Several years ago I preached through the Gospel of Mark (the fruit of which can be found in the Christ-Centered Exposition series). Inevitably, I came to chapter 16. After expounding the first eight verses, I said:
And thus Mark’s Gospel comes to an end, and an abrupt one at that. Verses 9–20 are not found in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. Mark’s sudden ending is what he wanted. It makes clear that the disciples were stunned by all of this [e.g. the empty tomb and the angel’s appearance]. They did not expect the resurrection. They did not know how to respond. How would they respond to all this? How will you?
Well, I’ve tipped my hand as to my position on the long ending of Mark’s Gospel. I do not think verses 9–20 were a part of the original text (though I have good friends and respected scholars who do), so I did not preach on them. Still, for those unfamiliar with issues related to textual criticism, this issue can be extremely troubling.
What, then, is a proper pastoral response? Here are five suggestions.
1. Help your people understand this is an issue of the original text’s transmission, not its inspiration.
God guaranteed the inspiration of the text of Scripture (Matt. 5:17–18; John 10:35; 2 Tim. 3:16–17; 2 Pet. 1:20–21) in a way he did not guarantee its transmission.
Nevertheless, help your church family to not lose confidence in the reliability of the text they hold in their hands. God was providentially involved in preserving the text of the Bible to a stunningly remarkable degree of certainty. Explain that there are more than 5,500 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, making the Bible the greatest preserved document of antiquity. Nothing else comes close. Let them know that no reputable scholar, Christian or non-Christian, denies this point.
2. Clarify that only two major passages raise this kind of issue.
One is Mark 16:9–20 and the other is John 7:53–8:11. That’s it!
3. For the curious, provide some additional resources they can read.
I gladly recommend Don Carson’s The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism and Paul Wegner’s The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible.
4. Treat people like they have a brain and can understand the issues at hand.
Explain that some ancient manuscripts of Mark 16 have verses 9–20, but others do not. This is why virtually all modern translations place the verses in brackets and provide an explanatory footnote. The longer ending of Mark is not present in the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts, which is important. These verses contain words and phrases uncommon to Mark and his style of writing, and read much like a compilation of other texts of Scripture. Some scholars believe the ending of Mark was lost, and this is how ancient theologians tried to compensate for such an abrupt ending at verse 8.
5. Rightly interpreted, there is nothing doctrinally problematic in the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel.
If you’re a church member, and your pastor believes verses 9–20 were original to Mark himself, don’t raise a ruckus. Pray for him as he expounds them. The passage is theologically sound and consistent with the rest of Scripture. Indeed, an argument can be made for their inclusion, though it’s not persuasive to me.
In conclusion, handle these verses with care and caution, but don’t make it a test of fellowship. Remember the crucial difference between inspiration and transmission. Make your best judgment, and then proceed with grace and humility.
Editors’ note: “Preacher’s Toolkit” is a monthly series that seeks to answer questions related to preaching. If you have a preaching-related question or issue you’d like for us to answer, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We recently launched an Expository Preaching Project, for which TGC Council pastors will prepare free instructional resources on expository preaching in both video and print formats in six strategic languages. We’re prayerfully seeking to raise $150,000 to fund the project. To make a donation, please click here and select “Expository Preaching” from the designation list.
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