“Master, we would see a sign from thee.” Do these sound like the words of the followers of Jesus? Some have hastily answered, “Oh yes, I just love to see the miraculous, the strange, the hard to believe.” Well, let me point out to you that the opening quotation is from Matthew 12:38, and the words were spoken by people that Jesus called a generation of vipers in verse 34, and “an evil and adulterous generation” in verse 39. Let us take a Bible look at the spirit of signhunting.
The following article appeared in newspapers across the country some years ago:
SNAKE’S BITE KILLS CULTIST
East Lynn, WV (UPI) – A 28-year-old religious cult snake handler died in this Wayne County community Monday of an untreated snake bite – the same way his father-in-law died two months ago.
Lonnie Richardson, 28, died at his home without medical attention less than 24 hours after he was bitten on the upper right arm by a rattlesnake during a Sunday night religious service.
Richardson and his father-in-law, Tallmade Adkins, were members of a cult meeting at the Jesus Church. The group bases its snake handling practice on a verse in the 16th chapter of Mark. “And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”
Such accounts as this are not extremely common nor are they uncommon. This is ridiculous, but it isn’t funny. We are bound to think of the terrible pain suffered by the snake bite victims as well as the heartache of their wives and children at the loss of their loved ones. Added to this is the frustration that must overflow their souls as they try to reconcile this tragedy with their religious opinion and their interpretation of the Scripture. The very fact that such a thing takes placein the name of Christianity and is “based on a Bible verse” (wrong as the interpretation of that verse may be) compels me to speak out.
SIGN SEEKING IS NOT SCRIPTURAL
I believe in miracles. God is a God of miraculous acts which He has performed at sundry times according to His plan and purpose. I thank God for this and have no sympathy for religious teaching that denies the miraculous. I believe in signs. God has given us many of them at His appointed times and according to His purpose, and has revealed in His Word the meaning and purpose of them. To believe in these is a simple matter of faith in the Word of God and to doubt them is to question the integrity of God and the validity of the Bible. On the other hand, sign hunting comes not from a spirit of afaith which is deeply satisfied with the mighty acts of God already performed, but from a spirit of unbelief which demands a perpetual continuation of those signs, wonders and miracles. This is the attitude of the skeptic which says, “Except I see, I will not believe.”
Is this spirit to be commended? Let the Scripture speak. In John 20:24-25, Thomas was told of the Lord’s resurrection. “But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” His answer was simply, “Except I see, I will not believe.”
In John 20:26-29, he is given that opportunity to see and he does believe. “And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
Let me first point out that what he now believes was already told him and that months ago by the Lord Jesus Himself. “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priest and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (Matthew 16:21). Thomas’demand for a miraculous, visible manifestation was, in fact, blind unbelief of the Lord’s words. Does Jesus commend his skepticism? No, He rebukes it, “Be not faithless, but believing.” The Lord further gives a commendation to past and futurefaith in God’s Word without signs. “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
NEW TESTAMENT SIGN SEEKERS
People who want to constantly see signs or behold the supernatural are not a new breed. They were common in the days of Jesus. Moreover, their spirit and the Lord’s attitude toward them are most clearly indicated in the Bible. In Matthew 12:38, we see such a request. In verse 39, we read these words. “But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign.” In Matthew 16:1-4, you see the same thing. Note Mark 8:11-13. “And the Pharisees came forth, and began to question with him, seeking of him a sign from heaven, tempting him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and saith, Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation. And he left them, and entering into the ship again departed to the other side.” You can see here that the sign seekers were of an antagonistic spirit tempting Jesus. You can further see that He was deeply grieved with them in verse 12, and that He left them in verse 13. Consider also Luke 11:16. “And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven” and Luke 11:29: “And when the people were gathered thick together, he began to say, This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet.” In John 6:30, we see the
people who had just one day ago beheld the feeding of the 5,000 and who had, in fact, shared in it, (John 6:10) asking for a sign that they might see and believe. “They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost work?” (John 6:30). What utterly ridiculous unbelief and what an insult to all the past miracles ofthe Lord! In 1 Corinthians 14:22, Paul states that signs (in this particular case the sign of tongues) are not for use to the edification of believers, but to shock and sober the skeptical unbeliever. It is thus a bad, bad spirit in professed believers that would drive them to seek signs. In I Corinthians 1:22-24, Paul states a contrast that we should observe carefully.
“For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” Here Paul places the preaching of the Gospel at opposite poles from sign seeking and the seeking of human wisdom. He states that neither of these categories, unless spiritually converted, will come to Christ for to one He is a stumbling block and to the other foolishness.
I frequently hear a professing Christian and yes, I believe sometimes a genuine child of God say, “I asked God for a sign.” What wickedness! or what ignorance! Such a statement reveals one of two things. It either shows an ignorance of what God has said in His Word, or a measure of question as to its certainty. I NEED NO SIGN. I can honestly say at thismoment that no trial or challenge has yet confronted my life wherein God’s Word has not been sufficient when I have sufficiently sought it out. I am further fully persuaded by His Word that none ever shall.
A WRONG INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE
It has been stated that the “snake-handlers” base their deadly practice on Mark 16:17-18. “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 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.” It should be immediately obvious to the perceptive mind that when a snake is handled and a person is bitten and dies or even gets sick that one of two things has occurred. One, God has not fulfilled this scriptural promise, or, two, they have wrongly interpreted the Scripture. I am fully persuaded that number one is a total impossibility, while number two is an ever-present human weakness.
All the signs of Mark 16:17-18 were given to lend visible evidence to the identity of Jesus Christ who was to be preached unto all nations. These apostolic gifts were granted for an interim period of time continuing through the lifetime of the apostles. They were given, in mercy, to a people that doubted the Messianic identity of a man of no reputation (Isaiah 53:1-3). Not one of these promised miracles has failed to occur. “And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita. And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold. And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god. In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously.” (Acts 28:1-7) The serpent has been taken up. It need not be done again. So it is with every other supernatural sign of Mark 16:17-18. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but ever since I read what happened in Eden, and come to think of it, even before that, I don’t like snakes of any flavor, and I find no commission in the Bible that invites me to handle them. If I do, I’ll do it like Paul did (unintentionally). I’ll also, like Paul, shake him off as rapidly as possible, and into the fire if possible.
THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE
The basic problem in the interpretation of this Scripture is that they have the cart before the horse. Mark 16:17 says, “These signs shall follow them.” These mistaken people try rather to follow the signs. By this I mean they seek to produce the signs, to make them happen or to display themselves in relationship to the signs. Such an intention is absolutely foreign to the possessors of the New Testament gifts. There was a man in the Bible who sought on his own to participate in a spiritual gift. He was called Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:18-23). You see the apostles never sought opportunity toexercise their gifts. They rather preached Christ and exercised their gifts when and as God laid the responsibility upon them. Both Peter and Paul raised the dead, but they didn’t hunt dead people to raise, they sought souls to whom they might preach. They healed the sick, but they never advertised for sick folk to heal. They rather exercised the responsibility of healing as it confronted them. They cast out devils, but they never represented themselves as exorcists,nor did they go devil hunting. Paul handled a deadly serpent, but he did it involuntarily. He got rid of it as soon as possible, just like any normal person would do. He never went snake hunting, invited anyone to handle a snake, or brought snakes into a “place of worship” as part of a service.
For people to try to incite the miraculous in order to promote themselves or their religious group is spiritual prostitution. It is like the physically beautiful wife who strips herself (partly or completely) and displays before the world the beauty of her body which God would have her reserve for her husband.
The responsibility of today is very clearly set forth in the Bible. Among the many Scriptures is Matthew 28:19-20. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” Note, we are not charged to do anything spectacular as far as performing miracles is concerned. We are told to teach all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all things “Whatsoever I have commanded you.” This does not include snake fondling or any other type of exhibitionism. We should be completely gratified by the glorious opportunity of testifying of the saving grace of Jesus Christ through word of mouth and manner of life. Preachers shouldbe thrilled to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ knowing it is the power of God unto salvation. If God chooses at various times to bless in a miraculous way, fine. If not, has He not already manifested Himself sufficiently?
To those skeptical hearers who constantly seek a sign, I give an answer in the words of our Savior Himself as He quoted Abraham speaking to the rich man in hell in Luke 16:31. “And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, (God’s Word) neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” You see the person whose religiouspersuasion is based on anything except God’s Word is not converted to Christ, but to excitement. His faith is not in God’s Word, but in miracles. Let men stay their hearts on the promise of Jesus Christ. “He that HEARETH MY WORD, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.” (John 5:24) May God lead you into all truth. Amen.