Though the present text is not original to the Gospel of Mark, it is ancient and became part of Mark’s Gospel at an early point. In fact, Mark 16:9-20 appears to be a composite of stories from the other gospels (appearance to Mary, two disciples traveling, appearance to the Eleven, the ascension of Jesus) and the book of Acts (speaking in tongues, snake bites), and the emphasis on “signs” is unlike anything else in the Gospel of Mark. Mark 16:9-20 appears dependent upon other texts in the Bible while the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are dependent upon the Gospel of Mark (Mark 1:1-16:8).
Nevertheless, whoever our ancient writer is, this proposed ending to the Gospel of Mark has some significant features that supply a conclusion to the story of Jesus, if not necessarily the Gospel of Mark per se.
The ending provides three resurrection appearances of the risen Lord while the first half of Mark 16 only describes the empty tomb and the “young man’s” announcement.
- Mary Magdalene saw the risen Messiah and reported it to the disciples.
- Two unidentified disciples saw the Lord “in a another form” when they were walking in the country.
- The Eleven see Jesus when he appears to them while they are reclining at a table.
Following the lead of the other Gospels, Mark 16:9-20 highlights that it was not the Eleven who first believed and announced the good news of the resurrection. Rather, it was a woman, Mary, who first proclaimed that news. The second witnesses are not part of the Eleven either. Out of the gate, the story of the resurrection is entrusted to others than the Eleven.
What connects these appearance stories, however, is that the disciples resist faith. The disciples, the Eleven in particular, are “hard-hearted” (16:14). They do neither believe Mary’s testimony nor the testimony of two on the road. The text explicitly notes, “they would not believe it” (16:11; also 16:13).
This ending, then, picks up on the theme within the Gospel of Mark of how “dull” or “dense” the disciples were in coming to believe. While they wept and mourned the loss of Jesus, they would not believe that Jesus was alive. This is true even though Jesus himself predicted his own resurrection.
The disciples represent the struggle to believe, even in the post-resurrection world. Often we are like them; it is often difficult to believe. The good news is too good to be true.
The ending also has another version of the “Great Commission.” Both Matthew and Luke have their versions, but Mark 16:15-18 is different. There are similarities, but the emphasis here is connects with the thematic note of Mark 1:14-15. Just as Jesus came out of the wilderness “heralding the gospel,” so the disciples are to embrace the same mission.
No longer limited to Palestine, Jesus commands the disciples to move out into the whole world and herald the gospel to every creature (or, to the whole creation). Disciples have a global mission—every part of God’s creation needs to hear the gospel. Just as Jesus heralded the gospel among the villages of Galilee, so the disciples must spread out into the whole world to do the same thing. The disciples continue the ministry of Jesus.
The good news is that the kingdom has come! The response to the gospel is to believe and be baptized. “Believe the good news,” was Jesus’s call in Mark 1:15, and this belief was no mere intellectual assent. Rather, faith entailed discipleship; it committed one to the way of the cross. Baptism owns that commitment to the cross. We follow Jesus into the water, and we follow him as heralds of the kingdom of God.
The final note of Mark 16:9-20 announces the enthronement of the King at the right hand of God. The risen Messiah ascends to the throne, sits at the right hand of God, and empowered the disciples for the mission with which he had entrusted them. The disciples were not left alone and powerless. Rather, the risen Christ, though enthroned above, “worked with them” and “confirmed” their message through signs. Christ may have ascended to the throne, but he is not absent.
Mark 6:17-20 emphasizes the “signs” that follow “those who believe.” These particular signs, other than healing the sick, appear nowhere else in the Gospel of Mark. They only appear, except for speaking in tongues, incidentally in the Book of Acts, and one is found in no other text though it is part of ancient lore (drinking poison). The language sounds apocryphal, but whatever may be the case, the function of the “signs” is to demonstrate the presence of God. The signs are not manipulative tools. Rather, they point to God’s active involvement in the mission. Jesus has entrusted the mission to the disciples, but he has not them left alone. God is powerfully at work within the new community of believers.
Contemporary believers struggle with faith, and they often doubt the signs of God’s presence among them. But the confidence that Jesus has risen, ascended to his throne, and continues to work with his community empowers our mission. We are heralds of the kingdom of God, and this is good news for the whole creation. We announce the message, and we baptize believers.
This baptized, believing community has a mission. We follow Jesus into the world for the sake of the world. We are disciples of Jesus. That is our identity, and it defines our mission.
[This completes my series on the Gospel of Mark.]