They will take up serpents? (An explanation of Mark 16:18)

Mark 16:18 (NKJV)

15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; 18 they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”


Here, we see the Christ give what is known as “the Great Commission” (the command to preach the Gospel to the end that men are saved and grown spiritually) before His PHYSICAL departure from the Earth (see also Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:46-53, John 20:21-23, Acts 1:1-9). He promises signs (supernatural indications) which would be seen with those who believe in His Gospel (vs. 17). The aim of this treatise is to not to treat all these signs individually, rather, it narrows in on one of these signs (“they will take up serpents,” vs. 18a). A cursory glance through Church history reveals that many interpretations have been assigned to this sign, the most famous being as an endorsement for the practice of snake handling. We are aware that some have died holding on to Mark 16:18a as a promise of protection from snake bites. Sadly, only faith placed upon what the Bible ACTUALLY promises will work! “Faith begins where the will of God is known.” (Kenneth E. Hagin). This essay would attempt to provide what we believe to be the best interpretation of the Mark 16:18a text, in its contextual, historical, cultural and patristic understandings, taking a cue from theologian James White who said:


“Sound exegesis is the only way of making sure we are allowing God to speak rather than our speaking for God.”


Mark 16:18 (NKJV)

18 they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”


The word “take up” as used here was translated from the Greek word “airo (αἴρω).” It has a multiplicity of meanings in the Greek Lexicon, and as such, context would determine where each fits. Here, it would mean to move something from its place, to take away by force. The word “airo (αἴρω)” is used similarly in the following texts (note the capitalized words):


Luke 6:30 (NKJV)

30 Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who TAKES AWAY your goods do not ask them back.


Luke 11:52 (NKJV)

52 “Woe to you lawyers! For you have TAKEN AWAY the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered.”


John 11:48 (NKJV)

48 If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and TAKE AWAY both our place and nation.”


From the above stated occurrences, “airo (αἴρω)” would imply the use of force to take out or take away. You would understand this better in context of what the Lord Jesus had said earlier in the antecedent text.


Vs. 17

17 And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues;


The word “cast out” was translated from the Greek word “ekballo (ἐκβάλλω).” “Ekballo (ἐκβάλλω)” is a compound verb made up of two other Greek words: “ek” (“out from”) and “ballo” (“throw”). That is, to throw out, expel or banish, to send away. This would imply the use of force, authority or ability to get someone out, in this case, demons. So vs. 18 is a CONTINUATION from vs. 17; Jesus is further explaining that exercise of authority over demons. Here (vs. 18), He calls it “taking up serpents.” The word “serpents” was translated from the Greek word “opheis (ὄφεις).” It is a word used figuratively for the devil and demons, to depict wisdom and cunning, being deceitful. Hebrew scholar Wilhelm Gesenius notes that even amongst the ancient Hebrews, the serpent was a symbol of wisdom (Gesenius, Wilhelm & Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1893). Genenius’s Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures . J. Wiley & Sons. p. dccxcvi.). Its first usage in Genesis 3:1 bears this out.


Genesis 3:1 (NKJV)

1 Now THE SERPENT was MORE CUNNING than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”


Here, Moses uses the serpent figuratively in reference to the devil. The word “cunning” was translated from the Hebrew word “arum (עָרוּם).” It means crafty, shrewd, sensible. It connotes subtility and prudence. The serpent was also a symbol of evil power and chaos in ancient Egyptian, Canaan and Mesopotamian cultures (Olson, Dennis T. (1996). Numbers . Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 135–8). Moses probably drew from this prevalent cultural metaphor in his writing. Concerning this, early Church father Clement of Alexandria wrote:


“For that wicked reptile monster, by his enchantments, enslaves and plagues men even till now… This wicked tyrant and serpent, accordingly, binding fast with the miserable chain of superstition whomsoever he can draw to his side from their birth, to stones, and stocks, and images, and such like idols, may with truth be said to have taken and buried living men with those dead idols, till both suffer corruption together.


Therefore (for the seducer is one and the same) he that at the beginning brought Eve down to death, now brings there the rest of mankind.”


(Clement of Alexandria: Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter 1)


The Apostle Paul describes this in 2 Corinthians 11:3 as well


2 Corinthians 11:3 (NKJV)

3 But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.


He uses “serpent” for the devil and refers to him as one who deceives (see also John 8:44, 2 Corinthians 11:14).


Jesus also calls “serpents” evil spirits.


Luke 10:17-20 (NKJV)

17 Then the seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, EVEN THE DEMONS are subject to us in Your name.” 18 And He said to them, “I SAW SATAN fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I give you the authority to trample on SERPENTS and SCORPIONS, AND OVER ALL THE POWER OF THE ENEMY, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. 20 Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that THE SPIRITS are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”


Observe the 19th verse: “I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, AND OVER ALL THE POWER OF THE ENEMY”


The word “and” as used here is from the Greek word “kai (καὶ).” It bears a copulative force here. That is, it further explains the previously stated. So the text may be better read thus:


“”I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, even OVER ALL THE POWER OF THE ENEMY”


“Serpents and scorpions” are used as metaphors for “the power of the enemy” (vs. 19) and evil spirits (vs. 20). They are nonliteral.


Also, in the next chapter, Jesus uses “serpents” metaphorically as an antithesis of the Holy Spirit.


Luke 11:9-13 (NKJV)

9 “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 11 If a son asks FOR BREAD from any father among you, will he give him A STONE? Or if he asks for A FISH, will he give him A SERPENT instead of A FISH? 12 Or if he asks for AN EGG, will he offer him A SCORPION? 13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father GIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT to those who ask Him!”


God will not give evil spirits (represented by stone, serpent and scorpions) to those who ask for the Holy Spirit (represented by bread, fish and egg in the narrative).


Furthermore, The Apostle John in the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ;


Revelation 12:9 (NKJV)

9 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.


Revelation 13:2 (NKJV)

2 Now the beast which I saw was like a leopard, his feet were like the feet of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. THE DRAGON gave him his power, his throne, and great authority.


Revelation 16:13 (NKJV)

13 And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs coming out of the mouth of THE DRAGON, out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.


Revelation 20:2 (NKJV)

2 He laid hold of THE DRAGON, that SERPENT OF OLD, who is THE DEVIL and SATAN, and bound him for a thousand years;


Here, the devil is called “the dragon” and “that serpent of old.”


“Dragon”: The word “dragon” was translated from the Greek word “drakón (δράκων).” It is derived from the root word “derkomai” which means “to see.” It literally means “seeing one,” used in classical Greek of mythical dragons (huge serpents) seeing their prey from far away. John uses it figuratively to describe Satan who exercises his subtle impact on heathen governments (powers) – i.e. accomplishing his hellish agenda from “behind the scenes.” “For the sacred oracles in the books of God’s prophets have described him as a dragon and a crooked serpent..” (Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 265- c. 340: Life of Constantine, Book III, chap. 3). Augustine (354 AD- 430 AD) is more explicit:


“What more after the heads of dragons? For those dragons have their chief, and he is himself the first great dragon. And concerning him what has He done that has wrought Salvation in the midst of the earth? Hear:  You have broken the head of the dragon  [ Psalm 73:14 ]. Of what dragon? We understand by dragons all the demons that war under the devil: what single dragon then, whose head was broken, but the devil himself ought we to understand? What with him has He done?  You have broken the head of the dragon.  That is, the beginning of sin. That head is the part which received the curse, to wit that the seed of Eve should mark the head of the serpent. [ Genesis 3:15 ] For the Church was admonished to shun the beginning of sin. Which is that beginning of sin, like the head of a serpent? The beginning of all sin is pride. [ Ecclesiastes 10:13 ] There has been broken therefore the head of the dragon, has been broken pride diabolical. (Augustine of Hippo: The Ennarations, or Expositions, on the Psalms, Psalm 74, no. 13)




“For the enemy does not cease to persecute; and when he does not openly rage, he plots in secret. How does he plot? And for wrath, they worked deceitfully. Thence is he called a lion and a dragon. But what is said to Christ? You shall tread on the lion and the dragon. Lion, for open rage; dragon, for hidden treachery. The dragon cast Adam out of Paradise; as a lion, the same persecuted the Church, as Peter says: For your adversary, the devil, goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. [1 Peter 5:8] Let it not seem to you as if the devil had lost his ferocity. When he blandly flatters, then is he the more vigilantly to be guarded against.” (Augustine of Hippo: Tractates on the Gospel of John, Tractate 10)


“Serpent of old”: The phrase “of old” was translated from the Greek word “archaios (ἀρχαῖος).” It means original (that which has been from the Beginning), ancient. Further emphasizing that THAT serpent (in the Beginning — Genesis) which tempted Eve was the devil. As Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-235 AD) rightly opines:


“What, then, is meant by the serpent but Antichrist, that deceiver who is mentioned in Genesis, [ Genesis 3:1 ] who deceived Eve and supplanted Adam.” (Hippolytus: The Antichrist, 14)


Remember John, who wrote the Book of Revelation, was a Jew. And as a Hebrew custom (see Deuteronomy 6:6-9, Proverbs 3;1-3, Proverbs 22:6, Psalm 78:1-8), he had to be well acquainted with the Holy Scriptures (Genesis to Malachi) and was definitely familiar with the Genesis 3 narrative, so he reiterates here. This is an allusion sourced from the Torah.


So, back to Mark 16:18


“..they will take up serpents”


To “take up serpents” would therefore mean to forcefully drive out the works of darkness! This we saw the disciples do (Acts 8:7, 16:16-18, 19:11-12), “..and with the Apostles too He wrought other like wonders continually. [ Mark 16:18 ]” (John Chrysostom: Homily 15 on Romans). It is not literal in ANY WAY nor does it imply to handle snakes with your bare hands!


“But the originals read: “kai en tais chersin opheis arousin (“and with their hands, serpents they will take up”).”


That is not difficult. The word “hands” in the Greek is “chersin (χερσὶν).” It may be used for literal hands (as in Mark 3:1; Luke 6:6; 1 Timothy 2:8) or figuratively for agency, instrumentality, power or activity (as in 2 Corinthians 11:33, Hebrews 1:10, Acts 7:35, Galatians 3:19) i.e the medium through which an action or event comes about. Apparently, the latter sense is employed here. Jesus is saying: through their agency, the works of darkness will be driven out! All who believe would be the instruments through which this would happen.


How about Acts 28:5?


Acts 28:1-6 (NKJV)

1 Now when they had escaped, they then found out that the island was called Malta. 2 And the natives showed us unusual kindness; for they kindled a fire and made us all welcome, because of the rain that was falling and because of the cold. 3 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. 4 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.” 5 But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.


Let’s observe the text closely. The key is in the third and fifth verses. Note the words Luke uses in vs. 3: “..a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand.”


No where does it say that Paul DELIBERATELY handled the viper. This was an unforeseen/unanticipated circumstance. Also, the Apostle is not bitten by the viper. The word “fastened” was translated from the Greek word “kathaptó.” Used only once here in the entire Greek New Testament. It means “to bind on.” The serpent twirls around his hands and remains that way without striking him, as John Chrysostom puts it:


“Once even a viper [ Acts 28:3-5 ] reverenced (did not harm) those hands: for they were the hands of a human being no longer (a hyperbole); and therefore it did not even fasten on (remain on) them.” (Homily on First Corinthians, Homily 13, interpolations mine)


The Syriac and Arabic versions render it, “bit his hand”; but that does not seem so likely, since he felt no harm by it; the Ethiopic version has “hung upon his hand”; which agrees with what follows; nor is it inconsistent with its wrapping itself about his hand, which is the more proper signification of the word used. (Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible)


Then vs. 5 also: “But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.”


SUFFERED NO HARM! The word “suffered” as used here was translated from the Greek word “paschó (πάσχω).” It means to undergo evils, or to be afflicted (as used in the classical writings of Homer and Hesiod). The word “harm” is from the Greek word “kakos (κακός).” It refers to injury. That is, Paul was not injured by the serpent at all. He merely shook it off into the flames. Hence vs. 6,


6 However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.


Swelling (“a burning sensation, inflammation or fever” in the Greek) and sudden death (due to the rapid nature of the venom) were familiar symptoms of a viper’s bite. But Paul experienced neither because he was not bitten by the snake! This obviously cannot be used as a text for snake handling. The events were neither intentional nor supernatural.


I trust this article has helped you see with great clarity the importance of proper Bible interpretation in our Christian practice. We would be better off as believers when we do not stretch Bible texts to suit our whims and caprices but rather interpret Scripture with Scripture, and diligently so. Be sure to share with a friend also.


For more information on the other signs mentioned in Mark 16 as well as a better understanding of the miraculous in Christ generally, you may consult our audio teaching “Signs and Wonders in Christ.”


© Josh Banks Ministries. 2020.


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