Mark 16:1-20, Overcoming Our Fear and Unbelief

[April 4, 2010] Today we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This is not just an outstanding miracle. An unbeliever might get this impression. But if we understand Christian teaching, we would realize that everything essential depends on it. It is what makes sense of Jesus’ death for us and tells us the real meaning of His life for us. Ultimately it reveals who He is. Only when we “get it” can we grasp the significance of His coming, the reality of the church—even the reality of creation—and the hope that lies before us. Only if we “get it” can we really grasp our own reason for existing, and the reason for the whole creation (God’s “eternal purpose”).

The “Longer Ending

When we approach the story of the resurrection in Mark, we unfortunately have to grapple first with a problem. In the King James Bible you will notice that chapter 16 has twenty verses but in the Revised Standard Version there are only eight verses. Different translations treat the last twelve verses differently but almost always there is a footnote casting doubt on these verses.

Since I want us to hear them as the Gospel, I need to justify this as simply as I can. I assume that you have a stake in this, that the resurrection of Jesus matters to you, and this issue is not entirely uninteresting. (Though our faith in the resurrection, of course, does not depend on what we decide concerning this problem.)

While some Bible translations seem to summarily dismiss these verses as a later addition, the question is actually quite difficult. A scholarly examination of the question published in 2000 went on for more than 500 pages. The questions boil down to these: Is Mark 16:9-20 the original ending of the gospel? Was the originally ending lost? Or did Mark intentionally end his gospel at verse 8? If the last twelve verses are an addition, were they added by Mark or were they added by a later hand? And how should we treat them?

First, did the Gospel according to Mark originally end at verse 8? The women come to the tomb, they see that the stone is rolled away, and when they look inside, they see a young man sitting there. He tells them that Jesus is risen and that they need to tell the others and Peter that Jesus goes before them to Galilee. There they will see Him. But the women run away in fear and do not tell anyone.

It seems very unlikely that the gospel could have ended without an appearance of the resurrected Jesus. The Gospel according to Mark revolves around the tension between Jesus and the disciples who do not understand who He is. Several times in the gospel Jesus foretold His resurrection, and throughout the gospel Mark shows that nothing happens accidentally but always in keeping with the previous word of Jesus or the Scriptures. Whatever Jesus said would happen, does happen. All of this would be quite pointless, however, if the greatest promise of all, the resurrection of Jesus, and its acceptance by His disciples, is not stated and the tension between Jesus and His disciples is not resolved. It seems highly unlikely then—on narrative grounds—that the Gospel of Mark could have ended here. It is my judgment that it must have continued past verse 8.

What then do we do with the last twelve verses? There is a very abrupt break at the end of verse 8 since verse 9 seems to start the resurrection story all over again. It seems as if it were added. But 99% of the manuscripts have the longer ending. It is only missing in three, one of which is from the twelfth century. It is attested by Justine Martyr and Irenaeus in the second century, and there is no manuscript that we know of that circulated in the second and third centuries without this longer ending.

Of the two older manuscripts that are missing the longer ending (the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), both were produced in the fourth century for churches in Constantinople and probably came from the same scriptorium (where Scriptures were copied). This means that they cannot be used as independent witnesses of an earlier text. So the question is, did they omit the verses or were there already manuscripts that ended at verse 8? There was a discussion in Constantinople in the early fourth century about the authenticity of the last twelve verses. It has been suggested that some critically construct texts were produced that were considered more accurate according to the canons of ancient textual criticism, and that this was reflected in some of the manuscripts of Mark that were produced at the time. This is speculative but it would explain the facts.

Whether the ending of Mark was original or not, we find that it was accepted in the middle of the second century and was being used in church lectionaries and Bible commentaries. In any case, it became part of the generally received text of Mark and was early on accepted as canonical by the church.

[These issues are discussed in One Gospel from Two: Mark’s Use of Matthew and Luke (Trinity Press International, 2002), edited by David B. Peabody with Lamar Cope and Allan J. McNicol, on pages 328-335. For background, see Bruce M. Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1975), pages 122-126.]

The final question I raise is whether it was the original ending. What is most troubling is that it does not record the promised meeting of Jesus with His disciples in Galilee. The other discrepancies (internally with Mark 1:1—16:8 and externally with the other gospels) are interesting but not as critical or insurmountable as they were assumed to have been in the past. Since the language—the linguistic characteristics—is very similar to the rest of the gospel (contrary to what was asserted in previous generations of scholars), we can tentatively suppose that the original ending of the gospel (the transcript of Peter’s retelling of the Gospel) was indeed lost and that Mark himself composed these last twelve verses a few years later when he decided to publish the manuscript. This is the solution I would propose and with which I will work.

This issue is one of the most difficult critical issues of the New Testament, so the above discussion is vastly over simplified. It is intended only to set forth my reasons for treating the last twelve verses as integral to the rest of the Gospel according to Mark and as part of the received canon of Scriptures.

Without further adieu, then, let us hear the Gospel.

The Women’s Fear (Mark 16:1-8)

Here the Gospel according to Mark combines the accounts of Matthew and Luke. (Later we will see elements that we find only in John’s account and which may reflect knowledge of events shared with that author.)

The women, Mary the Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, the wife of Zebedee, are named as eyewitnesses. They witnessed the crucifixion and the burial and were the first to see the empty tomb. Afterwards it was there for everyone to see. Not even the enemies of Jesus refuted whether the tomb was empty.

The women were met by a young man sitting inside the tomb. He is clothed with a white robe, which early tradition tells us was put on those people who were baptized when they came up out of the water. Baptism symbolizes our death and resurrection with Christ and commissions us to be His witnesses; and here the young man testifies to the women concerning the resurrection of Jesus—just as we, the baptized, are supposed to.

The resurrection of Jesus was not a vision that people saw only in their minds. The young man said, “Behold the place where they laid Him.” The tomb was actually empty. The physical body was no longer there. We cannot speak of the “resurrection” of Jesus as if it were only a metaphor. The important point is that it literally happened. “Behold the place where they laid Him.” It was empty. When the women later see Jesus, it was not simply a vision produced by their own minds. The body of the resurrected Jesus was tangible, as real as—even more real than—anything else in the objective physical world around us.

In Matthew the announcement of the resurrection was made by an angel and in Luke by two men, whom Luke later refers to as angels (see Luke 24:4 and 23). When Mark calls him a “young man” he recalls to us the young man in the garden of Gethsemane who left his garment and fled (Mark 14:51-52). Now the women also flee. This is not to say that the two young men are the same; only that by using the same word Mark associates them. In the garden the young man was clothed in a linen cloth, the same word used for the cloth that wrapped the body of Jesus when He was buried. That the “young man” now wears a white robe completes the baptismal symbolism. Baptism signifies that we are identified with Christ in death and burial. The linen that we discard represents our old life. From the water of baptism we rise—resurrected with Christ—in newness of life, symbolically represented by a white robe that in those days the church put on the freshly baptized.

The young man tells the women that Jesus is “going before you into Galilee. There you will see Him, even as He told you.” In Mark Jesus never told them that He would go before them into Galilee. This prediction is in Matthew 26:32, and therefore Mark assumes that his listeners are familiar with the Gospel according to Matthew. This makes sense if one of the purposes of Mark’s gospel is to validate the Gospel according to Luke for people already familiar with Matthew’s gospel.

The young man announces that Jesus the crucified is risen from the dead. He also tells the women that they must announce this to Jesus’ disciples and Peter and to tell them that they will see Him in Galilee. By sending them all back to Galilee, he returns them to the place where the ministry of Jesus began. Those who listen to the Gospel are also returned to Galilee, but with new eyes. Remember the outline of Mark’s gospel. Apart from the cross no one can really understand who Jesus is. They always misunderstand. But once we realize that Jesus gained the victory through His death on the cross, the victory of resurrection, we can now look back at the ministry of Jesus through this lens. We see it all differently, now that we know who Jesus really is, and what “Son of God” and “Messiah” really mean. The young man’s words are an invitation to the listener to go back and hear the entire gospel again in the light of this conclusion.

But the women who witnessed Jesus die a horrible death are not prepared for the news that He is risen. “Trembling and astonishment seized them” and they were unable to speak to anyone because they were afraid. They were not in fear of their lives as if they were suddenly being exposed to a danger. They were afraid of something else—maybe of having their sense of reality turned on its head. On the one hand, what the angel told them was totally different than what they expected. On the other hand, if what the angel said was true, then Jesus really was who He claimed to be. Then it was all TRUE! If their faith was not just a “thought experiment” (where they suspended their disbelief for a time in order to go along for the ride) and they were forced to come to terms with the reality of it—“Behold the place where they laid Him”—then that could be truly frightening. We too would be ashamed of ourselves and astonished at our unbelief that had been masquerading as belief, and we might very well be afraid to say anything to anyone. Is that what happened to them?

Perhaps their reaction represents the reaction of Israel to Jesus. He was their favorite Son. But so many of them thought that He could not have risen from the dead. It would mean that He really was the Messiah! And Israel was not prepared to make that adjustment. It was all too frightening. It was easier to keep waiting for the Messiah than to deal with a Messiah resurrected from the dead. One was an ideal; the Other was all too real, too tangible, too inescapable. Israel became silent and would not confess Him, because it was afraid.

Of course, in the beginning, the church was made up of Jews. Many Jews believed, and as time went on, many continued to believe. For centuries, in spite of the rhetoric of rabbis and bishops, the masses of Christians and Jews were close to each other and mingled. The hard separation that we know took a long time to solidify. But many Jews did hold back. They were not prepared to accept the Gospel. The suggestion here is that they were afraid of what it would mean if Jesus really were the Messiah, for if He rose from the dead, He was. Later, perhaps centuries later, this fear became rejection.

Is that what happens to us? We are afraid of our faith? We believe but we do not fully commit because we are afraid that what we believe might really be true. The problem is that if we do not overcome this kind of fear, it will eventually turn into rejection.

The Disciples’ Unbelief  and Hardness of Heart (16:9-14)

Thankfully, that is not what happened to these women. In verse 9 we go back to the beginning. There we are told that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, one in whom Jesus had (previously) completely—signified by the number seven—overcome the power of the devil. This encounter is related in the Gospel according to John, which had not yet been written. She reported her encounter to those who had been with Him but they did not believe her.

Then Jesus appeared to two of these disbelievers as they were on their way to the countryside, a story told in the Gospel according to Luke. They go back and tell the rest but they continue to not believe.

Then Jesus Himself appeared to them. At last they believe. He reprimands them for their disbelief and hardness of heart. Ever since Jesus first announced the cross in 8:31 the disciples have resisted coming to terms with it, and as a result, even though they could confess Jesus to be the Messiah, they were like the blind man in 8:22-26 who at first only saw partially. They were like the father of the epileptic boy in 9:24 who believed, yet did not believe.

In 6:52 the text of Mark accuses the disciples of not understanding because their heart was hardened, and in 8:17 Jesus repeats the same accusation of them. In order to believe, we need to arrive at some kind of right understanding. But our understanding can get frozen, stuck in the past, because our heart is hard. We understand something, we understand a little, but we do not understand enough, and so our understanding is unclear. As a result, we are unable to believe. This is what happened to the disciples. They could not believe because their understanding was stuck in a predetermined mold. But the problem with their understanding, the reason it was stuck, was not because of the capability of their mind, their intelligence, as if they were not smart enough. The question is whether the understanding is in alignment, whether it lines up. The problem is with the heart. If the heart is soft and pliable, humble and open in relation to God, then understanding will come. But if the heart is hard and unyielding towards God, no matter how bright you are, you cannot understand.

Jesus reproaches the disciples for their unbelief and hardness of heart. Apparently the appearance of the risen Jesus to them was enough to overcome their spiritual blindness. Perhaps that is the point. We cannot overcome our spiritual blindness on our own. What overcomes our blindness is when Jesus comes to us. The normal way He comes to us now is when the Holy Spirit inwardly enlightens us through the proclamation of the Gospel. This is always by grace.

When we hear the Gospel read today, we too are listening to the eyewitnesses. Do we believe them? Or is our heart hardened?

Go and Proclaim the Gospel” (16:15-18)

Verse 15 represents another abrupt shift, for we are told nothing of the disciples’ reaction to Jesus before Jesus at once commissions them to “go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to all the creation.” Perhaps this is the point. We are not told of their reactions because this directive does not depend on our subjective condition. It depends only on the fact of the risen Jesus, not the intensity of our feelings or how confident we are about our understanding of it.

The Gospel is meant for everyone to hear. It is to be proclaimed in the whole world (see also 14:9). The word “proclaim” (kērussō) means to herald, announce, proclaim publicly, or make known extensively. It does not mean that we need to use pressure to persuade people. But they do have a right to know, and to know accurately. If the risen Jesus has encountered us so that we believe, then we are qualified and obligated to be His witnesses and to proclaim the story of Jesus, the Gospel (Mark 1:1). Can we not all do this?

“He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” This refers to those who hear the proclamation. If we believe, baptism sets us apart from the world and in this way it saves us. However, if we are baptized and do not believe, we will be condemned. “He who does not believe” is someone to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who chooses not to believe. He rejects the Gospel. This is not the same as someone who has never heard the Gospel. To be condemned means that a sentenced is pronounced on you.

The five signs that Mark lists are extraordinary. Earlier Jesus said that no sign from heaven would be given to this generation (8:11-12). Yet Jesus Himself performed many miracles and sent out the Twelve to cast out demons and to heal the sick (6:12-13). Now that the disciples are no longer blind but now believe with clarity, signs will accompany them as they proclaim the Gospel and these signs will confirm the Word. Do the signs encourage people to believe? Not really (see John 2:23-24). They confirm the Word objectively. However, when they do more than get an unbeliever’s attention, they often misdirect a person’s attention away from the Word to what is fascinating about the sign.

The signs reflect what we find in the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Let us use common sense. These signs do not always accompany the proclamation of the Word nor is every believer required or expected to perform such signs. They do not even prove anything about a person. “They will speak with new tongues.” In Acts they spoke in tongues on very few occasions (Acts 2, 10 and 19), each occasion being special. Otherwise, apart from Mark 16:17, tongues are only mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14, and it may not even have been the same phenomenon that we find in Acts. While tongues were well known in the early church, it is not reasonable to insist that they were manifested in all the churches and by all the believers. Nonetheless, while stories of the miraculous were almost commonplace in those days, there is no reason to regret if such signs do not accompany our own proclamation. They prove nothing either way and they are not in our power in any case.

The Continuation: Jesus in Heaven Works with Us on Earth (16:19-20)

At once, Mark narrates the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God. The grammar of the original (a ho men … de construction) indicates that verse 20 correlates to verse 19, as if to say that though the Lord ascended into heaven He continues to work on earth through His disciples. Thus, the sense of verse 20 is that as the disciples went out and preached everywhere, the Lord—who was taken up into heaven and sits at the right hand of God—was working with them and confirming the Word by the accompanying signs.

As we proclaim the Gospel, we have the assurance that the risen Lord, who now sits at the right hand of God, is invested in what we are doing here on earth, and through the Holy Spirit is Himself working with us.

Can we proclaim the story of Jesus, the Gospel? Yes, we can. For when Mark tells us in verse 19 that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, He also tells us in verse 20 that Jesus continues to work with us when we proclaim the Gospel. He is in heaven, but at the same time He really is with us on earth, working with us. Why are we so afraid to be His witnesses? What are we afraid of? What if what we believe is TRUE? Is that what we are afraid of? I’m afraid that the reason for our fear is that our hearts are still hard. We need to encounter the risen Lord. But how can we do that? We can listen to the word of the eyewitnesses, the Gospel, and open our heart to it, with full attention, and pray softly for the Holy Spirit to open our eyes—the eye of our spirit—so that we can see Him who is alive right before us. 

The Gospel according to Mark started out by showing that Jesus was the Beloved of the Father in whom the Father found His delight. He was always faithful in spite of opposition, misunderstanding and ridicule, and is an example for His disciples to do the same in the most trying of circumstances. Everything, however, depends on whether we understand the way of the cross, and we can only understand the cross through the resurrection. Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, for the joy set before Him. We also can do God’s will and proclaim the Gospel, enduring persecution and hardship, because the crucified and risen and ascended Lord works with us. The joy set before us is our own resurrection, a prize that Jesus Himself has won for us through His suffering and death.

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