Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The End of the Beginning (Mark 16:9-20)

As you know, February was the bicentennial celebration of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and there was lots of media coverage about his life, featuring various authors who have written biographies of Lincoln. I saw an interview of one of those historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who said that after spending several months reading Lincoln’s letters, researching his life, and writing about him that she felt sad when her book was finished. She had grown fond of Lincoln, and she was sorry that such a focused period of being with him in a sense had come to an end.

I think I know how she felt today. After spending over 52 weeks in careful study and reflection on the life of Jesus, it is a little bittersweet to preach this final lesson on the Gospel of Mark today. The only consolation is that Christ is really the center of all of Scripture, and whatever I preach should in one way or another connect to Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Before we get into the text of Mark 16:9-20, there is an issue we need to deal with which in one sense is somewhat technical, but necessary. If your Bible has footnotes, then most likely there is a note on the last verses of Mark 16 that says something like this- “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20.” Frankly, if your Bible does not have a note like this you need to get a different Bible because yours does not contain important information about the actual text of Scripture.

Let me explain why most Bibles have a note like this.

1. We do not have in our possession the actual handwritten gospel written by John Mark, or any other book of the NT. Sometimes these are referred to as the “autographs.”

2. We do have hundreds and hundreds of manuscript copies of the NT books, at last count 5,686 copies of the NT. Many of these copies date within a few years of the apostolic period when the actual books were written. There is no other ancient historical document that comes close to the number of copies and the close proximity to the originals. To put this in perspective so that you understand what a crucial point this is, you have heard me on occasion refer to a first century historian named Tacitus. He wrote his history around the year AD 100. The earliest copies of his writings that have are dated 900 years after his time, and there are only 20 of them. So I can say with absolute certainty that the preservation of the books of the NT over the centuries is simply unmatched by any other ancient writing – and even the most jaded critic of the Bible would agree.

3. Further, because God has blessed with us with thousands of copies of the NT manuscripts, we can cross-check them with each other to see if there are differences. Maybe a scribe skipped a line while copying, or misspelled a word, or duplicated a line. So we can compare these copies with each other, and the results of that study show that the copies we have are virtually identical, and the few differences that exist are minor and do not affect any doctrine. Let me illustrate this with one of the biggest variations among the manuscripts. Your Bibles should also have a note on the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 – that account is not in the earliest manuscripts of the NT we have. Is there any crucial teaching in that text that is found nowhere else in Scripture? That text teaches that adultery is wrong, that forgiveness is possible, that we should not judge with evil motives – truths which are found in many other places in Scripture. And that is one of the largest examples of a variation among the copies, which should give you an idea of how inconsequential these variations are.

In the case of the Gospel of Mark, the earliest known copies of the gospel do not contain verses 9-20. Furthermore, many scholars deeply committed to the inspiration of the Bible have come to the conclusion that these verses were probably not part of the original gospel of Mark because the language and style is so dissimilar to the rest of the book. This conclusion is not a matter of being liberal, but rather is guided by a conservative impulse that we should only accept what is actually inspired by God as His word.

So, what are we to make of the ending of this gospel. Here is what I believe-

1. First, I do believe it is unlikely that vv 9-20 were written by Mark. One simple illustration – v. 9 seems to be introducing Mary Magdalene for the first time, even though she was just spoken of in 15:40 and 16:1.

2. Second, I do not believe Mark ended his gospel at verse 8, for a couple of basic reasons. In the Greek text the last word of verse 8 is a preposition, the English word “for” (gar). It was very unusual in the first century for a book to end with a preposition (as Winston Churchill once said, “Ending sentences with a preposition is something up with which I will not put”). Further, I think it is highly unlikely that Mark’s gospel concluded with the ominous note that the women were afraid. The entire move of this gospel has been to see the fulfillment of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and I don’t believe this gospel would have ended without a clear account of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples, much less than with the ominous note “for they were afraid.” So I believe that very early in the copying and circulating of this gospel that the last few verses were lost (which did happen a lot in the days of scrolls and early books).

3. Third, and here is the most crucial point - I believe that Mark’s gospel ended very similarly to how the current edition ends. And the reason I believe this is very simple – we have two other gospels which follow Mark very closely – Matthew and Luke, and by God’s providence we can compare these two gospels to see how the story of Jesus’ resurrection unfolded. And the outline found in those gospels is essentially the same as here in Mark-
a. Women are the first to see the risen Lord.
b. The disciples initially do not believe the testimony of the women.
c. Jesus appears to the disciples.
d. Jesus gives the disciples the “great commission.”

So here is how I think we should approach these last few verses of Mark. Though I think it is doubtful, it is possible that these verses were actually written by Mark, and therefore deserve our study. And even if they were not written by Mark, since everything in these verses is also found in other passages of Scripture, we can still consider them “biblical” even if they were not part of the original text, because their content is biblical. In fact, just to emphasize this point as we go through the text, I will depart from my normal pattern. As you know I have deliberately chosen in this series to study Mark on its own, without incorporating a lot a material from Matthew, Luke or John. But because of the unique issues regarding this text, I will point you to the various parallel passages which connect with these verses.

With that issue out of the way, let’s now turn to the last twelve verses of Mark. This passage revolves around the movement of the risen Lord-
-Jesus goes to Mary (16:9-11)
-Jesus goes to two disciples (16:12-13)
-Jesus goes to the eleven (16:14-18)
-Jesus goes to the Father (16:19-20)

I. Jesus Goes to Mary Magdalene (16:9-11)

9 Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.

Mary was among the last to be with Jesus in His death, the first to witness His empty tomb, and now the first to see Him in His resurrection. I don’t want to presume that the reason Jesus appeared to her first is because of her consistent and constant loyalty, but that sure does seem to make sense. Whether or not it was a reward for her faithfulness, it was still a great honor, and those who think biblical Christianity treats women like second-class citizens should think more about the implications of this text.

Verse 9 says that Jesus had cast out seven demons from her, which is corroborated by Luke 8:2. The Bible teaches that those who are forgiven much love much, and the same principle is my best guess as to why Mary was so dedicated to Jesus. She had been blessed much, and she loved much.

The most complete account of Jesus’ appearance to Mary is recorded in John’s gospel.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

I love this story! I love the transparent honesty of the account. Mary’s grief over the loss of the body of her Master that she wanted to pay respects to. The disappointment that someone had removed His body and she doesn’t know where to find it. The fact that she does not immediately recognize Jesus when He appears. Her confusion, assuming that Jesus was the gardener! Her request to get directions to the body. What an absolutely honest account!

And then Jesus spoke her name, and whether it was the fact that He called her by name, or something in the way he said it, or divine revelation – at that moment, to her utter amazement Mary realized that she was looking at her teacher! The man whose gruesome death she had seen firsthand, whose burial she had witnessed with her own eyes. That man who had freed her from the grip of demons now stood before her!

And according to what Jesus said next about clinging to Him (John 20:17) – Mary must have done what any of us would if we suddenly saw someone we loved – she grabbed him and hugged Him.

But she has work to do, and Jesus tells her to go share the news with the disciples, which is exactly what she did according to Mark 16:10-

10 She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

The disciples were grief-stricken not only at the death of their Master, but also because of their own failure in the Garden. “They mourned and wept.” When Mary arrived with the news that not only was Jesus’ tomb empty but that she had actually seen Him, they do not respond in faith, but in disbelief. “They would not believe it.”

Just as Mary did not initially believe what the angels told her about the resurrection, the disciples do not believe Mary. It will take the same level of proof for them as it did for her – they will have to see to believe.

II. Jesus Goes to the Two Disciples (16:12-13)

12 After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country.

The second appearance Jesus makes here in Mark is to two unnamed disciples walking into the country. It is Luke’s gospel which gives the more expanded version of this appearance-

Luke 24:13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.

How can you not love this story! As was true with the appearance to Mary, this account brims with integrity and candor. Cleopas and his friend are disappointed that Jesus of Nazareth died rather than redeem Israel – not realizing that His death was precisely how He was going to redeem Israel! They even confess that some women reported that His tomb was empty – but clearly they didn’t believe Jesus had risen.

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. 28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

Wouldn’t you have loved to be there to hear what Jesus taught! A survey of all the references to Christ in the OT taught by the Messiah Himself! I would hope that my heart would be aflame with passion like theirs once they realized who Jesus was. And when their eyes were opened, Luke and Mark tell us they did what Mary did – they reported the news to the apostles.

13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

So now the eleven have heard the testimony of two or three witness, but they still refuse to believe. Their hard hearts will be opened only by Christ.

III. Jesus Comes to the Eleven (16:14-18)

14 Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.

Once more we have a brutally frank account. These men who heard Jesus plainly predict His death and resurrection three times; who have heard the eyewitness testimony of multiple witnesses, still do not believe. And so Jesus (as He promised) appears to them, and rebukes them.

This is nothing new. Throughout the gospel of Mark Jesus expressed exasperation with the disciples for their unbelief and fear. Remember these stories-

• After the calming of the storm in Mark 4, 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”
• After Jesus warned them about the leaven of the Pharisees in Mark 8, 16 they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?”
• And in Mark 9, when the disciples could not cast the unclean spirit out of the boy who was mute, Jesus said 19 “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”

In many ways Jesus was very stern in His treatment of the disciples. But not unreasonably so. They had been given privileged access to Jesus’ teaching and miracles, and to whom much is given, much is required. Furthermore, Jesus is going to entrust them with the crucial work of spreading the message of the gospel, and they must be hardened for that difficult work.

But here is a critical point. Jesus was demanding, but He was also empowering. And what is so encouraging to me is that right after Jesus rebuked them for the failure, He immediately commissioned them with their duty. Jesus can use people who are sometimes fearful, stubborn, hardheaded and disbelieving, which gives me great hope!

15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

We call this the Great Commission, and it is great. It is great in its scope – Go into all the world – proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. As Matthew’s account puts it – “Make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

It is a commission universal in scope, and eternal in its importance. It is a message of salvation, of rescue from condemnation. And as Jesus taught, reception of this message involves faith and baptism. “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.”

Most Protestants believe that salvation comes at the point of faith – when a person asks Jesus to come into their heart. And they reject the notion that baptism plays any role in the conversion process. They see baptism as a good work that a Christian should do as a sign of accepting Christ and identification with the church, but they believe saving faith and baptism should be kept separate.

But that is not what the Bible teaches. In Scripture, faith and baptism are two sides of the same coin. Both are involved in reception of the grace of God. Notice what Paul says in Galatians 3:26-27-

26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

We are sons of God through faith because we have been baptized into Christ and are clothed with Him.

Or Colossians 2:12-

12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Notice the prepositions: we are raised with Christ “in baptism,” “through faith,” faith in the “powerful working of God.”

Baptism is the moment in time when our trust in God’s power and Christ’s blood saves us from our sins and raises us in new life in Christ.

Perhaps the most eloquent statement I know of on the connection between faith and baptism comes from the pen of Martin Luther. Luther is often credited with crystalizing the doctrine of salvation by faith only, but in his summary of Bible doctrine Luther stated in words better than I could what the Bible says about faith and baptism – using Mark 16:16 as his text-

What does Baptism give? What good is it?
It gives us the forgiveness of sins, redeems us from death and the
Devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, just as
God’s words and promises declare.
What are these words and promises of God?
Our Lord Christ spoke one of them in the last chapter of Mark (Mark
16:16): “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; but whoever does not
believe will be damned.”
(Luther’s Small Catechism)

As Luther said, in baptism we are putting our faith in the promises of God.

But a message a salvation is also a message of condemnation for those who reject it, as Jesus warned –

16b but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

The gospel offer is to all the world, to the whole creation, but it must be accepted or rejected, and to reject the gospel is to face the condemnation of God.

The next two verses mention signs of believers-

17a And these signs will accompany those who believe:

documented for us in the Book of Acts-

-First, 17b in my name they will cast out demons, such as when Paul cast out the unclean spirit from the slave girl in Acts 16.
-Second, 17c they will speak in new tongues, like the apostles did on the Day of Pentecost.
-Third, 18a they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them, such as when Paul was bitten by the deadly snake in Acts 28 and just shook it into the fire.
-And finally, 18b they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover, which happened many times in Acts (the lame man Peter healed in chapter 3).

Everything that Jesus said would happen to Him took place just like He said, and everything He said would happen to the apostles came true as well. The word of the Lord is sure!

There is only one thing left for Jesus to do.

IV. Jesus Goes to Father (16:19-20)

19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.

Of course we know from the Book of Acts that Mark’s account is quite compressed, that as Acts 1 says Jesus spent 40 days with the apostles preparing them for their mission to preach the gospel of the kingdom.

But the end result was the same – the ascension of Jesus and His enthronement at God’s right hand. Jesus had asked the scribes about this very point during the final week, when He reminded them that Psalm 110:1 said that God would invite the Messiah to sit at His right hand.

12:35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.’
37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?”

They could not understand how the Messiah could be David’s son and His Lord at the same time. But we know the solution to this riddle. Jesus was His son because He was descended from David’s family. But He was His Lord because after His resurrection He ascended to God’s right hand, enthroned as King!

And the King’s servants obeyed their marching orders-

20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.

This final verse tells us a couple of important things. It tells us that the apostles were true to their commission to preach everywhere. It tells us what the purpose of those signs in vv 17-18 was – to confirm the message being preached. And most resassuringly, it tells us that the apostles were not left to fend for themselves – “the Lord worked with them.”

His story became their story, and now it must become our story, your story.

And it should become your story.

1. It is a story that you should believe. Last week I gave you three reasons from history and reason that the testimony of the empty tomb is true. For many of the same reasons, I believe the story of the appearances of Jesus after His death are true-
-It is unlikely the gospel writers would have invented the account that women first saw Jesus, much less a former demon-possessed woman. This was what they had to write because no matter how uncomfortable they may have been with the story, it was what they believe happened.
-The complete objectivity of these accounts also lends credence to their truthfulness. No one believed they were seeing Jesus when He first appeared to them – nobody. These appearances were not the hallucinations of misguided followers so desperate to see their Lord again that they imagined it. These are the eyewitness accounts of many different people who reluctantly came to the unexpected but unavoidable conclusion they were looking at Jesus.
-And finally, if anyone wanted to disprove this testimony, all they had to do was produce the body of Jesus. But no one did – no one could.

2. So this is a story you should believe, and it is a story that should change your life – just as it changed the lives of Mary Magdalene and Cleopas and the apostles. It changed their lives because they were willing to accept the truth about Jesus, and the truth about themselves. The eleven fearful and faithless – but they were humble. And just a few weeks later these same men who fled from the Lord in the Garden, who once locked themselves in an upper room for fear of the Jews, stood before thousands of their countrymen and proclaimed that Jesus was Lord – and that they needed to repent!

Are you willing to accept the truth about yourself? Jesus said in Mark 2:17, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” That is what we are – sinners. It is tough to admit that we are sinners and we need a Savior, but that’s what Jesus says. The redeeming quality of the apostles was that when Jesus rebuked them they took it, and as a result He transformed them. And if you will acknowledge your sinfulness, and respond to the message of the gospel to believe and be baptized, Christ will transform you.

3. And finally, this is a story in which you can play a part. Most commentators today believe that Mark’s gospel actually ended with verse 8, with the fear of the women. I don’t believe that, and frankly I think part of what drives this is the postmodern philosophy of our age which loves uncertainty and disdains happy endings (just think about what movies are usually rewarded with an Oscar). But in a sense there is an open-endedness to the gospels – they end with instructions to go share the message to the whole world, to continue the legacy of faith by making disciples of all nations.

We know what the apostles did – they were faithful and obedient. But what will we do with this story? That is what I mean when I say we can play a part in it. Will we pick up the torch of the gospel message and continue to spread the good news in our world? Will we allow fear or stubbornness or hardheartedness to paralyze us? Or will we put our faith in the risen Lord that He will work with us just as He did them, knowing that our labor is not in vain in the Lord?

And so we have come to the conclusion of this book – but not the conclusion of the story. During WWII after the British victory in North Africa Churchill said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” This gospel began with the phrase, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). In Churchill’s words, with the close of this book we have not come to the end – we have come only to the “end of the beginning,” the end of the beginning a story that is still in progress 20 centuries later, and will stretch into eternity itself.


  1. Greetings Shane,

    The Bible-footnotes you mention are pretty misleading. The only undamaged Greek copies that end at the end of 16:8 are two copies from the 300's. The oldest copy of Mark, Papyrus 45, is extensively damaged and has no text from Mark 16 at all, so we can't really say how Mark ended in the earliest manuscript. Plus, the footnotes do not mention patristic evidence that is much older than those fourth-century copies.

    Saying that "the earliest known copies of the gospel do not contain verses 9-20" is not telling the whole story. I don't have time to go into detail about the over 1,500 MSS that support Mark 16:9-20, or about the writers in the 100's who used the passage as part of Mark, or about the quirks in the two manuscripts that do not contain the passage, but I invite you to visit
    www.curtisvillechristian.org/MarkOne.html to find out more about these things. Also, you can download an extensive research paper on the subject ("The Origin of Mark 16:9-20, eMail Edition") at

    I was blessed by your exposition of the passage. I would just add that the important question, for those who want to proclaim nothing that is not the Word of God, is not so much a matter of whether or not Mark attached 16:9-20, but of whether or not Mark 16:9-20 was present in the text when the Gospel of Mark was first disseminated for church-use.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  2. Hi James
    Thanks for dropping by! I will be interested to read your paper. Please drop in any time.