Why We're Not Preaching Mark 16:9-20
By Elder Josh Pool
What a time we’ve had in Mark’s Gospel. Stories of Jesus, stories of the kingdom, teaching and miracles, preaching with power. As David said from day one: this is a story about Jesus. It’s all about Jesus.
For those of you who’ve been with us through Mark’s story, it’s strange to think that we’re approaching its end. Easter Sunday, the day we preach ‘Jesus is alive’ is also the day we conclude the Gospel.
Please do me a (possibly inconvenient) favor: turn to the end of Mark real quick. I want you to see this. Turn to Mark 16:8.
When Easter Sunday comes, you’ll notice something strange. We’re not going to preach the last twelve verses of the book. Redeemer 30A will end our series in Mark in chapter 16 verse 8, not verse 20.
Maybe some of you are thinking, "What’s the big deal? We’ve skipped several passages in Mark already, what makes this any different?"
And fair enough—that’s true; but, think for a moment: isn’t it odd to close a scintillating read before its end? Does it make sense to be watching the best of suspense thrillers only to turn it off for the last ten minutes? Our hearts are racing and yet we leave off the "best part"?!
So, let’s ask the question again, how could we possibly choose to leave off the last passage of Mark’s Gospel? My Bible has it, doesn’t yours? Why skip?
Well, as your pastor—and with you in mind—I’m willing to say that there are legitimate reasons to believe that the Gospel ended in verse 8, not verse 20. I’ll even say that it was intended to end in verse 8. That is, as far as we can tell, the suspense thriller ended in Mark 16:8—the scintillating read finished earlier than we might expect.
Now, if you’re a careful reader and lover of God’s Word, I may have just offended you. But stay with me for a moment. Look back at your Bible—do you see these words (maybe in your footnotes) right after Mark 16:8, “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20”? Though it is very subtle and often skipped, those few words initiate a crucial conversation for us—a conversation about something called “textual criticism,” or TC.
For those not familiar, TC is the process by which we try to find the original words of a Bible passage, of finding the earliest and most accurate origin of a given passage.
In truly studying the Gospel of Mark, we have to admit that if God is someone we should trust, and His Word is something we should trust—that God truly revealed himself to us through His Word, then as Christians we must be willing to carefully engage with this Word. And that means not only weighing its content, but its composition as well.
How did the Bible become what it is? Can we truly trust that what we're reading was actually written by the alleged author? Can we know, without doubt, that Jesus did and said exactly what's been recorded?
Thousands really smart women and men of God—scholars in their own right—have dedicated their careers to textual criticism In order to answer these questions carefully and honestly. They have given decades of their lives to determine whether the Bible we cling to is in fact all that Christianity purports it to be.
The great news is that the answer is always "YES!"
These scholars have come to the very good conclusion that the Bible we read today is extremely trustworthy. Time and again, research has and continues to demonstrate that the Bible you possess is reliable—what you read is an accurate translation of what was written throughout the ages.
Moses’ stories in Genesis are really his stories. David’s poems in the Psalms are really his poems. Ezekiel’s prophecies in his self-titled book are really his prophecies. And perhaps the climax of it all: Jesus’ words in the Gospels really belong to Him. It’s a wonderful thing!
However, there is a “but” statement that has to be made—you knew it was coming.
And here it is: in the relentless pursuit to verify the Bible’s trustworthiness, scholars have identified some “outliers.” Over the centuries, they've pinpointed (a very few) passages that don’t seem to belong. That is, TC has revealed that some parts of scripture—including a passage in the text we’re studying—aren't original to the Bible.
TC has brought the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20 in the Bible into question.
As scholars have poured-out countless hours debating whether or not verses 9-20 should be included in the Gospel of Mark (believe me when I say that entire books have been written on the subject), a majority has emerged believing Mark 16 should, in fact, end at the conclusion of verse 8.
The two most agreed-upon reasons for removing verses 9-20 from Mark 16 are:
- The two oldest manuscripts/copies of Mark, like dirt old, don’t have verses 9-20. Though many do, these two really important documents don’t. That’s why your Bible says, “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.” They’re talking about these two manuscripts. All of this is traditionally called “external evidence.” The external evidence supports a shorter ending in verse 8.
- And this is even more important: The language—the words used, the phrases, the vocabulary, the grammatical tendencies, the completely strange explanations—don’t fit Mark’s style. The Gospel of Mark is the only book we have that Mark wrote, but when we look at the whole thing in terms of how he writes, there is a noticeable change in verse 9 and on. When you study the verbs and the linguistic features that Mark typically uses, they’re nowhere to be found in these last twelve verses. It’s almost as if another writer suddenly took over the story at the end. And I think that’s what happened. Someone, a scribe to be exact, was reading through Mark’s Gospel and noticed that it ended in 16:8. But it confused him. This scribe didn't understand why Mark would choose to end the Gospel this way. Why would you end the best news in human history—Jesus’ resurrection—with such an awful reaction: terrified women keeping their mouths shut? That’s not the “correct way” to end the best story in history, is it? Think about Matthew’s ending: the famous Great Commission. Luke ends with a powerfully resurrected Jesus instructing his disciples before ascending to heaven. John ends with Jesus’ wonderful restoration of Peter, the coward who denied Jesus just days before, to his work in ministry. Wonderful endings. Powerful conclusions.
And then there’s Mark 16:8. If we’re right about the ending, here is this very unbecoming finale: Jesus is alive, an angel appears, and the women at the empty tomb basically freak out and run in fear. Perhaps the earliest of scribes were asking the question, 'How could you possibly end like this?’
And so taking cues from other stories in Scripture, an alternate ending of Mark was written and attached to the Gospel. And it caught on; it became a regular and accepted ending to Mark.
Woah. So that’s a massive bite to digest. So is the Bible reliable? Can we trust it? You better believe we can. And our English scholars and translators are kind enough to show us that there are some interesting things that have happened over the past two thousands years.
But, it shouldn’t unsettle us too much: we worship a God of order, a God worth the very fiber of our heart and trust.
Here we are today. And I’m willing to defend that Mark, an author often misunderstood and skipped, knew exactly what he was doing. He ended in 16:8 for a reason, for a very real reason. And the question for us really becomes: ‘Mark, what are you up to?’ Let’s trust the scholars just for a moment and say that Mark should end in verse 8. We should then ask, ‘Why? What point might Mark be trying to make?’
And, God willing, we’ll discover that answer together on Resurrection Sunday, March 27. We’ll open Mark’s Gospel together and finish a wonderful story with a unique ending. But let’s approach it with fervor and curiosity. Let’s hear God’s Word, expecting him to reveal himself in glory.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. See you Sunday!
Elder Josh Pool