Does Mark 16:17-18 teach that all true Christians must speak in tongues?

by Luke Wayne
11/16/16

"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).

Some have claimed that this passage proves speaking in tongues to be a necessary sign of salvation. Following this logic, some small groups also include "snake handling" as part of regular worship, since picking up snakes is also something this passage seems to say that believers will do. All of this, however, misrepresents the passage's actual meaning. The verses just before this say:

"And He said to them, 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned,'" (Mark 16:14-15).

An important rule in biblical interpretation is, "always follow the pronouns." Notice that it says "he who has believed" will be saved and "he who has not believed" will be condemned. The pronoun is the singular "he." Every single person who believes will be saved. Every single person who does not believe will be condemned. When we get to verses 17-18, however, the pronouns change. It does not continue by saying "these signs will accompany him who has believed," as one would expect if we were still talking about every single individual. It changes to "these signs will accompany those who have believed." It proceeds to note that they will do these various things. The grammar shifts from talking about the individual believer ("he who has believed") to the group of all believers ("those who have believed"). The passage is not saying that these signs will accompany every single individual believer. It is saying that such signs would accompany believers as a whole. As we read through the rest of the New Testament, that is exactly what we see: various confirming signs like these happening among various believers at various times. For example, we see:

  • some believers casting out demons (Acts 5:16, 8:7, 16:16-18, 19:11-12)
  • some believers speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4, 10:46, 19:6, 1 Corinthians 12:10, 12:28)
  • believers laying hands on the sick and healing them (Acts 9:17, 28:8)
  • one believer bit by a snake and not harmed (Acts 28:3-5)

So believers, as a group, certainly exhibited these various signs, which is precisely what Mark 16 said would happen. None of this implies that every believer performed such miracles. If anything, the very fact that each of these stories was so noteworthy implies that such things were not universal to every believer. The fact that believers brought the sick to the apostles to receive healing, for example, seems to indicate that such believers were not healing the sick by laying their own hands on them.

The purpose of these signs is also important to note. The passage in Mark concludes by saying:

"And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed," (Mark 16:20).

The point of the signs was to verify the message preached, not to provide a litmus test for judging the salvation of each individual believer. The Bible does give us tests by which we can evaluate the legitimacy of our faith (see the article HERE), but we are never once told to judge by looking for these miraculous signs. Indeed, it would make little sense for these specific signs to be necessary for salvation. There are places in the world that have no snakes, yet Mark 16:18 plainly says that those who believe WILL handle serpents. If this meant that every single individual believer had to manifest this sign, then salvation could only come to places with snakes, or else missionaries would be required to bring snakes to snakeless places so that people there could manifest this sign. Is faith really impossible in places that don't have snakes to handle? Of course not! That is obviously absurd and unbiblical. Yet, if handling snakes is not a necessary sign for all believers, then neither are the other signs in this passage, including speaking in tongues. Indeed, the Bible is explicit in other passages that the gifts of tongues and healings are not required to be saved or to receive the Holy Spirit (see articles HERE and HERE).

Based on the grammar, the immediate context, and the rest of biblical revelation on the subject, it is clear that Mark 16:17-18 does not teach that speaking in tongues (or any of these other miraculous signs) are necessary signs of salvation.