believers take to be an imperative of Christ I see as being 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 at times, 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 off 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.
Mark Wolford, and his father before him, 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. Misapprehension of the Scriptures can be both deadly and damnable.
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 the declared consequences of doing so resulted in Adam and Eve mishandling the serpent’s sale pitch. The result of their actions proved damnable.
No matter how you look at it, man does not have good outcomes when he tries to handle serpents.