Dateline — Middlesboro, KY and today’s headline reads: “Snake Handling Pastor Refuses Care, Dies From Bite.” Now how could I, a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not take the bait and bite into a story like that? Basically, the brief blurb simply reported how that, “Jamie Coots, a snake-handling pastor who appeared on the TV reality show ‘Snake Salvation,’ refused treatment after being bitten and was later found dead” (Associated, 2014).
I have to admit, the sinister side of my evil nature rejoiced as I read and thought to myself, “Right on! The dude got what he deserved. If people don’t care enough to honestly seek out the truth of God’s word, maybe they’ll listen to a rattlesnake! And if not, well, at least there’s one more crazy nut dead and gone and no longer around to lead people astray with his false teaching!” Meanwhile, my kinder, gentler, Spirit-led nature was saddened by the tragic loss of yet another misguided soul — one for whom Christ died — who at least had a faith and the courage to stand by his convictions.
But the bigger picture here, as I see it, has to do with our “hermeneutics” – a highfalutin, theological term for how we interpret the scriptures. We all have one, you know — a “hermeneutic,” that is. We all have our “method or principle of interpretation” (Webster, 2014). The problem is, some people’s hermeneutic isn’t very sound — case in point! Not too long ago, I had a very intelligent, sincere, well-educated, professional educator and school administrator sit in my office and tell me, “Well, I believe everything that’s in the Bible. If it’s in the Bible, then I believe it, just the way it is in the Bible.” She was talking about the laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, and other Pentecostal Holiness stuff (another word comes to mind, but I won’t use it here) like that! I’m like, “Ms. So-in-so, don’t you understand that the Bible wasn’t written in a vacuum? It’s a book of history. A lot of things written in the Bible were meant for specific people, living in specific times and places, and dealing with specific issues and circumstances. Not everything written in the Bible is meant to be practiced by us today!” She just looked at me with rather vacant, glossed over eyes.
C’mon people! Do your homework! How about a little research, a little contextualization, a little common sense. Maybe I don’t have as great of faith as some of you out there — I’ll admit I’m a work in progress — but it doesn’t take the brains God gave a turkey to understand that if you mess with a rattlesnake and it bites you, you might just, ummmmmmm, like, DIE?!?!?
Now, there are several passages of scripture that tell us about the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. For example, the prophet, Mark, records Jesus saying:
These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:17-18, NASB)
Mark then goes on to state the purpose for these miraculous gifts, saying:
So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. (Mark 16:19-20, NASB)
The purpose for the miraculous gifts of the 1st century was to “confirm the word.” Years later, the writer of Hebrews would assert this same truth, saying:
…how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will. (Hebrews 2:3-4, NASB)
Note that, the purpose of the miraculous gifts was NOT to convince people to believe — a common fallacy held by many today. There have always been unbelievers and people often choose not to believe, despite miracles and regardless of any amount of confirmation. However, the purpose for the miraculous gifts was not to make people believe but, rather, to provide sufficient grounds for belief by confirming the word of God as it was first proclaimed among the people of the 1st century. This is why the Apostle John would later tell us, “It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth” (I John 5:6, NASB).
The “Apostles” were the original ambassadors of Christianity, men chosen by the Lord and recognized by the “ekklesia” in the 1st century A.D. as having the direct empowering of the Holy Spirit, which they had received on the day of Pentecost (See: Acts 2:1-12). They alone had the “authority” to pass along the empowering—including all the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit—to others. This fact is set forth in the book of Acts wherein we learn about the preaching of the Gospel in the region of Samaria:
Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! (Acts 8:14-20, NASB)
When we look carefully at this passage, we note that Philip the evangelist—not the Apostle Philip—was preaching the gospel in Samaria and baptizing people in the name of the Lord Jesus. Remember, the Apostle Peter said, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38, NASB). So we know that these people in Samaria were receiving the Holy Spirit as a gift; that is, they were indwelled by “the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him” (Acts 5:32, NASB). The Holy Spirit had taken up residence within them, as He does every child of God at the moment of their baptism, and their bodies had become, as the Apostle Paul says, “a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God” (I Corinthians 6:19, NASB).
However, although they had been “indwelled” by the Holy Spirit as a gift, they had not yet received any miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit; that is, He had not yet “fallen upon” or “empowered” any of them. As students of God’s word, we must make that distinction—between the “indwelling” and the “empowering”—if we are to be consistent in our understanding of scripture.
We note, furthermore, that Philip was unable to grant these new Samarian Christians any miraculous gifts of the Spirit. While he may very well have had miraculous powers himself, he could not pass them on to others. So, when the apostles in Jerusalem heard about the new disciples being baptized Samaria, they sent two of their own, two apostles, Peter and John, to them. When the apostles arrive, they prayed and began laying their hands on the new Christians so that they, too, would be granted miraculous gifts from the Spirit. It is important that we note two phrases in particular: first, “the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles hands” (verse 18); and then Simon’s statement, “give me this authority as well” (verse 19).
From this important passage we learn that one might be indirectly empowered by the Holy Spirit through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, but that did not mean that he or she could pass that empowering along to others; only an apostle had the authority to do that.
The “prophets” were men and women who were indirectly empowered by the Holy Spirit “through the laying on of the apostles hands” and through whom God’s word was made known during the first century; prior to the completion of the New Testament. It is important to remember that there are no longer “apostles” or “prophets” in the world today because, when the Apostle John—the last of the apostles—died, the empowering could no longer be passed along to others. Thus, gifts of prophecy, and all the other miraculous gifts of the “Apostalic Age”—the 1st century—ceased.
This fact is confirmed for us in scripture when the Apostle Paul reminded the “ekklesia” living in the city of Corinth that:
Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect [teleion] comes, the partial [merous] will be done away. (I Corinthians 13:8-10, NASB)
Note that the word “perfect” in this passages is the Greek word, “teleion” – from “teleios”: a gender neuter noun meaning, “complete, mature, finished, brought to its end, wanting nothing necessary to completeness” (Teleios, 2013). In interpreting what this word is referring to, we need to keep in mind the context of the passage. In context, the “perfect” is the completion, or the fulfillment, or the totality of the “partial.” The word “partial” in this passage is the Greek word “merous” – meaning, “a part, a part due or assigned to one, one of the constituent parts of a whole” (Merous, 2013). The “partial”, then, is all the bits and pieces of the “perfect.” Both the “perfect” and the “partial” relate to the same thing, but in different forms. Paul says that the “partial” are those miraculous gifts that “will be done away,”—prophecy, tongues, knowledge—all of which, in this passage, relate to “truth” and knowing the “truth.” So, whatever the “perfect”—the complete, fulfilled, finished—is, it must correlate with the “partial” and also relate to “truth” and the disciples ability to fully know the “truth.”
I don’t believe it is just an accident of history that the final book of our New Testament—Revelation—was written by the Apostle John shortly before his death; and that, when John died, the empowering of the Holy Spirit could no longer be passed along to others because, as we have seen, only the apostles had the authority to do that. So what we have here is an “intersection” of history and prophecy. Paul said the “partial”—miraculously inspired bits and pieces of truth—would cease when the “perfect”—finished and complete revelation of truth—had come. John, the last remaining apostle capable of laying his hands on others and passing along the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, completed the final, inspired revelation; then laid aside his pen and scrolls, and soon passed away. Thus, the “partial” ceased at the precise moment in history that the “perfect” had come—all according to prophecy.
So don’t be picking up any fiery serpents, dear child of God, or drinking any deadly poison thinking that you will not be harmed — that promise was for those people to whom Jesus was speaking at the time and who lived during, what we’ve come to know as, the “Apostolic Age.” The poor, late Pastor Coots didn’t seem to understand much of any of this and his shallow hermeneutics — “well, if it’s in the Bible then I believe it” — got him killed! Not only did it get him killed, but it sure didn’t help our Christian testimony to the world very much, did it? Rather, it sends a terribly misguided and ignorant message to the world — a message that MSN was all too quick to pick up on and publish — that, “You see, those ‘Christians’ are just a bunch of crazies!”
If Pastor Coots was so hermeneutically mixed up that he got himself killed by a rattler, I wonder what all else he was thoroughly mixed up on — his eternal salvation, perhaps? Hummmmmmm… ever wonder what your lil ole “pastor” is a more than a little mixed up about!
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB).
~ Philip ~
Associated Press. (2014, February 16). Snake handling pastor refuses care, dies from bite. MSN News. Retrieved from http://news.msn.com/us/snake-handling-pastor-refuses-care-dies-from-bite
Hermeneutic. (2014). In Mirriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hermeneutic
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.