Monday, April 27, 2009

The Message of Mark for Us

(With credit given to Mark Dever, whose treatment of Mark in Promises Kept: The Message of the New Testament was a guide in my preparation of this message.)

We began walking through Mark verse-by-verse in August of 2006. Somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred messages have been preached as we have worked our way through this wonderful text. Before we put it away and move on to another book of Scripture, I thought it best to look back on the Gospel according to Mark as a whole.

Mark’s Gospel, like the other 3 Gospels, was written to introduce Jesus Christ to his readers. Though Mark was not an apostle, he is writing Peter’s account of the public life and ministry of Jesus. What a refreshing change to see Jesus as He was known by eyewitnesses, rather than seeing Him through the lens of popular scholars who seek to recast Him according to their own imaginations. Over the last few weeks, Jesus has been a leading star in programs on Discovery Channel, History Channel, National Geographic, and other networks in addition to being featured in prominent stories in the leading magazines. Yet, in all of these various accounts of Jesus, there is a common starting point: namely, that Jesus is not who you have always thought Him to be. Well, perhaps that is true. Many of our ideas about who Jesus is, what He said, and what He did are shaped more by culture than Scripture, so perhaps we have been wrong in some of our ideas about Him. The need has never been greater for us to return to the writings of those who knew Him best and discover, or rediscover, the real Jesus. This is what we have sought to do for past nearly three years as we have studied this writing.

The book opens with the words: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). This stands like a heading over the entire book. The word “Gospel” means “Good News”, so Mark declares from the first verse that this book is about the Good News of Jesus. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not begin with a birth narrative, but rather jumps right into the ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus is 30 years old when Mark begins. By 1:14, He is already preaching, and by 1:16 He is calling His disciples.

The first 8 chapters of Mark chronicle the ministry of Jesus in and around Galilee. This was a time of public teaching and miracle working. Chapters 9-10 are devoted to the journey to Jerusalem as Jesus began to teach His disciples more intently on the things that were going to take place there. Chapters 11-16 take place in Jerusalem during the final week of Jesus’ life. By use of the conjunction “and”, the adverb “immediately,” and present tense verbs, Mark has sped through three years of Jesus’ teachings and deeds over the course of ten chapters. But the final six chapters slow down to a very slow and calculated pace and we walk with Jesus through the final week to the cross.

We best come to know Jesus by examining His words and His deeds. Some want to place more emphasis on the remarkable miracles of Jesus than on His teachings, but we remember his words in 1:38. After performing several miracles, it was reported to Him that “everyone is looking for You.” To this Jesus responded, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.” Teaching and preaching was the core of His ministry, and the miracles served as powerful confirmation of God’s authority in His teaching. While Jesus taught on a wide range of subjects, most of His teaching was about one subject—namely, Himself. And a very clear emphasis in Mark’s Gospel is on who Jesus claimed to be.
Fourteen times in the Gospel According to Mark, Jesus refers to Himself as the “Son of Man.” In all He speaks of Himself 80 times in the four Gospels with this title. Interestingly, no one else ever refers to Him as the Son of Man. It is used only by Him, and only in reference to Himself. But what did Jesus mean when He used this title?
First, it was a way of just saying “I.” In parallel passages between Mark, Matthew and Luke, “Son of Man” and “I” are used interchangeably. Second, it was a way of expressing His humanity. In much of the Old Testament, the phrase “son of man” is used to distinguish between man and God. Numbers 23:19, for instance, says, “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent.” But while acknowledging Himself to be fully human, Jesus’ use of this title does not indicate that He is merely human. He is fully human, but He is more than human. He is divine. The most frequently cited Old Testament verse in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’” Jesus Himself refers to this passage in teaching about Himself. It appears that Jesus had this verse in mind when He said to the Sanhedrin in 14:62 that they “see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER.” In this case, He has clearly substituted the title “Son of Man” in the place of the Old Testament word “Lord.” This is an overt claim to deity on Jesus’ part, even insisting that he will be exalted to the right hand of God the Father. So, in the 14 times that Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” in Mark, He is saying that He is fully human, yes, and fully divine. He is a man, and He is God. But this title even conveys something more.

In Mark 12:35-37, Jesus is teaching in the temple and says, “How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself said in the Holy Spirit, 'THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, "SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I PUT YOUR ENEMIES BENEATH YOUR FEET."' David himself calls Him 'Lord'; so in what sense is He his son?” Not only does Jesus equate Psalm 110’s “Lord” with “Son of Man,” He also equates it with “Christ,” or in Hebrew, “Messiah.” And He was not alone. In John 12:34, the crowd says to Jesus, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up?’” In this verse, we see that the title “Son of Man” was understood by many to mean “Messiah” or “Christ.”

The Messiah was the one whom the people were awaiting to come from God to deliver them and establish the Kingdom of Peace and Righteousness. In fact, Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” to say exactly that. In Mark 8:38, Jesus speaks of His future coming “in glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Again in Mark 13:26, He says that people “will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” And in Chapter 14, when Jesus was asked by the high priest if He was in fact the Messiah, Jesus responded by saying, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” In all three of these statements, Jesus seems to be alluding to Daniel 7:13-14. In that passage Daniel writes of seeing one“like a Son of Man … coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.” So, in using this title “Son of Man,” Jesus indicates that He has divine characteristics and has come forth from the Father, the Ancient of Days, with authority and dominion, and glory, to establish a Kingdom that will consist of people from every tribe and nation and tongue who serve Him. And His Kingdom will be established forever.

Jesus is not suffering from any sort of identity crisis. In His teachings in this Gospel, we can hear in His words a clear understanding of who He is. He is the Son of Man – fully human, fully divine, the Messiah who has come to establish the Kingdom of God. Now, how did He do this? What did Jesus do?

First, we have already seen that He was a teacher, but notice that Mark points out that He was not just an ordinary teacher. When He began to teach, people were amazed because, unlike their other teachers, Jesus taught with authority! This is what Mark tells us in 1:22 – “They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” They even began to debate amongst themselves, in 1:27, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” He even claimed unique authority to be the Lord of the Sabbath (2:28) and to forgive people of their sins (2:5). The religious authorities heard Him say this and began reasoning in 2:7, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” But Jesus demonstrated His authority to forgive the man’s sin by healing him and enabling him to walk again. He also demonstrated His supreme authority by casting out demons. So in addition to the authority of His words, in 1:27 the people also marvel that “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.”

The fact that Jesus came to teach and exercise divine authority would have been expected if He were truly the Messiah. What was surprising however, in the minds of most, was something else He came to do. Most people assumed that the Messiah would come and orchestrate a political conquest of Jerusalem. They assumed that He would be the proverbial hero on the white horse who would come and secure immediate victory. However, Jesus began to inform His followers that He had not come to do this. Rather He had come to suffer and to die. Had the people understood the full implications of the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, they would have known this. They would have seen Isaiah 53 as pointing to the servant of God who would come to save His people when it says, “He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief ; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well -being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. … (Isaiah goes on to say)…His grave was assigned with wicked men, … (and) …He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, … (Isaiah ultimately concludes by saying) My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. … (going on to say that) He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.” [Isaiah 53:3-12 (NASB)]

These very words formed the basis of much of what Jesus said about His mission, and provide the background for what occurred in Jerusalem in His final days. In Chapters 8-10, Jesus was very specific with His disciples about the things that were going to take place. Up until this point, there was a note of secrecy in His mission. He had silenced the demons who acknowledged His true identity (1:25; 1:34; 3:12). He ordered several whom He had healed not to tell anyone what had happened. This was the case with a leper who is healed in 1:44; the raising of Jairus’s daughter (5:43); the healing of a deaf and mute man (7:36); and a blind man in Bethsaida (8:26). Immediately after this, Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, and Jesus warned the disciples to not tell anyone this (8:29-30). Why the secrecy? Because Jesus did not desire that the populace would begin to foist upon Him their own messianic expectations of immediate liberation and prosperity. He needed the time to teach His own disciples about the suffering nature of His mission.

In Mark 8:31-32, we read that Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He was stating the matter plainly.” In Chapter 9, following the transfiguration, Jesus began to teach His disciples even more. They were travelling through Galilee, and Mark says in 9:30-31, “He did not want anyone to know about it. For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, ‘The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.” But still at this point, “they did not understand” and “were afraid to ask Him,” what He meant by these things. In Chapter 10, He continued to inform them about His suffering. In 10:32-34, we read, “He took the twelve aside and began to tell them what was going to happen to Him, saying, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.’”

So this Messiah, Christ, the Son of Man, Jesus, will establish the Kingdom of God, not by force or an exercise of political or military power, but rather by suffering. He will die for the sins of the people, as He said in Mark 10:45 – “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” He would fulfill the prophecies of suffering that Isaiah had uttered 700 years earlier. When He arrived in Jerusalem in Chapter 11, He began to arouse the ire of the religious leaders. In Chapter 14, He was betrayed by one of His own disciples, Judas Iscariot, and handed over to those who sought to put to Him to death. In Chapters 14-15, He was falsely accused and unjustly tried before the high priest and the ruling council of Jerusalem, and before Pilate, the Roman authority in Jerusalem. Then He was led out to be beaten by soldiers, who then led Him to a place called Golgotha where He was nailed to a cross and died. He was buried in a rock-hewn tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. But His death would not be the end. He clearly told His disciples that He would rise from the dead. And He did. When some of the women who had followed Him throughout His earthly ministry came to the tomb on the third day, they found the stone had been rolled away and His body was missing. An angel in the tomb said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him.” (16:6). Just as He said, He was rejected by the religious authorities, handed over to them, tortured by the Gentiles, and put to death. And just as He said, He rose again the third day.

We have considered what Jesus said and what Jesus did in the Gospel of Mark. Now I want to conclude by examining how people responded to Him throughout this Gospel. First, some were confused. Surprisingly the ones who were closest to Him (His family and His disciples) were the most confused of all. When Jesus tried to teach His disciples in parables, they didn’t get it. He said to them in 4:13, after telling the parable of the soils, “Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?” After calming the storm later in Chapter 4, He rebuked the disciples for their lack of faith, saying in 4:40, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” And then they became even more afraid and said to each other, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” When they saw Him walk on the water, they were afraid and thought He was a ghost. (6:49). After seeing Jesus feed a crowd of over 5,000 and walk on the water, Mark says, “They were utterly astonished, for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened.” (6:52). Time and time again, they seem to make a few steps of spiritual progress and then fall back into disbelief or lack of understanding. Sometimes they questioned Him, sometimes they even rebuked Him, and sometimes they were afraid to ask Him questions. Other times, they just completely blew it. When children were being brought to Jesus, they rebuked the parents, causing Jesus to become indignant with them (10:13-14). They say and do the wrong things at the wrong times repeatedly, ultimately all forsaking Him on the night of His betrayal.

Now, lest we think we are spiritually superior to these men, keep in mind that the idea of a crucified Savior who would rise from the dead was not something these guys grew up learning about in Sunday School. I’m not sure we could have done much better. They had their bright and shining moments, like when Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ in 8:29. But overall, the picture we see of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel is one of a confused and slow learning group.

And then we consider briefly Jesus’ earthly family. Not much is said of them in the Gospel of Mark, but what is said is enough to convince us that they were also confused. In Chapter 3 we read about how they began to take custody of Him thinking that He had lost His senses. Having seen Him grow up as a rather ordinary person with an uneventful childhood following the miracles surrounding His birth, it was hard for them to get their minds around the fact that their son, their brother, was out teaching people that He was God in the flesh and performing miracles of healing and exorcism. They were confused, somewhat understandably.

But not everyone was confused about Jesus. Many in this Gospel had their minds mind up decidedly on one side or another about Him. The things He said and did were clear enough for people to understand the implications of His claims. And a good many of them responded negatively and became antagonistic toward Him. By Chapter 2, Jesus is already being questioned by the Scribes and Pharisees, and as early as Mark 3:6 the Pharisees were “conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they destroy Him.” Ordinarily the Pharisees and Herodians would not have gotten along very well. Being staunch Jewish patriots, the Pharisees would have despised the Herodians, the supporters of Rome’s puppet government. But their mutual hatred for Jesus brought them together in a wicked plot to destroy Him.

Opposition to Jesus did not just come from organized bodies of religious and political authorities. He was kicked out of the region of the Gerasenes in Chapter 5 after healing a demoniac, and He was dishonored in His own hometown of Nazareth in Chapter 6. But once Jesus reached Jerusalem, the organized movement against Him grew stronger, now enveloping the chief priests and the Sadducees as well. Before the week was out, one of His own disciples turned against Him and handed Him over to them in a hideous act of betrayal.

But we must never forget that not all were confused and not all were antagonistic. Some believed. So convinced was one group of men, that in 2:1-5, they literally tore the roof off a house to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus. A certain woman who had been afflicted with a blood disorder for many years pressed through the crowds just to touch the hem of His garment in Chapter 5, so strong was her faith in Him. This occurred as Jesus was on His way to the home of Jairus, a synagogue official whose faith in Jesus was so strong that he beckoned Him to come to his home and heal his daughter. A Syrophoenician woman believed Jesus could rid her daughter of a demon, and she refused to be deterred by Jesus’ tests of her faith in 7:24-30. The blind beggar Bartimaeus in 10:46-52 cried out to Jesus as He passed by, believing that He could heal and save him. And then we come to the Roman centurion, the leader of the death squad who crucified Jesus, who Mark tells us was “standing right in front of Him” as He died (15:39). And seeing “the way He breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’”

It is perhaps surprising that those who believed in Jesus in Mark’s Gospel were not the religious people, by and large not the ones who had been steeped in religious teaching and instruction. Those people in large part rejected Him. But the people who had been outcast by the society—the Gentiles, the women, the demonic, leprous, paralyzed, blind, infirm, and poor—these were those who in great numbers believed upon Him. They were the ones who heard what He said, saw what He did, and put their faith in Him to save them.

This is Mark’s message for us. Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Savior and Redeemer of humanity. He exercised divine authority in performing miracles which validated His claims. And He died on the cross in the place of sinful humanity as a ransom for us. But He rose from the dead in the ultimate act of triumph over sin, death, the devil and hell. In Mark 8:27, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They responded that some thought Him to be “John the Baptist, and others say Elijah; and others one of the prophets.” And as we have seen some were confused about Him, vacillating from faith to unbelief, some even thought He was deranged. Many hated Him, but many also believed in Him. So the ultimate question is the one Jesus asks in Mark 8:29, “Who do you say that I am?” Well, who do you say that He is? Will you say, like Peter, that He is the Christ? Will you say, like the centurion, He is the Son of God? Will you believe upon Him be saved from sin, have abundant life in the power of His Spirit in this life, and live eternally with Him hereafter? This is the Good News that Mark set out to tell us in this book. Have you heard and believed the news? Will you go and share the news? This is Mark’s message for us, and it is our message for the world.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The End, or Is It? Mark 16:9-20

It is possible that many of us have read through the Gospel of Mark and never noticed that the last twelve verses are the subject of no small controversy. Others perhaps have discovered a footnote, a marginal note, or some other indication of the question concerning the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20. For example, your Bible may place these verses in brackets or contain a note in the margin or at the bottom of the page that says something like, “Some of the earliest manuscripts (or “mss.”) do not contain verses (or “vv.”) 9-20.” Some versions even included additional material that is of even more questionable authenticity.

Southern Baptists have always been known as a “people of the Book.” We unashamedly uphold the idea of an inspired, infallible, inerrant Bible, as indicated in 2 Timothy 3:16—“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” Our view of the Bible is succinctly stated in the current edition of The Baptist Faith and Message (2000). It reads:
The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.
Over the last several decades, Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals have sought to clarify what we mean when we say we believe the Bible is “inerrant” (having no errors). There are many who insist that the Bible cannot be inerrant because of what they perceive to be contradictions, inaccuracies, and variations found in the manuscripts and versions of the Bible that have been handed down through the centuries. On the other hand, there are many who insist that the perceived contradictions only represent flawed interpretations, the inaccuracies are due to a lack of full information or literary license, and that the textual variations can be explained satisfactorily.

In October, 1978, a gathering of more than 200 prominent evangelical leaders produced a document known as “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” consisting of a series of statements about what we believe as well as what we do not believe concerning biblical inerrancy. This document affirms the belief that “inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine” (Article VII). The divine origin and inspiration of the Bible guarantees “true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write” (Article IX). The statement goes on to say, “We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture” (Article X).

The “autographic text” (or “autographs”) refers to the actual original documents written by the human biblical writers under the inspiration of the Spirit. It must be admitted up front that all of these have disappeared with the passage of time, leaving us only with ancient copies, translations, and quotations of the original documents. These ancient texts range in size from scraps little larger than postage stamps to complete manuscripts of the Bible. There are over 5,600 New Testament manuscripts and fragments available to us in the Greek language alone, dating from the second to fifteenth centuries. In addition, we have at our disposal over 19,000 early translations of the New Testament. These startling figures assure us that we have more material with which to deal in handling the New Testament than any other work of ancient literature. From the study and comparison of these existing documents, we are able to arrive with confidence at conclusions regarding the wording of the original autographs. What is particularly comforting for Christians to know is that across all of these documents, there is an alarming consistency of agreement found, with relatively little variation in wording, and virtually no variation in meaning or substance.

Where variations do occur in the ancient manuscripts, usually they only involve a word, a sentence, or very brief segment of text. There are two passages of considerable length which produce concerns of authenticity for us: John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20. When it comes to these two lengthy passages, we find very old manuscripts that include them and very old manuscripts that omit them. Even though there is little at stake in these passages in terms of Christian doctrine or practice, readers cannot help being concerned over the uncertainty that exists with two such sizeable passages. Whether a passage is brief or long, an attempt must be made to determine which of the variations is most likely original, and thereby inerrant and authoritative. An entire field of biblical studies is devoted to this, called “textual criticism.”

Textual criticism is defined as the scholarly discipline of establishing the text as near to the original as possible or probable. For New Testament work, the scholar will use ancient Greek manuscripts and portions, early translations of the New Testament into other languages (also called “versions”), and the writings of the earliest Christian leaders (commonly referred to as the Church Fathers). We have manuscript fragments accessible today that dates back to at least the early second century, less than a half-century after the original writings. In addition, the writings of the Fathers are very early, and so thorough were they in quoting the New Testament writings that it can been said that “if all the New Testament manuscripts were destroyed, the text of the New Testament could still be restored from the quotations made by the church fathers.”

The variations that are found among the ancient documents are attributable to several possible causes. We must bear in mind that prior to the printing press, Bibles and other works of literature were meticulously copied by hand. Even the best of scholars was merely human and prone to making mistakes. Beyond accidents, on occasion some scribes would intentionally alter the text of Scripture. Most of these were likely probably pure-hearted attempts to help the readers of the Bible. If we put ourselves into the shoes of these scribes, we can envision their desire to make the reading of the Bible as simple as possible. I have often imagined the scribe enjoying dinner with his peers and talking about his day’s accomplishments. It is much more likely that he may say, “Today, I took a difficult passage and made it easier to understand,” than that he would say, “Today, I really confounded a relatively simple text just for the fun of it.” We must remember that these were pious, godly, skilled laborers who were entrusted with a tremendous responsibility for their generation and those to follow.

By understanding context of a passage, the teachings of the Bible at large, and the tendencies of scribes, we are able to come to near-certain conclusions on most textual variations regarding the original wording of the inspired autographs. On most of the variations found in the New Testament the scholars are unanimous or else the consensus is so strong to eliminate any serious doubt about the wording. The translators of our English versions have engaged in this practice tirelessly for months and years before deciding on the final wording of a passage. We can have confidence that the Bibles we hold in our hands are the inerrant and authoritative Word of God and that they faithfully reflect what was written in the original first-century documents. However, Mark 16:9-20 presents what is likely the most controversial and uncertain case where scholarly consensus has yet to be found. This passage has been called “the greatest of all literary mysteries” and “the gravest textual problem in the New Testament.”

There are at least five possible endings to Mark that can been found in the ancient documents. One of them is found in the italicized words following v20 in the NASB. In addition to manuscripts which end with this statement are those which find this statement sandwiched between verses 8 and 9. One manuscript has been found that contains a mysterious passage between verses 14 and 15. Because this manuscript was discovered by Charles Freer, the cryptic statement has come to be known as the Freer Logion. The intermediate ending and the Freer Logion both contain language and ideas that are so foreign to the rest of the New Testament that they are immediately suspicious. Combine this with the rarity of these passages in the manuscripts and the similarity between these and the second century writings of various groups of heretics and we are left to conclude with virtually every New Testament scholar that these possible endings of Mark are plainly out of the question. This leaves us with only two viable options. The Gospel According to Mark either ends at verse 8 (what I call “the short ending”) or at verse 20 (which I call “the long ending”). When I refer to the “Long Ending,” I mean verses 9 through 20. When I refer to the Short Ending, I am referring to verse 8.

It is comforting to know from the start that, rightly interpreted, neither of these passages would cause readers to fall into great heresy. Most of what is found in the Long Ending, for example, is also taught elsewhere in the New Testament. So this is not a question of orthodoxy and heresy. There are conservative and liberal scholars who hold to the originality of the Long Ending, as well as conservative and liberal scholars who reject the Long Ending. Also, it must be recognized that each of the views has certain strengths in its favor and weaknesses working against it. This is a complex problem which will not be easily resolved. We are searching for what seems to be the most comprehensive solution, and even that solution may not be problem free. There are likely to be loose ends left untied in either possible view. It is safe to say that apart from the very unlikely event of an unprecedented manuscript discovery, we will probably be wrestling with the issue until Jesus returns.

A very strong case can be made for the originality and authenticity of the Long Ending, Mark 16:9-20, which is found in most of our English Bibles. The passage is found in an overwhelming majority (at least 95%) of ancient manuscripts and versions, including many which are very early and considered to be very important. However, in many of these manuscripts, scribes have included notations and symbols that indicate there was some debate over the authenticity of the Long Ending even very early in the transmission process. The earliest complete manuscripts of Mark that we have access today are from the fourth century and are known as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. Both of these manuscripts lack verses 9 through 20. This long ending is also absent in the oldest Latin version, the oldest Syriac version, approximately one hundred Armenian versions (including almost all of the earliest ones), several important Ethiopic texts, including the oldest Coptic New Testament, and the two oldest Georgian versions.

One of the earliest references to the Long Ending is found in the writings of Irenaeus around AD 180. He writes, “Also, towards the conclusion of his Gospel, Mark says,” followed by a quotation of verse 19. Around the same time, Tatian included the Long Ending in his harmony of the Gospels, the Diatessaron. However, during the second century, Ammonius developed a system of cross-referencing parallel passages in the Gospels (similar to the “center-column references” in many of our Bibles) which did not include the Long Ending. In the early 300s, Eusebius was aware of the existence of the Long Ending, but stated that “in nearly all the copies of the Gospel according to Mark” the end was at 16:8. He remarks that the “accurate” copies of Mark end at verse 8.

Much of the discussion regarding the Long Ending revolves around four primary factors: vocabulary, style, content, and theology. While many scholars base much of their argument for or against the Long Ending on vocabulary, for the sake of time, I will not devote much attention to the issues of vocabulary here. Scholars on both sides of the issue have produced thorough and detailed analyses of word usage which each side claims furthers their own position. I have found merit in both, and found neither of them to be conclusive beyond the shadow of a doubt. I agree with Maurice Robinson who said that in the study of these vocabulary issues, “far less is gained … than often is claimed.”

When we come to style issues, we notice even more unusual features in the Long Ending. As one moves from verse 8 to verse 9, the flow of the narrative seems a bit disjointed. Verse 9 does not seem to follow the preceding material which provides the context. In verse 8, the subject is the women, while verse 9 assumes (but does not state) Jesus as the subject. Verse 9 introduces Mary Magdalene almost as a new character to the story, even though she has already been mentioned three times before in the immediate context (15:40, 47; 16:1). The other women who are with her at the tomb quickly disappear from the narrative altogether after verse 8, never being mentioned again.

More technically, it has been pointed out in our extensive study of Mark his frequent use of the Greek word euthys, typically translated in our English Bibles as “immediately.” It occurs some forty-four times in Mark 1:1 to 16:8. However, the word is noticeably absent in the Long Ending (the last usage of it is in Mark 15:1). Also, very frequently throughout Mark, the writer will begin sentences with the Greek conjunction kai, usually translated “and” in English. It has been estimated that 376 of 583 (64.5%) sentences in Mark begin with kai. In the first eight verses of Mark 16, eight sentences begin with kai. Yet when we come to the Long Ending, kai begins a sentence only six or seven times in twelve verses. These indicate a change in style from that of the rest of Mark.

Additionally, Mark typically tells stories using a particular verb tense known as the “historical present” tense. Most English versions mark these with a prefixed asterisk or star to indicate that they are present tense in the Greek even though they are translated in the past in English. Mark uses this verb tense some 150 times throughout his Gospel, including three times in 16:1-8. However, there are no historical present verbs in the Long Ending! This is a sudden change in the writer’s storytelling habits which indicates the strong possibility that what we have in the Long Ending is the work of a different writer.

Somewhat related to the style issue is the issue of content. Based on verse 7, we expect to soon read about a reunion of Jesus with the disciples in Galilee. However, all of the action of verses 9-20 takes place in and around Jerusalem. We never find a meeting in Galilee here in these verses. What we do find in the Long Ending appears to be a patchwork of information gleaned from the other Gospels and Acts. So similar are some of these statements with other passages in the New Testament that many have concluded that the Long Ending was written by someone other than Mark. Being unsatisfied with the way Mark ended at verse 8, some scribe may have pieced together details from other writings at a later date and attached them to the ending of Mark.

Finally, in our consideration of the Long Ending we must consider the theological concerns that are raised in it. First, in verse 19, Jesus is referred to as “the Lord Jesus.” While this is a suitable title for Him, nowhere else in Mark has this been used. Typically, Mark only refers to Him by name, “Jesus.” Even the use of the simple phrase, “the Lord” in verse 20 is unusual for Mark. Elsewhere this title is found only in Old Testament quotations (1:3; 11:9; 12:11; 12:29-30, 36) or by Jesus to refer to God the Father (5:19; 13:20).

Other questions of theology arise when one examines verses 16-18. First, it appears that Mark 16:16 indicates that baptism is a necessary requirement for salvation. “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved.” If this is the intended teaching of Mark’s Gospel, then it flies in the face of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, a doctrine that saturates the entire New Testament. But this is not without a possible explanation. An examination of the rest of the New Testament will indicate that baptism, although not a necessary prerequisite for salvation, is the most common public profession of faith in the early church. The Great Commission commands the baptizing of new converts, and the preaching of Peter on the day of Pentecost concluded with a call to baptism as a demonstration of repentance and faith in Jesus (Acts 2:38). It is fair to say that baptism is almost always assumed to be the first step of faith and obedience by converts to Christ in the New Testament. It may be that the close connection between baptism and salvation in Mark 16:16 is not intended to convey the idea of a works gospel, but to clarify that the biblical demonstration of one’s public profession of faith in Christ (which saves them) is by baptism (as a testimony to that salvation). After all, in the phrase immediately following in verse 16, condemnation is reserved, not for those who have believed and not been baptized, but for those who have not believed: “but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.”

More difficult to work around are the concerns related to the sign gifts in verses 17 and 18.
Here is the only place in all four Gospels that the use of tongues is mentioned. No other Gospel writer makes mention of the sign gift of tongues, though the promise of the Spirit’s coming is found in other Gospels. The emphasis in these other Gospels rightly falls on the Giver rather than the gifts. Interestingly, the Long Ending makes mention of the gifts, but is silent concerning the Giver, the person of the Holy Spirit. If Jesus had promised the disciples the supernatural ability to speak in new languages in advance, then there is no record of them reflecting on such promise when the events of Pentecost unfolded. In fact, when Peter offers explanation of the Pentecostal phenomena to the bystanders, he says, “This is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel,” (Acts 2:16) not “This is what was spoken of by the Lord Jesus.” However, as we look through the book of Acts, we find that God did supernaturally enable the disciples of Jesus to speak with other tongues when the Gospel was being communicated across cultural lines, so there is no real difficulty with the presence of tongues here, except that their mention here is unique among the Gospels.

When we come to the issues of handling snakes and drinking poison we have more difficulty finding a reasonable explanation for the inclusion of the Long Ending, or at least these phrases in it. If the Long Ending is a later addition pieced together from separate accounts in the Gospels and Acts, then the writer may have had the incident of Paul’s snakebite (Acts 28:1-6) in mind when he included the phrase, “they will pick up serpents.” However, it would be improper to conclude that what happened to Paul there would be normative in the experience of all Christians everywhere.

When we come to the even more problematic statement about drinking deadly poison, we find no other mention of such in the entire New Testament. Some have suggested that it may be a restatement of the idea in Luke 10 of treading upon serpents and scorpions, both of which may be poisonous. However, Mark 16:18 clearly refers to drinking poison. The closest parallel we find to this in ancient Christian writings comes from outside of the Bible. Thus, when we examine all of the sign gifts in vv17-18, we have no problem believing that certain Christians have experienced the miraculous power of God in all of these ways at various times in history. What we question is whether or not the Lord Jesus would promise these as regular and normative experiences for all of His followers, especially when this Gospel and the rest of the New Testament seem to speak less favorably about the use of signs.

When it comes to the Long Ending, there are possible explanations for every questionable element that arises. However, there is a cumulative weight to the factors which argues strongly against the Long Ending. The combination of all of the unusual words, stylistic features, and theological difficulties in such a short amount of space strongly suggests that the Long Ending was a later addition written by another writer. This becomes even more likely given the suspicions which arise very early in the manuscript evidence.

We must ask a very basic question: “Which is more likely, that a scribe would intentionally add the Long Ending, or that a scribe would intentionally omit the Long Ending?” Bratcher and Nida conclude that it is “inconceivable that any copyist would have omitted the twelve final verses of the Gospel if they were original. That they should have been added, however, from other sources by copyists who felt that the Gospel, ending at 16:8, was incomplete, is highly reasonable, and is, in fact, the most satisfactory solution of the problem presented by the external evidence.”

This leaves us with the Short Ending (verse 8) as the most likely original and authentic ending to Mark’s Gospel. However, this view is not without its own difficulties. For the sake of time, I will only state the two most prominent difficulties. First is that if Mark ended at verse 8, he ended in a very unusual way compared to other ancient Greek writings. In the Greek text of Mark, verse 8 ends with a conjunction, the Greek word gar, commonly translated as “because” in English. Thorough searches across the vast supply of ancient Greek writings have demonstrated that only a handful of cases with such endings can be found. However, even this small amount of cases demonstrates that it is not entirely impossible that Mark could have intended to end this way. This seems to be an inconclusive point in the debate, for we cannot deal with what Mark should have done, but rather with what it appears that he did.

The second concern with the Short Ending is that it leaves the reader with a somewhat difficult final scene. Rather than narrating an encounter with the risen Lord, or with the women going and doing exactly as the angel has commanded them, it ends with the women fleeing in fear and silence. This is somewhat of an unusual cliff-hanger ending, but it is no more problematic than the books of Jonah or Acts, for instance. Neither of these books end the way we might anticipate or desire, and both leave many questions unanswered. Fear and silence, though not what we expect to find here, is in fact exactly what we find throughout Mark at nearly every presentation of the divine power of Jesus. We must remember that throughout the Bible, fear has two senses. First is that sense with which we are all familiar, a fear that is akin to horror or dread. But there is another sense in which fear is used to express a sense of awe and reverence. It is this kind of fear that is commonly experienced by people in the wake of Jesus’ miracles.

Fear of this kind causes a person to make a decision. Upon beholding the power of God in the person of Christ, fear can paralyze or it can lead into faith. The choice is with the one who fears. It would appear that Mark has concluded his book with the intention of leading us to make this choice for ourselves. We are left hanging, but we are not hanging in ignorance. We have been told what has happened and what will follow (16:6-7). Now we must make a response of faith and obedience – to believe the report and to go and tell others.

Mark’s ending at verse 8 indicates that the story is not finished but is continuing on in your life and mine as we read these words. By stating that the women told no one, he challenges us to assume the responsibility of telling the good news to everyone. Though our initial response to Jesus may be similar to theirs – fear and silence – like them, we must overcome and arrive at faith and obedience. They did not stay afraid and silent forever. They did go and tell. The rest of the New Testament and the history of the Christian church is evidence that they did. Had the secret died with them, we would not be here today. But if the Lord should tarry His return, what will He find 2,000 years from now? Will future generations be gathered together to worship the risen Christ? That depends in large part on us. Will the news of Christ’s resurrection and the message of the Gospel be a secret that dies with us, or will we hold fast to these truths by faith and boldly proclaim the news to all people?

The day may never come when more evidence is found to confirm which of the possible endings of Mark is original beyond all shadows of doubt. Until that time, God has contented Himself to leave us with the evidence we have, entrusting us to draw fitting conclusions from that evidence. By weighing the evidence, we are able to come to the conclusion that Mark most likely intended to end his Gospel at 16:8. But we must be careful and humble here. We do not want to quickly remove verses 9 through 20 from our Bibles, because a strong case exists for their inclusion, though perhaps not as strong as the case for their omission. Since most of what is found in the Long Ending is taught elsewhere in Scripture, we need not fear that a Christian brother or sister will fall into heresy or sin by following the teachings of the Long Ending. However, given their uncertain status, we must handle these verses carefully and beware of basing any belief and practice on these verses alone. For instance we should not infer from Mark 16:16 that baptism is a necessary requirement for salvation, or from verses 17-18 that we should go out grabbing snakes by the tail or drinking poison. Based on other clear and undisputed teachings of Scripture, we know that these would be faulty conclusions. We are promised throughout the entire Bible that salvation is a gift of divine grace received by faith alone and not by works, and that works (even baptism) are testimonies to one’s receiving of such grace, not means of receiving it (Ephesians 2:8-10, for example). We have warnings elsewhere about putting the Lord to the test (Matthew 4:5-7, for instance), and we are promised that living for Christ in this fallen world may result in suffering (2 Timothy 3:12, for instance). We are not promised that we will always escape the serpents or poison with our earthly lives in tact, but we are promised that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life and he who believes in Him will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Him will never die (John 11:25-26). Therefore, we may be content to leave the Long Ending where it is, surrounded by its brackets, marked by its asterisks, clarified by its footnotes, in our English Bibles. We can view it is an early Christian attempt to round off the ending of Mark while maintaining that Mark 16:8 is the only sure conclusion we have to the Gospel. And that ending is sufficient to prompt us all to decide what to do with the risen Jesus. It appears that Mark’s aim was to present the audience with enough evidence to rightly choose to believe in Him and to walk in faith and obedience as we tell this Good News of the risen Lord to the nations. What will you do with the risen Jesus? Will you leave the empty tomb in the fear and silence of unbelief, or will you be awestruck by the Son of God, speechless at His majestic power, and faithfully go and tell the world the message of this Good News that He is risen?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

1 Corinthians 15: Why Today (Resurrection Sunday) Matters

There is much cultural confusion about this day that so many call Easter. Consider what happened at a church outside of Pittsburgh a few years ago. In their Easter production, instead of portraying a crucified Jesus, they beat up the Easter Bunny.

For many people, today is just another day. It doesn’t matter at all. For some people, the only thing that matters about this day is new clothes, big meals, bunnies, eggs, and candy. But for Christian people, today is about the most important event in human history – the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead. The Christian faith is based on the belief that a dead person came back to life. And because that person, Jesus Christ, came back to life in His resurrection, this day MATTERS.

Paul tells us here that this belief that Jesus lives again is central to the Christian gospel. He says that it is a matter of first importance. Why is it so important?

I. The Resurrection is a matter of historical fact (3-8)

Paul does NOT say, “Jesus rose from the dead. Just trust me. Take my word for it.” No, rather, he seeks to validate the resurrection of Christ by pointing to evidence that supports that claim. The evidence is as strong than that of any fact of history. Paul mentions two elements of evidence here in this passage: the scriptures, and the eyewitnesses.

First, in v4, he says, “He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” The NT writers understood that many OT passages spoke of the resurrection. They refer to Genesis 22, Psalm 16, Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, Hosea 6, and other passages which foreshadow and predict the resurrection. These Old Testament were compiled together by the Jews at least 200 years before the time of Christ. So when Jesus spoke of His own death and resurrection, He was not inventing new ideas, but proclaiming ancient truths which were fulfilled when His tomb was found to be empty and He appeared to His disciples.

This brings us to the second piece of evidence, the eyewitnesses. The OT Law established a principle that two or three witnesses would be required to confirm the truth of a matter. Paul tells us here of 514 eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus. If we add the ones mentioned elsewhere in the NT, we have 640 eyewitnesses of the resurrection. And Paul says in effect, “If you don’t believe me, go ask them.” That is what he means when he says, “Most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” Think for a moment about the people in our churches. We have people in our churches who fought in World War II. We have people in our churches who lived through the Great Depression. Perhaps some here were present or nearby when the Tiananmen Square protests occurred or when Mao Zedong came to power in China. These are eyewitnesses of historic events. But Paul says that among the members of the churches of that day and time were MOST of the 640 or more eyewitnesses who saw the risen Lord Jesus with their own eyes. You could talk to them for yourself about their encounter with Him.

Of course, they could have all been lying. Maybe it was all a hoax and the people who claimed to have seen the risen Lord were all telling a great lie. Well, isn’t it interesting that of the ones who told their story, there is no variation or disagreement in the details? And isn’t it interesting that no one in the first century ever came up with a way to disprove what happened? And isn’t it interesting that many of those who claimed to have seen the risen Lord Jesus died for their faith in Him? You may say, well, people die for a lie all the time. Think of the Islamic suicide terrorists who die for the lies of their religion. Yes, but everyone who dies for a lie dies believing that it is true. And if the disciples of Jesus made up the story of His resurrection, then they died for a lie knowing it was a lie. One, two, a handful more may have been willing to do that, but a vast number of those first-generation Christians in the first-century embraced the death of a martyr willingly because they knew that the resurrection of Jesus was a fact. Many of them had seen Him with their own eyes.

But then again, maybe it was a hallucination. Solomon and I are big ice hockey fans. And because hockey is not as popular as other sports here in the Triad, we always notice things about hockey. The other night, we were leaving a restaurant and we overheard someone’s car radio going over the night’s hockey scores. And Solomon said, “Am I hallucinating, or did I just hear hockey scores?” I said, “No, you weren’t hallucinating because I heard them too!” You see a hallucination is a private experience. Two people can take hallucinogenic drugs and both will hallucinate, but they will not see or experience the same things. 640 or more people saw the risen Jesus and had the same experience of Him. This was no hallucination. This was reality. You see, today matters because the resurrection is a matter of historical fact.

II. The resurrection is a matter of personal significance.

Historical facts are important. We all need to know some of them. I was a history major in college, so I tend to think we need to know a lot of them! But even I will admit that very few historical facts make much difference in our daily lives. But the resurrection of Jesus is a personally significant matter.

Notice that Paul says in vv12-15 that it is the basis of our faith. If Christ is not raised, Paul says, then our preaching is “in vain.” That means that it is hollow, empty, meaningless. What Paul means is that the GOSPEL we preach is hollow, empty, and meaningless. And therefore, those who have believed it have put their faith in NOTHING. Our faith is in vain. If Jesus has not risen from the dead, then in who or what do we believe? A carcass. Actually, not even a carcass, because by now that carcass has decomposed into a pile of ashes that have long since been scattered into the desert sands. We have fallen for the biggest lie in history if Jesus is not alive. We might as well take the cross down from the wall behind me and put up a big picture of the Easter Bunny, or even better yet, just shut down operations all together. Apart from the resurrection, there is no Jesus in whom to put our faith.
He goes on to say in vv16-19 that the resurrection is the basis of our hope. Putting your faith in Christ is worthless because there is now nothing left to hope for if He is not raised. If Christ is not raised, then we have no hope of ever being with God, because “we are still in our sins.” The Bible tells us that sin separates us from God, and this separation will be eternal unless sin is forgiven. But the forgiveness of sins comes because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He died in our place to bear the wrath of God against our sins. And in His resurrection He triumphs over sin and death, the grave and hell to reconcile those who trust in Him to God forever. Unless of course, He didn’t rise from the dead. In that case all we have to look forward to is hell. Paul says in v18 that our Christian brothers and sisters who have already died are perishing. In that case, there is nothing to hope for, only a future to fear and dread. And if we have only had hope for this life, then Paul says we are to be pitied more than all men. How pathetic must we be to believe in a myth or a fairy tale, to live without indulging in all the pleasures that this world offers, believing all the while that an eternal paradise was awaiting us? This is what the world must think of Christians. Unless of course Jesus really did rise from the dead. In which case, we have the hope of eternal life spent in the presence of our living Savior.

Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our faith and our hope are fixed upon Him, and our lives are lived in that reality. This brings us to the final point. The resurrection is the basis of our service. Paul says in v58: Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.

If we know that Jesus is alive, then we must not sit around waiting for heaven but rather be steadfast, immovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord. Our faith in Christ should not waver. We can daily live in the confidence of His Word and His promises. And we can put our hands to the task of the Lord’s work. Always, Paul says, ALWAYS!!! ABOUNDING!!! in the work of the Lord. Why? Because it is not in vain. Our Lord lives and receives our service to Him, and nothing done for Him will go unnoticed or unrewarded by Him. Never give up, never stop, never step aside from the work of the work of the Lord. The risen Christ is worthy of our service, and He sees it, and He receives it as being done unto Himself, and He will be faithful to supply our needs in the work and reward our labor in it.

It makes a difference to believe in the risen Jesus. This is one historical fact that comes to bear every day on the lives we live in what we believe, what we do, and what we hope for. Today matters. It matters because the resurrection is a fact of history and because the resurrection is personally significant.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Mark 16:1-8 -- The Resurrection of Jesus

Audio available here

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson completed a book that had been many years in the making, with no intention of ever publishing it. Though he distributed a few copies to friends, this book was not published until long after his death. For many years, this book was given to incoming members of Congress. This book has come to be known as the “Jefferson Bible,” probably because the original title that Jefferson gave it was a bit cumbersome: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English. Our forefathers were fond of lengthy and thorough book titles, and I believe we suffer for a lack of them. The Jefferson Bible was compiled from selected verses in all four Gospels and arranged in a chronological order. Jefferson also omitted many passages which he believed were later additions or exaggerations by the Gospel writers as well as those passages which contained supernatural elements. So, for instance, there are no angels, no fulfilled prophecies, no references to the Trinity, no indication of the deity of Jesus, and no miracles in the Jefferson Bible. And so it ends with these words:
61: Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. 62: Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. 63: There laid they Jesus, 64: And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
That’s it. The End. Jefferson’s Bible ends with Jesus dead and buried. Thank God, our Bibles do not end there. Mark’s Gospel ends with Jesus dead, buried, and risen to life again! The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the climactic moment of all four Gospels, and the foundation of the rest of the New Testament and the Christian Church. And in our text today there are three important facts about the resurrection of Jesus that I want to bring to your attention today.

1. The resurrection of Jesus brings an end to human despair (vv1-4)

The three women mentioned in v1 did not set out that Sunday morning to witness the aftereffects of the greatest miracle in history. Rather, they had set out to complete the burial preparations that had been hastily begun by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus on Friday. As soon as the Sabbath restrictions were lifted, Mark tells us very early on the first day of the week (Sunday), they had gone to buy spices and came to the tomb. Imagine the disposition of their hearts as the approach the tomb. The one in whom they had placed all of their hopes is dead, having been brutally tortured. They are going to have to go in and view his dead body, not like we see them in the funeral home, but in its natural condition now on the third day. You will recall from the story of Lazarus that on the fourth day, it was said (in the old King James), “by this time he stinketh.”
But the concerns for what condition the body may be in by this time are all premature. Another factor will have to be addressed first: who will roll the stone away from the tomb? If the stone can’t be moved then they will have to go back home unable to complete their task. Not only is this Jesus whom they had loved and trusted in dead, but a massive stone separates them from Him and they have no idea how that stone might be moved for them.

In a sense, the situation these women find themselves in is not altogether different from the experiences of many human beings. It is a case of despair. Despair comes when all hopes are lost, when disappointments are all around, and when the obstacles in life seem too massive to overcome. Do you know anyone like that today? Anyone here like that? All of us have found ourselves in situations that appear hopeless. Everyone of us have tasted disappointment’s bitter waters. All of us have looked at massive stones in our lives that appear to be immovable. And let’s be honest – can any of us say that we have NEVER been disappointed by God? Haven’t you hoped and expected God to do one thing, and in actually it appears that He has done another, or else not done anything at all? Can any of say that we have NEVER felt isolated from God? Have you prayed and felt like a massive stone stood between you and Him? Maybe I am being too honest for some of you right now. You may not have known it, but we have a rule here: “No Perfect People Allowed.” So it’s ok for you to say that you know how despair feels.

But, notice what verse 4 says: “Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away.” LOOKING UP! Despair keeps us looking down at ourselves, our hurt feelings, our fears, our disappointments, and all the things that we can’t do anything about. But when we look up, when we pause in the midst of despair to consider that there is a GOD who can say that NOTHING is impossible for Him, then we are able overcome despair. What has you down today? Taxes? The economy? Your job, or your lack of one? Your marriage, your kids? Despair causes us to live like the God in whom we trust is dead. But God has overcome DEATH in the resurrection of Jesus, so I think He can probably handle your stuff and mine too. So, here’s what you do: think really hard about all the stuff that’s got you down; then say to God, “Lord, this stuff is so huge that I don’t really think you can handle it.” And then think about Jesus dying on the cross and being placed in that tomb and sealed with this massive stone. And then think about those women going there on Sunday morning and finding the tomb opened, and Jesus gone, and being told that He has risen from the dead. And then say, “Sorry, God. I forgot. You really can handle it.”

The resurrection of Jesus brings an end to human despair. And the most desperate circumstance human beings find themselves in is sin. Sin brings hopelessness, disappointment, and consequences that create obstacles in our lives. Because we are all sinners by nature and by choice, we are cut off from God. The Bible tells us this – our sins separate us from Him and bring death and the eternal separation of hell. Most people would just rather not think about it than to consider the hopelessness of standing before a holy God covered in the stains of our sins. But thanks be to God that the risen Lord Jesus Christ has conquered sin, AND death, AND hell for us, and brought an end to our despair. And this brings us to our next point …

II. The Resurrection of Jesus is a fundamental part of the Good News (v5-7)

It has been noted by many through the centuries that the moving of the stone was not necessary to let Jesus out so much as to let the witnesses in to see that He had risen. Entering into the tomb, the women did not find a corpse awaiting anointing but rather found a messenger with an announcement of Good News. Mark describes this messenger as a “young man … wearing a white robe.” While this is a rather vague description, Matthew tells us that he is an angel. And he tells them, “Do not be amazed.” That seems like a great understatement, doesn’t it? The person they expected to find dead is not there and an angel is instead. Oh no, nothing to be amazed about at all!
The word “angel,” actually means “messenger.” And this angel has a message to announce. In fact, it is not just any message; it is the most important message ever delivered containing the greatest news ever told. It is the Gospel message. Paul summarized the Gospel message in 1 Corinthians 15, saying, “I make known to you, brethren, the gospel … that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time….” If that is the Gospel, then notice that it is exactly what the heavenly messenger pronounces here.
· Paul: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”
o Angel: “Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified.”
· Paul: “and that He was buried”
o Angel: “Behold here is the place where they laid Him.”
· Paul: “and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”
o Angel: “He has risen; He is not here.”
· Paul: “and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (Cephas being another name for Peter)
o Angel: “Go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’”

So, you see that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a central element to the Gospel message, that proclaimed by the angel at the tomb, by the apostles, and by the orthodox followers of Christ ever since. One of the most popular scholars among a new wave of liberal Christianity today is Marcus Borg. Concerning him, the respected Bishop N. T. Wright has said, “Marcus Borg really does not believe Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead. But I know Marcus well: he loves Jesus and believes in him passionately.” So, if you will permit me to say so, the Jesus that Marcus Borg loves is a decomposed corpse today; a pile of ashes in the desert. This is not the Jesus of the New Testament. But Borg is, unfortunately, not alone. A few years ago, when a documentary was produced claiming to have found the bones of Jesus in a family tomb outside of Jerusalem, Jewish Rabbi Marc Gellman stated, “Some Christian respondents to this film have said that even discovering the bones of Jesus would not seriously undermine their faith. … I know many Christian clergy who have told me that the main truth of Christianity for them is to love as Jesus loved and that no archeological discovery can change that spiritual lesson.” Do you hear that? The Rabbi claims that many Christian CLERGY(!) believe the resurrection is unimportant to their faith in Christ! The Rabbi goes on to say about these clergy, “I love these folks but, as an outsider, I just don't agree that decisive refutation of Jesus' resurrection would have no effect on Christian faith. Unlike Judaism and Islam and Hinduism and even Buddhism, which are built on God's teachings, Christianity is built both on God's teachings as well as on an historical event proving a transcendental miracle.” This Rabbi, a self-professed outsider to Christianity, understands more so than the clergy he knows how central the resurrection of Jesus is to the Christian faith and the Gospel on which it is built.

To demonstrate just how central the resurrection is to the Gospel, notice what Paul says in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” And he also says in 1 Cor 15 that if Christ is not raised from the dead, then our preaching and your faith are vain and worthless and we are all still lost in our sins. Our fellow Christians who have died have perished, and the rest of us are to be pitied more than any other people. I would say that those statements make it pretty clear that the resurrection of Jesus is central to the Gospel message. In fact, if the Gospel is good news, then it requires the resurrection. Had the women come to the tomb only to find a corpse, there is no good news at all. But the fact that He had risen, as this messenger proclaims, means that God has kept His promises, Jesus has accomplished our redemption, and we can be saved from sin. That is not just good news; that is AMAZING news! And Paul says in Galatians 1:8, “even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed.” The Gospel of the risen Christ is the only Good News there is.

And we come now to the third point …

III. The Resurrection of Jesus demands a response (v8)

Any time there is a revelation of God’s truth, there is the expectation of a response. And typically that response is to be one of faith and obedience. If one does not believe the report, then one will not obey the report. And if one does not obey the report, then it indicates that one does not truly believe the report. So faith and obedience go hand-in-hand, as our old hymn says, “Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.”

The women have been given a message to believe: Christ is risen. And they have been given a commission to obey: Go and tell. And their response is seen in verse 8. They went out and fled from the tomb. That is the right thing to do. They acted with swift haste. And then it says that they were gripped by trembling and astonishment. That is an appropriate reaction. To receive so great an announcement should astonish us cause us to tremble. In Isaiah 66:2, the Lord says, “to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.” So far, so good. But then notice that verse 8 concludes with “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Uh-oh. This is no good! Instead of faith we find fear, and instead of going and telling, they are silent! This is a highly unusual way to end this passage, but even more unusual is that according to many ancient manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel, this is the way the entire story ends. You probably notice some indicator in your Bible that verses 9-20 are of questionable authenticity because they are not found in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. (I will discuss this on the Sunday following Easter, 2 weeks from today in our final message on Mark). This fear and silence seems like a very strange ending to a story that is supposed to be filled with good news.

We must remember however that there are two senses in which the Bible speaks of fear. First and most obvious is that normal sense we think of, like a dread or horror. But secondly is that very frequent kind of fear that is a sense of awe and reverence before the power and holiness of God. And in Mark’s Gospel, whenever there is a profound revelatory miracle, this kind of fear is usually the reaction of those who witness the miracle. For instance, in 4:41, when Jesus calmed the stormy sea, the disciples “became very much afraid.” In 5:33 the woman who had been healed of the blood disorder fell down before Jesus “fearing and trembling.” In 6:51, after seeing Jesus walking on the water, the disciples were “utterly astonished.” These are just a few of the many examples of this kind of response to God’s powerful acts of revelation throughout Mark’s Gospel. In addition to these, we would note that in each of the three times that Jesus clearly predicted His suffering, death, and resurrection, the disciples responded with fear and misunderstanding. So it should not surprise us that when the reality occurred, these women were confused, afraid, and dumbfounded into silence.
But here is the important thing to remember – they did not stay that way. In fact, from the other gospels we know that they did believe, and they did go and tell. The entire history of the Christian church is a testimony to the fact that these women told the story of the risen Jesus that they heard from the angel in the tomb, and that Peter and the twelve, and countless others since them have believed and told this story as well.

We preach Christ and Him crucified, and Him risen from the dead as a fact of history and as a miracle of God. This God accomplished for us and for our salvation. If we could travel back in time to that empty tomb so long ago, we would find ourselves in the same state as these women were in. We would fear the awesome holiness and power of God which has brought these things about. And that fear can paralyze us into unbelief and inaction, or it can lead us into faith and action. The choice is ours to make. Redemption has been accomplished through Christ’s death and resurrection. Forgiveness of sin and eternal life are offered to us as a free gift of God. This message has been proclaimed by His messengers coming down to us through the ages. And each of us has a choice to make. Will we believe? Will we go and tell?

In a week we will gather here in the sanctuary again and have a very special celebration for Resurrection Day. So between now and then, it is my hope that these words spoken today will be a foundation for meditation in our hearts. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. His resurrection brings an end to our despair. What worries, struggles, or situations have you feeling hopeless, fearful and desperate today? Do you believe that God who conquered DEATH in Jesus Christ can handle them? I believe He can, and I would challenge you even as I am challenging myself to put those things into the hands of our risen Lord. Ask Him to move the stone. Ask Him to lift your eyes to Him; rather than dwelling on the your inability to handle these things, consider His ability to do all things. Nothing, not even death, is impossible for our God.

And as you consider these words in the days to come, remember that our belief in the resurrection is not a fairy tale, nor is it an optional feature of Christianity. It is a historical event that actually happened. It is a central component of our Gospel. And the proclamation of that Gospel sets before us a decision – to believe it or not. Undoubtedly many if not a vast majority of those of us present here today have made the decision to believe in this risen Christ and to trust Him for our salvation. But perhaps others have not. We would welcome you to make that decision today as the Holy Spirit prompts your heart and convinces you of the truth of this message. And those of us who have received Christ are commissioned like those women at the tomb to go and tell. So who will you tell this week that Jesus is alive? Who will you tell that Jesus is waiting to meet them? Who will you tell that He lives to save them?