Chapter 25. Tomb vacated
Please read Mark 16:1-8
Daylight spreads slowly across the sky. Away to the east, beyond the towers of the Temple and the adjacent Roman fortress, the sun rises above the horizon as they make their way out of the city gate. Already at this early hour there are people moving about; here, business starts at daybreak. But the three women have business of their own. Last night, they pooled their limited funds to buy the spices needed to prepare a body for permanent burial. Just a couple of hundred yards beyond this gate, the body of someone very special awaits their attention. They have had to wait until now because of the Sabbath; everything stops for the Sabbath; only when yesterday evening came could they get hold of what they needed, and only now, Sunday morning, can they make their way to the tomb. The weather is warm; he has been dead over thirty-six hours; they really can’t wait any longer to honour their dead leader. All three of them watched him die on the cross, that moment of death on Friday afternoon, and two of them observed the hurried burial nearby. They saw Joseph and the others rolling the great stone down its slot; they heard the thud as it reached its resting place in front of the doorway. That, they know, will be their problem. As they walk the last few yards they are asking each other, How in the world are we going to roll the stone away again? They know these tombs are designed to be easy to close but hard to open. They might have to enlist the help of passers-by; they have to get in somehow. That thought brings them to the old quarry where a number of tombs have been cut in to the rock-face. Here’s the one; it’s rather grander than the others; Joseph of Arimathea is a wealthy man after all. The tomb has an outer chamber; beyond it lies the burial chamber, sealed by the stone; but here comes the shock. As they enter the outer chamber and come face to face with the tomb itself, to their utter amazement they see that the stone has already been removed. It’s been rolled right back; and more shocking still, just inside there is someone sitting and waiting for them. He doesn’t seem at all surprised to see them – but at sight of him they are terrified. In appearance, a young man, robed all in white; but a white that can be clearly seen even in the darkness of the tomb.
It’s disturbing enough to find the tomb open and someone sitting inside. But they are far beyond surprise; it is dread, it is terror that they feel, because they recognise this is no ordinary young man. This is an angel of God, this is an eruption of heavenly glory into their grey world. What can the messenger of God be doing here, inside a grave? The words he speaks in vv.6-7, words which will transform their lives for ever, add further astonishment to their fear. ‘Calm down, don’t be so fearful’, he says. ‘I know why you are here – you’re looking for Jesus from Nazareth, the crucified one. He’s risen! He’s not here! Look, this is where they put the body: see, it’s empty space! Now – here is what you must do. Go and tell his disciples – Peter as well – “He’s going ahead of you into Galilee. You’ll see him there, just as he told you before.”’ The women need no second invitation to back out of the tomb. The encounter with the angel, coupled with the stunning news he has given, leave them trembling with fear. Their heads are spinning as they run back towards the city. They career down the streets now filling with people; heads are turned at the unusual sight of three women running full pelt along the road; but not a word do they utter until they have done what the angel told them to do.
Before we can begin to grasp the astonishing story of Jesus’ resurrection, we need to enter in to the experience of the women that early Sunday morning. We need to feel something of their fear and bewilderment as they encounter the angel and the sheer, overwhelming shock of the news that the one they loved has risen from the dead – hence my attempt to capture these feelings in the preceding paragraphs. The other issue we need to face at the outset is a strange one: it concerns the point where Mark’s gospel actually ends! I have provided an additional note to explain this; for now I will simply say that I am convinced that Mark intended to finish his gospel with what we call v.8. We will return to the reason Mark chose to end like this shortly.
Now let us get back to the story. It is clear that Mark is still interested in confirming the facts of what happened at the resurrection, just as he was with Jesus’ death and burial. The time, the day, the details of the preparation, the problem of removing the stone, the fact it is removed, the repeated confirmation that the body of Jesus is gone, even the reference to meeting him in Galilee – all this demonstrates that Mark intends us to take the resurrection as sober, historical reality, rooted in real places, marked on a real calendar. There is no place here for the idea that the resurrection is merely some kind of metaphor, a picture representing new hope or the disciples’ determination to carry on the ministry and message of Jesus after his death. In fact after the crucifixion all the disciples are determined to do is to keep their heads down! But in any case, that idea is completely alien to the New Testament accounts, all of which are fully convinced that these events actually happened; our faith stands and falls by that.
The resurrection of Christ is such a real and pivotal event that ever after that, Sunday, resurrection day, became the Church’s day of worship. We should note, by the way, that the claim of the empty tomb is never denied by the enemies of the Church. Within a few weeks the young Church will be preaching a message that is squarely based on the facts of the case, at a time when it can easily be disproved if their opponents can find any way of doing so.
Thus Mark clearly establishes the reality of the empty tomb; he wants us to be sure that it actually happened. But that is not enough. The belief that Jesus rose from the dead is of no value unless we understand what it means. If you simply believe that Jesus rose to life, amazing as that is, all you have is a sort of happy ending to a sad story. They crucified him – how tragic, how unjust, how horrible. But he rose again – so that’s OK. No: the facts of the resurrection are just the foundation – we need more. The women in the story are terrified – the word Mark (and only Mark) uses in v.5 is very strong – not just because they have had a shock, not even just because they have seen an angel; but because they have witnessed God doing something spectacularly supernatural. This is God turning all human expectations upside down – there was not one person on earth who expected Jesus to rise that Sunday morning. Anyone can be executed; but not anyone can emerge from his grave a couple of days later!
This is the same fear the disciples feel when they see Jesus calm the storm (see 4:35-41) – remember, they are more frightened after the storm than they are in the middle of it and think they are going to drown – because in that moment they have seen a glimpse of God. It is the same fear they feel on the mountain of Transfiguration where they see the Lord Jesus revealed for a moment in his divine glory (see 9:2-8); and when they see him drive a horde of demons out of the man called Legion (5:1-20); and when he walks on the water (6:45-52). These were great wonders – but their overwhelming reaction every time they saw God revealed in Jesus was fear. Now these women feel it too. Unless you and I, reading this story, feel something of that disturbance ourselves, we have probably never grasped the meaning of the resurrection. This is no mere happy ending! I want to highlight two life-changing realities that this passage brings out.
Firstly, death is defeated (vv.6-7). Jesus is alive! Notice that triple affirmation in v.6. This is where he was – and he’s not here now! Notice the way Peter is singled out for special mention – because Peter is the one who denied Jesus publicly while the Jewish high court had him on trial. We can imagine the sense of wonder in Peter’s voice as he tells Mark the story and recalls the grace of Jesus that restored him. In 14:28, just where Jesus is telling his disciples that they will all desert him, he says he will meet them again – Peter as well, the chief failure. Yes, Jesus will meet him as well – and back in Galilee, where they have spent those years together, Peter will be restored. What a message – even after such a disaster, there is hope for failures like him – and us!
So Jesus is alive! Death is defeated! But what does that mean? It gives further proof that his mission was truly accomplished. We have seen that demonstrated in the account of the way Jesus dies; but the resurrection is further proof. God declares that Jesus has triumphed by raising him to life. Over and over again, the early Church stressed this in their preaching: see Acts 2:22-24, Acts 13:13-15 and Romans 1:4. The resurrection confirms that Jesus’ death is not futile; it is not a half-finished job; and it is not the end. But more than that, it means there is resurrection for us all. See what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:12-14,17-20. That word ‘firstfruits’ refers to harvesting crops. ‘Firstfruits’ is literally what you bring in first – and all the rest will follow behind. In other words, Jesus’ resurrection is the proof that all the Bible’s promises about eternal life are true. If God did it for Jesus, then he will do it for us. All of us who die will experience resurrection. We will be raised to life for eternity, just as he was, in bodies that are equipped for eternity – bodies that will not show the wearing of the years, the decay and the pain that comes from living in the bodies we know so well today.
There is resurrection for us all; but that is not necessarily good news. For believers, this story is one of immense comfort. Because he has gone through the grave and risen to renewed life, we too will go through the grave and rise to new life. For everyone who belongs to Jesus Christ, we can know that our destiny is to live with him in eternity. This resurrection truth gives us all, young or old, near death or remote from it, the assurance that we need. But for unbelievers, those who are outside of Christ, the resurrection is actually a very uncomfortable truth, because it reminds us that our story does not end with physical death. This present life is not all there is. Beyond death lies resurrection and judgement for everybody. People may be able to ignore God in this life, reach death taking no account of him at all; but death is not the end. The warning is that they too will be raised to life, stand before the Judge and be called to account for the full record of their days on earth.
Secondly, however, life is still messy. The reason people wrote extra endings to Mark’s gospel – and there are at least three variations on the longer ending – is that it seems to come to such an untidy conclusion. But that’s just the point. What does the angel emphasise to the women? v.6 – ‘He is not here’. Yes, that certainly refers to Jesus’ physical resurrection: he’s gone from the tomb! But it is also Mark’s way of saying that Jesus isn’t going to be around any more. He is risen – and this account clearly states that he will indeed appear to the disciples – but they must learn to live with the fact that he won’t always be here. They have to live with his absence – until the day when he returns along with a whole army of angels (13:26-27).
The four gospels, as you probably know, all handle the resurrection story differently. The other three all record various appearances of Jesus after he is risen, to various places in different locations. But even those endings are not as neat and tidy as we might think. The conclusion to all four gospels contains this note of uneasiness. In Matthew, false rumours are spread about the resurrection (Matthew 28:11-15); and even as Jesus says his final farewell, some of the disciples are still doubting (Matthew 28:17). John concludes with the prediction of Peter’s humiliating death (John 21:18-19); and Luke’s gospel is the prelude to Acts, where the early Christians after the resurrection face hostile courts, stoning, judicial execution, beatings, imprisonment and a host of other unpleasant experiences as a normal part of life. And this is Mark’s way – typically brief, typically sharp, typically hard-edged, finishing his gospel on a note of fear and bewilderment. (This is why you will hardly ever hear a sermon about the resurrection from Mark’s gospel!) The closing note is disturbing – because life here on earth is still going to be messy; the life we know now is full of loose ends. It’s full of events and experiences that we don’t understand and find hard to handle, where there is suffering and pain – and where we can be deeply injured, even by other Christians.
The resurrection is not a happy-ever-after story – not yet! The resurrection of Jesus is past, it stands in history as a supremely glorious truth, an established fact to give us hope and assurance. But our own resurrection still lies ahead. For Christians, the trials and struggles of this life are given to make us more like our Saviour, gradually to transform us into the image of Christ. Every difficulty, every painful relationship, every encounter with illness or old age, every exam failure, every conflict in your office or your school, is an opportunity for that to happen. So when life seems to be falling apart, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have gone wrong; and it certainly doesn’t mean that he has lost control. God’s purpose for us is not to make our path through life as easy as possible. He has a bigger agenda than that. His intention is to make us more like his Son, while we still live in a messy world. For people who are not yet Christians, the struggles of this life are a warning, a loud trumpet blast calling for surrender. The harder the struggle, the louder the call. God is calling you to realise that you are not in control, that only he can be in control; and that you still have the chance to submit and come to him through Christ.
The message of the resurrection story is that life is still messy – but death is defeated. The resurrection has happened! It was real; Jesus was raised to life, the tomb was vacated, the angel was waiting for the women to arrive. The stone was rolled back not for him to get out, but for them to come in and see the proof: he is not here, he has risen! It proved Jesus’ mission was fully accomplished. For believers, the resurrection is the certainty that we can look death in the face and know that our already-risen Saviour is waiting for us beyond the grave.
As we reach the end of Mark’s gospel, the question is simply: have you seen this crucified and risen Jesus for who he really is? Do you know him? Are we following him as he leads us through this painful, messy world – until the day when we see him face to face – either beyond the death he has defeated, or when he returns in glory as the Judge?
Additional note on the endings of Mark’s gospel
The question of where Mark’s gospel really ends is an issue which everyone who studies or preaches through Mark has to face, because, as you will see from your Bible, the printed text actually runs on to v.20. Depending on which version of the Bible you are using, you will probably have an explanatory footnote that tells you that some of the early manuscripts include vv.9-20, while others do not.
For English readers brought up with the King James Version (which simply includes vv.9-20 without explanation), it may be hard to accept that part of the familiar text may not be genuine. However, I am convinced (along with many others!) that Mark finished his gospel at v.8. There are several reasons for holding this view. Firstly, vv.9-20 read even in English like a deliberate tidying-up operation; in the Greek that impression is even stronger. There is no continuity between v.8 and v.9 and the style and the use of words is totally unlike Mark. It sounds very much as though some later writer has read the endings of the other gospels, along with Acts, and produced what he thought was a tidier ending for Mark’s gospel. Read vv.9-20 with that thought in mind, and you will quickly see what I mean. You will find a brief survey of this passage after this note.
Probably many of us have felt that v.8 does leave the story rather in mid-air. We feel that a gospel should end more neatly, certainly not with a group of women running away from the empty tomb! Gospels, we feel, should end with appearances of the risen Christ, preferably involving a fishing trip, a walk in the countryside or a rendezvous on a mountain top. But since Mark invented the genre we call ‘gospel’, it would be better to let him show us how a gospel ought to end, and not the other way round!
Secondly, there is very good evidence that Mark’s book circulated widely with an ending at v.8; this evidence comes from several sources. The two oldest manuscripts we have (the codices known as Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) finish at v.8, as is well-known. What is less well-known is that many of the oldest translations into other languages, such as Georgian, Ethiopic and Old Latin, also finish there. This indicates that the gospel circulated widely in this form and tends to counteract the argument that the great majority of the Greek manuscripts (mostly produced much later than Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) include a longer ending. Moreover the early church historian Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, clearly believes that the genuine ending of the gospel comes at v.8; and even before that, church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen seem to be unaware of any longer ending.
A further, minor, argument in favour of the ending at v.8 is that it is consistent with the structural parallel with 14:1-11. These two passages begin and end the closing section of the gospel: in the first, Jesus is anointed for his burial; in 16:1-8, he is not anointed at the actual place of his burial – because he is no longer there!
It has often been argued that Mark could not have finished with v.8 as it stands, because it ends impossibly with the Greek word gar (meaning ‘for’). However, it has now been shown that this is a legitimate way to end a sentence and even a document; so this argument has lost its force. It is also worth noting again that vv.9-20 as printed in our Bibles is not the only additional ending: a shorter one is found also, usually but not always in combination with the longer one; and the longer one has a major variant of its own.
All in all, I believe it is safe to say that what we call vv.9-20 were written by someone other than Mark, probably some decades later; and that in our study and our preaching we too should conclude at v.8. Mark’s reasons for finishing on this abrupt note are discussed in the main text. For more extensive discussion of the question of the endings, I suggest consulting a larger commentary such as Lane or France. Hendriksen’s treatment is also helpful.
Notes on the text of Mark 16:9-20
For the sake of completeness, I will include here a brief survey of the passage we know as Mark 16:9-20. I will do no more than note the other variant endings – the ‘shorter ending’ inserted between verses 9 and 10 in a number of manuscripts and the long extension which one manuscript includes after v.14. These are universally agreed today to be spurious, although their presence does support the view that there was very early confusion about the form of the text of Mark 16.
vv.9-11 tell us of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. The Greek does not include his name. These verses give a summary of the information in John 20:11-18, with the additional note that Mary had had seven demons expelled (Luke 8:2). The disciples’ unbelief at this point is consistent with what we know of them from elsewhere (and see Luke 24:11). It would not be surprising if they were ‘mourning and weeping’ (v.10), since we know that they had not grasped the repeated promise of the resurrection.
vv.12-13 refer to the incident recorded at much greater length in Luke 24:13-35 where Jesus encounters Cleopas and another disciple on the way to Emmaus. The reference to Jesus being ‘in a different form’ (v.12) is odd. Presumably it refers to the pair’s inability to recognise him, but Luke’s explanation is simply that ‘they were kept from recognising him’ (Luke 24:16). v.13 contains another seeming discrepancy. Luke’s account describes a very different reception (Luke 24:33-35). If the two incidents are indeed the same, and Mark 16:13 is to be taken as reliable, the only possible explanation is that part of the disciple group were now believing, while the remainder were not.
v.14 describes the appearance of Jesus recorded in Luke 24:36-49 and John 20:19-23. Jesus’ rebuke is framed in stronger terms than in Luke or John, perhaps suggesting that the author(s) of this ending wants to address people who are casting doubt on the truth of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
vv.15-18 contain an extended version of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). The emphasis on baptism is true to New Testament teaching (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38): the second half of v.16 confirms that baptism itself is not regarded as essential to salvation. vv.17-18 give a list of five signs (Greek semeion, a word which Mark nowhere uses of miracles, though John frequently does) that will accompany believers. Of these, driving out demons and healing the sick occur frequently in the gospels and in Acts. Speaking in tongues is not mentioned in the gospels, but is prominent in Acts. Handling snakes safely is mentioned once in Acts 28:3-6, the story of Paul on Malta, though there is no suggestion that picking up the snake was deliberate! But drinking poison without harm is mentioned nowhere in the New Testament and credible records are very few. The early church historian Eusebius quotes the second century author Papias as describing such an incident in the life of Justus Barsabbas (see Acts 1:23). Those who regard these verses as genuine will see that incident as a fulfilment of v.18; those who do not may see it as explaining v.18’s invention!
Finally, vv.19-20 tell the story of Jesus’ ascension and its aftermath. Unlike Luke, v.19 alludes to his glorification. Whereas the blunt ending at v.8 may be thought too abrupt, this version certainly seems ‘too good to be true’! Mark has been at pains to stress the suffering and trials which lie in store for Jesus’ true disciples, but v.20 reads like a deliberately happy ending. Of course, that is not the same as saying it is not true. The theology of vv.19-20 is entirely consistent with the New Testament. The question is whether their emphasis could possibly be true to Mark.