The Unique Signs of Mark 16
“And he (the Lord) said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
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.” (Mark 16:15-18)
The unique signs of which the Lord spoke in Mark 16 have often been the source of puzzlement and consternation to Christians. Though two of the signs spoken of had already been readily manifested in the Lord’s ministry, (casting out devils and healing the sick), the two particular signs involving taking up serpents and not being hurt by drinking any deadly thing are unique, and have generally been the cause for perplexity. For they seem to be outside the realm of what had been going on up to this time, and even come across to many as a little far-fetched.
Indeed, because of this many attempts have been made to dismiss the legitimacy of these signs, and by so doing hope to remove the perplexing problem this passage causes.
One of the most common of these attempts has been to question the credibility of the passage as a whole. On the basis of textual criticism and the supposed correctness of the old Westcott and Hort theory regarding the transmission and preservation of God’s word, Mark 16:9-20 has been declared to be of questionable origin. Since the passage is not contained in some manuscripts, and the theory has exalted these few manuscripts above the rest, the conclusion is drawn that the passage is probably not really part of God’s word. Hence, the puzzling statements of Mark 16 don’t need to be a puzzle to us, we are told, we can just dismiss them as not being part of the Bible.
But this resolution simply will not do, and it is increasingly being recognized as untenable, even by ones who specialize in textual criticism. An honest examination of the textual issue clearly discloses the many fallacies of the “preferred-few-manuscript” theory. The accurate transmission and preservation of God’s word has been provided for by Him through the multiplicity of the manuscripts, and not by a select few over against the majority. Hence, Mark 16:9-20 stands as the word of God, and not a spurious addition to the text.
Another common attempt to resolve the puzzle of the unique signs is to say that they are figurative, and not literal. The Lord isn’t referring to literally taking up serpents, it is said. Nor is He referring to actually drinking deadly, or poisonous things. But rather, it is said, the Lord is speaking figuratively and the issue with the serpents is a reference to Satan and his demons. What He is promising is victory over Satan in a believer’s life. And the same applies to the drinking of deadly things. This, it is said, refers to taking in false doctrine, and what the Lord is promising is that such won’t hurt the believer.
Amazingly, as is so often found with such an idea as this, the proponents of it insist that the other signs, though, are literal and they claim both to have them and to manifest them. Mark 16:17-18 is cited as a proof text for their literal practice of speaking in tongues, casting out demons, and laying on of hands for physical healing. There is nothing figurative about these signs. They are literal, obvious, and physical. But though the other two are contained right along with them in the Lord’s declaration, because of the difficulty associated with them they need to be dismissed some how, and they are done away with through the subterfuge of figurative language.
Obviously, just on the principles of honesty of text alone, this idea must be rejected. For God’s word is not being honestly handled by such manipulation of the Lord’s words. [Note: This same kind of abuse of the Lord’s words is often applied to His declaration that “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved;…” It should say, we are told, ‘He that believeth and is saved, should be baptized.’]
The supposed puzzle of the unique signs of Mark 16 quickly fades away when we apply one of the most basic principles of proper Bible handling and “rightly divide the word of truth.”
The Bible sets forth how that God is working out a two-fold plan and purpose. One aspect of His purpose centers around His nation Israel and the covenant God established with Abraham and his seed. The other aspect of His plan centers around the “new creation” the church the body of Christ which God is forming now in this present dispensation of Gentile grace. God’s program and dealings with Israel and His program and dealings with the church today are not the same, but rather they are two distinct programs which the Bible sets forth.
Because of God’s two-fold purpose and the distinction and differences in the two programs, God’s word must be “rightly divided,” just as the apostle Paul says in II Timothy 2:15. To “rightly divide the word of truth” means to properly handle the Bible by recognizing and making the divisions in it which need to be made in it because of God’s different programs. Since God’s program with Israel is different from His program with us today, God’s word must be “rightly divided” so that confusion will not result and so that we do not try to follow instructions and teachings which are not describing what God is doing with us today in this present dispensation.
We today live in “the dispensation of the grace of God for the Gentiles,” just like the apostle Paul describes, for example, in Ephesians 3:1-6.
“For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,
If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:
How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words,
Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)
Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;
That the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel:” (Eph. 3:1-6)
But this present dispensation of Gentile grace, as Paul makes clear, was ushered in by God when He raised up Paul as a new apostle and revealed to him “the mystery of Christ.” Before God raised up Paul God’s program and dealings pertained to His nation Israel. The Lord Jesus Christ was on the earth as “the minister of the circumcision for the truth of God to confirm the promises made unto the fathers,” as Paul states in Romans 15:8. The Lord’s ministry was to His nation Israel, and His doctrine, instructions, promises, injunctions, and the like pertained to Israel and God’s program with them.
In this present dispensation God is NOT carrying on His program and dealings with the nation of Israel. But rather, as Paul teaches in Romans 11:1-36, God has temporarily set Israel aside and He has put His program with them in abeyance until after He concludes this present dispensation of His grace to us Gentiles.
As the “apostle of the Gentiles” and the one to whom “the mystery of Christ” was revealed, it is in the epistles of the apostle Paul that God has set forth the details of His program and dealings with us today. It is in Paul’s epistles to us Gentiles that we have the doctrine, instructions, and promises from God which are directly TO us and expressly ABOUT us today.
Therefore, by “rightly dividing the word of truth” in accordance with God’s ushering in of this new and different dispensation with the raising up of Paul, we come to recognize that neither the Old Testament Scriptures, nor the Gospel accounts, nor the opening chapters of the book of Acts record God’s program and dealings with us today. But rather, they record the outworking of God’s program with Israel and His special dealings with them.
Mark 16, therefore, is NOT describing something God is doing today in this present dispensation of grace. It is NOT describing a promise to believers today, or something which believers are expected to be partakers of today. But it is describing something which has to do with God’s program with Israel, and something that the believers of the gospel of Israel’s kingdom will be partakers of.
MARK 16 AND ISRAEL’S PROGRAM
God’s purpose with the nation of Israel is for the establishment of His kingdom on this earth. According to the covenant which God made with Abraham and his seed, the nation of Israel is to be God’s “great nation” on this earth. They have land covenanted to them by God in which they are to dwell as His “great nation,” and from which they are to function as His “kingdom of priests and holy nation” before the rest of the world. Through them God’s kingdom is to be established on this earth, and the administration of God’s dominion over this earth is to be carried out through them. Israel in her covenanted kingdom and in fulfillment of God’s covenanted purpose with them will provide for the subjection of the world to God’s ways and for the establishment of His paths for the world to walk in. The will of heaven will reign and rule on this earth in Israel’s covenanted kingdom.
As the Gospel accounts testify, when the Lord Jesus Christ was here the good news was heralded to Israel that the time for the fulfillment of God’s purpose with them was “at hand.” The gospel of the kingdom was preached to the nation. They were told, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15) Along with this the ‘signs of the kingdom’ were performed by the Lord and by His 12 apostles, confirming to Israel the reality of their long-awaited and covenanted kingdom being “at hand.” In addition, the nation was warned of the time of great tribulation which was soon to come upon them, as their “last days” arrived and the Lord had His day of purging them and avenging His cause with them upon this world.
Following the Lord’s rejection by His nation, the time had arrived for Israel’s “last days” to commence. Which they did, just as the apostle Peter declared to them on the day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2. In preparation for this the Lord commissioned His apostles with regards to the arrival of Israel’s “last days,” and He taught His apostles many things regarding what would be transpiring during this time. Also He taught them many things regarding the provisions He had made for them and the remnant of Israel so that they could make it through that time. (e.g. Matt. 10:1-42; 24:1-51; John 14-17)
All of the Lord’s commissions, instructions, and promises made at this time, including Mark 16:15-18, apply to Israel’s “last days” and what will be transpiring in them. The “gospel of the kingdom” will be preached in all the world, and “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” Along with this signs will follow those that believe. Signs which will first of all continue to confirm the reality of Israel’s kingdom of heaven being “at hand.” But signs which will also be miraculously providing for the deliverance of the believers from some particular horrors of the tribulation period. It is with regards to this that the taking up of serpents and drinking deadly things are set forth.
As the prophets set forth, the “day of the LORD” in Israel’s “last days” would see the arrival of both judgments from God and persecutions from the enemy which would involve them being afflicted with the beasts of the earth, and afflicted by the judgments coming upon the earth. For example as Moses declared in Deut. 32, “They shall be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat, and with bitter destruction: I will also send the teeth of beasts upon them, with the poison of serpents of the dust.” Likewise also Jeremiah foretold, “For, behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you, which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you, saith the LORD.” (Jer. 8:17) The apostle John saw the fulfillment of these things when he was taken by the Spirit into “the Lord’s day” yet to come and set forth the course of Israel’s “last days” in detail, as recorded in the book of the Revelation. Hence, he declared, “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” Also, “And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” (Rev. 6:8; 8:10-11)
This is what the unique signs of Mark 16 apply to. They are the literal provisions, especially for the remnant of Israel, to be delivered from the deadly judgmental afflictions of “the day of the LORD” which will both purge Israel and judge the world. Though the “Lord’s day” was ready to begin as Stephen declared to Israel in Acts 7, the Lord unexpectedly returned from heaven and raised up Paul as a brand new apostle, revealing to him the ushering in of a new and different dispensation and the suspension of God’s program and dealings with Israel. Hence, the fulfillment of Mark 16 is yet to come after this present dispensation is concluded. – K.R. Blades