A pastor named Mack Wolford died Wednesday after a snake bit him on his thigh. He'd been "handling" the timber rattler, a practice he claims proves your faith in a passage in the Gospel of Mark that reads,
"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." (Mk 16:17-18, KJV)The central phrase is often misquoted as, "They shall take up serpents, and suffer no harm." It doesn't say that. People also point to the case of Paul, when he was shipwrecked on Malta. While gathering wood for a fire, he was bitten by a viper. He suffered no ill effects.
No passage of Scripture stands alone. We find in Luke 4 the story of Jesus, tempted by the devil, being challenged to throw himself down from the top of the temple, because Psalm 91:11-12 declares that the angels would bear him up and prevent any harm. Jesus answered with Isaiah 7:12, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God."
This shows the difference between what happened to Paul and what happened, not only to Mack Wolford, but also to his father 29 years ago, and to quite a number of other "snake handlers". Paul didn't seek out the snake, and would not have picked it up if he had seen it beforehand. He almost certainly knew what Jesus had said about snakes, and poisoned drinks, and so forth. But he also knew, if you put God to the test, God may just leave you to suffer the consequences of your folly.
It occurs to me that the passage in Mark is much stronger regarding drinking poison. It does indeed declare, "If they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." Where is the church of the rat-poison drinkers? Care for a battery acid cocktail? Any takers?