In Mark 16:17,18 Jesus tells his disciples of signs that will accompany those who believe.
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.
One of the signs is that they will pick up snakes and not be harmed. Some churches make a practice of having people handle poisonous snakes at their services as a sign of their faith in Jesus. But is this practice a correct interpretation of Jesus’ promise?
The book of Acts contains several accounts of the church meeting together and there is no reference to handling snakes in any of them. In his letters Paul often gives instructions for conducting meeting of local churches but he never says anything about snakes. There is only one time in the New Testament that tells of a believer picking up a snake. After Paul had been shipwrecked on Malta on his final voyage to Rome he was bitten by a snake but didn’t suffer any harm. But he didn’t pick the snake up on purpose; it was hidden in a bunch of sticks he gathered to put on a fire.
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.
When Satan was tempting Jesus he urged him to throw himself off of the top of the temple because God had promised to send angels to protect him. His response is recorded in Matthew 4:7,
It is written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
It is wrong for us to needlessly expose ourselves to danger just because God has promised to protect us. Those who try to show their faith by handling snakes are in fact yielding to this temptation which Jesus resisted.
Furthermore, Jesus didn’t promise that every believer who picked up a poisonous snake would be protected. This passage contains other signs, including speaking in other tongues and healing the sick by laying hands on them. Both of these are among the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10.
For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
This passage teaches that they are special gifts given by God to certain individuals and that not everyone can do them. If these signs aren’t to be exercized by everybody what reason is there to believe that every believer can safely pick up poisonous snakes? So if you hear of a Christian dying as a result of snakebite or poison it doesn’t necessarily mean that he lacked faith. It would only mean that God hadn’t given him this particular gift.