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“The Astonishing Resurrection”

Mark 16:1-8, 9-20
Bob DeGray
May 24, 2009

Key Sentence

The resurrection is the astonishing truth about Jesus.


Introduction: The ending of the Gospel of Mark
I. The historical truth (16:1-8)
II. The promised truth (16:1-8)
III. The astonishing truth (16:1-8)


Can a dead man live again? Y’all are church-goers so you naturally answer yes, but have you consulted your experience and your heart to recognize how absurd that answer is? Can a dead man live again? Of course not. Dead’s dead.

That’s a quote, from a book I read years ago, Gaal the Conqueror by John White. It’s a fantasy. The hero, Gaal, is the Jesus figure: his name means redeemer. The main character is a boy named John. When confronted by someone who says they won’t remain dead, he responds with: “Oh, don’t be silly! Dead’s dead. It can’t be changed. You don’t fool around with things like that.”

Dead’s dead. That’s your experience and mine. We pray and pray for someone to be healed, but once they’re dead, we stop. One look at a lifeless body stops us. There’s something so obviously missing; life is so obviously gone, that any prayer for healing or even resurrection tends to die in our throat. It’s not that we never pray it: I have, at times. But so far God hasn’t granted it.

Even if God does restore life on rare occasions, it doesn’t change our inborn sense that death is irreversible. Even as we cling to the hope of life after death, we don’t expect it to happen to this body right in front of us. We don’t expect it today. At a very profound level we know that dead’s dead. So we fight death with every prayer and every doctor and every medicine and every treatment because we sense that once a person crosses that line they are gone to us.

The women who watched Jesus’ burial at the end of Mark 15 knew that in exactly the same way you and I do. Even though Jesus himself had restored people to life, at a gut level these women, the disciples, all Jesus’ followers, knew dead’s dead; they inherently, fully expected that to be true of Jesus.

Therefore Mark 16 and the other resurrection accounts should astonish us. How can we be matter-of-fact about the most experience-rending miracle ever? Mark hasn’t structured this Gospel to leave us yawning: One of his purposes is to show that Jesus elicited the most extreme astonishment, wonder and awe, and that the resurrection is the astonishing truth about Jesus.

Mark 16:1-8 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. 2Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" 4But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.

5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" 8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Introduction: The ending of the Gospel of Mark

Before we analyze those verses I want to comment on the rest of the chapter. If you look down at your Bible to where we just stopped, most of you will see that verses 9 to 20 are set apart in some way. Most Bibles indicate that some of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament do not include these verses.

So the question is, were these verses in the original text Mark wrote, or not? It’s a difficult question. We believe the Scriptures were word-for-word inspired by God in the author’s original manuscript. So I think the text of the earliest copies we’ve found is preferable to later manuscripts, since repeated copying will introduce some copying errors, insertions and deletions.

But these verses, 9-20, are only missing in a few of the very earliest manuscripts. Some other early manuscripts have one additional, very different verse that concludes the Gospel, many have verses 9-20 as we know them, and some have both verses 9-20 and the additional verse. Further, many manuscripts set these verses apart from the normal text by some indicating mark.

In the same way some early church fathers quote from this section. But Eusebius, writing around 325 AD said “accurate” copies of the Gospel ended with verse 8; that in his day verses 9-20 were missing from most manuscripts. Jerome, who translated the New Testament into Latin said “almost all the Greek codices do not have this concluding portion.”

So in this case we need to add the evidence of the verses themselves. Here, I think, we get clues which lean us in the direction of the verses not being original to Mark. For one thing, these twelve verses use seventeen words not used in the rest of Mark. And the grammar and feel of this section is very different.

So, verses 9 to 11: When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. 10She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. 11When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. This is clearly a summary of John 19:1-18, in which Mary of Magdala is the first person to visit the tomb, is dis-believed by Peter and John, and ultimately returns to the tomb and sees Jesus.

Verse 12 and 13: Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. 13These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either. In Luke 24:13-35, details how Jesus revealed himself to the two disciples who were walking to Emmaus.

Verses 14 to 16: Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. 15He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. 16Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

These verses quickly summarize Jesus’ recorded appearances to the disciples and loosely paraphrase the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. The paraphrase, however, seems to inappropriately link baptism to salvation. The weight of Scripture shows baptism to be an expected response to salvation, not something required for salvation. This verse has been used to support the other position. But that use is weakened if this verse is not surely authentic.

Verses 17 and 18 are not paralleled anywhere in the Gospels: 17And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. Specific instances of some of these phenomena do occur in the New Testament. Others, like the snakes and the poison, aren’t seen anywhere in the early church. So these promises don’t have much of a ring of authenticity. Also, they’ve often been abused.

Finally, verses 19 and 20: After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. 20Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. These events are expanded in Luke 24 and Acts 1, and throughout the book of Acts.

What have we seen? The manuscript evidence leans toward verses 9-20 being an addition to Mark’s Gospel. The text reinforces that: this feels like a summary compiled from mostly reliable sources. One theory is that a very early recipient wanted to round out Mark’s ending and so added a paragraph based on oral sources, and then his bracketed addition was repeatedly copied.

But why make this addition? Was Mark’s ending that bad? I don’t think so. Mark’s was probably the first Gospel written. He was inventing a whole new genre; no one knew how a Gospel should end. If Mark thought the ending he penned served his literary and spiritual purposes, why add to it?

And verses 1 to 8 do serve Mark’s purposes. He had clear goals in his writing: to display the historical reliability of Jesus’ life; to emphasize the promises Jesus kept; and to communicate the astonished response of people to Jesus. He accomplishes all of these purposes in verses 1 to 8.

I. The historical truth (16:1-8)

First, Mark was showing historical reliability of the resurrection. Look at verse 1: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body.” We saw last week that Mark wanted to establish the factuality of Christ’s death and burial. He records the presence of eye-witnesses, these same women were the witnesses to Jesus’ death, his burial, and now his resurrection.

By the way, the women were not buying spices to embalm or mummify the body. The Jews never did that. Rather the purpose of the spices was to mask the odors of a decaying body. These women did not go to see a resurrection: they have no more expectation of that than you would if you were going to a funeral. Their experiences and their hearts teach them that dead’s dead.

Mark grounds these verses in place and time and circumstance. Verse 2: Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" Their mission of mercy started before dawn, and they arrived at the tomb just as the sun rose. But they seem to have had no idea the tomb had been sealed and a guard placed around it. They would have known that a Roman guard would never have let them in the tomb.

Also, in their grief, they were well on the way before they realized the stone was going to be a problem. They rightfully doubted that they would have enough strength between them to roll the stone out of way to carry out their mercy.

Verse 4: “But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.” Mark is establishing the objective, factual truth of the resurrection. By triply linking these women to the scene: death, burial and resurrection morning, he’s done that. We have no room to doubt they went to the right tomb, no room to doubt the stone they’d seen had been moved. I read a book by a lawyer, Pamela Ewen in which she expertly argues that this testimony would be admissible in any court of law today.

II. The promised truth (16:1-8)

So Mark’s ending accomplishes his purpose of establishing the factuality of the resurrection. Another purpose he’s had is to establish the reliability of Jesus’ promises, especially his prophecy of death and resurrection. Mark focuses on that prophecy more than any of the other Gospels.

Mark 8: “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” Again, Mark 9: “Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise."

But the greatest level of detail is in Mark 10: "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise." Every detail of this prophecy has been fulfilled, and Mark has been careful to record them all in the chapters we’ve studied.

In fact, as we walk toward the tomb on this Sunday morning there is only one little fulfillment missing to give Jesus a perfect batting average. Just one little fulfillment: that dead, cold, decaying, smelly uninhabited body needs to rise. Do you think it’s going to? You’ve read this book too much. It’s the most unlikely event in human history – and deep in your heart you know it.

Verse 5: “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" The ‘young man dressed in white’ was accepted terminology in Mark’s day for the description of an angel. This is confirmed by the fact that the women exhibit the standard Biblical response to an angel: fear. God and Jesus and angels always have to say ‘don’t be afraid’.

But the heart of the text is the message brought by the angel. Notice that the empty tomb, the absence of a body, is not proof of a resurrection, though as all the Gospel writers recognize, it is a pre-requisite to resurrection. If a body could have been produced the reports of a resurrection could be easily dismissed.

But in Scripture we see that when God acts he also sends a messenger to explain the meaning of his actions. When he sends a flood, he sends Noah to explain it. When he destroys Sodom, the angel of the Lord explains to Abraham. When he rescues from Egypt he explains his heart and character to Moses. When he exalts David and makes him king the prophet Samuel explains his purpose. When he exiles the nation to Babylon, Jeremiah tells them why.

So the mere fact of an empty tomb doesn’t speak, but God speaks through the angel: “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified.” The angel leaves no doubt as to the identity of the tomb’s former occupant, nor the certainty of his death. But then comes the shocker: “He is not here. He has risen.” Jesus said it was going to happen; it has. And the angel offers them eye-witness evidence: “see the place where he laid.”

And the women are expected to not only believe, but to share the good news: Go, tell this to Peter and the other disciples. Peter is explicitly included because his denial of Jesus was so obviously a betrayal, both in his own mind and in the eyes of Mark’s readers. His inclusion means there is forgiveness.

Notice how the angel ends: “He is going ahead of you into Galilee; there you will see him just as he said” The second purpose of Mark’s ending is to remind us that Jesus’ words, his promises are utterly reliable. For a while I thought to call this sermon ‘A gentleman of his word:’ that’s what Jesus is.

This particular promise about Galilee was made just before Jesus prophesied Peter’s denial. Mark 14:27 "You will all fall away," Jesus told them, "for it is written: "'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.' 28But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee." Jesus is the one who keeps his promises, even the most outlandish and outrageous.

Did it ever occur to you that people don’t make appointments for after their death? It would be ludicrous. I find it grimly humorous that when I set up my mom’s estate accounts, the credit union sent her letters welcoming her to membership. Howard Hendricks, a renowned professor at Dallas Seminary, is in his eighties. Still, he’s set up several years of speaking engagements. But he knows that if he passes away, he won’t keep those appointments.

Only Jesus can keep this kind of promise. And if he can do that, should we not consider all his words utterly reliable? Someone who can tell us of his own death with this level of accuracy and his own resurrection with utter truthfulness, can’t we count on his every word? We can. Mark wants us to.

III. The astonishing truth (16:1-8)

So Mark’s ending convinces us of the historical truth of Jesus, it convinces us of the reliability of the promises of Jesus, and finally it ought to astonish us: far away as we are from that moment, as brief as this account is, Mark’s purpose is clear: to convey the utter astonishment of resurrection.

Before we study verse 8, look again at verse 5: “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6"Don't be alarmed," he said.” I said that this was the typical response of fear in the presence of God’s messenger. And that’s true.

But Mark has the largest vocabulary of fear and astonishment in the Gospels. He uses six root words for astonishment or awe, often with variations, a total of 28 times, and always as response to what Jesus does. He begins using these words early: Mark 1:22 “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.”

Jesus heals: the paralyzed man “got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"” Jesus walks on the water: “then he climbed into the boat with them and the wind died down. They were completely amazed.” They go to Jerusalem, Mark 10:32, “with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid.”

That’s only a taste of this response to Jesus. Mark is showing us that when normal people encounter the Divine savior, the Son of God, they are filled with awe, wonder, astonishment, holy fear. Jesus isn’t an ordinary man doing ordinary things: the right response to him, according to Mark, is fear and amazement.

And that culminates in Chapter 16. The word in verses 5 and 6 is exthambeo, great amazement, great astonishment. The angel evokes in these women a feeling they’ve had about Jesus all along. I think this is what a hymn-writer once called ‘a thrill of hope.’ A circumstance unlooked for suddenly opens up into an incredibly wonderful possibility and you’re astounded to your very soul.

Verse 8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” The thing to recognize is that this verse, no matter what it sounds like in English, isn’t an anti-climax: it’s a climax, the one Mark has been working toward all along.

I would translate it: They went out and fled from the tomb, for they were shaken and astonished; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were filled with fear. Two of Mark’s words are used: exstatis, ecstasy, astonishment, and exphobeo, godly fear and awe. This is where Mark wants us: experiencing the truth of the resurrection as a moment of awe, fear and utter astonishment. He doesn’t need to tell the rest of the story: God used the other gospels to do that; mark had a purpose for this ending all along.

So can a dead man live again? In Gaal the Conqueror the scene goes something like this: “Gaal was as dead as the stone his body rested on. You had only to look at his cold, still form to know it. Then without warning a shattering roar and blinding flash of light. With it came that awful sensation in his body that told John an earthquake was taking place. He heard Eleanor cry out in fear. Then he was flung on his face.

It stopped almost as suddenly as it had begun. The rumbling passed into the distance. The light had gone, but his dazzled eyes saw nothing. He could hear the others getting to their feet. Eleanor said, “Will it start up again?” He groped with his hands, trying to feel the body. But all he could feel was a piece of cloth on the ground. Slowly his sight cleared. There in the fading starlight he saw Gaal’s robe, lying in the same position as his body had lain moments before. The empty sandals rested exactly where his feet had been.

“He’s gone,” John gasped. But Eleanor cried, “Gaal! Gaal! You’re alive!”

John swung round. Gaal stood before him, his body silhouetted by the rosy dawn. There could be no doubt it was he. There was a faint blue glow from his sleeveless robe, and his laughter rang out merrily with the vigor of a man in the prime of life and health. John flung himself at him, felt the solidity of Gaal’s body as strong arms enfolded him. The faint smell of cedar came to his nostrils and the sound of Gaal’s heart beat warmly in his ear. “Oh. Gaal!”

Put yourself in this place: you walk into a room where the body of your good friend, whom you depended on, has been lying for three days. Dead’s dead. There is no more life in the corpse than in the mattress underneath. All of a sudden light fills the room, the golden glow of daybreak reflected in rushing clouds. Then the same glow grows into the pale cold cheeks, the forehead. A thrill of hope and fear overwhelms you. What is happening here?

As the glow spreads, your friend’s head shakes: a characteristic thought-clearing twitch you’ve seen a thousand times before. He turns and looks at you and at the same time, swings to a sitting position. He grins; he laughs. He stands up and takes you by the arms. He says ‘you ought to see the look on your face.’

Do you feel it? Utter astonishment; wonder; awe. Can a dead man come to life? Yes. Jesus did it. For real, according to his promise. And his life is just the firstfruits of the life that will flower from his victory.