9Now when He arose early in the morning on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary of Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons. 10That one went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. 11When they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.
12After these things, He appeared in another form to two of them as they walked in the country. 13And they went back and told the others, but they did not believe them.
14Later, He appeared to the eleven themselves as they reclined at table and scolded them for their unbelief and stubbornness because they did not believe those who saw Him after He was risen. 15And He said to them, “Go into all the world; preach the gospel to all of creation. 16Those who believe and are baptized will be saved, but those who do not believe will be condemned. 17And these signs will accompany those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues, 18and with their hands they will pick up snakes and drink deadly poison, and it will not harm them. They will place their hands on the sick and they will get well.”
19So then the Lord Jesus, after He had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down on the right hand of God. 20And they went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word by accompanying signs.
We must first have a brief word about this section of text, which is the most disputed in the New Testament: the earliest and best manuscripts that we have do not include these verses as the ending of Mark; rather, the gospel ends after verse 8. However, almost all of the manuscripts from the fifth century on contain them, and it is evident that many early authorities did accept them. Some of the earliest manuscripts left some blank space after verse 8, indicating that the copyist monks knew of a longer ending but did not have it in the manuscript with which they were working. Early Patristics such as Justin Martyr, Tatian and Irenaeus accepted the longer ending, while Eusebius and Jerome (A.D. 407) did not. Internally, questions arise as to the use of Greek being the same as the “Markan” Greek of the rest of the gospel. Why the detailed description of Mary Magdalene in verse 9, for example, when he just mentioned her in the previous section? There are several words not used by Mark elsewhere in the gospel, and some used differently than he had been using them. While this can be compelling evidence, there are nonetheless other very good reasons why we might account for these internal “problems.” We see similar linguistic variations in other works, as well. Ultimately, the longer ending of Mark is so well-attested by later witnesses and so widely read and circulated by the early Church that it is frequently included, though disputed. One possible solution to the problem is to see it like we do Deuteronomy: perhaps Mark concluded his gospel at verse 8 abruptly, and someone else finished it, but it is historically authentic and therefore canonical—just like the last chapter of Deuteronomy after Moses dies. There is nothing thematically in these verses that would warrant excluding them from the gospel, so I am treating these verses canonically and translating and teaching from them as though they were the word of God.
There is no question, from this account, that Jesus Christ appeared physically to His followers. In agreement with other gospels, He appeared to the women first, and then others. Luke tells us of disciples walking on the road to Emmaus, and verses 12-13 seem to support that here. The point is that Jesus isn’t a ghost or an apparition or a figment of someone’s imagination. We are told quite clearly that He eventually appeared to all eleven at once while they were chilling at dinner. He scolded them a bit for their unbelief and stubbornness. After all, this had been the direct purpose of His entire ministry for the prior three years: trust God. The theme of the entire Bible had been to trust God, and now God had provided the Lamb that took away all sin and reconciled man to Himself and relieved him from the curse. The key is to believe, regardless of what one’s eyes tell them. As He sends them out into the world with the Great Commission, He reminds them that “those who believe and are baptized will be saved, but those who do not believe will be condemned” (16). The crux of all theology is faith seeking knowledge, not the other way around. Belief by faith—like the centurion and other notable people in this gospel story—is the key to salvation. We might also note that Jesus predicts that the Church will carry out its duty accompanied by signs and wonders—divine healing, speaking in new tongues, imperviousness to poisonous snakes and poison. The biggest miracle of all, of course, is the establishment, nurturing and spread of the Church in that culture of tyranny in which she was born. Note, also, that the text has Jesus ascending to heaven and the right hand of God the Father.
Jesus is not physically present with us (except in the mystery of the Table—that’s another discourse). He is physically with God the Father, and therefore doesn’t float around like a disembodied spirit here on earth to appear to us or walk with us. He is enfleshed; He is a being again, having been physically resurrected from the dead. This is an important doctrinal point. Moreover, He has detailed for us what we should be doing: persuading those around us to believe in the good news of Jesus Christ as the provision for sin. We are to go forth in the power of the Lord, Who works together with us by accompanying our proclamation of this good news with signs and wonders. There is not now—nor has there ever been—a biblical warrant for snake-handling or poison-drinking as a result of this passage. Those who engage in such silliness demonstrate the dangers of misreading the Bible. But He DID promise supernatural signs and wonders as His Church is spread. And we might also note that He is the one “working with them” with the accompanying signs.
In the West, we don’t believe in signs and wonders any more. Since the Enlightenment, we have done our best to explain away signs and wonders. We are too educated and intelligent to believe in them. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, we also don’t bother much going out and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to others. Perhaps we don’t feel as much of a sense of urgency about this, since the “gospel” for so many Westerners is simply an intellectual assent to the propositional truths of the New Testament, rather than a walk by faith. Many American evangelicals believe that they are Christians simply because they once uttered an incantatory prayer; but that prayer wasn’t accompanied with the action that the New Testament clearly teaches. Therefore, it is a Gnostic version of Christianity, rather than Christianity itself. If we are truly believers, we will not shut up about it. We will proclaim His good news to the world around us. He has commanded it. The reference to baptism demonstrates that there is a process involved in salvation; mere assent is but the first step—there is a disciplined habit of catechetical teaching and nurturing that brings a Christian out of the individual cold and into the community’s fold. This is what is attested to in water baptism: the new birth of the individual and the initiatory rite into the Church.
For many of us Americans, the true presentation of the gospel is a challenge to our theology. Are you prepared to “unlearn” what you’ve always thought? Are you prepared to discard and reject the individualist “God helps my well-being” therapeutic moral deism that passes for Christianity in so much of our culture? Are you prepared to take up the cross of real faith and believe in an eternal God Who transforms you fundamentally from who you were to who He’s designed you to be? Then you will find that identity in Christ, and you will not ever find it apart from the Church. This is His design, and your individualist objections are not enough to overturn His gospel.
Believe, and be baptized. That’s another way of saying, “believe, keep believing, and do so in the community of faith with the ultimate result of a deliberate and physical banding together for the sake of the good news.” And then? Go out and tell others about this good news. And don’t be surprised with the God of wonders accompanies this sort of obedience with signs and wonders. It’s His good news, after all.