The Great Surprise


Mark 16:1-8

This morning we come to the 55th and last of our sermons on the Gospel of Mark. We are taking only the first eight verses of chapter 16 as our text but you see that your Bibles indicate that the remainder of the chapter is very doubtfully original to Mark’s Gospel. The two oldest and most important early manuscripts of the Bible, both from the 4th century, omit 16:9-20, as do several early translations of the Greek NT into other languages, such as the Old Latin (think of the Old Latin as the KJV of the Latin speaking early church) and the Syriac. Other old manuscripts also finish Mark 16 at v. 8. What is more, neither Clement of Alexandria nor Origen seem to know of the additional material beyond v. 8 and both Eusebius and Jerome confirm that vv. 9-20 were missing from most of the Greek manuscripts known to them. An ingenious system of cross-referencing parallel passages in the Gospels that was devised by Ammonius in the second century and adopted by Eusebius in the fourth century – today known as the Eusebian canons, a system of cross-reference that is found in the margin of the Greek New Testaments that are printed nowadays – does not include the longer ending of Mark. The evidence goes on and on. Many manuscripts that do contain vv. 9-20 have scribal notations indicating that the longer ending was doubted to be original. What is more, within the longer ending itself there are a number of substantial variations among the manuscripts that contain it also indicating the text’s uncertain past. Mark’s signature stylistic features are absent from the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark. Further, what we do have in the longer ending is quite obviously a patchwork of post-resurrection appearances taken from the other Gospels together with some material taken from the book of Acts. The splice between the two sections, between v. 8 and v. 9, is awkward even in our English translations. Therefore, we will end our studies in the Gospel where the Gospel that Mark wrote actually ends – at least so far as we have it – rather abruptly, at verse 8. Before we begin our reading, two questions: Why do people cry when they hear wonderful news; why do they weep as if it were bad news? And, also, why do people shake and tremble after the danger is past?

Text Comment

v.1

That is, on Sunday, the first day of the week. The significance of Sunday for Christians, as the day of the Lord’s resurrection, is noted by later Jewish rabbis who called Sunday “the day of the Christians.” [Str.-B, I, 1052]

For the third time Mark lists by name these women who were present at the crucifixion (v. 40), at the Lord’s burial (v. 47), and at the tomb on Sunday morning. The importance of this is to accredit their eyewitness testimony. They saw him die, they saw him buried, they were witnesses of the empty tomb. The place of women as eyewitnesses of the resurrection has long been noted as a powerful argument for historicity of the Gospel’s accounts, for no one in that age inventing such a story and wanting it to be taken seriously would rest its credibility on the testimony of women. Two centuries later Celsus, an early pagan critic of Christianity, would argue that the resurrection was “the gossip of women,” and in the 19th century the French critic Renan mocked the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead as the testimony of a hysterical female. Judaism did not accept the testimony of women in court and so the early church would scarcely have placed them at the tomb unless their presence was a brute fact of history!

By the way, in 15:40 and 16:1 we have Mary the mother of James the younger and in 15:47 Mary the mother of Joses. Almost certainly it is the same Mary in both instances, she being the mother of two sons, both known to the church, and by designating her relationship now to the one son and now to the other her identity is indicated. In any case, so little were these women expecting the resurrection that they went to the tomb to anoint his body.

v.3

They realized they had forgotten something important and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” An eyewitness detail and a wonderfully down-to-earth touch. Nobody thought about that when they left for the tomb. [Cf. France, 678] How many times have you and I done something similar!

v.5

Clearly this individual was an angel, which indicates the alarm on the part of the women, an identification made even more explicit in the other Gospels. The fact that he was sitting on the right side is another eyewitness touch.

v.6

As in every resurrection account, there is no hint of some sort of spiritual or numinous experience or encounter with Jesus. It is in every case a physical event. They are invited to see where Jesus had lain. The body is no longer there! [Edwards, 494]

v.7

As so typically, the Lord did meet his disciples in Galilee – the main focus of his three-year ministry – but he was better than his word, meeting them first that very night in Jerusalem as we know from the other Gospels.

Like it or not, this is a strange way for the Gospel to end, even stranger in Mark’s Greek. The last word of the Gospel, if verse 8 is indeed the last sentence of the Gospel, is the conjunction gar, meaning “for.” as in “for they were afraid;” in Greek the conjunction comes after the participle. “For they were afraid” is just two words in Mark’s Greek and “for” is the last of the two. While not impossible it would have certainly been unusual to end a sentence, much less a book with the conjunction gar. We expect that, the angelic announcement having been made to the women, it would be now confirmed by an account of the Lord’s appearance to them or to his disciples, as it was in the other Gospels. The Apostle Paul includes the resurrection appearances as part of the grand story of his resurrection in 1 Cor. 15 in his summary of the Gospel. These appearances were a central feature of the argument for the historicity of the resurrection, of the apologetic for the resurrection in apostolic Christianity. But all of that is missing here.

The fact that the resurrection is simply asserted by the angel and not confirmed by the Lord’s appearance, the fact that the women are said to have run from the tomb afraid to speak to anyone about what they had heard and seen – even though we know from the other Gospels that they did eventually report what they had witnessed to the disciples –, the fact that in a Gospel written for people who knew the rest of the story none of that story has been told has bewildered commentators through the years. Perhaps Mark never finished the Gospel; perhaps he wrote a longer ending that was somehow lost from his original manuscript. To be sure, some modern scholars have argued that the abrupt ending was a stroke of genius on Mark’s part, proved him a literary master. It forces us to conclude the story in our minds, to tell the story to ourselves, to consider its meaning for ourselves. But this is not a fully satisfactory explanation as it appeals more to modern than ancient literary practice and taste. Obviously it is the sudden and unexpected ending of the Gospel that accounts for the longer ending, our vv. 9-20, that was known as early as Tatian and Irenaeus in the later 2nd century. The early readers of the Gospel felt that there should have been more. The longer ending is a pastiche of elements taken from the other Gospels and Acts [France, 685] and seems to be an almost inevitable effort to fix what was felt to be an inadequate ending of the Gospel at v. 8.

No one can say for sure what happened or why the Gospel has come down to us in its present form, ending so abruptly at verse 8. But ending as the Gospel does now – whether intentionally or unintentionally – it does enable us to see what we might otherwise miss, for no one doubts that Mark did write verse 8. And what verse 8 underscores, with its account of the women’s bewilderment and fear, is the mystery, the dreadful, the awe-inspiring, the complacency-destroying, and the mind-shattering character of this historical event, the resurrection of Jesus. It is a warning to us not to sentimentalize this mighty event or to imagine that we really grasp the mighty power of God that brought it to pass. [Cf. Cranfield, 470] It is a warning not glibly and mindlessly to incorporate the resurrection into an otherwise predictable and ordinary view of life, which, of course, is precisely what so many people do who with little thought and less personal commitment to Christ assume that life shall follow death as surely as tonight will be followed by tomorrow’s sunrise. Blaise Pascal in his Pensées famously observed:

“It is not natural that there exist men who are indifferent to the loss of their being and the perils of everlasting suffering. With everything else they are quite different: they fear the most trifling things, they foresee them; they feel them. And this same man who spends so many days and nights in rage and despair [over some loss] is the very one who knows he is going to lose everything through death, but he feels neither anxiety nor emotion. It is a monstrous thing to see one and the same heart at once so sensitive to minor things and so strangely insensitive to the greatest. It is an incomprehensible enchantment, a supernatural torpor that points to a supernatural power as its cause.” [194]

That supernatural power that binds man to this indifference to death, says Pascal, is the mysterious bondage of the human heart to sin, to an anti-God state of mind. How else can we explain such a strange indifference to man’s greatest enemy, death itself? You know it is so of yourself too much of the time; you have seen it in many others. It is as if death did not exist so much of the time. People think, speak, and live as if they would never die when the fact that they will die is the most certain fact of their existence. They take no real care to investigate the question of what happens at death; they find tiresome, even offensive the suggestion that they should consider with the greatest care whether there are conditions to be met in this life in order that one’s death would deliver him or her to true and wonderful life beyond the grave. This were a conclusion, one would think, this would be the one conclusion for which they would require the most exacting argument and the most persuasive evidence, so much being at stake. But it is not so. Pascal was right. This widespread indifference to the question is very remarkable.

How is it that people can be so careless of the great question of human existence: viz. death and what happens to us when we die? Death, Camus said, is philosophy’s only problem; but even among the philosophers there are few who consider the question carefully, deeply or personally. Most religions and philosophies that pose an answer to the question of death discover that few among their followers take the matter very seriously. Whether Muslims or Buddhists, secularists or Christians, the number of those who take the question with the seriousness that it deserves is invariably a small percentage of the whole. Why? When one’s self-interest is so profoundly at stake, why is there not more concern, more careful thinking, and more serious investigation? And why, if one purports to believe a certain thing about death and life after death, does even he so often not seem to take his beliefs seriously? Why are you and I not talking about this all the time?

The largest reason for that, the Bible says is man’s fear of death. In Hebrews we read that man lives his life in bondage to the fear of death. It is for men, we read in Job 18:14, “the king of terrors.” Some of its fear is the fear of the pain that goes with dying; some of the personal loss that is its inevitable effect, some is the fear of the unknown, but certainly most of it is for everyone is the fear of God and of his judgment. A well known humanist, not a Christian, not even a religious person in the ordinary sense of the term, Marghanita Laski, admitted on a BBC radio show that the most important issues that people had to face in life were that “We are lonely, we are guilty, and we are going to die.” No person is without inklings of judgment. [J. Blanchard, Where Do We Go From Here, 7] Woody Allen may jokingly say, “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But that is just his way of admitting that he is afraid of death like everyone else. Nothing explains man’s outward indifference to death, his unwillingness to consider a question you might think he would be considering all the time so much as his fear of death. It is absolutely typical of human beings to ignore what they fear the most. And what helps them to ignore death is the routine of life. They can forget about death, bury its reality deep in the mind with the help of the dulling effect of the uniformity, the sameness, and the conventional character of daily human life. Life goes on day after day, the world today is as it was yesterday, we expect it to be the same tomorrow and find that it is; new matters crowd out the old, and the present takes up all our attention. We cannot see the future and since it is out of sight, we are glad to let it slip from the mind. Only now and then does a shudder pass through our souls, the thought that we must die somehow forces itself upon our consciousness, but the impression quickly passes and, relieved, we go back to life again. Why is there so much unhappiness in the world? Well, here is one reason. Professor Armad Nicolai of the Harvard Medical School tells us that the acceptance of the inevitability of death has been shown to be crucial to a well-adjusted, happy personality, and there are a great many people who have never really accepted the inevitability of death. They suppress its reality; refuse to accept it. A small fraction of Americans have wills. Why is that? Because in order to prepare a will you must think about your death and people don’t like to do that. We fear death but rarely are conscious of that fear.

It is here, I think, that we find the importance of the women’s fear at the tomb. Why were they so afraid? Well, Matthew tells us that these same women, whose testimony lies behind both Gospel accounts, Matthew and Mark, left the tomb afraid yet filled with joy. They were not unaware that they had encountered a great turning point in their lives and the life of the world. They got it. They understood. They knew that Jesus was indeed the Son of God when they realized that he was no longer in the tomb and that he had risen again to life. They knew he was the Messiah and the Savior of the world. Up to that point they had somehow been able to incorporate all of the Lord’s miracles – those fabulous works of supernatural power by which the sick were healed, the weather was controlled, and the laws of nature brought to heal, some of which they had witnessed with their own eyes, they had been able to incorporate all of that with his death. I suppose they had heard something from Peter, James, or John about the Lord’s transfiguration on the mountain in Galilee a year before. They knew he was a great man, a man sent from God. But life goes on. Great man that Jesus was, it was all over; he was dead like every other man eventually will be; another loved one now lay in a tomb; and now they must go and anoint the body which they hadn’t time to do the previous Friday afternoon. Life goes on. The daily round continues as it always has. Let this idea settle in the mind and soon the daily round is all there is. And we are happy for it to be all that it is. It occupies one’s entire attention until it ends. Nothing changes.

But something had changed and these women had discovered that the routine of human life had been transcended absolutely and forever. They had come face to face with the infinite, the eternal, the numinous, the unseen world, with the power of God himself and all of that shattered their easy acceptance of their routine and conventional lives and their predictable experience.

The fear came from getting so near to the eternal and the holy. We imagine encountering an angel would be exciting and interesting. We’d want to interview him and take a picture. But, of course, that is because we have never seen an angel! But there is something else, I think, in this fear, this bewilderment, this confusion. As every other human being, these women longed to live, to live forever, and here, suddenly and utterly unexpectedly, was the reality of such a deathless life right before their eyes. An empty tomb that had not been empty the previous Friday afternoon. Our greatest fear is that there may be no such life; our deepest hope and longing is that such a life is really there, really to be had. And suddenly the greatest fear and the greatest longing of their souls were poured directly into their hearts. It shattered all of the barriers we keep up in order to keep those fears at bay. Could it be true? Is it possibly still not true? The questions about death that human beings so furiously suppress all their lives in that moment came unrestrained and unhindered through all the barriers set up in the mind to keep them out. That was the unleashing of man’s deepest fear at the very moment that the possibility of the fulfillment of his deepest longing was being revealed. To be afraid at the empty tomb is akin to weeping when something wonderful has happened. It is at that moment that you feel for the first time finally and completely what it would have been like had the good thing never been given and never come; it is akin to a man shaking and trembling after he has escaped a great danger. It is at that moment one feels how terrible the peril actually was. The heart has been opened to feel and to see what otherwise has been kept at bay.

I think, myself, that one reason why we are never long without catastrophes in this world is that they force men and women to consider death when otherwise they would not. They are the Lord’s megaphone to force us to hear a message we do not want to hear. If it were not for shattering interruptions of our daily routine, men and women would never face death at all. Human beings – these impossibly great creatures with such immeasurably remarkable powers capable of contributing and creating and accomplishing so much – left to themselves will spend all of their time and energy simply making a living and having a good time, devoting all their thoughts to this world as if this life would go on forever. We know it will not, but we find ourselves able to live as if it will.

Were it not for hurricane, tsunami, earthquake, flood, fire, terrorist attack, and the concentrated casualties of war human beings might become completely impervious to any summons to consider the higher issues of human existence. Why are we here? Where are we going? What is the meaning of our life? Were it not for the sudden discovery, in a doctor’s office or hospital, that some lethal disease has taken hold of one’s body, were it not for the occasional sudden and tragic death of someone known to us, individuals in the ordinary run of life would scarcely ever consider what one would think could not help but be considered virtually every day: death is approaching and cannot be stopped. But when death is forced upon our consciousness, when sudden death interrupts our routine, when we are terrified by lethal powers so much greater than ourselves, then, and often only then, we are forced to face the great and terrible realities that otherwise we are past masters at ignoring. This was the point of W.H. Auden’s verse:

The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
[“September 1, 1939”]

A copy of David McCullough’s history of the Johnstown flood recently came into my hands. The Johnstown flood of May 31, 1889 is still today one of the greatest natural disasters of American history. After days of torrential rain, with the two rivers that met at Johnstown, Pennsylvania already overflowing their banks and with the water rising in the town to unprecedented levels, it would have been the most serious flood the city had ever experienced anyway, and then a poorly maintained earthen dam in the mountains, fourteen miles above Johnstown, broke sending 20 million tons of water in a concentrated wave roaring down the mountain valley, sweeping entire villages off the face of the ground before falling on Johnstown it has been calculated with the force of Niagara Falls. In a few minutes homes, churches, factories, stores, trees, animals, locomotives and railway cars were swept away by the racing wall of water. Children were swept away in front of their parents and vice versa; husbands torn from the arms of their wives. In a typical paragraph, we read:

“How the two women, each with a child, ever got to the third floor as fast as they did was something she was never quite able to figure out. Once there, they went to the front window, opened it, and looked down into the street. Gertrude described the scene as looking ‘like the Day of Judgment I had seen as a little girl in Bible histories,’ with crowds of people running, screaming, dragging children, struggling to keep their feet in the water.

Her father, meanwhile had reached dry land on the hill, and turning around saw no signs of the rest of his family among the faces pushing past him [the two women and Gertrude]. He grabbed hold of a big butcher boy named Kurtz, gave him [the baby], told him to watch out for the other two girls, and started back to the house.

But he had gone only a short way when he saw the wave, almost on top of him, demolishing everything, and he knew he could never make it. There was a split second of indecision, then he turned back to the hill, running with all his might as the water surged along the street after him. In a few seconds, fighting the current around him that kept getting deeper and faster every second, he reached the hillside just as the wave pounded by below.

Looking behind he saw his house rock back and forth, then lunge sideways, topple over, and disappear. [The Johnstown Flood, 161]

In a moment the daily round was shattered and thousands of people, all at once, came face to face with the terrifying reality of death. More than 2,200 died, many thousands more carried the terror of that afternoon and night with them for the rest of their lives. The reality of life and death, of the incalculable value of life, of the tragedy of death, of the hunger to live that burns, often unrecognized and undefined, in the human heart, all of this was discovered of a sudden at Johnstown that day and the very same things, the very same things, were realized with terrible power at the tomb that wonderful Sunday morning. It is always so whenever the realities of death and life are finally forced upon the consciousness. One weeps even at the greatest conceivable news and one trembles and shakes at what might have been.

What the resurrection of the Son of God means is that the meaning of life is not found in the daily round, that the great issue of human existence is precisely what we always should have known it to be, viz. the reality of death and the possibility of life beyond the grave. We know that, but we do not admit it to ourselves because we are so afraid. We must die and we can’t bear the thought, so we don’t think about it. But the reality is not altered by our refusing to face it. We will die. Whether suddenly in a terrible flash flood or in our beds of some wasting disease in the last analysis does not matter. We must all die. But we do not want to die. The fact that we hardly ever think about death and our own death – certain as it is – is the best evidence of just how much we do not want to die. We want to live!

Whatever crazy sorrow saith,
No life that breathes with human breath
Hath ever truly longed for death;
‘Tis life, not death, for which we pant,
More life, and fuller, that I want.
[Tennyson]

Can we escape death? Is it possible to surmount death? Is there a way to live on after death? These are the great questions of human existence and the fact that men think so little about them is the index of how profoundly they trouble and disturb him. He has no answer so he will not ask the question.

The women at Jesus’ grave Easter morning were the first human beings actually to see the reality of eternal life break upon the world and it shattered them; it terrified them. Eventually of course it filled them with an unspeakable and inexpressible joy. But first it confused them and frightened them; they ran away from the tomb because they were so afraid of what they had encountered. Something so tremendous, something erupting into our life from another world, something so powerful as to conquer our greatest enemy, all of this was more than they could manage at the moment. Could it be true? They were afraid even to hope. All the fears of death they had ever felt deep within themselves, all the fears they had so manfully kept at bay all their lives finally, unbidden, rushing into their hearts.

Whatever you do, however you think about these things, you are not to domesticate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Life breaking into the history of this world of death is the greatest thing that has ever happened and you hardly begin to understand what it is. It answers the great question of human existence in the most dramatic and decisive way possible. Death is so terrifying a thing we can hardly bear to think about it. The conquest of death is something of such terrible power that we cannot really take it in. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ is as much a fact as is our soon coming death and that is far and away the most important thing any human being can know. You must face death to learn of the conquest of death and so many miss the latter because they are unwilling to face the former. Screw up your courage and look death and your death in the eye and then turn and look at the Lord Jesus Christ who conquered death to give you life.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus once said, “he who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me, truth be told, will never die.”