Discover How to Grapple with Difficult Passages in Scripture
When we read the Bible, it’s human nature to dwell on the parts we like and skim the parts that confuse us. We camp out at the many passages in the Bible that offer comfort. And we skip the parts that confound us, the passages when the Bible doesn’t make sense.
Though this is our tendency—both yours and mine—this isn’t what we should do when we come across a passage that doesn’t make sense. Our confusion should be a hint for us to slow down and try to understand these perplexing verses.
As an example, consider Mark 16:17-18. The passage lists five miraculous signs given to those who believe. Jesus says these traits will go with those who follow him. They will:
- Cast out demons
- Speak in new languages
- Safely handle snakes
- Be unharmed by drinking poison
- Heal the sick
What do we do with this list?
The theology of some is to dismiss it entirely. They think supernatural power died with the disciples. Because they don’t want to deal with any of the items Mark mentions, they formulate a theology—with little biblical support—to write off the entire list.
Yet the same folks will still pray for sick people. Isn’t that asking for healing?
Justify Ignoring It
This part of the book of Mark contains a note that this passage doesn’t appear in all manuscripts. Therefore, some people use this as a justification to ignore the last twelve verses of Mark, which also includes the great commission, to go into all the world and preach the good news.
But if we ignore the part of this passage that we don’t like because it isn’t in every manuscript, don’t we also have to ignore the part we like? If the Bible doesn’t make sense, we can’t have it both ways, keeping the parts we like and ignoring the rest.
As I mentioned, it’s human nature to skim or skip Bible passages that confuse us or don’t nicely fit in to our understanding of God and faith. But when the Bible doesn’t make sense and a passage confronts our theology, we should do just the opposite.
We should slow down and strive to make sense of it.
Seek Holy Spirit Insight When the Bible Doesn’t Make Sense
The Bible often mentions three of these items on this list. It frequently talks about Jesus’s followers healing the sick and casting out demons. It also says we will speak in languages we don’t know.
Even if we don’t regularly see these three elements in our life, we would be foolish to let our experience trump what the Bible teaches.
When it comes to the drinking poison part, the Bible says when we drink poison, that is, if we drink poison. This suggests accidentally ingesting it, in which case we won’t face harm. I’m okay with this. Safety from poison seems reasonable, and I can accept that in faith.
The difficult part for me is the part about safely handling snakes. Indeed a few groups include snake handling as part of their worship experience. That creeps me out. It seems unwise and wrongly putting God to a test (consider Luke 4:12).
Yet the Bible mentions snake handling as one of the five miraculous signs that will accompany those who believe in Jesus. Though I really want to cross out this phrase in my Bible and embrace the other four, I can’t.
The snakes reference seems misplaced.
But the Holy Spirit encourages me to seek other occurrences of snakes in the Bible and then meditate on them. The Bible mentions snakes eleven times, as well as the singular form of snake twenty-five times and the related word serpent twenty-two times (in the NIV).
I’m reminded that:
- Paul is protected from a snake bite (Acts 28:24-25).
- Moses turns his staff into a snake (Exodus 4:4).
- There is the bronze snake that allows sinners to live if they look at it (Numbers 21:9).
- Jesus (Eve’s descendant) will crush the head of the serpent, Satan (Genesis 3:14-15).
- Snake often equates to punishment or judgment (consider Matthew 23:33).
- The serpent is Satan (Revelation 12:9 and Revelation 20:2).
Could this protection from snakes be figurative and not literal?
I don’t know.
I’m still trying to figure out how to best understand this passage about handling snakes. The Holy Spirit is still giving me insight.
What I do know is that just because I don’t understand this verse—yet—that doesn’t mean I should write it off. Instead I’ll continue to consider this passage, under Holy Spirit guidance, until he reveals truth to me. That’s how I read and study Scripture, even when the Bible doesn’t make sense.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.