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The Interesting Ending of Mark's Gospel -- a study of Mark 16

Will you believe in the risen Jesus?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 16

Any study of the Gospel must end with the triumphant note of the resurrection of Jesus. But Mark seems to want to focus on the initial confusion and fear on the part of Jesus' followers. Why? Maybe because he wants his readers to realize just how serious this message is. (Oh, and I also cover what we should do with the "longer ending of Mark".)

He is not here. See the place where they put him. (16:6)

We've Studied the Resurrection a Few Times

  1. Is Jesus Dead? Easter 2017 (Matthew 28) ( -- highlights include a summary of "The Case for Easter", what the Jews believed about resurrection, and how ancient Romans rejected women's testimony

  2. Jesus Is Alive! Easter 2019 (Mark 15:42-16:8) ( -- highlights include famous tombs, the importance of the resurrection, and a focus on Joseph of Arimathea and angels

  3. Raised - Easter 2020 (Luke 24:1-12) ( -- a fun section on optical illusions, and a comparison of the Gospel accounts

  4. Resurrected - Easter 2021 (Luke 24:1-12) ( -- a "big news" idea, more harmony of the Gospels, Jewish burial practices, and truths that completely change your perspective on things

  5. Jesus, Resurrection, and Authority - Easter 2022 (Matthew 28) ( -- the physics of color, and the Great Commission

  6. This Tomb Is No Symbol of Death - Easter 2023 (John 20:1-18) ( -- the word "Easter", a full summary of Holy Week, and the garden

If, when you read the notes below, you think I missed something, it might be because I covered it in another post.

And for those of you finding this post out of the blue and thinking that my discussion ideas are strange, it's because I try to suggest discussion ideas I've not suggested before. Sometimes my ideas work better than others. But if they help you think of ways to communicate the truths of the Bible, then we're all good.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Shopping Experiences!

For future readers who stumble across this post, we are studying this passage the week of Thanksgiving, two days after "Black Friday". There are a disturbing number of cultural parallels to the experience of the women in this week's passage, and I'm tapping into that with my icebreaker ideas.

Early Morning Black Friday -- Ah the Memories

This website has conveniently summarized more data about holiday shopping than I ever cared to know.

  • "Black Friday was the biggest day for in-store shopping in the U.S. in 2022, reaching 72.9 million consumers, up almost 15% YoY."

  • "87.2 million U.S. consumers shopped online on Black Friday in 2022, roughly equal to 2021."

  • "The expected average spend in 2022 was highest on Cyber Monday, at $218, compared to $205 on Black Friday, and $193 on Prime Day."

That's ... astounding. I would have thought that on-line shopping and "early Black Friday" deals would have cut back on Black Friday shopping, but I guess not.

What's your "worst" Black Friday shopping experience?

I did Black Friday once, and I found the experience to be less-than-enjoyable.

Anyway, I hope you can guess where I'm going with this:

Devoted people ... making detailed plans ... waking up very early ... gathering supplies ... being willing to endure potential hardship ... possibly having to break down a door ...

Uh oh, are Black Friday shoppers as devoted to their shopping as the women in this week's passage were to Jesus? Is today's Black Friday a gross distortion of what happened on Easter morning?

Yeah, sorry, that's a bit extreme, isn't it? But my point would be something like this: are you more or less likely to be dissuaded from Black Friday shopping as attending a sunrise Easter service?

More Shopping -- Targeted Ads

Forgive me for not remembering where I read this, but an incredibly wise researcher once said something like, "Amazon and Google know more about you than your spouse or priest." (It might be this Scientific American article.) Whoa! And, that's probably not too far off. I don't need to tell you about targeted ads. What's a time that you were genuinely creeped out by a targeted ad?

Well, I recently read about Amazon's "master plan" for Black Friday shopping: football!

This year, Amazon is putting a football game on Prime Video on Black Friday. Their plan is that anyone watching the game on Prime Video can "click" on any ad and be immediately taken to where they can buy that product on Amazon. !!!! It's advertising genius, and Amazon's competitors are extremely jealous.

But wait, there's more! They plan on these ads being targeted (in a limited way this first year) based on your shopping history on Amazon. Certain people will be shown one ad or one version of the ad, and others something else.

Oh, it gets better! (Better = more dystopian.) They are working on using AI to create truly unique 30-second commercials for each individual Amazon shopper based on their profile and history. You will see an ad that no one else sees that's uniquely "tuned" to get you to click on the product, which Amazon will conveniently sell to you to arrive at your home the next day. Again, marketing genius.

How swayed do you think you would be by totally-customized targeted ads?

Where am I going with this? Again -- is today's Black Friday (i.e., targeted ads) a gross distortion of what happened on Easter morning?

Think about it -- what did the women find when they arrived at the tomb? They found a spokesperson (an angel) who told them exactly what they were looking for and where they would find it and what they should do about it. The angel did what modern advertisers attempt to do. The difference? I really shouldn't have to tell you that, should I?

Here's my point and transition: if commercial advertisers are getting more and more personal about convincing people to "buy their shtick", do you think that Christians -- who have the very words of life -- need to get more personal with our friends and neighbors who need to know Jesus?


Where We Are in Mark

The end! (Or is it? 🤔 More on that below.) All of the Gospel writers follow a direct path: crucifixion -> death -> burial -> empty tomb.

The substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross is the basis of our salvation -- "He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor 5:21)

But the resurrection is the proof that God accepted Jesus' sacrifice -- "He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (Rom 4:25)

Therefore, believing in the sacrifice and the resurrection is necessary for us -- "If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Rom 10:9)

So, the story of Jesus doesn't end at the cross.

Mark 15:42-47 explains how Jesus (a "criminal") ended up in a tomb: a Jewish leader put Him there. Note that this is the first time Mark mentions Joseph of Arimathea; it's intended to be the hint that there are more followers of Jesus than previously thought.

Mark also waits until the very end to introduce Mary Magdalene. Most likely, he thought her to be "famous enough" as not to need a long introduction; but really, her unique identity isn't the point in Mark's narrative. She, along with another of Jesus' followers, saw where Joseph took Jesus' body, and she made preparation to go back and anoint said body.


Part 1: The Women Look for a Dead Body (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. 2 Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they went to the tomb at sunrise. 3 They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb for us?” 4 Looking up, they noticed that the stone—which was very large—had been rolled away.

We study this event at least once a year, so my guess is that everyone in your group is familiar with the setup. Here's a chart from my 2020 Easter lesson --

A point that I make over and over in those other Easter posts is how the differences in details are not contradictory. For example, if you were to ask your group to summarize what happened on the first Easter morning, my guess is that you would hear different parts of the story from different group members. It's not that they're necessarily wrong, but rather that different details stuck out in their mind.

Mark has described the Sabbath regulations for his Roman audience, so they would understand why the women were waiting until after the Sabbath. And Romans apparently had all kinds of rituals for handling bodies during funerals, so the idea of anointing a body would not have required further explanation. If anything, Mark's readers would have noted how hastily Jesus was buried, and they would have expected something like this to happen. Mark's readers would also have noted that these previously-unmentioned women are the ones to do it, not Jesus' disciples ("the men") whom they have been reading about this entire time.

I love verse 2 -- it just sounds like the setup for something that will completely change the world --

Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they went to the tomb at sunrise.

Calling attention to the "first day of the week" is no accident. Yes, it's the "third day after His death", but it's the first day of a new creation. We talked a lot more about this in John's Gospel. Something new and wondrous is about to happen.

Verse 3 is where many of us make fun of the women. "You planned out everything except for how to get into the tomb? Isn't that an important detail?"

Take a step back when you read this -- we tend to read things into a phrase that might not have originally been there. The original Greek construction isn't suggesting that this question is a direct quote, rather just that this was a topic of conversation on the way. It doesn't mean that they forgot about it or that they had no ideas about it, just that they talked about it. And wouldn't you? Some scholars have noted that the women probably expected the Roman soldiers to help them open the tomb, but they were quite concerned with how to ask and if the soldiers would help. Sounds reasonable to me. I think we can stop making the unwarranted jokes about these women.

And of course, it was a moot point. The stone was rolled away.

It's nowhere said, but the implication is that the angel(s) rolled it away. Certainly, Jesus didn't need the help (or for the stone to be moved at all!), but the world needed to see that the tomb was empty.

Here's a possible discussion question: what's the most unexpected thing you've ever seen?

Time Magazine used to do a "surprising photos" feature, and these photos are from years ago. The left photo is of an unexpected volcanic eruption. The middle photo is of a balcony full of bacon. The right photo is of a giant tire that didn't fit through a door. Natch.

Then take it to the next step -- when you saw this unexpected thing, did it please you, confuse you, or frighten you?

And then finally, put yourself in the shoes of these women. They were certainly not expecting to see the tomb open. But their initial reaction was not "joy" -- why not?


Part 2: The Women Are Shocked by Its Absence (Mark 16:5-8)

5 When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side; they were alarmed. 6 “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. 7 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.’” 8 They went out and ran from the tomb, because trembling and astonishment overwhelmed them. And they said nothing to anyone, since they were afraid.

The tone of these verses are why I think this is the end of Mark's Gospel (see below). What adjectives does Mark use to describe the women?

  • Alarmed

  • Trembling (or "terrified")

  • Astonished (or "bewildered")

  • Afraid

Not very triumphant! (And also the likely reason the next few verses were added to the end of the Gospel.)

And it's even worse -- where does the angel send the women? To the upper room where Jesus' "faithful" disciples are hiding in fear.

And there's more -- the word for "ran" is also used to describe an "escape". They were not "racing to tell the disciples" but "frantically running away from the tomb in a panic".

Can you empathize with them? How does your perspective change when you try to put yourself in their shoes, not knowing anything that was going to happen the rest of that first Easter Sunday?

The other discussion I think worth having is to dig into the words of the angel. What is everything that the angel packs into his few sentences? It's an astonishingly effective speech.

He explains what happened, he gives the women corroboration, and then he gives them instruction. Why might the angel have focused on Peter? And why might the angel have specifically reminded the disciples about Galilee? (see Mark 14:27)

I believe this is the end of Mark's Gospel. For reasons I will explain below, Mark wanted to end his narrative in a precarious place. All of Jesus' named followers are either frightened, confused, or hiding.

If Mark's readers choose to believe in Jesus as Savior, it won't be because they are impressed with the apostles -- it will be because they believe what Jesus said.

Here's how you might discuss this: what's the most important decision you've made recently? Maybe it was about a job or a house or a relationship. Did that decision-making make you nervous or even afraid?

Trusting in Jesus as Savior and Creator -- putting your eternal destiny into His hands -- is and must be the most overwhelming decision any person could ever make. People should be bewildered and even frightened when they consider the proposal and count the cost. Mark has made it very clear to his readers that the call to follow Jesus is the call to lay down your life. If we are serious and soberminded when we think about these things, we absolutely should have the "fear and trembling" Paul talks about in Philippians 2 when he tells us how we are to approach living out our salvation.

In other words, if following Jesus has been easy peasy for us, then Mark would have us question how seriously we've taken our Christian discipleship.

But this is the week of Thanksgiving and the end of the greatest story ever told! We do know how it ends. We have (I pray) chosen to trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior. So, once you've established the importance of this idea of fear and bewilderment, move on to an uplifting end to the lesson.

But maybe don't do it in the way the Lifeway lesson suggests ...


The "Longer Ending of Mark"

I'm going to do something I don't do very often -- I'm going to suggest that you not teach a part of this lesson. Most of your Bibles probably have a line / statement like "The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20." We ran into a similar statement when we studied "The Woman Caught in Adultery" from John 8 --

There, I suggested that it was okay to study the passage (even though it was not in the original Bible) because so many Christians know that passage, and we know that Jesus taught similar things elsewhere in the Gospels. I said that this would be an opportunity to teach group members about "textual criticism" and those occasional notes in our Bibles that talk about things like "earliest manuscripts". (Btw, this week is another opportunity to do that!)

The "Longer Ending of Mark" is not that kind of passage. Rather than teach 16:9-14, I suggest that you do a brief aside about why we reject all of 16:9-20. And then after that's done, do a review of Mark's Gospel or the resurrection appearances (see below).

Let's start with the Bible Project video on Mark:

If you skip ahead to the 8:00 mark, you'll see their excellent explanation for Mark's abrupt ending at 16:8 --

[Aside: there are two other proposed "endings" for Mark that you might see notes about. Those have even less support than the "longer ending", and no credible scholar argues on their behalf.]

People throughout history have been "unsatisfied" with Mark 16:8 --

8 They went out and ran from the tomb, because trembling and astonishment overwhelmed them. And they said nothing to anyone, since they were afraid.

It's not very triumphant, to be blunt. The other Gospels have dramatic endings -- Matthew's "Great Commission", Luke's "final blessing", and John's "walk on the beach" -- that bring real closure.

Because Mark 16:8 isn't that kind of ending, the general scholarly consensus is that a scribe in the second century added some more verses to Mark's Gospel to make it more dramatic, hence Mark 16:9-20. And by the late 200s, Mark 16:9-20 appears in most primary manuscripts (although sometimes with "glosses" in the margin mentioning that it is not original). But, that would mean that Mark did not write these verses, and that raises doubt as to whether Jesus actually said some of the things recorded therein. Evidence:

  1. The most ancient Greek sources and authors do not mention these verses. The earliest "church fathers" who mention it wrote in the late second century.

  2. Of the 75 significant words in 16:9-20, 26 of them are used in ways different from the rest of Mark, suggesting a different author wrote it.

  3. The tonal shift is jarring. Verse 9 jumps in with "he", even though verse 8 was entirely about the women. Verse 9 identifies Mary Magdalene, as though she had not been mentioned before. And it's all just weird. Here's the more scholarly way to say that: "The narrative is concise and barren, lacking the vivid and lifelike details so characteristic of Markan historical narrative" (Bratcher and Nida).

  4. The content is out of the blue. Jesus says things that He doesn't say anywhere else in any Gospel. Here's the scholarly summary: "The bizarre promise of immunity from snakes and poisonous drinks is completely out of character with the person of Christ as revealed in the Gospel of Mark, the other Gospels and in the whole of the New Testament. Nowhere did Jesus exempt himself or his followers from the natural laws which govern this life, nor did he ever intimate that such exemptions would be given those who believe in him. That such miracles have in fact occasionally taken place is a matter of record; what is to be doubted is that the Lord should have promised them indiscriminately to all believers as part of the blessings which would have been bestowed upon them" (Bratcher and Nida).

Let's take a broad brush to what I just suggested. It can be very concerning to Christians when they hear something to the effect that something in the Bible isn't actually in the Bible. After all, don't we say (adamantly) that the entire Bible is true and trustworthy? Surely you can understand why this topic can be upsetting!

This is an explanation I have used that has helped some people. You know that the Roman Catholic Bible has more books than the Protestant Bible (called "the Apocrypha"). Protestants don't have a problem with that because we don't believe they are canonical (in the original "canon"). They might be in that published book, but they weren't in the original God-breathed Bible. It's the same thing with Mark 16:9-20. They weren't in the original Gospel of Mark, so we're not removing any verses from the Bible -- they weren't there in the first place. (It's always good to be aware of "how we got the Bible", and there are good resources available, like this article from The Gospel Coalition. The threefold test for canonicity was (1) clearly divine qualities, (2) widespread acceptance among the churches, and (3) association with an authoritative author (like an apostle).)

What to Say about This Section

When you get to Mark 16:9, you can start with the simple and obvious -- You can see in your Bible that the earliest manuscripts of Mark end with verse 8, but we know from our studies of the other Gospels that Jesus appeared to many people after His resurrection. Why would Mark only mention the appearance of the angels to Mary, Mary, and Salome? That's obviously a question that bothered scholars in the early church because they added this longer ending!

Lifeway extended the lesson to verse 14 in order to cover some of the post-resurrection appearances (which we know happened because Matthew and Luke mention them!) and make the application that Christians should continue to share the message of the resurrection with others.

Which we should!

But the other Gospel authors make that their priority. Mark seems to have something different in mind. Mark's bigger question is how you, the reader, will respond to this message. (But more on that below.)

The problem with studying 16:9-14 is it suggests that there is value in the "longer ending of Mark". And there's not.

  • 16:13 directly contradicts Luke 24:34.

  • 16:16 suggests that baptism is necessary for salvation, which the rest of the Bible contradicts.

  • 16:18 suggests that snake-handling and poison-drinking are "normal" signs of the gospel message, even though nothing else in the Bible corroborates that.

If there's anything "correct" in these verses, it's because the author copied that information from one of the other Gospels.

Here's why this matters:

  • There are people who teach that baptism is necessary for salvation.

  • There are people who handle snakes in their worship services.

  • There are people who drink poison in their worship services.

Their primary reasoning for believing those things is Mark 16:9-20 -- because "Jesus said so". But if Jesus didn't actually say these things ...

[I actually talked to a Lifeway curriculum manager about this, and the response was that some of our Baptist class members read Bibles that don't have a note about the longer ending (read: KJV), so they thought it would be less distracting if they just continued a few verses into the longer ending rather than explain the larger issue of textual criticism. I'm sympathetic to that (in my John 8 post, the section on explaining textual criticism was way longer than many church members probably want to read, and it touched on some very thorny issues), but I don't think that brushing it aside is the way to go. (Especially since this longer ending includes a direct contradiction of Luke 24:34 and the idea that you have to be baptized to be saved!) "Distraction" is having someone in your group read ahead to "they will handle snakes and drink poison" and ask you about it. Our job in our Bible studies is to handle the Word of God, and that includes the centuries of how it has been passed down to us and translated. Anyway, that's enough of that! I trust that you will listen to the Lord as to how He wants you to handle this part of the lesson!]


Wrapping Up This Lesson

We know from the other Gospels that Jesus made many post-resurrection appearances. Have your group think about all of the people that Jesus appeared to after His resurrection, and why those appearances mattered.

We are to be challenged to share this message of the risen Lord with everybody!

But from Mark's perspective, it has to start with *you* (the reader). Mark leaves his audience in the same place as the women fleeing the empty tomb -- confused and afraid. In fact, that's where Mark left all of the characters in this drama. The disciples, the followers, the women -- all of them end the Gospel looking weak and failed.

And that's Mark's point. We all read Mark's Gospel as failures, as sinners. Will we believe in the overwhelming grace and power of God in Jesus?

That's a great note to end our study of Mark's Gospel on. Happy Thanksgiving!


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