16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
18 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 16:16-18)
I have wondered about that promise that those who believe shall take up serpents. I know of at least one Christian denomination that takes this literally and incorporates snake handling in their worship services. It’s enough to make me wonder, “Is this a special-occasion promise for when we have to move snakes?” We are so isolated from the natural world, especially in developed countries, that occasions for running across snakes are few and far between, and when we find them, we know better than to pick them up. We leave them thoroughly alone.
So why this promise that believers in Christ will take up serpents?
As I thought about this, I seemed to me that Jesus meant it as a physical image to describe a spiritual reality. The serpents can represent temptation. Just like it is dangerous to pick up snakes, it is also a dangerous thing to pick up temptation and hold it without letting it bite you. Saints prefer to avoid temptation, but occasionally situations may come up when a Saint, in the course of his or her calling or doing his or her duty, must go into a situation of temptation and endure it without giving in. That is like taking up a serpent. It is hard to be specific about what the temptation might be.
Apparently Jesus anticipated that the Saints would face these situations from time to time, and His promise here is an implicit reassurance that He will make safety possible. Belief in Him will make it so.
What about the promise that believers will speak with new tongues? A tongue is a language. How can someone speak a new language and still be understood? If it is new, then it hasn’t been around, and it is unlikely that others would understand it.
I think the Book of Mormon gives a hint when it says angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost and speak the words of Christ. Extrapolating from that, speaking a new tongue is speaking by the Holy Ghost, especially because of how conversion makes a person new.
But what about people who have been in the church all their lives, gained testimonies, stayed faithful, and all that? How do they speak with new tongues if it seems like they’ve always “had it”?
Maybe new tongues can also refer to how believers will keep finding new ways to express their testimony and understanding of Christ’s atonement and what it has done for them. To them it will be as though their language is new, and to those who hear them, it will express newness and life as well.