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Why Does the Gospel of Mark End without Mention of Jesus’s Resurrection?

After the Crucifixion

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’s appearance before “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary,” who had gone on Sunday morning to “see the tomb” (Matt. 28:1). We are told not only that they hear directly from Jesus (“Greetings!”) but that they actually touch his resurrected body (“And they came up and took hold of his feet,” Matt. 28:9). Later, Jesus appears to the eleven disciples in Galilee, where he announces to them—in the Great Commission—their future mission (Matt. 28:16–20). The Gospels of Luke and John offer even more extensive coverage—a total of over a hundred verses—of Jesus’s resurrection and post-resurrection appearances and activities. In Luke 24 and John 20–21 we read of Jesus’s appearances to Mary Magdalene, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the eleven (including inviting them to touch his body, John 20:17; cf. John 20:20, 27; Luke 24:39–40); the gift of the Holy Spirit; and Jesus’s ascension into heaven.

Expository Reflections on the Gospels, Volume 3

Douglas Sean O'Donnell

Drawing from his years of pastoral experience, pastor-theologian Douglas O’Donnell provides deep exegesis, engaging illustrations, and relevant applications of the Gospel of Mark.

In contrast, Mark provides only eight verses to narrate the events after Jesus’s crucifixion, including the women’s angelic encounter at the tomb and the angel’s announcement (“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here,” Mark 16:6), with no actual resurrection appearances.1 Moreover, the final line might strike us, at first glance, as anti-climactic, as it pictures the three women running scared from the tomb: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). The end! What are we to make of this abrupt and unexpected, as well as apparently incomplete, ending? I surmise that Mark has three reasons for ending the way that he did.

Trust in Jesus’s Authoritative Word

First, Mark’s ending forces us to trust in Jesus’s authoritative word. If Jesus repeatedly said that he would rise from the dead (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34), then that authoritative word should suffice. If Jesus promised that he would rise, and if he guarantees resurrection life to all who lose their lives for his sake (see Mark 8:34–9:1), then we can take him at his word. Unlike Thomas, we are not to doubt the testimony of Jesus even if we ourselves have not seen his resurrected body. If we can trust anything, we can trust the sure foundation of our Lord’s word (see Matt. 7:24–27).

The Importance of the Cross

Second, Mark’s ending reemphasizes the importance of the cross. That is, even in his resurrection account the evangelist takes us back to the cross! The angel speaks of Jesus as the risen Savior (“He has risen”), but he ties even the resurrection to Jesus’s death (“You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified,” Mark 14:6). While Mark, with the empty tomb, breaks the pattern of Greco-Roman biographies—which end with a person’s death and the way that person died—he does focus attention on the final hours of Jesus’s life. To him the cross is the center! In these final eight verses on the resurrection, he points us back to the preceding 119 verses on Jesus’s sufferings and death.2 As Christians, we never move past the cross. Even throughout eternity we will sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” (Rev. 5:12).3 So, in a world that embraces a God without wrath who brings people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross,4 Mark (even at Easter!) makes sure that we do not forget Good Friday—the day when a just and holy God of wrath and love brought sinners into his righteous kingdom through the sacrifice of Christ crucified.

As Christians, we never move past the cross. Even throughout eternity we will sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!”

A Call to Discipleship

Third, Mark’s ending calls us to discipleship. I contend that he intends to use the failure of the male disciples in Mark 14–15 and the female disciples in Mark 16 to remind us both that Jesus graciously uses even imperfect sinners to build his perfect kingdom and that their failures serve to call us to be faithful to Jesus’s mission. These final verses, especially Mark 16:8, offer a “positive challenge” and an “implicit call to discipleship.”5 God is calling us, even those disciples who are “confused and uncertain,”6 to move past the confusion and uncertainty, along with the doubt and fear, and to join the victory march by raising high the banner of God’s victory over death. As Morna Hooker puts it, “This is the end of Mark’s story, because it is the beginning of discipleship.”7

As readers of this Gospel, we have followed Jesus from his baptism to his resurrection, and, when everyone around him—the religious leaders, the crowd, even his own family and disciples—has disowned him, we have followed along. We have not put the book down. We have kept coming back for more. But now, as we stand at the end of the story and Mark suddenly stops the narrative, he leaves us with a “decision to make.”8 But that decision should be obvious enough. Do we close the book and “say nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8)? Or will we follow Christ by sharing the good news with others?

Think of it this way. We should treat the end of Mark’s Gospel like we would the lyrics to a familiar hymn. If I sang, “Christ the Lord is risen today,” you would know the next word: “Alleluia.” The early Christians who heard the death and resurrection proclaimed in the marketplaces, synagogues, and house churches for decades before the penning of Mark’s Gospel knew that these fearful women did not bite their tongues for long. So, as at the end of the Acts of the Apostles,9 the church is not to ask, What happened to Paul? or Will the gospel spread to both Jews and Gentiles after the death of Paul? Instead the church is to act—to act like that apostle. Put simply, the end of Mark, like the end of Acts, is an invitation to act. We fill in the notes. We continue the everlasting, unstoppable song.

Mark 16:8 is not an incomplete ending but an “open ending” whereby Mark invites us to “finish the story”10 by obeying the angelic command. Though the Twelve had all fled (Mark 14:50), though Peter had denied Jesus (Mark 14:66–72), and though fear silenced these dear sisters, nevertheless Mark invites his readers to speak up. And, if we do not, we can be certain that even the stones will cry out.

Notes:

  1. Many scholars take verse 8 to be the original ending of the Gospel of Mark, as Mark 16:9–20 is not found in many of our most reliable Greek manuscripts of the NT. See Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Translation, Corruption, and Restoration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 322–37; cf. Daniel B. Wallace, “Mark 16:8 as the Conclusion to the Second Gospel,” in Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: 4 Views, ed. David Alan Black (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 1–39.
  2. This fits what is often considered the Gospel’s key verse: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Moreover, it fits Jesus’s establishment of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the new Passover meal that centers on celebrating Jesus’s sacrificial death (“the blood of the covenant,” 14:24; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7; 11:26).
  3. Jesus is labeled “Lamb” 29 times in Revelation, and the specific details of his death are occasionally attached to the title (“the Lamb who was slain,” 5:12; 13:8; cf. 5:6; believers are “made . . . white in the blood of the Lamb,” 7:14; and before that “conquer [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb,” 12:11). Throughout eternity we will feast at “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).
  4. This is a slight rewording of parts of H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous saying, found in The Kingdom of God in America (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1937), 193.
  5. Mark L. Strauss, Mark, ZECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 723.
  6. Strauss, Mark, 724.
  7. Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to St. Mark, BNTC (London: A & C Black, 1991), 394.
  8. For the thought process behind this paragraph see Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, NTL (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 449.
  9. John Chrysostom viewed the ending of Acts as an invitation to the hearer: “[Luke] brings his narrative to this point, and leaves the hearer thirsty so that he fills up the lack by himself through reflection.” “Homily 55 on Acts 28:17–20,” in Homilies in the Acts of the Apostles, in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Henry Browne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 326. On this method Shively notes, “First, the open ending is a common literary and rhetorical practice of ancient writers. Second, it functions to invite the hearer to respond with reflection and interpretation. Third, the hearer knows how to respond according to intratextual cues.” Elizabeth E. Shively, “Recognizing Penguins: Audience Expectation, Cognitive Genre Theory, and the Ending of Mark’s Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 80 (2018): 273–92 (at 285–86).
  10. Shively, “Recognizing Penguins,” 276.

Douglas Sean O’Donnell is the author of Expository Reflections on the Gospels, Volume 3: Mark.



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