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Mark 16:1-8 Biblical Commentary:
Each of the other three Gospels (Matthew, Luke, and John) includes stories of resurrection appearances by Jesus, but Mark’s Gospel in its original form does not (see the discussion on vv. 8b-20 below). That means that the preacher must be careful not to use just any old Easter sermon with this Mark text.
In Mark’s Gospel, the young man (angel) tells the women that the disciples will see the resurrected Jesus in Galilee (v. 7)—and Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene (v. 9)—but Mark tells nothing more of that encounter and gives no indication that the other women saw Jesus. It is only when Jesus appears to the eleven that we see the risen Christ (vv. 14-18). During that encounter, Jesus gives the disciples their marching orders. Then he ascends into heaven, where he takes his place at the right hand of God (v. 19).
Given the choice between preaching on John 20 or Mark 16 this Easter, most preachers will choose John 20. However, it is possible to preach an Easter sermon on the Mark text that would be a change of pace from the usual Easter sermon. The sermon could retell the Easter story from verses 1-6, and end by focusing on verses 7-8a, where the angel calls the women to tell the disciples and Peter that they will see Jesus in Galilee, but the women say “nothing to no one” (v. 8a)—the double negative emphasizing the women’s total failure to convey the Good News to the disciples.
In this Gospel, then, the women turn out to have clay feet, just as do the men. One emphasis, then, is that we all come to the resurrected Christ needing forgiveness. Verses 7-8a also invite the possibility of preaching about the need for us to proclaim the Good News of the resurrected Christ, and the danger that we will fail to do that for the same reason that the women failed—fear.
MARK 16:1-2. VERY EARLY ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE WEEK
1When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, that they might come and anoint him. 2Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.
“When the sabbath was past” (v. 1a). The sabbath ends at sundown on our Saturday evening. As we will see in v. 2, the women do not go to the tomb right away after the sabbath ends, but instead purchase spices to prepare for visit to the tomb at the following dawn (our Sunday morning). The delay is so that they can make their journey and do their work in the light of the early morning instead of the darkness of the early evening.
“Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices” (v. 1b). Mark told us that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion (15:40). Then he told us that Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of Joses witnessed Jesus’ burial (15:47). Now he tells us that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices.
These women, then, serve as witnesses to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus—in contrast to the male disciples, who fled when Jesus was arrested (14:50-51)—and in contrast to Peter, who denied Jesus three times (14:66-72). Having women serve as witnesses is unusual, because Jewish law does not accept women as witnesses in legal proceedings. Later critics of the church pointed to women witnesses as a reason not to believe the accuracy of this account. However, if the church had been fabricating this story, we can be sure that it wouldn’t have used women as witnesses. Women witnesses, therefore, constitute evidence that this story is true.
“that they might come and anoint him” (v. 1c). Unlike Egyptians, who embalm to preserve the body, Jews anoint with perfume to honor the deceased and to mask the odor of decomposition. Embalming usually takes place soon after death, because decomposition begins soon after death. In Jesus’ case, however, the sabbath prevented the woman from visiting the tomb until a day and a half passed (from the beginning of the sabbath at sundown on our Friday night to sunrise on our Sunday morning). After that length of time, the smell of decomposition would be very unpleasant, so the willingness of these women to proceed with the anointing is a sign of great devotion. We should not forget, however, that the anointing of Jesus’ body for burial took place earlier when a woman anointed him with expensive ointment at Simon’s house in Bethany (Matthew 26:12; Mark 14:8; John 12:7). Also, the Gospel of John records Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus anointing Jesus’ body at the time of burial (John 19:38-40).
“Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen” (v. 2). Some scholars say that “very early” means the hours prior to dawn, and conclude that “very early” is inconsistent with Mark’s next phrase, “when the sun had risen.” (Brooks, 269; Hooker, 384). However, other scholars say that “very early” can mean 3:00 to 6:00 a.m. (Lane 585). The one thing we can say with certainty is that “very early” is imprecise, and we should avoid acting as if we know exactly what it means.
MARK 16:3-4. THEY SAW THAT THE STONE WAS ROLLED BACK
3They were saying among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?”4for it was very big. Looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back.
“Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us? For it was very big” (vv. 3-4a). Mark notes that the stone is “very big.” Such a stone would weigh hundreds of pounds and, once set in place, would be difficult to move. It would seem that women who were organized enough to buy spices immediately after the sabbath ended would also enlist men to move the stone—but these women are in the throes of grief. The amazing thing isn’t that they forgot the stone until now, but that they are functioning at such a high level. Besides that, the male disciples have all fled. Who could the women have gotten to help them?
“Looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back” (v. 4b). There is no mention of a guard here, as in Matthew 27:62-66. We are not told who rolled the stone away, but “was rolled back” is the passive mood. Constructions of this sort are often called “divine passive,” meaning that they denote God’s activity. That is certainly the case here. Matthew tells us that an angel “rolled away the stone” (Matthew 28:2)—acting as God’s agent.
It is possible that square stones for blocking the entrance to tombs were more common than circular stones due to the expense of circular stones (Evans, 535). In this case, however, a circular stone is implied by the words “rolled back”—and a circular stone is in keeping with the fact that this is the personal tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:60), a rich man (Matthew 27:57).
MARK 16:5-7. HE HAS RISEN
5Entering into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were amazed. 6He said to them, “Don’t be amazed. You seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen. He is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him! 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him, as he said to you.'”
“Entering into the tomb” (v. 5a). As noted above, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus anointed and buried Jesus in Joseph’s tomb (John 19:38-40; cf. Matthew 27:57-60). Joseph is rich (Matthew 27:57) and can afford a good burial tomb. Because burials are usually accomplished on the day of death, well-to-do families often own a tomb that can be used as needed (but Matthew tells us that this tomb has never been used). The more elaborate tombs would have a small entry chamber with a passageway into a burial chamber that would have one or more niches or platforms to support bodies. After decomposition has done its work, the remains would be moved to an ossuary (a container for bones) to permit the burial chamber to be reused (Gower, 72-74).
“they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe” (v. 5b). In Matthew’s version, the young man is an angel dressed in clothing as white as snow (Matthew 28:2-3). Mark tells us only that the man is dressed in a white robe.
In the New Testament, white represents several things—all positive. It is associated with:
• Glory, as in Jesus’ dazzling white robe at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:29)—and the white hair and white wool of the one like the Son of Man (Revelation 1:14)—and the white throne (Revelation 20:11).
• Resurrection, as in this angel’s white robe (Matthew 28:3).
• Salvation, as in the white stone given to “everyone who conquers” (Revelation 2:17).
• Purity (see Revelation 3:5; 7:9). In Revelation 7:14, the robes have been made white by being washed in the blood of the Lamb.
“and they were amazed” (v. 5c). Consider their emotional state. They are caught up in terrible grief. It is very early in the morning. They have gone to the tomb expecting to encounter nobody but find themselves in the presence of a heavenly being. It is no wonder that they are afraid. Fear is a common response to the divine presence (4:41; 5:15, 33; 6:50; 9:6; 10:32).
They are also afraid because they came to the tomb knowing that death always has the final word. But the tomb that should be closed is open. The body that should be present is missing. A young man dressed in heavenly white robes is sitting where the body should be lying. Next they will learn that Jesus’ death was not the end. The absolute truths that they have trusted all their lives have turned out not to be absolute, shaking the foundations of their worldview. No wonder they are afraid.
“Don’t be amazed. You seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen. He is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him!” (v. 6). The phrase “has been raised” is a divine passive verb—meaning that God took the active role and raised Jesus from the dead.
Jesus’ resurrection represented more than Jesus’ return to life. He is more than another Lazarus, coming out of the tomb to enjoy a few more years of life (John 11). Jesus’ resurrection represents the death’s defeat. After Jesus’ resurrection, death will no longer reign supreme over all of life, because he was “the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20)—the first of many who would be restored to life after death. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
“But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him, as he said to you” (v. 7). The disciples fled when Jesus was arrested (14:50-51) and Peter denied Jesus three times (14:66-72). This charge to the women, then, is a grace note. Jesus has forgiven these men and will maintain his special relationship with them in spite of their failure in the hour of crisis.
Earlier, Jesus promised, “However, after I am raised up, I will go before you into Galilee”(14:28). The young man’s words to the women are the beginning of the fulfillment of that promise.
“There you will see him” (v. 7c). “The apostolic faith in the resurrection will rest on eyewitness, firsthand experience, not hearsay (i.e., the report of the women)” (Evans, 538).
“there you will see him” (v. 7c). This is wonderful news, of course, but disquieting too. The old maxim says that there are only two certainties—death and taxes. If Jesus has managed to cheat death, what other certainties become uncertain. Perhaps they will find that it is the poor are blessed of God instead of the rich (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20). Perhaps they will learn that those who mourn will be comforted rather than regarded as pitiful (Matthew 5:4). Perhaps they will learn that the meek rather than the aggressive will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).
MARK 16:8a. THEY WENT OUT, AND FLED FROM THE TOMB
8They went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone (oudeni ouden—”nothing to no one”); for they were afraid.
The young man’s counsel not to be alarmed (v. 6) has little effect. These women are afraid, so they say “nothing to no one”—a double negative for emphasis. This differs from Matthew’s account, where they “ran to bring his disciples word” (Matthew 28:8)—and Luke’s account, where they “told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest” (Luke 24:9)—and John’s account, where Mary Magdalene found the open tomb and “ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 20:2).
All the Gospels portray the male disciples as unfaithful once Jesus is arrested. Mark’s Gospel now portrays the women as unfaithful as well. That fits well with our understanding that nobody comes to Christ with clean hands. We all need forgiveness—even these women who have heretofore been so faithful.
It can be helpful to recognize that these women, whom we tend to put on a pedestal, have clay feet.
MARK 16:8b-20. TWO ALTERNATIVE ENDINGS FOR THE GOSPEL OF MARK
Most scholars agree that verse 8a is the original end of Mark’s Gospel. Two alternative endings have been added, the shorter one saying only, “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation” (This has no verse number but follows verse 8).
The longer ending is found in verses 9-20, and tells of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene (vv. 9-10) and two disciples (vv. 12-13). It then tells about Jesus’ appearance to and commissioning of the eleven (vv. 14-18) and his ascension (vv. 19-20).
However, most scholars agree that both of these endings were added later in an attempt to round out the story.
Scholars have speculated about reasons why Mark might have concluded this work with verse 8a. One possibility is that the original ending was lost. A second is that Mark died or was otherwise prevented from finishing his work. A third is that he deliberately ended his work with verse 8a, knowing that his readers would already know about the resurrection and wanting to close with an emphasis on the human dimension of discipleship—terror, amazement, fear, unfaithfulness—counterpoised against Christ’s call to proclaim the Good News.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brooks, James A, The New American Commentary: Mark (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991)
Campbell, Charles L., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Donahue, John R. and Harrington, Daniel J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002)
Edwards, James R., The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002)
Evans, Craig A., Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27—16:20 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Hare, Douglas R. A., Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991)
Lane, William L., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974)
Williamson, Lamar Jr., Interpretation: Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983)
Witherington, Ben III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan