If today's youth were to visit a church full of snake handlers during a Sunday morning worship service, it is highly unlikely that they would fall asleep during the sermon. When did the practice of handling poisonous snakes in church start? Why would anyone participate in such an obviously dangerous act? Why handle snakes instead of other poisonous creatures such as spiders?
The practice of snake handling in church began in the early 1900s in the southeast corner of Tennessee. In fact, it is not very far from where I live. George Hensley is believed to be the founder of the snake handler movement.
According to Gordon Melton (author), George was preaching in a Church of God early in the 1900's on the book of Mark Chapter 16 which states 15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. 17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. The congregation then dumped a box of live rattlesnakes onto the church floor. The preacher, nonplussed, picked up the snakes and kept right on preaching. The snake handling church was born.
According to Holy Writ, the serpent is a symbol of evil and the devil. It was Satan in the form of a serpent that deceived Eve concerning the eating of the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. This resulted in a curse upon not just man but all of the created Earth. Apparently, the serpent was once a beautiful creature until the Edenic deception. God told the serpent So the Lord God said to the serpent: "Because you have done this, You are cursed more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you shall go, And you shall eat dust All the days of your life. Gen. 3:14Today, men and women are totally repulsed by snakes. When someone sees a snake, they want to kill it. No one wants to become snake handlers.
When Moses led his people out of Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness, they began to complain about God's provision which angered God. God put "fiery serpents" (poisonous snakes) in their midst and many died from the snakebites (See Numbers Chapter 21). The people repented (changed their mind about their complaining) and confessed to Moses they had sinned and asked for forgiveness. God instructed Moses to put a serpent on a pole and if anyone looked at the serpent, they would not be harmed by the snakes. This was God's way of previewing Christ being put on a pole and if anyone looked to Him they would not be harmed by the snakebite of sin. John 3:14 states And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, How many Israelites perished because they refused to look at the serpent on the pole? How many today die a spiritual death because they refuse to look at Christ lifted on a pole?
The book of Revelation refers to the Devil and Satan as a serpent. Rev 12:9 states So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. Since snakes are serpents and serpents represent Satan and evil, then the point of a snake handling service is that Satan can not harm you if you have faith in God.
George Hensley, the original snake handler, died of a snakebite in 1955, Was it because he had didn't have enough faith? That would be like saying your child was murdered because you didn't have enough faith in God to prevent it. There are many deceived people who attend ministers so-called "healing services" so they might be healed of whatever affliction they are suffering from. If they are not healed, then they are told "they didn't have enough faith". Many others claim to be healed but doctors' tests show they are not.
What did Jesus mean when he said, "They shall take up serpents and drink poison and it will not hurt them"?
First of all, he was talking about the beginning years of the church when the Holy Spirit empowered people to do miraculous things so people would believe the gospel and the greatest miracle of all: that Jesus paid the price for their sins and because Jesus lives they also will inherit eternal life if they put their trust in Jesus.
Thousands of Christians in the early church were persecuted heavily for their belief in Christ. Many were imprisoned and many were put to death. I'm sure that many were given poison to drink, but the poison did not harm them because God wouldn't let it.
Paul himself was bitten by a poisonous snake but suffered no ill effects from it. In Acts 28:3-5 we read But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, "No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live." But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.
How is this different from the snake handling of today? God's divine protection was over Paul and the new converts. Paul did not intentionally grab a poisonous snake. One bit him when he was gathering firewood. The snake's poison had no effect and this actually fulfilled the prophecy of Jesus when He said "They shall take up serpents and no harm will befall them".
So what's wrong with drinking a little poison during church and letting rattlesnakes slither all over you? When Jesus was being tempted by Satan in the wilderness and Satan asked Jesus to jump off a pinnacle because angels would protect him, Jesus replied, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God". He was quoting Deut. 6:16. That is exactly what snake handlers do: They put the Lord, their God, to the test. I imagine God runs out of patience sometimes.
Snake handling, speaking in tongues, casting out demons, drinking poison, and healing the sick are featured heavily in many churches of today and I believe it is one reason we have a very large apostate church. Why? Because the pursuit of miracles produces only unbelief. Those Christians who pursue these things are not looking for Christ's return or a relationship with Christ: they are looking for the next miracle. Their faith is very weak.
The best way to grow in faith and in a relationship with Christ is to read and study the bible...not pursue signs. Romans 10:17 states So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. If you are tempted to join a church of snake handlers, remember God doesn't like being put to a foolish test and the law has made this practice illegal in most states.
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