Summary: Don’t believe anything just because somebody else told you to.
Imagine being out in the woods, hiking, camping, working. When all of a sudden you feel a sharp pain in your leg. You look down and see two small holes in your skin and this long, legless creature slithering away through the grass. Well, being a fairly intelligent person, you’d probably come rather quickly to the conclusion that you’d been snake-bit. You’d also know that you needed medical attention in a hurry.
So you’d start back to the house or the car while taking note that your leg is hurting pretty bad. You need to get to a doctor fast. The pain is spreading, your heart rate begins to fluctuate, and you start to vomit. You’re sick and weak and in pain, and you have to make a real effort to keep from passing out.
Well, fast forward ahead a bit. You’re in the doctor’s office or hospital, and they’ve given you a shot of antivenin. After a while your heart rate normalizes, you’re no longer sweating and sick to your stomach, and you begin to feel like you might live after all.
The doctor asks how you feel and you say, "Much better. Say, what was in that shot you gave me anyhow?" Imagine your surprise when you’re told that the stuff that saved your life was the same stuff that almost killed you in the first place - snake venom. Only when they gave you the snake venom it wasn’t just straight from the snake. It was refined, mixed with other ingredients, all in the proper proportions.
There are many antivenins made from poisonous snakes and spiders all around the world. When used in their refined state, they can cure illness and prevent death. If used all by themselves, they can cause pain and suffering, crippling, irreversible damage, or a painful and unpleasant death.
There are a lot of things in this world that can hurt us if taken alone or help us if taken and used properly. Some are naturally occurring and some are man-made. There are even certain medications that can be helpful if taken together and harmful if taken alone.
Believe it or not, the Word of God is the same way. There are things in the Bible that, if taken as part of the whole, are very beneficial to us. But those same things, if taken alone, can be very harmful.
Take today’s scripture, for example. This passage from Mark has caused some controversy. For one thing, the earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses don’t even have this passage in them. For another thing, there are some people who’ve taken this obscure little reference to snakes and built a whole theology around it.
In Luke, chapter 10, verse 19, Jesus says to the seventy-two messengers, "I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions, and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you." This would seem like Jesus is telling these people that they can step all over snakes and scorpions and not get hurt. But what he’s actually referring to is evil spirits. He’s calling them snakes and scorpions and he’s telling the messengers not to fear the evil spirits because he’s giving them protection.
But the passage in Mark has been taken by some people and interpreted to mean that if they pick up deadly snakes with their hands, no harm will come to them. Even worse, they interpret it as a command to pick up and handle poisonous snakes and drink deadly poison.
We all know that there are churches where people actually do this. There aren’t many, but they do exist, mostly back in West Virginia and Tennessee. These people go to church, where they pray and sing and dance until they feel like they’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they go up to the front of the church where the deacons or elders have brought out a box full of snakes - rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins. They also set out Mason jars full of a clear liquid that’s supposed to be cyanide.
The people pick up the snakes, dance around with them, kiss them and rub them, and then put them down. Other people go up and drink out of the Mason jars. Then they go back to their seats and continue on with their worship until it’s time to go home.
Well, needless to say, the death rate in these cults is high enough that the courts have tried to intervene to keep children from at least not handling snakes and drinking poison, if not to keep them from going to these meetings at all.
A lot of children in these cults are orphaned because both parents have died from snake-bite. They have to be cared for by other family or church members. Couples have divorced over the issue of handling snakes, and they get court protection to keep their kids out of these so-called churches.