By Joe Boyd
What did the resurrection mean to the readers of the oldest Gospel? And how does that help us in our own confusing lives and complicated age?
Most followers of Jesus are aware that there are four Gospels in the Christian Scriptures: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All four of these accounts tell the story of Jesus, but, at times, from different perspectives. Most New Testament scholars agree that Mark’s Gospel is likely the oldest, dating a few decades after the life and death of Jesus.
Looking at Mark’s story of the resurrection, one realizes it is brief compared with accounts by Matthew, Luke, and John. Here it is in full:
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:1-8).
In some versions of Mark—the oldest manuscripts, in fact—the Gospel ends here. Other versions of Mark include 12 more verses (vv. 9-20). It’s my opinion the first Gospel originally ended at verse 8. Imagine reading this, as a few decades of Christians in certain localities may have, without access to the final 12 verses or the other Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. If this were all you knew of the resurrection, what would it mean? Here are some thoughts about the truth of the resurrected Christ, based on my reading in Mark 16:1-8:
We all ask, “Who will move the stone?” before we get to whatever tomb we’re facing. The biggest concern of the women as they walked to Jesus’ burial site was about the heavy stone that would need to be moved to get to the body. They were focused on the future obstacle of the stone, but the “obstacle” turned out to be a fabrication. This is what the resurrection does. It disrupts our “certain” future. So often we are sure of what is to come. But what if we are wrong? What if preconceived obstacles are removed before we get to them? What if that is what the resurrection means?
Always Ahead of Us
The “young man” tells the women to tell the disciples that Jesus is “going ahead of you.” Here’s the thing with Mark’s Gospel: if you discount the verses that were probably added later (Mark 16:9-20), then there actually is no encounter with the resurrected Christ in Mark at all. Mark is just as certain of the resurrection as the other Gospel writers, but he sees no compelling reason to record the women—or the disciples—encountering the resurrected Christ. In Mark, Jesus is alive . . . and always ahead of us. He’s going ahead of us. We will see him when we get to “Galilee.”
I could be wrong, but if you stay with my thinking that the Gospel originally ended here, then it also means Mark omits the “ascension.” This is troubling to some, but not to me. It supposes that the resurrected Christ is still with us, ahead of us. He is not in some otherworldly place, but always waiting, just ahead of us. Living in a universe where the resurrected Christ is escorting us into the future is a simultaneously peaceful and thrilling concept.
Though the young man tells the women to tell the disciples about Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel the women remain silent, too frightened to share that news. Remarkably, Mark’s amazing story of Jesus seems to conclude on a very human, broken note. It ends with those who first see the empty tomb too afraid to do anything about it. It doesn’t condone or condemn them. It just ends with them paralyzed in fear.
I get it. I too am sometimes afraid of the resurrected Christ. It’s too weighty an idea to fit into my mind—too fantastic, too unrealistic, too wonderful to believe, let alone tell others about.
That said, Easter is the one day each year we cannot help but face the fearful, wonderful, bewildering empty tomb. It means many things, but the first Easter in Mark seems to predominantly mean one thing: our Savior isn’t dead, he is always alive and always just ahead of us.
If this is true, then the safest, most desirable and joyous place to be is in our approaching future. It reminds us that despite what others may try to say, Christianity is utterly and unapologetically optimistic. Regardless of how afraid we become, we cannot help but be pushed by time into the future where God waits for us to join him. Even death cannot change that.
In other words, it’s normal to be afraid of the future. But it’s no longer necessary to be. At least, that’s what Easter means to me.
Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio.