Mark 16:1-8

The God of the Living

The Empty Tomb (1) – Discovered by the Women

Mark 16:1-5 – The Empty Tomb

Movement around the city on the Sabbath was not countenanced, especially on this solemn Sabbath of the feast of Passover. The disciples would not have been disturbed by any immediate follow-up by the authorities to the Jesus event.

1 Once the Sabbath was over,
Mary Magdalene
and Mary the mother of James
and Salome
bought spices
so that they could go and anoint him.

The women had observed Joseph of Arimathea’s quite inadequate respect shown to the corpse of Jesus. He had simply wrapped the body in a bare linen cloth, and definitively closed the entrance to the tomb. They devoutly wished to do better, so, once the Sabbath was over (on the Saturday evening), they went to buy spices with the purpose of anointing the corpse as soon as they could.

2 Then very early on the morning of the first day of the week,
just after sunrise,
they came to the tomb.
3 They were saying to each other,
“Who will roll away the stone from the tomb entrance for us?”
4 They looked up
and saw that the stone had already been rolled away,
even though it was very heavy.

Mark dramatically emphasised the time. The first day of the week spoke of new beginnings; when the sun had risen was a gently anticipatory reference to the risen Christ. The women had no expectation of resurrection, nor presumably did any of the disciples (which confirms the suspicion that the narrative’s earlier references to Jesus’ claims that he would rise on the third day were specifications made by the early community in light of the event, rather than precise indications given beforehand by Jesus himself). Their love had not lessened, but it had only added to the depth of their pain. 

The women’s question was a practical one, as stones sealing tombs normally fitted into specially hollowed grooves. It was always easier to roll them across an opening than to roll them away.

To their amazement and horror the tomb had been opened.

5 When they entered the tomb,
they saw a young man sitting on the right
clothed in a long white robe.  
They were utterly amazed.

Apocalyptic Language

Mark had earlier spoken of “a young man dressed in a linen cloth” who had appeared (and as quickly disappeared) from nowhere in the Gethsemane incident (14:51-52). His introduction was seen to be probably a literary device used to highlight the spiritual stripping of the disciples. A similarly symbolic interpretation would be suggested here. 

The young man was described as “dressed in a long white robe”, and “sitting on the right” (of anything?). In apocalyptic literature white robes were often symbolic of the Christian disciple. The right hand side signified a place of honour. 

The fact of the empty tomb was historically observable; its meaning was beyond history. Resurrection is mystery. 

The purpose of the young man was to explain the meaning of what was otherwise beyond human observation. 

The Empty Tomb (2) –Explained

Mark 16:6-8 – He Has Been Raised

6 He said to them, “Do not be amazed.  
You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.  
He is risen.  
He is not here.  
Look at the spot where they laid him. 

So this young man, someone who knew the meaning from the inside, provided the Christian insight into the mystery: the crucified Jesus had been raised – not to observable historical life but to new life beyond human grasp.

Mark said that the women were amazed, a stereotyped reaction to mystery.

7 But go, and tell his disciples
and Peter, too, 
that he is going before you into Galilee.  
You will see him there,
just as he told you.”

The women were to be “apostles” to the disciples: they were sent to give them the Good News. Women were to be the first preachers of the resurrection.

As Jesus’ resurrection was mystery, so too was his going .. into Galilee, where they would see him

It was Mark’s dramatic way to refer to the mystery of Christian experience. The Christian disciple’s encounter with the risen Christ would be real; it would be life-changing; yet it would always be mystery.

8 They came out of the tomb and fled,
overcome with trembling and bewilderment.  
They said nothing to anyone,
because they were frightened.  

Mystery is consistently experienced as fascinating yet terrifying. Stereotypically the women were seized with amazement and fear. Relentless to the end, Mark showed even the women disciples as one with their male counterparts: incredulous and frightened. In their fear their mission failed: they said nothing to anyone.

Yet teasingly, Mark’s last full stop was not the end: The story had been told. The resurrection had been proclaimed. Mark had written his narrative. The disciples had somehow, sometime, come to faith. They had returned to Galilee and they had “seen” the risen Christ. 

The End Re-connects with the Beginning

In the light of this conclusion the meaning of the opening words of Mark’s narrative become clear. He saw his narrative recounting the beginning of the good news of Jesus. The continuation of the good news takes flesh in the on-going encounter of Christ and believers, whenever throughout history and wherever throughout the world their Galilee may be.  

Mark chose to speak to the experience, not so much of the first disciples as of the community for which he wrote. Their experience of Christ involved no appearances: it was known in faith, and was felt as a transforming power in their lives. It was not a once-for-all event but a continually deepening one, as they allowed the practical unfolding of their lives to open them to ever more profound conversion and response.

In this sense, Mark’s conclusion spoke also to the experience of modern readers, who enjoy no appearances of Christ but who, strengthened by Mark’s narrative and by their own personal and communal faith, struggle to live out the Kingdom reality within the context of their own lives. 

The Kingdom continues to be proclaimed and to take shape as believers, “christened” by their receiving the mysterious life of the risen Christ, see their world through eyes enlightened by faith and respond with love empowered by Christ’s Spirit. Inspired by his insight into the unique dignity of every human person and group, knowing everyone to be created and called by God, they critique the values of every culture and, always espousing Jesus’ approach of non-violence, strive to change whatever dehumanises and to foster whatever gives life. 

Appearance Stories

Mark recounted no appearances of the risen Christ. “Appearance stories” can be of ambivalent value. To the literal-minded they can give a sense more of resuscitation than of resurrection. (Resuscitation is a kind of “coming back” to life.) Jesus did not come back to life; he went “forward” into qualitatively different life, the gift of the creating God, beyond all unaided human capacity to imagine or to understand. Risen life was still human life: Jesus’ resurrection was not a matter of the human Jesus leaving behind his human state and reverting to his divine. It was risen human life. 

Other evangelists gave accounts of Jesus’ appearing to disciples. Their purpose was to emphasise 

  • the continuing identity of the risen Jesus and yet his difference,
  • to spell out diverse facets 
  • of his continuing “presence” among his disciples,
  • or aspects of their mission to the world.

Other Canonical, but non-Markan, Endings

Some later copyists felt uneasy with the crisp ending Mark had given to his account of the Gospel. Over the years two different endings became attached. One was quite brief, consisting simply of one further verse.

Next >> Mark 16:9-20