“He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
For the past two years, I’ve been writing about passages in the gospel of Mark. We are now at the end and just here it’s worth noting that Mark ends his book much as he began: As the book opened, Mark described it as the beginning of the gospel. He ends with Jesus’ command to go preach the gospel. Chapter one described John the baptist dressing like Elijah. As Jesus cried out on the cross, people thought he was calling for Elijah. The first miracle Mark mentions is Jesus casting out a demon. At the end, Mark mentions Mary Magdalene out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. Jesus is baptized in chapter one. At the end, Jesus commands baptism for all who would be saved. At Jesus’ baptism, God proclaimed that Jesus was His son. At Jesus’ death, a centurion proclaims Jesus to be the son of God.
I find it interesting that throughout the book, people have had trouble understanding and accepting that Jesus was God’s son (the Jewish ruling council made this the cause of Jesus’ condemnation). And yet, at the end, the person who “gets it” is not one of the disciples. In fact, Jesus is critical of the disciples for their lack of belief (16:14). The person who “gets it” is not a Jew. The person who “gets it” is a gentile centurion – perhaps the least likely of anyone we might expect to come to faith.
You never know who will respond to the good news about Jesus. But our task is not to decide who will respond. It is simply to make the gospel known.
“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).
A good many folks believe the Gospel of Mark should end right there. Yes, I know you have eleven more verses in your Bible, but even your Bible will have something of a question mark about them.
I will turn to the long ending next week, but for today, let’s grant that Mark ended with verse eight. What might have been the purpose of such an odd ending?
The women mentioned in this verse had been told to go tell the disciples, and Peter (probably “especially Peter”), to meet Jesus in Galilee. Mark says they don’t. But just here you should see a connection with the beginning of the book. At the end of chapter one, Jesus heals a leper and “sternly commands him” to tell no one. But the leper does anyway.
Written for Christians, the Gospel of Mark addresses the call to discipleship. Those who read Mark for the first time knew that the story didn’t end in disobedience. The disciples changed, made the message known, and began a movement that spread like fire across dry prairie. But to keep it spreading would depend on new people in succeeding generations faithfully following Jesus.
Perhaps Mark’s readers are being given an invitation: They can believe the story is over and go back to their lives. They can believe the story continues with a call to them – but never respond because of fear. Or they can, like the women and apostles did, get on with following Jesus.
If I’m right about Mark’s intention here, we are being given an invitation too. How will you respond?
The last chapter of Mark poses an interesting question: How is this book supposed to end? You will notice that, unless you are reading a King James Bible, there is a note, space, or footnote after verse 8 to the effect: “The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.”
In the Greek text of Mark, verse 8 ends with the word “because.” In examining Greek literature from the ancient world consisting of over 60 million words, only three documents end with the word “because.” Mark does not normally end his sentences with that word. While the early manuscript evidence for verses 9 – 16 may be sparse, the majority of the manuscripts do have that ending, and verses are known to 2nd century Christian authors. If it was not originally a part of Mark, we are at a loss as to how to account for it.
I believe I can tell you why the long ending disappeared early: It has to do with verse 17 and following. If the sign of a Christian is the ability to drive out demons, speak in tongues, and pick up poisonous snakes without harm, early Christian people, believing they couldn’t do these things, simply cut the passage out.
I’m going with the long ending here because I believe it belongs.
So how do I interpret verses 17-18?
I believe them. But I don’t think the verses teach Christians should go around handling snakes and drinking poison. I do believe that the verses challenge us to press on with the work of God despite all obstacles, believing God will grant us success. Faith is a big part of this book. I do believe Christians should expend themselves in leading others to become Christians – because that’s a major theme in this book. And I believe that nothing can stand in the way of God’s will when God’s people give themselves to it. Note that Jesus tells his disciples at least three times that he will be arrested and killed during the Passover. The Chief Priests do not want to arrest Jesus during the Passover – but they do it anyway. Why? Because that was the will of God.
Those last eleven verses bring the book to a suitable and cogent end.