Mark’s gospel is powerfully written. It’s the shortest gospel, wasting neither time nor words. It was also the first gospel written. For the original readers of Mark, this was not one of four gospels; it was the only gospel. As you read, forget Matthew, Luke and John, and consider only Mark’s gospel – the way the earliest Christians would have. The message by the angel to the women in Mark 16:6-8 was: “‘Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go and tell His disciples – and Peter – that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.’ And they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” These last three verses typify the whole book. Most likely, in all of our Bibles, Mark 16 concludes with verse 20. But it is probable that verses 9-20 were added by an early scribe to relate what happened from the Resurrection to the Ascension. The two most ancient and most reliable manuscripts end Mark’s gospel with verse 8, and virtually every study Bible makes note of this.
So why did Mark stop with verse 8? Why didn’t he tell us about the Ascension, for instance. If Jesus had not ascended into heaven, then how can there be a promise of a second coming? We know the tomb is empty, and He is not there. But where is He and what is He doing? What is Mark saying?
The Kingdom Of God
The kingdom of God is a major theme in Mark. The first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk. 1:15 NKJV). The next thing we read is that He taught with authority; He commanded and people obeyed; He even commanded spirits and cured diseases. And all this is in the first chapter. Mark wastes no time! Jesus didn’t just preach the Kingdom; He actually brought it into the world of today!
In Mark 4, Jesus told two kingdom parables. The first is of spiritual growth: “The kingdom of God is as if a man scatters seed on the ground, and sleeps by night and rises by day, and the seed sprouts and grows, and he himself does not know how” (Mk. 4:26-27). The second is of the mustard seed: “The kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed which, when sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is grown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest in its shade” (Mk. 4:30-32).
Can we see what the kingdom is like in these two parables? It is something God does that we can’t even understand – it happens as we sleep. It starts so small that we can barely see it, but it grows to be majestic. And it grows irresistibly. It does not start, then stop for a time, and then suddenly explode into full flower. It’s a steady, continuous growth, all by God while we sleep and fail to understand what He is doing.
So what is Mark saying in the last three verses of his gospel as he wrote it, in light of what he has already told us about the kingdom?
Jesus, Alive, Working, And Going Ahead
“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus who was crucified. He is risen!”(Mk. 16:6). Yes, Jesus was crucified. But while the disciples were still grieving, He rose from the dead. Like the farmer asleep while the wheat sprouts, the disciples were asleep while the kingdom was growing. Jesus is not dead – He is alive and working. While the disciples were sitting around wondering what to do with their lives, Jesus had already gone back to work. He was already ahead of them, just as He was all through His ministry before His crucifixion.
“He is going before you into Galilee” (16:7). Notice where He was and what He was doing; He had gone ahead into Galilee. We might have heard stories about the hypocrites in Jerusalem, in contrast to the pure, simple folk of Galilee. Well, such stories would have made the Jews of Jesus’ day laugh in our faces.
Why? Because the rabbis had a scale of holiness – and Galilee wasn’t on it. This scale (Mishnah Kelim) had ten grades, beginning with: “The land of Israel is holier than any other land. The walled cities are still more holy. Within the walls of Jerusalem is still more holy …” and so on for ten steps, up to the sanctuary of the temple. Then came the Holy of Holies, which was off the scale. But this wasn’t just the rabbis’ scale. The Sadducees had a similar scale, centered on the temple. Even the Essenes of Qumran (monastic Jewish scholars), who taught that the temple was in the hands of wicked priests, acknowledged this Jerusalem-centered scale of holiness. They just wanted to replace the wicked priests with their own kind!
So everyone knew that Jerusalem was the holiest place on earth – it was the heart of worship of the Lord. Jerusalem was where God had placed His temple, where He would accept sacrifice and worship, and where His name would be honored. Popular tradition held that at the end-times, Messiah would proclaim the kingdom from the roof of this temple. Jerusalem would be raised higher than every other hill, and all nations would come there to worship. Jerusalem was the heart of the Jewish State, before the Roman General Pompey captured it. And even in Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was almost entirely Jewish, its streets filled with the most learned rabbis and their pupils.
Galilee, on the other hand, was anything but holy. The gospels give us the impression that Galilee was a pure, idyllic countryside. We get this impression because Jesus never went into a city in Galilee. He only visited the villages, because all the cities in Galilee were Gentile, and pagan. Some of the Jews of Galilee were share-croppers, who were charged crushing rents in good years, and starved in bad. But most were impoverished farm laborers, treated like slaves, but without the security that slavery offered. To get the picture, read the parables about the day-laborers, and the murderous tenants in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16; Mk. 12:1-12). Very few of the Galilean Jews were tradesmen like Jesus, or independent scroungers like the fishermen James and John. Very few were educated enough to know the Law in any detail, much less have the time or resources to observe it. To any Jew who cared about the covenant, Galileans were the bottom of the barrel, both socially because they were destitute, and religiously because they could not observe the Law. Yet Jesus and 11 of his 12 disciples were Galileans. Judas Iscariot was the only Judean!
Jesus was from “Nazareth in Galilee,” outside the mainstream of Jewish life, 110 km (70 mi.) north of Jerusalem (Mt. 21:11). It was not just a wisecrack when Nathaniel said, “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). He was stating the obvious. In this setting, the message in the tomb was shocking: “He is going before you into Galilee” (16:7). The Messiah had turned His back on Jerusalem, the place of holiness, and had gone to the place Isaiah called “Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who walk in great darkness” (Is. 9:1-2).
But more importantly, this statement about Jesus going to Galilee hung in the air as a challenge. He had left the security of the holy places, and was going where the no-hopers and sinners lived. The question for His disciples then, and for us today is this: “Will we follow Him or not?”
Seeing Jesus Working
“There you will see Him, as He said to you” (16:7). Many of us know people who have served as missionaries. One thing that strikes me is how clearly we can see Jesus work in the most unlikely people and places. If we are willing to leave our comfort zone of so-called godly people and places, and take the Good News of Jesus to the places and people who are ungodly, it’s amazing – we will see Jesus working!
We find that He has indeed gone before us, and is extending the kingdom into places we might never have expected. When we do this work, we get the sense that Jesus has just been through here, and we can almost see His footprints still fresh, not the trampled ones of safe, comfortable Jerusalem.
Jesus Loves His Disciples
“Go and tell His disciples – and Peter” (16:7). Throughout Jesus’ ministry, the disciples were failures. At best, they simply didn’t understand. At worst, they were afraid. Mark reports that Jesus repeatedly said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” And He gave other rebukes. The disciples were afraid in the boat on the sea of Galilee – twice! Once you could understand, but why didn’t they have courage the second time? And when Jesus was arrested, they fled. Before the crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples failed Him. Now after He had risen, nothing changed. The women, like the men, were paralyzed with fear and did nothing.
Peter is mentioned by name in this passage. Remember, he had pledged never to deny Jesus – and then denied Him three times before sun up. They had all failed Jesus, but none would have felt more guilt than Peter. So it was made clear to them, and especially Peter, that they had not been cast off. They were still His friends, whom He loved. The women were to assure them of this.
This still happens today. Followers of Jesus still fail Him. They still feel inadequate. They still need to be reassured of Jesus’ love for them. This first message included a command to one group of His disciples to assure another group of His love. We know from the other gospels that Jesus repeated this assurance in person later; but those gospels were not yet written. What Mark wants us to notice is that we, as disciples, need to remind each other of this immediately when one of our brothers or sisters is troubled. Certainly Jesus, through the Spirit, will do it. But so must we.
Failure Is Not Final
“So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8).
The first reactions of the women were fear and silence. Just like the men who failed Jesus before the crucifixion, the women failed Him here. And they didn’t just fail the risen Christ, they also failed their fellow-disciples whom they were instructed to encourage.
Just like us! We fail Jesus repeatedly. And when we fail Him, we also fail to encourage each other. With timid and silent disciples like them, and us, what hope is there? But the reader of Mark’s gospel then (and the reader today), because he had the book in front of him, would have known that these failures would not stop kingdom growth. Despite the inadequacy of Christians, Christ’s kingdom was then and is now growing anyway. Heaven only knows how! Just like the grain in the field. And part of that growth is in us – the failures.
God’s kingdom is being established and built; but the work is being done by Jesus. The disciples mess up the simplest of tasks. Kingdom work is entirely God’s. The most we can do is follow. We will never go anywhere for the kingdom, except that Jesus has been there before us. We can never do anything for the kingdom, except that Jesus has done the work ahead of us. Like the grain that grows in the field, without the farmer understanding how, in the same way God makes His kingdom grow. The best we can do is labor in the harvest, and rejoice in what the Lord is doing (Jn. 4:35-38).
But we shouldn’t feel down-heartened. We shouldn’t feel that there’s no point in trying. Instead, Mark’s message, at his end of this gospel, should ease our anxiety. It should assure us that whatever we attempt for the Lord will bring Him glory. It will surely bring praise to His name because He has already gone before us; He has already worked to fulfill His purposes in what we do. Whatever we do, we should do it with joy and assurance, because everything we do led by the Spirit will succeed. It might not succeed in the way we intended; but it will succeed in the way Jesus intended, and that is much better than anything we can ever imagine.
Let’s take heart! Jesus lives, and has gone before us to establish His kingdom in the last places we might expect, even places we would have thought were hopeless. Let’s muster the courage to follow Him there. Let’s go to places that respectable religious people shun – not just geographical places, but personal, social, intellectual and philosophical places as well.
Let’s go to every place and person we think of as unrighteous in society – our own little Galilee of the mind. Let’s go and see what He’s doing there. Ask questions that respectable people would not ask, and see what the Spirit is doing. And encourage other disciples to follow Jesus, especially those who are guilt-ridden because they feel they’ve failed their Lord. And when we see what the living Jesus is doing, we will say, “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!” (Mk. 12:11).
By Bob Springett
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org