Pentecostalism, which was born in the opening years of the twentieth century, has since exerted a wide influence around the world. It is a wide and varied movement, with some groups hewing relatively close to historic Christian orthodoxy. Other Pentecostal groups, however, are known for incorporating strange practices into their worship. One group of Pentecostals, which is admittedly on the fringes of the movement, handles poisonous snakes and drinks poison during worship services.
These groups base such practices on Mark 16:17–18, which records Jesus’ telling the disciples that those who receive their message will experience various signs and wonders. And as we read the history of the early church in the book of Acts, we see that many of the things Jesus mentioned did take place. There is no record of people drinking poison and surviving in the book of Acts, but there are instances of healing the sick (for example, Acts 3:1–10). Acts 28:1–6 tells us that while Paul was stranded on the island of Malta after a shipwreck, a viper bit him, but he suffered no ill effects.
With respect to the practices of intentional snake handling and drinking poison, we must note that today’s passage is descriptive and not prescriptive. That is, it does not give us any command to engage in such practices; it merely says that some believers will, in the course of ministry, happen to be assaulted with poisons of various kinds and survive. Indeed, we must condemn the intentional engagement with poison as a test of faith or as a practice of worship, for to do such things is to test God, which is forbidden (Deut. 6:16; Matt. 4:7).
But what of the gift of miracles? Does God continue to endow certain believers today with a particular ability to heal others and do other signs and wonders? We are not asking whether the Lord continues to heal people supernaturally in response to prayer or whether there are instances where we are saved from accidents and other dangers by means that have no natural explanation. That clearly occurs, for many Christians have seen people healed of diseases that were supposed to be terminal or have even experienced such healing themselves. No, we are asking whether the specific gift of miracle working operates today. And the answer to that question seems to be no. Extraordinary signs and wonders such as are described in Scripture passed away after the Apostolic age ended, for their purpose was to confirm the gospel (Mark 16:20).