Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 15:42-16:8
This is the lesson about the greatest news in history. It’s also bewildering and astonishing news, as Mark highlights. The women didn’t know how to react (just as the disciples wouldn’t)—they needed Jesus’ later encouragement. And that’s the question for us: do we truly believe? Do we need to help others believe?
You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. Mark 16:6
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Potential Icebreaker Ideas
Google that phrase and you’ll find countless lists of very interesting tombs. Some very famous buildings are actually tombs: the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Terra Cotta Army Mausoleum, and more. Brings in some pictures of these famous architectural landmarks (like these:) and ask for reactions.
Of course, we have plenty of amazing tombs (or gravestones) right around here, from Andersonville to Wrightsboro. How does it make you feel to see a grave of a famous figure or one of your relatives? Here would be my point: there are a number of churches claiming to be built over the tomb of Jesus. What a silly thing to fight over! He’s not there! It’s a rather meaningless debate because the whole point of the resurrection is that the tomb is empty. There will be absolutely no evidence of Jesus ever having been there. How does it make you feel to know that Jesus doesn’t have an occupied tomb? (Likewise, the casket that contains the remains of our loved one, or the tombstone that identifies their burial site, their soul isn't there any more. It's just a marker.)
The Best News Ever! Here’s another approach you could take to starting the lesson: what’s the best news you’ve ever heard? (If you Google that phrase, you’ll get a MercyMe song.) I can think of really good news that I’ve heard—a high risk pregnancy that turns out okay, a concerning pathology that comes back clean, an election that goes the way I voted. But when I try to think about the best news I’ve ever gotten, it gets a lot harder. We have had some significant health scares in our family, and getting official news that the family member is out of the woods is an amazing feeling. My kids (and wife) have done things that have made me really, really proud, and that’s a great feeling. But I have to say that the best news ever for me was when a good friend clearly shared the gospel with me and life finally fell into place. Seriously, best news ever.
This Week's Big Idea: How Important Is the Resurrection?
If you were to take a poll of the people in your social orbit (acquaintances from work, neighborhood, etc.), how many of them would say that they truly believe they will physically rise from the dead in a new, immortal body? A 2017 poll in the UK got attention for saying that 25% of British Christians don’t believe in any resurrection (even Jesus’). I had a really hard time finding any recent data for the USA (69% of all Americans believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but I want to know if they believe they will rise from the dead; 62% of all Americans believe that Jesus will return to judge everyone, but that could be a spiritual judgment). I know for certain that not all “Christians” believe Jesus was raised from the dead in a physical body that ascended into heaven.
First, there is a liberal approach to the Bible that interprets most of it in a personal-metaphorical sense. In other words, the story of Easter isn’t really about Jesus, but it’s about how each of us can go into a low point in life, a deep point that feels like death, but know that we can find our way out again.
Second, there is the scientific approach to the Bible that rejects anything supernatural or miraculous. Jesus could not have risen from the dead because that’s not what dead bodies do. To them, the story of Easter is about how Jesus was spiritually raised into the life of God, something that every Christian (or everyone!) will eventually experience.
Those two viewpoints are going to be pretty small in conservative Baptist churches in Georgia! But there are a significant number of people in our country who call themselves Christian and reject the idea that Jesus rose from the dead and that we will rise from the dead. And that leads to the only question that really matters with respect to this topic: do we care? How big a deal is it that some Christians don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead? To Paul, it’s a very big deal. Read 1 Corinthians 15 and follow this argument: if we believe that we will not rise from the dead, then we are indirectly arguing that Jesus did not rise from the dead. And if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then our entire faith is worthless. Why? What’s the big deal? How does the story of Jesus change if He didn’t rise from the dead? Paul explains it in two main categories:
Forgiveness of Sin. The reason we know that God has forgiven our sin in Jesus is that Jesus’ resurrection is the proof. Had Jesus stayed in the grave, we would not know if God considered His sacrifice sufficient. But because God freed Jesus from death, we know that forgiveness is possible in Jesus.
The Nature of Being a Human. Those liberal Christians don’t seem to appreciate this fact (and that’s largely because they reject the idea of a literal “Adam” or any kind of “original sin”) and so they miss Paul’s point entirely. Paul talks about the relationship between Jesus and Adam twice in this chapter (vv. 21-22, 44-49). Being human means being both body and soul. We are both physical and spiritual. God created Adam out of the dust of the earth and in His image. We are home and whole in our bodies. Eternal life is not about getting rid of our bodies, but about exchanging our corruptible body with an incorruptible one. So, if we don’t believe in the resurrection, we don’t believe that we will remain human.
Scientifically, we can’t explain how a body can last forever, or how we can live eternally (when all of the evidence says that the universe will wear out someday). But we know that God created the physical universe for us to inhabit, and He intends for us to enjoy it physically eternally. Somehow. (Just be prepared for time to take on a new meaning in heaven.)
Our Context in Mark
It’s our last lesson in Mark! Depending on how you led your Easter lesson, you may just have to remind everyone of it for the context (and you may have already talked about things in our passage this week). The gist of the passage—and the key focus of our lesson—is that Jesus really did die and was buried, and He really did rise from the dead, and that knowledge overwhelmed His followers.
Above, I talk about why the fact of the resurrection is so important to Christian belief, and below, I talk about the so-called “longer ending” of Mark that appears in some versions of the Bible and what we should do with it. About the only thing you might want to bring in as part of the context is a comparison with the other Gospel accounts. We talked about this when we went through Matthew—each Gospel presents slightly different details. They are not incompatible (if Mary is mentioned by herself, it does not mean she was alone). Here is one way to put them all together: Jesus is buried as several women watch. The tomb is sealed and a guard is posted. An angel rolls the stone away and the guards faint. A group of women arrive and find the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene returns to tell the disciples without going into the tomb. The remaining women see two angels who give them instructions to give to the disciples; on their way, they see Jesus. The guards report the empty tomb. The women tell the disciples, and Peter and John run to the tomb and find it empty. Mary Magdalene follows behind them and meets the angel and Jesus. Some details are omitted in some versions, but that does not mean the version is inaccurate.
Part 1: Seen! (Mark 13:24-27)
When it was already evening, because it was the day of preparation (that is, the day before the Sabbath), Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin who was himself looking forward to the kingdom of God, came and boldly went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’s body. Pilate was surprised that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had already died. When he found out from the centurion, he gave the corpse to Joseph. After he bought some linen cloth, Joseph took him down and wrapped him in the linen. Then he laid him in a tomb cut out of the rock and rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were watching where he was laid.
There’s nothing really difficult that you need to explain here. The Sabbath was from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, so identifying “Friday evening” added some urgency to the proceeding. Romans generally left crucifixion victims on their crosses until the bodies decomposed, but Hebrews always took dead bodies down before sundown. However, Hebrews gave that responsibility to the deceased’s family. Who would take Jesus’ body down? Mary? She would have been physically unable to do so. His siblings? They thought He was crazy (at this time). His disciples? They were scaredy-cats. In steps Joseph of Arimathea (see below), who had the money, resources, and connections to make this happen. Had Joseph not done this, the Jewish leaders would have had their servants take Jesus’ body down and cast it into a common grave (where all criminals went). It was the ultimate disrespect.
The Sanhedrin was the council that orchestrated Jesus’ betrayal and execution. What is one of their members doing trying to take care of Jesus’ body? Well, make that two members. John 19:39 says that Joseph went with Nicodemus. John had earlier talked about the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus at night, so it makes sense that he would highlight Nicodemus’s involvement. It seems that Nicodemus may have had a hand in turning Joseph from “looking forward to the kingdom of God” to “a follower of Jesus”. Luke made it clear that Joseph had not agreed with the Sanhedrin’s actions (Luke 23:51). (But John described him as a “secret” follower—John 19:38.)
Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead. Crucifixion victims could last for days before finally suffocating. However, you remember that Jesus had already endured a full flogging, not to mention the full weight of the wrath of God. Pilate required the confirmation of the Roman centurion before allowing Joseph the body. Joseph had Jesus placed in a tomb that he had recently had dug out of the rock (Matt 27:60). It had never been used, which was a great respect paid to Jesus. And it also meant that there could be no confusion as to who was in there. Two Marys followed the men to the tomb, so they knew exactly where it was. (Note that Luke 23:59 mentions that key women stayed at the cross until the bitter end, after everyone else had left.) Mary the mother of Joses was also Mary the mother James the younger (Matt 27:56, Mark 15:40; James may have been one of the Twelve).
You could have a theological discussion here of the importance of Jesus’ physical and actual death. This would be a great time to explain the gospel. And of course, without the pain of death, there is no victory of resurrection. You could also have a discussion about what the people mentioned in these verses risked and what we can take from their devotion to Jesus. (You might also point out that Joseph also had 75 pounds of spices to keep the stench down—no small investment.)
Aside: Joseph of Arimathea
We really don’t know much about this surprisingly important character in the Gospels. He’s mentioned in all 4 Gospels—not just with respect to his tomb, but also elsewhere so as to give an account of his character. He must have been a big deal, right?
He probably was, but we just don’t know. We know that he was rich, good, and righteous (Matt 27:57, Luke 23:50). We know that he was a respected member of the Sanhedrin, a Jewish ruling council (Mark 15:43), and that he did not participate in their plot against Jesus (Luke 23:51), but that he was still afraid of what they could do to him (John 19:38). And that’s it. We don’t even know where Arimathea was (some say near Ramah, some say near Lydda).
Everything else about him we have to infer. By requesting Jesus’ body for burial, Joseph was intimately and publicly connecting himself with Jesus. It was Jewish custom to bury executed criminals in a common lot (not in a family tomb, which would “defile” the remains already there). Joseph went straight to Pilate, probably pulling strings, to make sure that he got Jesus’ body before it was unceremoniously dumped in the ground (the Jewish authorities had already demonstrated impatience by asking the Romans to break the crucifieds’ legs). So this means that Joseph circumvented the authorities and pulled strings to get this done—there was no way to downplay his commitment to Jesus at this point. And by doing this on the eve of a Sabbath, Joseph (and Nicodemus) were likely left unclean for the Sabbath ceremonies. then there was the cost involved: a freshly-carved tomb, 75 pounds of spices, and the servants that likely assisted them. This was a significant amount of money on his part. All of that to say that Joseph had turned into a very committed follower of Jesus.
Part 2: Grieved (Mark 16:1-4)
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they could go and anoint him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they went to the tomb at sunrise. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb for us?” Looking up, they noticed that the stone—which was very large—had been rolled away.
The women, as a sign of their own devotion, also bought spices for Jesus’ body (maybe they didn’t think Joseph had done enough on that front). We know from Luke that additional women went with them. John says that they went when it was dark. Most likely, this group of women was staying in Bethany (where it was safer), about two miles from the tomb. They left Bethany while it was dark, and they arrived at the tomb at dawn. Their question about the stone was probably an indictment of the Twelve, none of whom was brave enough to come with them. They knew that guards would be there, but doubted that guards would help them. I think they figured they would eventually find someone who could help. Of course, that would be a moot point.
Because Jesus later appears inside locked rooms, we know that the angels did not roll the stone away to let Jesus out. Rather, this mercy was granted to these women so they could see that Jesus was not there.
There’s not a lot of discussion to have here. You could talk about the need to be with others when you are grieving, or the need to have a plan of action for the next steps in your grief. Unlike the Twelve, these women did not sit in the dark behind closed doors. They were grieving, yes, but they were also doing. Sometimes it's very hard to respond to a tragedy. Having a plan, even for just a simple task like these ladies identified, can be invaluable.
The Bible Project has released a great series on spiritual beings, and one of those short videos covers angels and cherubs.
To make a long story short, the mighty beings called cherubim and seraphim that have wings and are terrifying in appearance are never called angels. We traditionally think of them as a “class” of angels, but we might be better served thinking of cherubs and angels as two different classes of heavenly beings. Angels appear throughout the Bible, almost always bringing a message or “running an errand” for God. The only consistent description we have of angels is that they look like a human male (never as a woman or child, and never with wings). (Note, the emphasis is always on their message which is why we learn so little about the messenger.) The only clues we are given that they are not just another human male are always contextual—appearing mysteriously or in a strange way (Gen 16:7, Num 22, Judg 6). There are a number of reference to “the angel of the Lord” that we have talked about before; many scholars put that individual into yet a different category (they believe this is a reference to Jesus), but there is no consensus on every such appearance. Long story short—the women saw a man in a white robe at Jesus’ tomb.
Part 3: Resurrected (Mark 16:5-8)
When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side; they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he told them. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they put him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see him there just as he told you.’” They went out and ran from the tomb, because trembling and astonishment overwhelmed them. And they said nothing to anyone, since they were afraid.
Be careful about bursting people’s bubbles, but take a look at the previous focus about angels. In the Bible, angels simply take the appearance of a human male. They don’t have wings. They’re not super-sized. Mark just identifies this person as a youthful male (Matthew said he was an angel, and his robe was a dazzling white). We read nothing about the guards; perhaps the women were so astonished by the open tomb that they did not notice the paralyzed bodies? Whatever the reason, the guards are not important now. The angel and his message are. And what a message it is. Recommend that your group memorize verse 6 exactly as they have it—every phrase is critical. The angel is very clear for whom the women are looking and what had happened to Him, but there is new information to give, new information that changes all of history. The angel wants the women to see for themselves that Jesus’ body is not there. But he adds the news, “He has risen!” This is not just a missing corpse—Jesus has returned to life from death. And then the angel gives instructions to let the scared menfolk know. (The disciples do not look good in this account, which is why it is so believable. God knows that, in that culture, no one will listen to women, and yet He called them as the first witnesses.) The last verse is amazing—the women are so astonished that they don’t know what to do. They just start running. On the one hand, this explains the confusing series of events that the other Gospels report (as well as why some later copyists added a more exciting ending to Mark—see the back page). But on the other hand, it reveals Mark’s true purpose. He didn’t want to give the “clean story ending” the other Gospels have, where Jesus appears and encourages and commissions. He wanted to leave it ambiguous, just as it would be for everyone who read his Gospel. “You have now heard the report that Jesus’ tomb was empty. What are you going to do with that information?” That’s a great question...
A couple of thoughts—why single out Peter here? Probably because Peter was Mark’s primary source, and Peter was keenly aware of his absence from this event. And what about Galilee? Yes, Matthew reported that Jesus gave the Great Commission in Galilee right before His ascension, but John said that Jesus appeared multiple times to His disciples in Jerusalem before they went to Galilee. What happened? My guess is that the disciples were too afraid to leave, and so Jesus “encouraged” them.
Closing Thoughts: The Longer Ending of Mark
Our lesson wraps up with Mark 16:8, which seems like a very, very strange place to end such an important story (“they were afraid”). Well, that’s actually where the Gospel ends. A number of versions of the Bible have 16:9-20 (the “longer ending”) in which Jesus says (1) that baptism is necessary for salvation, (2) that saved people will drive out demons, speak in tongues, pick up snakes, drink poison, and heal the sick. Those verses are problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that handling snakes and drinking poison is a terrible idea that has gotten church leaders killed. Most importantly is the clear insinuation that you have to be baptized to be saved. Jesus never says anything like this anywhere else!
This leads to the very disconcerting question of where these verses came from. Blessedly, we now know enough about where our copies of the Bible came from to be able to talk about this without losing any faith in our copy of the Bible. As you know, the Bible was copied by hand for 1500 years. Our technology and methodology has improved to the point that we can fairly accurately date these various copies. Two of the best and earliest copies we have (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) do not have this ending. These verses show up in the 5th century and are then included in most manuscripts to follow.
So what happened? The soundest theory is that Mark intentionally ended this Gospel on a questioning note in order to be open-ended, to draw the reader into forming his own conclusion. But some early copyists didn’t like it, so they added a very exciting oral tradition (about snake handling and drinking poison) to make Mark’s ending seem more powerful (like the Catholic Church) and less afraid. So it would be best to say that we’re not removing any verses from the Bible; they weren’t there in the first place.