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.