Having recently finished my own personal study on the Gospel of Mark, I just had a few thoughts on the ending of the book, what it meant for the early church, and what it means for us today. So, first, if you’ve never read the last chapter of Mark, let me encourage you to do so here.
You’ll see it’s really weird. There are reasons why most sermons on this part of Jesus’ story don’t often come from this book. It doesn’t have an actual Resurrection account. There seems to be some humor (the ladies ask “who’s gonna roll away the stone when we get there?” They look up and it’s rolled away and Mark adds, “it was very large”). The angels say “tell the disciples and Peter about all this”, but the women are scared and don’t say anything. And then it just ends (assuming the last part isn’t original, as we’re about to talk about). The ending seems to not carry with it the same reverence, awe, gravity, and seriousness of the moment that other Gospels seem to have. It’s almost playful. As far as Gospel accounts go, it’s definitely odd.
Did you notice the really radical shift in tone and language that occurs between verses 8 and 9? Most English translations of the Bible have a note saying that these verses are not found in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. Further, the earliest commentators on Scripture, like Origen and Clement of Alexandria seem to know nothing of the existence of these verses. But still, some early and admittedly reliable manuscripts have these verses, and some other Church Fathers knew about them.
And so we find ourselves in a weird tension: it seems very clear that whoever wrote the book of Mark did not write these verses and they were not included in the original finished product. But yet, there is a long history of these verses being accepted as authoritative by many figures in Church History.
So as I was finishing the book, I was struck by what these verses said about the early church–the ones that probably penned these final verses. These verses testify to the things that the earliest Church found as most important and most inappropriate for a Gospel to end without. And, in my opinion, this is what makes these verses “valid” Scripture, even though they most assuredly weren’t original. So what seemed to mark the earliest, most grassroots time of the Christians Church?
Sunday Morning | Verse 9 seems to make a point of repeating the little fact that was already said in verses 1 and 2 of this chapter: the resurrection happened “early” on the “first day of the week”. This day and time has held special importance for the Church ever since; it is sacred time and space set aside for our Lord in which there seems to be unique grace for God’s people to gather and worship him, and a unique expectation that He will meet them in it.
Proclamation | The other Gospels show us that the paralyzing fear of the women was short-lived. To this day they rightfully have the unique place of being the first commissioned (and dare I say ordained?) preachers of the Resurrected Christ (heck, they are the first to preach this now-complete Gospel message and the first hearers are the disciples!). And yet, the early church could not let this Gospel end without these women being shown proclaiming this Gospel as they had been instructed. Further, these writers skip a lot of other post-Resurrection stuff to quickly get to Jesus’ command to his disciples to proclaim this Gospel. They go on to talk about how the disciples faithfully “preached everywhere” as “the Lord worked with them”. The early church seems to have had a special emphasis on proclamation of the Gospel (and not just living it out).
“Crazy” Holy Spirit Charismania! | It’s hard to read this passage and not notice how uniquely “charismatic” and “extra-supernatural” it seems. There are multiple references to casting out demons. Jesus appears “in another form” to a couple of his disciples. There is the promise of Holy Spirit signs such as tongues, exorcism, supernatural protection, and healing. There is confirmation the “the Lord…confirmed the message by accompanying signs”. It appears that the world the early church occupied was one that was marked by very dramatic and outward spiritual signs of the power of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.
Baptism | Notice Jesus’ commission here: “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” There’s a seeming inequality to the two sides of this statement. It appears that belief (the inward sign of being the people of God) and baptism (the outward, visible sign) go hand-in-hand. Baptism, to the earliest Church, seems to be such an essential part to being the community of faith that this articulation seems almost to attach it to salvation itself.
The Exalted Christ | These verses seem to more closely resemble the representations of Jesus we see in the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation–both of which purposefully emphasize the deity, holiness, and “Otherness” of Jesus. The other Gospels, even when talking about strange post-Resurrection events like Jesus on the road to Emmaus and the Ascension, still have a certain “earthly” quality to them, where these things still have the fog of oddity and perplexity to them. These verses at the end of Mark were probably written well after that fog wore off and much more clarity had been gained about where Jesus now was and what he was doing, and so the early Church seemed to be excited and eager to dwell on the Resurrected, Exalted, Ascended Christ–worshipping and speaking of him as such.
The New Creation | This is my favorite thing I noticed in this ending, and the thing that finally made me love these verses and not just disregard them as “not original”. In verse 15, Jesus gives his commission to his disciples saying “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation“. This Greek word (ktisis, for those that care) is not the other word for “creation” (cosmos) that can be used to merely refer to a group of people. This word is used to talk about the entire created realm (Romans 8:20) and even human institutions (1 Peter 2:13). This shows us that the emphasis on the gospel affecting all of creation and human institutions (and not just human minds) is not some liberal, post-modern, hipster obsession that has only recently popped up into our “pop” theology. It was an idea that the early church found to be essential enough to add to one of its own Gospels.
Benediction: A Sacramental View of All of Life | Looking back over all of these unique emphases of the early church, there is a common thread we would do well to notice. In each of these features, we see a consistent marriage between the material and immaterial, the concrete and abstract, the physical and spiritual.
Sunday is the physical place in time and space where our God meets with his people. In actually proclaiming the Gospel, the power of God is going out from moving lips and vocal chords, and these “physical” sounds end up being used to raise dead souls. The gifts of the Holy Spirit show us that God intends to reveal himself not in abstract emotions, but in power and sight and demonstration. Baptism is the physical mark of the covenant people of God, by which his people literally move through watery creation itself and come out cleansed. A physically human and resurrected Christ is the one now seated in the heavens; this is one of the most beautiful marriages of the earthly residing in heaven until heaven resides in earth.
And lastly, we preach this Gospel to creation itself because God intends that we, as his priests, would tend to this world, subduing it, caring for it, and preparing it to be a suitable Temple of Temples in which our God might reside for all time when the sky splits and he returns, consummating all of history, time, space, redemption, and creation.
And the name of Christ will be praised.