Bible Study on Mark Lesson 21: From the Grave to the Sky Mark 16:1–20

When was the last time your plans were frustrated? It can be discouraging when intentions don’t materialize. But sometimes it’s a good thing. Three women had intended to enter Jesus’ tomb and soak His body with fragrant herbs and oils. But their plans were frustrated; this was the day of Christ’s resurrection.

Theirs wasn’t the only plan that went afoul. When Christ rose from the grave and issued the Great Commission, He also defeated the devil’s plan to crush the Son of God and the spread of His gospel.

Jesus’ Resurrection (16:1–8)

For two dark nights, Jesus’ body rested in the tomb. But the time of His humiliation was nearly over.

On the Cusp of the Resurrection (vv. 1–3)

Mark sets the stage for Jesus’ resurrection by giving two important details. The first detail has to do with the love labor of three women; an unusual emphasis considering that female testimony was not admissible in the law courts of Jesus’ day. If the resurrection, the crux of Christianity, was a fabricated tale its inventors would not have been so foolish as to use female testimony. As it is, God freely exalts the status of women in this critical event.

The three women were Mary Magdalene,1 Salome,2 and Mary the mother of James. These women had followed Jesus for some time and supported Him by their own means (Luke 8:3). Compelled by a courageous love for Jesus, they hoped to apply additional spices and ointments to Jesus’ body. Not surprisingly, their love was assaulted by fear as they traveled to the tomb. Their concern about moving the stone from the tomb’s entrance betrays their doubts about Christ’s promise to rise on the third day (Mark 10:34). Little faith sees problems where they don’t exist. Indeed, the stone had already been rolled away (v. 4).

A second important detail concerns the timing of the women’s approach; it was very early on the first day of the week. Christ’s resurrection forever changed the Christian calendar. The highest day of the week is now the first day. In the Old Testament the pattern was work before rest (Exod. 20:11). In the New Testament, because of Christ’s work, the pattern is rest before work. Therefore, we begin our week by resting in Christ that we might be strengthened to work for His glory. In submission to God’s will (Isa. 58:13) and displaying a careful piety often lacking among believers today, these women bought their spices after having rested on the Sabbath (Luke 23:56). Admitting the complexity of the issues pertaining to God’s Holy Day, we should wonder if we have lost something of their reverence.

Presence of Angels (vv. 4–7)

When the women arrived at the tomb they were surprised to see it open. They were still more astonished to see angels3 before whom they bowed their faces to the ground (Luke 24:5). These hearty women weren’t scared because they were girls. When the seasoned Roman guards had seen the angels—their appearance was like lightning (Matt. 28:3) and their apparel shone like the sun reflecting off fresh snow (Luke 24:4)—they had trembled and became like dead men (Matt. 28:4).

The first thing the angels did upon the arrival of the three visitors was to pronounce words of comfort: “Do not be alarmed” (v. 6). How gracious the Lord is to encourage those who fear due to little faith. Second, the angels demonstrated the reality of the resurrection by pointing to where the now-risen Christ had lain. Jesus’ body rose right through the grave clothes still in plain sight (John 20:6–7). The stone was rolled away not to let Jesus out but to let witnesses in. Third, the angels give instructions for faithfulness. The women were to tell the disciples exactly what Jesus had already told them (Luke 24:6–8; Mark 14:27–28). “Tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him as he said to you” (v. 7). Jesus approached the grave as a suffering Servant. He rose again as a victorious King. Yet he remains the same “thoughtful, kind, and loving Lord.”4 Jesus’ reference to Peter is especially touching considering his recent lapse of faith and courage (14:66–72). Perhaps this is why Peter (with John) was the first to run to the tomb (Luke 24:12; John 20:2–4).

Pursuant Action by the Women (v. 8)

The women left the tomb amazed. The Greek word (ekstasis) describes the state of someone who is thrown into a state of blended fear and wonderment.5 It is on this note of bewilderment that the book of Mark ends—at least according to many scholars, both liberal and conservative. Citing both external and internal evidence, scholars contend that verses 9–20 are a later addition to the Gospel appended to tie up loose ends. In terms of external evidence, these verses are absent from several early manuscripts viewed by some as the most reliable. Concerning internal evidence, the grammar, style, and contents of the longer ending seem to some to be incongruous with the rest of the book.

In wrestling through this difficult issue we need to see this as one of the truly rare cases in which manuscript questions concern a considerable number of verses,6 though notably, no Christian doctrine rests on these verses; nearly all the concepts are summaries of other portions of Scripture. To be brief, given that these verses have been preserved in the church’s Bibles for nearly two thousand years in a preponderance of manuscripts, it seems wise for us to receive them as authoritative.

But what if verses 9–20 were not authentic? The alternate ending, verse 8, is striking. Christ’s resurrection filled these women with the kind of fear that is greatly needed today. In the words of one social commentator:

A healthy fear of God is totally lost on contemporary Christianity, which sees him as more of a “buddy/friend/therapist/guru” than the creator and sustainer of the universe. More and more young people are growing dubious of God-lite and prefer thinking of him as a commanding, dominating, dangerous God who deserves our deferential fear.

He then adds this quote from J. I. Packer:

The pitiable Savior and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel. The old gospel tells men that they need God, but not that God needs them (a modern falsehood); it does not exhort them to pity Christ but announces that Christ has pitied them, though pity was the last thing they deserved. It never loses sight of the divine majesty and sovereign power of the Christ whom it proclaims but rejects flatly all representations of him that would obscure his free omnipotence.7

Have we lost the fear of God? Test yourself. When you think about the resurrection, do you only think about yourself and those you love who will be raised some day? Or, like these women, do you tremble in reverent admiration before the God who has soundly defeated the great enemy death, and who will similarly defeat everyone who refuses to submit to Him?

In spite of their fear, the women were not distracted from their mission. Unbelieving fear is crippling. Godly fear is energizing. One of the saddest attributes describing modern Christians is lethargy, the state of being sluggish or indifferent. Those plagued by lethargy need to go the tomb, believe that Christ is raised, tremble in amazement, and be energized for faithfulness.

Jesus’ Final Words and Deeds (16:9–20)

Following Jesus’ resurrection, in obedience to His instructions (Matt. 26:32), Jesus’ disciples should have proceeded immediately to Galilee. But knowing their little faith, Jesus lingered in Jerusalem for another week making a number of appearances to His frightened followers.

Christ’s Appearances (vv. 9–14)

While the women prepared to leave the tomb garden to locate the other disciples (cf. John 20:11–18) Jesus appeared first to Mary, comforting her grieving heart and steeling her to face a doubting audience (vv. 10–11). Later, Jesus appeared to two disciples who also met with disbelief upon giving their report. Like the disciples, we might resist the testimony of others because we think so highly of ourselves. How many times have we shrugged off a Christian messenger because we didn’t like the message (or the messenger)? Jesus rebuked His disciples for failing to heed His heralds (v. 14). But Mark’s record of the disciples’ doubt also sounds a note of comfort. Doubt is not praiseworthy, but it is a reality for believers. God continually blesses us with the Word and sacraments “because of our weakness and because of our failures, in order to increase our faith by feeding us with the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”8
As the disciples grappled with their little faith and the wonderful but fearful reality of the resurrection, Christ issued His Great Commission.

Christ’s Assignment (vv. 15–18)

While the disciples huddled around a table in a secret room the risen Lord entered through shut doors and gave His marching orders. It’s fair to say that He had captured his disciples’ attention! A healthy fear of the risen Christ is essential to a faithful response to His evangelistic imperative. If we don’t have the fear of God we will view the Great Commission as a good suggestion.

Jesus’ commission contains two parts. The first is a commandment to preach the gospel, not morality or integrity. Our message is the offer of free grace for sinners on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. This gospel is a two-edged sword. He who believes, and confirms his faith with baptism, will be saved. But he who does not believe will be condemned. The eleven disciples could not possibly go into all the world and speak this message to every creature (v. 15). That’s our job. There are people in your life who might never meet an ordained minister or sit under the formal preaching of God’s Word. You are their evangelist.

The second part of Jesus’ commission is a promise. Like Elisha receiving the mantle of Elijah (1 Kings 19:9–14), as Jesus’ apostles would discharge their evangelistic duty, He would confirm His blessing through signs (vv. 17–18). While these verses probably speak to what would happen when Jesus’ authority was transferred to His original disciples, 9 just as in the commission itself, God speaks here to the modern church. Faith in the gospel is self-authenticating. The remarkable fruit of faithful living will testify to God’s miraculous working in believers’ lives. Christ calls us to live courageously, trusting God for protection. This does not authorize us to throw caution to the wind. But it does assure us that God supports His troops.

Mark’s last verses summarize Jesus’ ascension and the outworking of His commission.

Christ’s Ascension (vv. 19–20)

Forty days after His resurrection Christ physically departed from His disciples. Christ was received up into heaven as a visible affirmation that His redeeming work had been accomplished. Jesus passed through the heavens (Heb. 4:14) to sit at God’s right hand (Heb. 9:24) to fulfill His eternal ministry of intercession for those who come to God through Him (Heb. 7:25).

But true to His promise to never forsake His disciples Christ remains spiritually. No mention of Pentecost is made in the last two verses. But Mark’s claim that the previously tremulous disciples went out and preached everywhere (v. 20) can be explained only by the coming of the Holy Spirit, the other counselor whom Christ had promised (John 14:16; Acts 1:7–8). Believers today have Christ’s same spiritual presence that made the disciples braver than ever.

Jesus walked this earth as one of us, having taken on a human nature; a real human body and soul. When He returned to heaven He did not shed this humanity. The disciples saw a real person go up to heaven. What an encouragement this is for us who rightly crave both remade bodies and souls. Christ ascended into heaven as a pledge that He will take us to Himself. Of this promise the Holy Spirit stands as earnest.

Conclusion: Applying Mark’s Gospel

Mark’s aim was to demonstrate “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The gospel is the good news that despite alienation because of our sin, we can become children of God through faith in His Son. In the “action Gospel” Mark unfolds his theme with straightforward recounting and reflection on Jesus’ entire life and ministry. Jesus not only taught the gospel; He also brought it to bear in people’s lives through deeds. He served His disciples. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He drove away the wicked and unrepentant. He bled, thirsted, and died.

John was thinking of Christ when he said, “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Such love is always costly. Mark was a very close follower of Peter. For this reason some have called Mark’s Gospel “The Gospel According to Peter.” Peter said, “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (1 Pet. 4:12–13). More than any other Gospel, Mark focuses on the suffering and death of Christ. This fact helps us to remember that the substitutionary atonement of Christ is the heartbeat of our religion. Our hope rests not on what we do but what Christ has done.

What He has done is described by Mark in kingdom terms. Jesus didn’t come merely preaching a message of personal salvation. He came preaching a message of the kingdom. Today it’s fashionable to divide spiritual matters into the categories of “salvation issues” and “non-salvation issues.” But such compartmentalizing is rarely helpful. Every issue we face is a kingdom issue worthy of our clear-headed, warm-hearted attention.

Mark’s Gospel is filled with examples of righteousness and wickedness and the blessing and judgment that result. For this reason we too must humbly submit to the Teacher. He hasn’t stopped teaching. He’s still bringing His word which we hear as often as we open the Bible with believing hearts. But the grand message that we learn from Mark’s Gospel is that the life that God blesses most is the life of Christ Himself. Mark’s story ends with Christ’s glory; He is received into heaven to sit at God’s right hand. The glory of the gospel is that your life can be so intimately connected with His so as to receive the same benefits that He has earned through His sacrificial service. That is the Christian hope that Mark holds out to us. God says to us today: grab that hope by believing His good news.
            
1. Mary Magdalene, who had been healed of demon possession (Luke 8:2), is not to be confused with the sinful woman of Luke 7.
2. Zebedee’s wife (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40–41). John 19:25 suggests she was Jesus’ aunt on his mother’s side.
3. It is clear from Matthew (28:2) and Luke (24:4) that the man they saw was one of two angels sent from God to meet these women.
4. William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 682.
5. The word is used elsewhere at the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:42), the healing of a paralytic (Luke 5:26), and the healing of a lame man (Acts 3:10; cf. Acts 10:10; 11:5; 22:17).
6. Most textual issues concern a few words or even a single word or spelling.
7. Accessed on May 26, 2015 from http://stillsearching.wordpress.com/2009/03/22/calvinism-so-hot-right-now/.
8. From the “Form for Communion (for those congregations who celebrate the Supper frequently)” found in the Acts of Synod London 2010: Seventh Synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America, 496.
9. As an example, Paul cast out demons and did not die when bitten by a poisonous snake (Acts 28:3–6).

Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

Points to Ponder and Discuss

1. How can we sanctify the first day of the weak, demonstrating that we rejoice in Christ’s resurrection?

2. In light of the women’s needless concern about the stone covering the grave, how much of your anxiety might be due to fear and not to the realities of life?

3. What does Jesus’ reference to Peter in verse 7 tell us about communicating with those who are brought low through sin and repentance?

4. How does Jesus minister to those who demonstrate unbelief and hardness of heart (Mark 16:14)?

5. Reflect on the issue of lethargy in the church today, as well as its cure.

6. How might Mary’s meeting with Jesus (v. 9; cf. John 19:11–18) speak to our need to commune with Christ if we hope to succeed in our respective callings?

7. How hard is it to believe when we are overwhelmed by sadness and fear (cf. Mark 16:11)? How can we discipline ourselves to believe even in such a condition?

8. What signs follow them that believe today (cf. Mark 16:17)?

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