This text is very controversial, but not for the reasons you might guess, not because of the snake handling and drinking deadly poison. This text is controversial because there is a huge debate whether Mark 16:9-20 is original. Most modern scholars say it’s not. Several of my newer commentaries don’t even comment in these verses, they end with Mark 16:8. It’s a debate in seminaries whether pastors should preach on these verses. If you have an NIV Bible before verse 9 they have inserted a parenthetical statement: [The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20.] The ESV says: [Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9–20.] That’s true in so far as it goes but it leaves a lot out. It’s true two of the earliest major manuscripts don’t have these. But earliest aren’t necessarily always best. The fact is there are also many early manuscripts that have this longer ending to Mark. In fact a majority of Greek manuscripts have this long ending. Furthermore several early church fathers refer to verses in this part of Mark. Add to that the Christian church has recognized these verses as canonical for over eighteen hundred years. Our own Heidelberg Catechism quotes verse 16 in Q and A 26. Some argue that the language of verses 9-20 is too different from the rest of Mark. But so what? If someone else finished Mark that doesn’t mean it’s not canonical. Someone else wrote the end of Deuteronomy that describes the death of Moses, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the Word of God. Many modern scholars say the original ending has been lost. That casts doubt on the authenticity of these verses and calls into question the doctrine of the preservation of the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit. If we say that here what about other parts? There’s value to studying and comparing ancient texts but there’s enough textual evidence to follow the majority of manuscripts, the majority of church fathers and the majority of the church through the ages and to trust the preservation of the Word by the Holy Spirit. I know I am in the minority and I know it’s possible I could be wrong, but I think too much is at stake to cause God’s people to doubt the authority and authenticity of God’s Word and put the judgments of man over the promises of God. So let’s proceed with the conviction that this is the Word of God, breathed out by the Spirit and profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.
We have finally arrived at Mark 16 the end of Mark’s Gospel, but not the end of the Gospel. Heaven forbid that the gospel of Jesus Christ should ever come to an end. In fact the words, “the first day of the week” indicate a beginning, not an ending. On Good Friday Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished.” The work He came to do was finished. On the seventh day Jesus rested. The eighth day is the first day of the new week, the first day of the new creation. And for two thousand years we have been celebrating the resurrection on the first day of the week. We turn this morning to the chapter in Mark that gives the ground of all our hope as Christians. As Paul says in I Corinthians 15, if this is not true then we are most to be pitied. But the first resurrection Sunday didn’t start out anything like today. No organ preludes, no lilies, no people dressed up in their Sunday finest, and no joy or hallelujahs. It started out in fear and unbelief, in doubt and anxiety, in despair and sadness. We know the whole story too well to be able to put ourselves in their sandals, so let’s look more closely at this familiar story but from a different perspective for what God would say to us this morning.
Our text in Hebrews was written sometime in the late first century. The Church has only a few decades old and already people were neglecting her. From the very beginning there have been those who have thought negatively about the church and about the necessity of being a part of a church. Today is no different. There is no lack of those who hold the church in distain, and feel free to criticize or attack her. And unfortunately there are many grounds for criticizing the church today. Scandals abound, money, sex, power, meddling in politics, strive and conflict. But it’s not just the stuff that makes the headlines. There are the petty complaints we all have heard. The church is too old, too irrelevant, too stuck in her ways, or out of touch. The church is too cold, too unfriendly, too cliquish. The pastor is too loud or too boring or too hard to understand. Or the classic, the church is too full of hypocrites. So the conclusion of many is that they don’t need the church, because they have a personal relationship with Jesus. They find God in nature, on the golf course or at the mall. All of this says that we come to the church with a list of expectations or demands; what it needs to measure up to our criteria. This is a byproduct of looking at the church as a human institution, of looking at the church with the eyes of sight and not the eyes of faith. As a human institution the church is filled with sinners and completely stained with sin. But that is not the only perspective or even the best perspective to have of the church. It’s not all about us. The Church of Jesus Christ is built entirely by Jesus Christ and on Jesus Christ. He is the foundation and the corner stone. The Reformers in the time of the Reformation were being accused of tearing down the church and encouraging people to leave the church. Article 28 of the Belgic Confession was written to state just the opposite.
Last year on Palm Sunday I preached from Mark 11, the triumphal entry text. Since then I have preached 21 more sermons from Mark’s Gospel and today we are up to Good Friday. 21 sermons on the last five days of Jesus’ life. Clearly this was the most important week in history and our text records the most important day in history. Jesus was born to die. Jesus came to earth to take on human flesh to be the ransom for our sins, so He could bear the eternal wrath of the Father for the sins of the world. When we last considered Mark 15 Jesus, who had been denied and deserted by His own disciples, was being crucified by the Romans, taunted by the crowds, mocked by the Jewish religious leaders, and reviled by the criminals. Jesus was utterly alone in His torment and pain. Jesus’ suffering began around nine in the morning but at noon there was a dramatic shift. A profound darkness engulfed the land for three hours.