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“These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My Name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; 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.” (Mk. 16:17-18)
So here’s a fun experiment. Let’s have every Christian in the world pour themselves a glass of deadly poison and drink it down. What do you think would happen? We’d all keep skipping through our days, of course, because Jesus said we’re immune to poison. He also said we could play with deadly snakes, cast out demons, speak in tongues, and heal every sick person we lay our hands on. Fabulous…well, fabulous for everyone but you, that is. Obviously your faith has some problems because you’re not living in the miracle world Jesus described. Well, the explanation is clear: you must not really be saved. Your faith in Christ is just a sham–at least this is what many teachers in the Church today will tell you because they want the above verse to be a rock solid promise. But while they’re busy criticizing your lack of faith, you don’t see them pouring themselves a glass of poison, do you? Funny how we insist that these words can be taken literally, and yet we’re the first ones out the door when that deadly viper slithers into view. And for all our sermons about miracle cures, we don’t like to talk about all those times the cures didn’t happen.
So what’s going wrong here? If we’re honest, we know that all of these things aren’t happening in the lives of every believer. In fact you probably can’t think of a single believer who has really experienced all of these miracles. Maybe some claim to have drunk poison, but for all you know they’re lying. And maybe you’ve heard them speak in tongues, but let’s be honest: tongues is an easy thing to fake. Anyone can get up and mumble a bunch of gibberish, and plenty do just so they can get judgmental believers off their backs.
This isn’t a literal promise. By now that should be extremely obvious, but for some reason we have problems saying it. What is it about Jesus talking that makes us turn into lying hypocrites? We all know that there are days when we can’t even get demons to stop with the minor irritations, so this notion of exorcising them anytime we feel like it is a complete crock. And this is precisely where we go wrong when we sit around drooling over passages like Mark 16:17-18—we’re assuming that we get to call the shots about when and how all these will miracles happen. Well, we don’t.
Let’s not throw context out the window just because we’re greedy for power. When Jesus said this, He was speaking to His eleven disciples (the original twelve minus Judas) in a private meeting. This wasn’t some hillside sermon to the general masses.
Afterward Jesus appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My Name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; 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.”
So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. (Mk. 16:14-20)
None of the disciples are getting gold stars for their faith here. In fact, the first thing Jesus does is chew them out for their unbelief. Notice it says not just their unbelief but also their hardness of heart—that’s some pretty strong language. As far as Jesus is concerned, He told these guys over and over again that He’d come back after three days so hellooooo, what’s the problem?! Well, the problem is that they all saw Jesus’ butchered corpse and the whole resurrection thing was a little hard to swallow. Even when an eye witness (Mary Magdalene) came rushing back with a glowing face to tell them about her conversation with Jesus, nope, they wouldn’t believe her. And then when two more eye witnesses rushed in and confirmed Mary’s story after they’d talked with Jesus on a country road, nope, the disciples still refused to budge. Well, now Jesus is irritated with them. All this stubborn doubting isn’t going to do them any good after He’s gone. This is a time for faith and action. These eleven mules are who Jesus has trained to get the new Church off the ground. They’re all gifted with evangelism. Are you gifted with evangelism? Probably not. Most Christians do not have the spiritual gift of evangelism. If you’d rather wash a sink full of dishes than share the Good News with a stranger, then you don’t have the gift of evangelism. True evangelists are dying to share. They don’t need lectures and guilt trips, they are out the door shoving tracks into people’s hands and striking up theological discussions before anyone can stop them. But like all humans, real evangelists tend to get blinded by their God given zeal and they start thinking everyone else should think like they do and have a burning desire to share. Well, no, this isn’t how God wants it. There are many gifts and many forms of service. God doesn’t want everyone to be an evangelist, so if you hate witnessing (let’s be honest), then stop taking that as evidence that you’re a spiritual slacker. When God wants you to share the Good News, He’ll get you excited about it. When He doesn’t, you’ll have more fun shoveling wet cement. See Debunking the Great Guilt Trip: It’s Not Your Job to Save the World for help if you’re currently carrying around a brick load of condemnation and guilt on the subject of witnessing.
So then, what we find in Mark 16 is Jesus building a fire under the tunics of His eleven disciples. He wants them to stop doubting and pouting and open up their minds to what is happening right in front of them: Jesus has come back from the dead just as He said He would do. Soon the Holy Spirit will come, and then it will be time for some serious preaching and teaching.
Now Jesus isn’t all gruff…there’s a little niceness sprinkled in there. He knows that He’s sending His boys out on a pretty intimidating mission and that they could use something to boost their confidence. He’s told them before that God will back them up with some Divine power, but right about now they could really use a reminder of that. By now they’ve already had a taste of casting out demons…but those days feel like they’re in the distant past. Now Jesus is going to leave them—AGAIN—and how are they supposed to get along without Him? Oh that’s right, some other God is going to come and help them. Well, He’s not here yet, is He? They’re by themselves and why should anyone listen to them when they go around saying some dead Guy was the Messiah? Like anyone is going to believe that Jesus rose from the grave—especially when He’s not going to be around to prove it.
“These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My Name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; 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.”
Well, here is something. If such miraculous signs accompany the disciples’ work, then they’ll have some chance at gaining respect and being listened to. But notice Jesus never says that EVERY believer will show ALL of these signs ALL of the time—these are things that we add in because we are so hungry for some of that power.
True to His promise, as the Church got off the ground, God did produce many signs and wonders. Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake and lived. Many of the disciples spoke in tongues and healed people. In fact the healing thing happened so often that young James thought it was something we could always count on—ah, the naivety of youth. We don’t find a bunch of examples of the disciples guzzling poison, but perhaps there were some incidents of attempted assassinations that failed. But did every disciple do all of these things? Do believers today experience all of these things? Of course not. God likes variety. He doesn’t treat us all the same. When Jesus made this statement, He wasn’t signing some contract and agreeing to produce these signs in the lives of every believer.
As Christians, we can look back on a long history of God doing shocking, unexpected things. We can see Him changing Laws and changing Covenants. God says one thing one day, then changes it the next. He often misleads and deceives in order to infuse stalled believers with fresh motivation. Throughout the Old Testament we find Yahweh giving all kinds of grand promises to people who He knew would never see them fulfilled. For example, He painted many pretty pictures of how glorious life would be for the Jews that He brought back from exile after the fall of Jerusalem. But none of it really happened. When the exiles returned, they weren’t at all the devoted, zealous believers that Yahweh said they would be. Instead they were snarky brats. The whole world didn’t stream to Yahweh’s shining Temple in a rebuilt Jerusalem. Instead, Jerusalem limped along in a half-destroyed mess for decades, and Yahweh had to punish His people with poverty and hardship before they’d finally get off their duffs and start rebuilding His Temple.
We can never isolate one group of verses and then try to build a whole theology on them. Any doctrine that leads us to expect a perfect, disease-free life on earth is a total crock. Any preacher who tries to tell you that God has given you dominion over the spiritual realm is lying to you. You can believe him if you want to, but the day will come when you rebuke in Jesus’ Name and nothing happens. The day will come when your loved one is dying some horrible death and all the prayers, oil, and fasting in the world doesn’t lessen their pain or spare their life. The truth is that life on earth is never going to feel like the life we dream of when we imagine a fulfillment of Mark 16:17-18. And even the guys who came closest to fulfilling it—like the apostle Paul—had a whole lot of suffering, pain, and frustration to go along with the miracles.
In your lifetime, God is going to say “no” to a whole lot of your prayers—prayers that you thought He promised to say yes to somewhere in Scripture. The day comes when you have to decide who you’re going to worship: the Bible or God. They are not one and the same. God is an independent Being who will do whatever He wants whenever He wants regardless of what He said to eleven men 2,000 years ago. You can either track with God and try to keep pace with Him, or you can be like the Jews who rejected Jesus and still reject Him today because they’re hanging onto Yahweh’s statement that He is the only God in existence. Yahweh did say that. He also said that anyone caught worshiping other gods should be publicly executed. But God changes His mind, and today Yahweh demands that we revere two other Gods in addition to Him: Jesus and the magnificent Holy Spirit.
You’re not going to get far in the faith if you constantly deny how often your experience in life contradicts many of the pretty promises written in the Word. God doesn’t always choose to heal. He doesn’t always drive demons away when we ask. As a general rule, He’s going to tell you not to drink deadly poison. If you want to drink it anyway and demand that God be true to His Word, well, when you die some nasty death and go up to Heaven, you’ll find out how much it doesn’t please God when His kids try to use Bible verses as an excuse to boss Him around. We don’t get to tell God what to do…EVER. We get to make polite requests that end with “not my will but Yours be done.” And then if God doesn’t do what we were expecting, we can ask Him for help with the resulting theological trauma and He will help us. But telling Him that He owes us healing and protection from demons? Nope, this attitude will get us nothing but discipline. You’re much better off listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to you today then you are rifling through the Book trying to find binding statements that you can throw in God’s face to make Him do what you want. There are no binding statements. God will do whatever He wants.