When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Mark 16:1-8 ESV
The ending of Mark’s Gospel is one of the great debates within biblical studies. There are a few verses scattered throughout the Bible that are not found in the earliest manuscripts, and by their context, it is easy to conclude that they were added by later scribes, probably hoping to help clarify the text. Verses 44 and 46 of chapter 9 are a great example. Verses 9-20 of Mark 16, however, are by far the largest example of this in Scripture, and respected and faithful scholars who uphold the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture come to differing conclusions. Some argue that verses 9-20 are indeed the proper conclusion to Mark’s Gospel. Others argue that, because of stylistic differences with the rest of the book, these verses were written by someone other than Mark, yet they ought still to be received as inspired Scripture. Others still argue that these verses were not original to Mark and are not inspired Scripture, yet they contain nothing that contradicts the rest of Scripture. I have fallen upon that third belief.
Although verses 16 and 18 have been used to justify baptismal regeneration and snake handling, other portions of Scripture have been similarly twisted, and a simple and clear reading of the text will push away those notions. Thus, I have no complaint against brothers and sisters who consider verses 9-20 to be Mark’s conclusion. There is no doctrine of Scripture that is enhanced fundamentally by the inclusion of these verses, and none is diminished fundamentally by their exclusion. I do, therefore, hope once we have finished discussing verse 8 that I will have successfully shown why I believe, strange though it may seem, that Mark’s Gospel ends with the women running away in fear and speaking to no one.
Here is one further notice to heed before we launch into the study of these eight verses. It is natural, since this text covers the resurrection, to desire an in-depth explanation of the resurrection’s significance. Notice, however, that those explanations are largely found within Acts through Revelation. The primarily goal of the resurrection narratives within the four Gospels is to assert the validity and reliability of the resurrection of Jesus. With that in mind, a more detailed theological exploration of the resurrection can be found in my sermon on that doctrine from the Apostles’ Creed.
WHEN THE SABBATH WAS PAST // VERSES 1-4
Throughout the Scriptures, waiting on the Lord consistently proves to be one of the most difficult tasks that God places upon His people. Abraham and Sarah had to wait for the promised arrival of Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah waited twenty years for Jacob and Esau. Jacob waited seven years to marry Rachel. Joseph spent around thirteen years waiting as a slave and a prisoner before ascending to Pharaoh’s right hand. Although Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace until he was forty years old, he needed to wait forty years in the wilderness before he was ready to be used by God as Israel’s deliverer. As a fruit of their disobedience, Israel would then be forced to wander in the wilderness forty years until the exodus generation died. Of course, peppered throughout all of these, and the many more that we could name, God commanded His people to observe a Sabbath rest each week. Rest, we should note, very often looks the same as waiting.
When the Sabbath was past… That Sabbath between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday was no doubt the most bitter rest-wait that Jesus’ followers ever felt. Surely that Sabbath did not feel restful, nor did they understand that they were waiting for Jesus’ resurrection. But it was, and they were. That Sabbath was the beginning of the great Sabbath that Christ’s death has now brought to God’s people, rest from our futile attempts to pay off the debt of our sins and to earn the favor of God. That Sabbath was also the great wait for Christ’s resurrection, which vindicated His innocence and His claim of divinity. It also marked the beginning of His church’s waiting for His return and the resurrection of our bodies that He will bring with Him. All of this was working behind the scenes, while Jesus’ followers wept in despair at having lost their messiah.
Consider the poignancy of that phrase: When the Sabbath was past… The women who looked upon the cross from a distance now came to Christ’s tomb to give His body a proper anointing. They clearly did not expect for find Jesus alive, for along the way they began to wonder how they were going to roll the stone away from the tomb. Yet their sorrow was pierced once for all on that blessed Sunday. They went to the tomb in despair, having waited the longest Saturday of their lives, yet at the tomb they discovered that Saturday to have been their Sabbath all along.
So it will be with this life. Scripture certainly warns and even promises suffering, sorrow, and affliction for God’s people, but whenever we see Christ face-to-face, we will see that our struggle through life was a Sabbath all along, that our life of waiting was really a life of rest in Christ. And it will be past, as we enter into the everlasting Lord’s Day when death itself is destroyed. Let us, therefore, take comfort from these words.
As for the reliability of Jesus’ resurrection, for indeed the entirety of our faith hangs upon this singular reality, there are many today who dismiss the Gospel’s accounts of eyewitnesses as invalid because of how superstitious the ancients were. Such a thought is chronological snobbery at its worst. Calvin notes the disciples’ unbelief and how it ought to strengthen our belief in the resurrection:
It is also a fact that the apostles doubted, and their incredulity should strengthen our faith even more. For if, from the very beginning, they had believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we could argue that it was all too easy. On the contrary, they were so slow that our Lord had to upbraid them for being confused and of little faith (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:25). They were so dull and so obtuse that they understood nothing.
Thus, seeing how hard it was for the apostles to accept this article of faith, we ought to be all the more certain, for if they were won over as if by force, we have every reason to follow their example. As Scripture says, ‘Thomas, you have seen and believed. Blessed are those who believe without having seen’ (John 20:29).
Timothy Keller also writes:
The resurrection was as inconceivable for the first disciples, as impossible for them to believe, as it is for many of us today. Granted, their reasons would have been different from ours. The Greeks did not believe in resurrection; in the Greek worldview, the afterlife was liberation of the soul from the body. For them resurrection would never be a part of life after death. As for the Jews, some of them believed in a future general resurrection when the entire world would be renewed, but they had no concept of an individual rising from the dead. The people of Jesus’ day were not predisposed to believe in resurrection any more than we.
Thus, do not buy the notion that the resurrection was more easily believed two thousand years ago. If you find it difficult to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, take comfort that so did those who saw Him risen and alive. They were persuaded by the sheer reality that invaded into their doubt and unbelief.
HE IS NOT HERE // VERSES 5-7
And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed.
Both Luke and John record that there were two angels present at the tomb, which some have marked as a contradiction within the Bible, but, as R. C. Sproul notes, the mention of only one angel by both Mark and Matthew would only be a contradiction if they had said explicitly that there was only one angel at the tomb. The fact that Mark only refers to the angel on the right side does not exclude the presence of another angel.
And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place were they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”
These words from the angel to the women are full of goodness, so let us walk through his announcement piece by piece.
Do not be alarmed. It is almost always the case that angels need to offer a word of comfort to the persons that they are speaking to. Ryle, however, makes an excellent word of application here by noting the comfort that God’s people do not need to fear angels. We may find that to be an odd application since none of us have ever been visited by an angel, but Ryle notes that it will be for whichever Christians are still living at Christ’s return. When trumpet of the archangel sounds and the great men of earth are calling for rocks to fall upon them in order to hide them from the wrath of the Lamb, we will be gathered into the host of saints and angels with joy, being cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. On that great day, we will rejoice with the heavenly host rather than shrink back in fear.
You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. We can almost envision the entire humiliation of Christ, from His conception in Mary’s womb to His final breath upon the cross, as a tension that was gradually built and had a symbolic release with the tearing of the temple’s curtain. Yet now after a silence upon the earth, the great exaltation had begun. The grave could no longer contain the Author of life. With His triumph over death itself, the seed of the new creation started to sprout. God’s kingdom won the decisive victory over the domain of darkness. Although the war lingers on a little while longer, the outcome is secure, and the devil knows that his days are short. And the monument of Christ’s victory is the empty tomb.
It is also significant that the angel told them to see where Jesus was laid. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ linen shroud with which Joseph had wrapped Him was still there. Morgan notes why this is significant:
When the stone was rolled back, what was there to be seen? An empty tomb, and undisturbed grave-clothes. These grave-clothes were lying in the very folds that they had been in, around the body of the dead Christ; and the napkin that had been on the head, was laid separated from the other wrappings, as they were round the dead body of Jesus. Familiarity with Eastern customs will help us here. The wrappings around the dead were voluminous. They were enswathed in these bandages in the most careful and systematic and even scientific manner. What Peter and John saw when they looked into the grave was those grave-clothes lying exactly as they had been wrapped around His body; but His body was not there! It was that vision of the grave-clothes undisturbed, that convinced Peter and John that He was risen. If the grave-clothes had been disturbed, and carefully folded up, then they might have imagined that somebody had unwrapped them, and that the body of Jesus had been stolen, as certain people said it had; but the undisturbed wrappings in the tomb demonstrated to these men that He was risen. This then, was what they saw when the stone was rolled back–an empty tomb, and undisturbed grave-clothes. Of these signs angels became guardians, until they had borne testimony to the disciples, which would settle forever the question of whether our Lord was truly risen from the dead.
The angel evidently turned the women’s attention to this great sign. Jesus’ body was not unwrapped and stolen. He was raised and left His burial cloth behind unwrapped and untouched.
But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you. Here the angel gave a commission to these women to tell Jesus’ disciples that He would meet them in Galilee. Of course, as the angel indicates, Jesus had told this to His disciples already. In 14:28, after Jesus warned His disciples that they would all abandon Him, He gave this promise: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Even before their scattering, Jesus gave them the promise of restoration. Of course, Peter’s failure was more significant than the others. They all abandoned Him, but Peter explicitly denied Him three times. Thus, in an act of tremendous grace, special attention was called to Peter. Though he had rejected Jesus, Jesus had not rejected him. Though Peter had been faithless, Jesus remains faithful. If we do not behold with marvel and amazement that our God takes men like Peter and Paul and makes them into apostles for His glory, then we have yet to truly understand the gospel.
The reminder that Jesus foretold all these things beforehand serves to strengthen what Jesus told His disciples from the Mount of Olives only days before: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (13:31). The word of our Lord is firmer than the earth beneath our feet and more steadfast the sky above our heads. Let His resurrection cement our faith in that truth.
THE BEGINNING OF THE GOSPEL // VERSE 8
And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Again, I believe that these are the final words of the Mark’s Gospel, and strange as they may seem, I believe that they are a remarkably fitting conclusion to this remarkable book. Peter Bolt writes of this conclusion:
The silence of the women after the young man’s command (16:8) is an intriguing feature of this scene, especially since Mark’s Gospel closes with these silent, fearful women, who really should have been speaking at this momentous time… The women’s action is plainly wrong. Rather than being silent from fear, they should have been speaking out of faith in this time of mission. But the story portrays these women with great sympathy; so much so that it is impossible for the reader to condemn them. The combination of an action that is clearly wrong and a strong sympathy for the women throws the ending over to the readers, inviting them to repent when they fall into the same trap as the women. Even if fear causes silence, the readers knows the story must still be told. The Son of Man has come, it is time to announce the gospel to the ends of the earth, despite our fear.
Indeed, we should recall that one of the defining features of Mark’s Gospel is the messianic secret, that is, throughout Jesus’ Galilean ministry He repeatedly told people not to make Him known. In Mark 1, we were told that Jesus would not let the demons He cast out speak “because they knew him” (v. 34). That chapter ended with Jesus healing a leper and telling him sternly not to telling anyone about his healing. “But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town” (1:45). We see the same command given again to demons in 3:11-12, as they fell at His feet and confessed Him to be the Son of God, and again to Jairus’ household after raising his daughter back to life. How ironic then for Mark’s Gospel to be begin with a leper boldly proclaiming the miracle that Jesus worked for him yet end with these women remaining silent about the greatest miracle that Christ worked for the ransom of many!
Yet what Bolt alluded to, another writer makes it a bit plainer: “Mark’s ending disturbs us, because it seems so inconclusive. We long to complete the book–and that, of course, is precisely what Mark wants us to do!” Mark never set out to write a finished book on the Gospel of Jesus; rather, he plainly gave the entire scope of his book in the very first verse: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). That is precisely what this entire book is: the beginning of the gospel. Or, to use Luke’s language at the beginning of Acts when describing his own Gospel, “I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…” (Acts 1:1). In fact, Mark’s Gospel ends so abruptly for much the same reason that Acts ends so abruptly: because it has not come to an end. Acts is only the beginning of the story of the church that has been continuing now for two thousand years. The same is true with Mark’s Gospel. The gospel was of Jesus did not end with His crucifixion, His resurrection, or even His ascension; rather, that was only the planting of the gospel seed into the earth. Now comes the growth. For two thousand years, the gospel has been growing like a mustard seed, covering the earth and shattering kingdoms of men as the Nebuchadnezzar’s vision promised. Yet that growth comes through us. With this conclusion, Mark is essentially handing us his Gospel and asking, “What are you going to do with this?”
Here, indeed, is the end of the matter. After all has been said and heard, what will you do with miracles of Jesus presented in this book? Will you confess that Jesus is the Christ?
What will you do with the words of Jesus written here for us? What kind of soil is your heart for receiving them?
What will you do with Jesus’ crucifixion? Will you dismiss it as folly, or confess Jesus the Son of God, as the centurion did?
What will you do with the empty tomb? Will you dare to hope in the resurrection, in the death of death itself through Jesus?
What will you do with Jesus, the Son of Man, who has now ascended to the right hand of the Ancient of Days and received His everlasting kingdom? Will you kiss the Son and serve Him with fear and rejoice in His reign with trembling all of your days?
What will you do with this gospel, with this good news? Will you keep it to yourself like someone trying to hide a lamp under a basket, or will you scatter the seed of God’s Word freely, boldly, and joyfully?
Indeed, Mark has given us a verbal declaration of the gospel; let us now go to the visual sermon that our Lord has ordained for us. Here at the Lord’s Table, we eat and drink as a proclamation of Christ’s death until His returns. As we partake of the bread and the cup, let us taste and see the goodness of our God through the sacrifice of Christ upon the accursed tree in our place. And let us do so with solemn joy, for the tomb is empty and the good news of Jesus’ ransom for many must now go forth to all the world.