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Mark 16:18 (NKJV) says:

... they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.

This verse appears to tell us that Christians won't be harmed by deadly things, yet my Christian husband is just recovering from food poisoning!

What does Mark 16:18 really mean? If the context is regarding evangelists going out with the gospel, surely it can't refer to guaranteed protection against attempts on their life, since plenty of God's people are persecuted and killed, and I suspect some have even been poisoned by enemies of the gospel? Even if this verse offered guaranteed protection for evangelists against being poisoned, how come they are protected from poisoning but not protected from being shot or hanged?

Could it just refer to protection from eternal harm, e.g. their physical body might be killed through poison, but in Christ they will live forever with Him? They therefore aren't really harmed. Perhaps the Greek rendition will shed further light?

  • It means what it says, and it says what it means. Saint Paul was bitten by a serpent and survived (Acts 28:3-6). Later, he heals many sick persons by laying his hands on them (Acts 28:8-9). Much later, he was beheaded for preaching the Gospel of Christ. – Lucian Aug 1 '17 at 5:56
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This forum can’t explain why Jesus’ apparent ‘guaranteed protection’ is limited to some forms of harm and not others, nor can it explain why our contemporary experience of ‘signs and wonders’ is so different from the New Testament stories. Those are theological questions far outside the parameters of hermeneutics. But we can look at the text and discern how it was likely intended by the author and the readers who passed it on to us ... even if that leaves us with questions about the applicability of the text today.

The immediate context of Mk.16:18 is Jesus’ commissioning of the 11 disciples following his resurrection:

15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. 17 These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

After Jesus spoke to them, “He was received up into heaven” (v.19), and the disciples “went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed” (v.20, NASB).

This passage varies in detail but shares several motifs with the other synoptic gospels, especially Mt.28:16-20 (of which many scholars think this a later expansion). Miraculous signs (σημεῖον, sēmeion) are described throughout the New Testament, including exorcisms (e.g. Acts 8:6-7; 16:18; 19:11-20), speaking in tongues (e.g. Acts 2:4-11; 10:46; 19:6), and healings (e.g. Acts 3:1-9; 5:16). While handling snakes and drinking poison unharmed have no NT parallels (NOAB, v.18 note), church tradition includes stories of these among the signs accompanying the gospel in its early years as well.

Snakes: Though Jesus gave the disciples “authority to tread on serpents and scorpions” (Lk.10:19), and Paul was unharmed when bitten by a viper on Melita (Acts 28:1-6), there is no biblical instance of ‘taking up’ snakes in the sense of actually handling them as suggested in this verse. But there is a curious textual issue: some manuscripts seem to have replaced the καιναῖς (the ‘new’ related to tongues) with καὶ ἐν ταῖς χερσίν, making the reading “and in their hands they will take up snakes.” This fuller phrasing is reflected in the NIV, ESV, and NRSV, for example, and leads some commentators (e.g. Barnes) to see Paul’s viper bite as a ‘fulfillment’ of this verse. Meyer, however, called the inserted phrase “too feebly attested ... an exegetical addition,” and it does not appear in the KJV or NASB, among others. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown and Meyer saw no example of snake handling in the New Testament at all.

Poison: Likewise for the drinking of ‘deadly’ things: “Of this there is no recorded instance in the New Testament,” wrote Ellicott. But, he added, “it finds an illustration in the tradition of the poisoned cup which was offered to St. John.” According to Meyer, the story of John surviving a ‘poison-draught’ (hemlock, according to the Cambridge Bible Commentary) is a case of a legend arising to satisfy Jesus’ prophesy in Mt.20:23 (“You will indeed drink My cup”). Papias told the same poison survival story of Joseph (Justus) Barsabas, the disciple who lost the ‘casting of lots’ to Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot as one of the 12 (Euseb. H.E.iii.39). Christian tradition says Justus went on to became a bishop and died a martyr (though apparently not by poisoning).

Whatever the historicity of these traditions – and however dubious the authenticity of this ‘long ending’ of Mark’s gospel – the most obvious reading of the text itself is its plain, literal meaning. While Jesus used ‘brood of vipers’ as a rhetorical put-down, and James wrote metaphorically of the tongue being full of ‘deadly poison’ (Jas.3:38), there is no hint in the text that this author intended snakes and poisons – or any of the five ‘signs’ – to mask a hidden figurative or ‘spiritual’ interpretation. Consistent with the characteristics of kerygmatic ‘biography’ (which are well worth exploring), the author seems to have intended these last words of Jesus to his disciples quite literally.

And according to tradition, early Christians believed the words were confirmed "by the signs that followed" (v.20). How we understand their testimony today is a question of theology, not hermeneutics.

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Uta Ranke-Heinemann says, in Putting Away Childish Things, page 138, theologians are by now in practically unanimous agreement that Mark 16:9-20 is a later interpolation. The Gospel original ended at verse 16:8 with the young man telling the women that Jesus was risen and they fled in terror, telling no one.

If we regard the Gospel of Mark as divinely inspired, this should only apply to the Gospel as originally written. Therefore, verse 16:18 can not really promise that Christians will not be harmed by snakes or by drinking any deadly thing. As we well know, the passage can not really promise that Christians shall cast out demons, or lay hands on the sick and they shall recover. Mark 16:17-18 is simply pious embroidery designed to encourage early Christians.

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  • ooo, Dick, we'll have to agree to disagree on that one :-) If Christians can no longer cast out demons or lay hands on the sick by the power of God's Holy Spirit working through them, then the Holy Spirit is no longer at work in the world and our faith is in vain. Looks like we approach the Scriptures in completely different ways. – Marisa Apr 6 '16 at 9:32
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    @Marisa I would have thought your faith is not in vain if you are saved :) And if we can lay hands on the sick and heal them, there are going to be a lot of unemployed doctors :) :) – Dick Harfield Apr 6 '16 at 21:31
  • I didn't mean that Christians can lay hands on the sick all the time and everyone will be healed. I believe there are many reasons why Christians are sick, if they are going through a Job experience, nothing will bring healing until God's Work is done in them. But if I were to believe that God doesn't ever heal any more, then much of the Scriptures are meaningless, e.g. the list of gifts in Corinthians, Ephesians and Romans. Continued in next comment ... – Marisa Apr 7 '16 at 9:28
  • If the gift of healing isn't relevant for today, then why should knowledge or wisdom from God be available? Moreover, even if it were possible for Christians to lay hands on the sick and for everyone to be healed (which is not what I'm saying) and even if this resulted in a lot of unemployed doctors ... so what?! :-) Praise God that we wouldn't need doctors. As it happens I believe that God is pleased to use natural remedies (at times) and at other times He intervenes in His mercy and grace and brings about healing where medicine fails. – Marisa Apr 7 '16 at 9:31
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    I agree with the first paragraph, Dick, but the 2nd is theologizing, isn't it? Why should 'divine inspiration' figure in? Surely the text-as-received can still be exegeted. – Schuh May 8 '16 at 2:31
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This is both in answer to the OP and to the discussion of Marisa and Dick. Every verse we read must of course be taken in light of the whole of the Bible. By comparing this passage with similar passages, we can get a better understanding of what the writer intended and the reader understood. I recommend reading these verses (though there are others)

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know..." - Acts 2:22

"And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles." - Acts 2:43

"Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico." - Acts 5:12

"So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands." - Acts 14:3

"The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works." - 2 Cor 12:12

"while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will." - Heb 2:4

Compared with:

"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.” ... And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs." - Mark 16:17,18,20


Imagine trying to convince an early Jew that their Messiah had come, they'd missed Him, He was Immanuel--literally "God with us", they had had Him crucified, that was all part of God's plan for man's redemption, He rose again 3 days later, salvation is not in the keeping of the law but by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. What are the chances you'd convince anyone?

But these supplementary verses indicate that Mark wasn't speaking of miracles that every believer until the end of the age would be able to perform ever whenever they chose, but rather miracles God would use to confirm the message of the early apostles.

Thus, as to why don't we see the same frequency and openness of miracles today, we now have the completed Word of God and the need for substantiating its authors no longer exists.

Again, it's not that God doesn't do miracles any more today, but their original purpose, as indicated in Mark and the other passages, of substantiating the message of the early apostles in no longer needed.

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  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor May 6 '16 at 7:12
  • This is a great start to an answer, but could do with being expanded to make a fuller and more comprehensive argument. Once you've had a look around the site hopefully you'll get a feel for the typical standard and style in use for answers by the community here! Thanks again for contributing, please also keep in mind that this is not a Christian site. Be sure to check out what makes us different from other sites that study the Bible. – Steve Taylor May 6 '16 at 7:16
  • @SteveTaylor Thanks Steve! I've made some edits in keeping with your suggestions. Pass feel free to suggest more edits to keep things within the godliness of this site! – Elem-Teach-w-Bach-n-Math-Ed May 6 '16 at 14:50
  • Sure - the argument itself is great, apart from a few typos. I've expanded out your verses and added some formatting as an example of what can be done to help make the point clearer from the verses that you've found (great verses). Your answer was definitely good and fit-for-purpose as it was, but hopefully the extra edit makes it a bit stronger. Thanks! – Steve Taylor May 6 '16 at 15:06
  • Wow, I just noticed the typos in my comment to you. Should have said, "Please feel free," and "within the guidelines." My cell auto-corrected apparently. – Elem-Teach-w-Bach-n-Math-Ed May 6 '16 at 16:50

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