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Mark 16:15-20 Biblical Commentary:
ISSUES ASSOCIATED WITH MARK 16:9-20:
Our text comes from “The Longer Ending” of the Gospel of Mark. A shorter version, “The Shorter Ending,” is as follows: “But all that they had been told they reported briefly to those with Peter. But after these things, even Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation” (Evans).
Scholars tend to agree that Mark concluded his Gospel with verse 8—perhaps unintentionally. He may have intended to add an account of the resurrection and ascension, but wasn’t able to do it—or the original ending could have been lost. Scholars believe that people, identity unknown, added the Longer and Shorter Endings long after the Gospel was written—because those people felt that verse 8, which focuses on the terror and fear of the disciples and fails to mention the resurrection, could not possibly constitute a proper ending for a Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The reasons for believing that verses 9-20 were added later include the following:
1. Verses 9-20 aren’t found in the oldest (and presumably most reliable) manuscripts.
2. They weren’t known to the earliest church fathers.
3. They include a large number of words not found in Mark 1:1—16:8, and are stylistically different as well.
4. They appear to be derivative—based on passages from Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts. Mark was the earliest Gospel, written before any of those four books. If it is true that Mark 16:9-20 reflects knowledge of those books, this Longer Ending would have had to be added long after Mark 1:1—16:8 was written.
I will mention several examples of passages that appear to be derived from the above-mentioned four books (Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts):
1. Mark 16:9 says that Jesus had cast out seven demons from Mary Magdalene, also mentioned in Luke 8:2. See John 20 for an account of Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.
2. Mark 16:12-13 almost certainly refers to Jesus’ appearance to Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus road, a story told in Luke 24:13-35.
3. Mark 16:14 tells of Jesus’ appearance to the eleven, dealt with in more detail at Luke 24:36-48.
4. Mark 16:15 is a brief summary of the Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:19-20.
5. The signs mentioned in Mark 16:17-18, with the exception of drinking deadly substances, appear to be derived from various stories in the book of Acts. Acts 16 tells of Paul exorcising a demon. Acts 2 tells of disciples speaking in new languages. Acts 28:1-6 tells of Paul being bitten by a poisonous serpent with no ill effects. Saul’s eyesight was restored by the laying on of hands in Acts 9:12, 17-18.
The first question, then, is whether verses 9-20 were part of the original text or were added later. If we determine that they were added later, the second question is whether we should regard these verses as authoritative.
Christians have taken various approaches to that second question. Most modern translations of the bible make some attempt to acknowledge the problem. The NRSV, for instance, includes both the Shorter and the Longer Endings, and has a lengthy footnote that explains the problem. I suspect that most Protestants avoid preaching on these verses. However, the Council of Trent (1546) included these verses in the Catholic canon, and the Roman Catholic lectionary for Ascension is based on verses 15-20.
Some commentaries conclude their verse-by-verse treatment with verse 8. Typically, they include a lengthy piece that outlines the questions about the Shorter and Longer Endings, but don’t try to explain the meaning of those verses. Some commentaries—usually conservative in their approach—did treat verses 9-20.
MARK 16:15-18. COMMISSION, BELIEF, AND SIGNS
15He said to them, “Go into all the world, (Greek: kosmos) and preach (Greek: keryxate— from kerysso) the Good News (Greek: euangelion) to the whole creation (Greek: ktisis). 16He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who disbelieves will be condemned.17These signs (Greek: semeia) will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new languages; 18they will take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it will in no way hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
“He said to them” (v. 15a). Because of the context, we know that Jesus is the one speaking. However, we haven’t heard his name since verse 6 (in the portion of this chapter that is undisputedly Markan)—and we won’t hear it again until verse 19.
“Go into all the world, (Greek: kosmos—world, nations) and preach the Good News to the whole creation” (v. 15b). This appears to be a brief summary of the Great Commission, which is found in Matthew 28 as follows:
“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.
Go, and make disciples of all nations, (Greek: ethne—Gentiles, nations)
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you.
Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
While Matthew’s Gospel uses the word kosmos while Mark’s Longer Ending uses the word ethne, both amount to the same thing—ministry beyond Israel—a mission to Gentiles, people whom Jews considered to be unworthy of God’s attention.
“and preach (Greek: kerusso) the Good News (Greek: euangelion) to the whole creation” (v. 15c). The Greek verb kerysso is related to the noun kerygma, which is the word that we associate with the content of the preaching of the early church. The kerygma focused on the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as the implications for our lives, to include an emphasis on repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
The Greek noun euangelion is a compound word based on eu (good) and angello (preach or proclaim). It is usually translated gospel or good news. In the New Testament, euangelion is used to speak of the good news of Jesus Christ and the salvation that he offers. Euangelion is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word basser, which was used in the Hebrew Scriptures to tell of the salvation that Yahweh offered his people.
The emphasis here, then, is that Jesus’ disciples (to include us) have a responsibility to proclaim the good news of the salvation provided by Christ Jesus. That good news is the offer of forgiveness of sins and the offer of eternal life.
Sometimes the church has been guilty of harsh, judgmental preaching that bears little resemblance to the Good News of the New Testament. When I am traveling, I usually stop to worship at any convenient church, regardless of denomination. On one occasion, I attended the worship service at a church in a small Pennsylvania town. I was surprised when the preacher, instead of preaching Good News, used his sermon to rebuke the congregation for not supporting the Wednesday evening service. There was no Biblical content and no Good News to his “sermon” whatsoever. It was simply a thirty minute rant. When I got home, I decided to call the preacher to explain my concern. My wife, when she heard the name of the denomination said, “Forget it! Those people are all masochists.” I called the preacher anyway. When I told him that his “sermon” failed to have any Biblical content and constituted a harangue, he replied, “That’s what my people expect.” Score one for my wife.
“to the whole creation” (Greek: ktisis) (v. 15d). This is an interesting phrase. It sounds as if we are to proclaim good news, not just to humans, but to the whole created order. While there is no biblical justification for preaching the eternal salvation of dogs and cats, there is an element of Good News for “the whole creation.” While Yahweh gave humans dominion over fish, birds, livestock, creeping things, and “all the earth” (Genesis 1:26), it was not for the purpose of exploitation but of husbandry. Yahweh intended humans to treat animals and “all the earth” with the kind of concern that a shepherd would have for his flock.
“He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who disbelieves will be condemned” (v. 16). Matthew’s version of the Great Commission includes a requirement to baptize people “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19)—and Christians have long-since practiced baptism as an essential ritual. However, the emphasis in this verse seems to be on belief versus unbelief rather than baptism. As such, it serves as a corrective to the disciples, who refused to believe the testimony of Mary Magdalene (v. 11) and of Cleopas and his companion (v. 13) who testified that they had seen the risen Christ.
However, as suggested in the first half of this verse, baptism is an important act of obedience once a person has come to believe in Christ Jesus. Baptism follows belief.
“These signs (semeia) will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new languages” (v. 17). In the Old Testament, signs and wonders served primarily to testify to God’s power. In the New Testament, signs are also used to validate the ministry of Christ’s disciples. That is how the word signs is used in this verse.
The Greek word semeia is one of the several words found in verses 9-20 that is not found in the rest of Mark’s Gospel. It is an especially important word in the Gospel of John, and is used frequently there.
As noted above, the signs mentioned in Mark 16:17-18 (with the exception of drinking deadly substances) seem to be derived from stories in the book of Acts. Acts 16 tells of Paul exorcising a demon. Acts 2 tells of disciples speaking in new languages. Acts 28:1-6 tells of Paul being bitten by a poisonous serpent with no ill effects. Saul’s eyesight was restored by the laying on of hands in Acts 9:12, 17-18.
“they will take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it will in no way hurt them” (v. 18a). This verse has caused problems for people who engage in handling deadly snakes as part of their religious practice, sometimes with fatal results. Anyone tempted to do that should keep in mind that verses 9-20 are of questionable canonicity. Also, they should keep in mind that there are no supporting passages in the New Testament that advocate this kind of practice. Acts 28:3 does tell of the Apostle Paul being bitten by a viper with no harmful results, but he was not purposely handling that viper. Instead, he was gathering firewood when the viper bit him.
“they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (v. 18b). Healing the sick was an important part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus’ disciples are to be concerned, not just with the condition of the spirit or soul, but also with the person’s physical being. This is derived, in part, from the kind of compassion that arises naturally if we have agape love for the other person. Our love will not allow us to sit still and watch another person suffer, if we have the means to help. This concern is also derived from the Jewish understanding of the person as a whole person—body and soul.
MARK 16:19-20. THE ASCENSION
19So then the Lord, after he had spoken to them, was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. 20They went out, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word by the signs that followed. Amen.
“So then the Lord, after he had spoken to them, was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (v. 19). This words, “was received up” or “was taken up” emphasize the work of the Father. What happens in this verse is at the Father’s initiative. It is the Father who receives the risen Christ into heaven. It is the Father who makes it possible for the risen Christ to take his seat alongside the Father. This signals the successful completion of Jesus’ work on earth. Jesus has done what the Father sent him to do, and now it is time for him to resume his place in the heavenly realm.
The enthronement of the Messiah was foreseen by the Psalmist, who wrote:
“Yahweh says to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool for your feet” (Psalm 110:1)
The Apostle Paul captured the full scope of Christ’s work—from Jesus’ Incarnation to his exaltation—in this lovely passage from his letter to the Philippians:
“Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus,
who, existing in the form of God,
didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,
being made in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him,
and gave to him the name which is above every name;
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth,
and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
“They went out, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them” (v. 20a). This is a brief summary of the work of the disciples following Jesus’ ascension. It is a one-sentence account of the work recounted in detail in the book of Acts.
“and confirming the word by the signs that followed. Amen” (v. 20b). The signs (casting out demons, speaking in new languages, etc.) confirmed the authenticity of the disciples’ ministry. The signs were secondary to the proclamation of the kerygma—the proclamation of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and a call to repentance to receive the forgiveness of sins.
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: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1991)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Mark, Vol. 2 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
Culpepper, R. Alan, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Mark (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Evans, Craig A., Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27—16:20 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001)
France, Dick, Daily Bible Commentary: Mark (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1996).
Timothy J. Geddert, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Mark (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001)
Hendriksen, William, Baker New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2002)
Lane, William L., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, William B. Ferdmans, 1974)
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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan