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Two Endings, One Choice

Go & Tell  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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I learned something amazing this week that I could not wait to share with you today: According to researchers at Cornell University, the average adult person makes something on the order of 35,000 decisions a day.
That’s right. 35,000. From the moment you decide to open your eyes in the morning to the moment you decide to lie down and close your eyes at night, you are a decision-making machine.
Indeed, the Cornell researchers somehow determined that we make nearly 270 decisions a day about food alone.
Here’s a pro tip: You can simplify your food-related decisions if you’d just decide, like me, to always say “yes” to bacon.
Now, some decisions are easier than others, of course. For instance, the decision to GET dressed before coming to church is probably an easier one for most of us than the decision of whether to wear this particular shirt or that pair of pants to church.
And those are just the trivial decisions in our lives. I haven’t even mentioned the big life-changing decisions that each of us faces at various points in our lives.
Will I take this job? Will I ask that woman to marry me? Will we have that baby? Will I buy the house?
You’d think that with all the experience we get making trivial decisions we’d be well-prepared when it comes to making the big ones, but that’s not always the case, is it?
Forty years ago, I was faced with the biggest decision I had ever made to that point in my life: What college would I attend?
I had been accepted into both the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, and I had to choose where I would spend my college career.
I really struggled with this choice. So much so, in fact, that my father, who had to go out of town on a business trip during that period of my long indecision, said to me before he left that I had better choose one or the other before he came back or my parents would not pay for me to attend either school.
I continued to struggle with this choice while he was gone, weighing the pros and cons of both schools and finding no solid reason I should choose one over the other, until he called home the day before he was scheduled to return.
Thinking back on it now, I’m pretty sure that I finally made my choice as I went into the kitchen to answer the phone that evening.
Now, the interesting thing about this in retrospect is that I believe that particular decision — even though it was made in the spur of the moment — was far less impactful for me than the many poor choices I made once I was a college student.
As it turns out, I probably would have been just as poor a student at either school, because I would have made many of the same lousy choices in either place.
A life, as it turns out, is often shaped more by the many little choices we make from moment to moment than by the big decisions that we grapple with for hours or days or even weeks on end.
Eleanor Roosevelt said something very insightful about this: “One's philosophy is not best expressed in words. It is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.”
Today, as we conclude our short series on evangelism and missions, we’re going to take a look at a controversial passage of Scripture and see the choice that faced a group of women in the wake of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the first Easter morning.
Turn, if you will, to Mark, chapter 16.
While you are turning there, let me give you the context of the events we will read about this morning.
Jesus, the perfect and sinless, unique and eternal, Son of God, had been crucified on Friday. The Roman army had carried out the execution on the orders of Pontius Pilate, who was the Roman governor over the province of Judea.
Pilate had sent Jesus to His death, even though he had found Jesus to be innocent of the charges brought against Him. He had done so in order to appease the Jewish leaders, who wanted Jesus dead and who seemed to be on the verge of a full-scale rebellion against Rome because of their hatred for Jesus.
But Jesus had not been dragged to the cross. He had willingly gone with His accusers, even though He knew that this path led to the cross.
He could have called down a legion of angels to save Him from the torture to which He was subjected, but instead, He submitted Himself to it, and even as the Roman and Jewish officials jeered at Him as He bled and died on the cross, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Taking upon Himself the sins of all mankind, He suffered the punishment that each one of us deserves for our sins, for failing to be the people we were made to be, for failing to live righteously as people who were made in the image of the righteous and holy God.
He died on that cross on Friday and was taken down and hurriedly put in a tomb before evening came and the Sabbath had begun. And, just as He had said they would, His disciples scattered.
So, early on Sunday morning, when the Sabbath was over and the sun still had not yet risen, a small group of women came to his tomb to do what His disciples rightly should have done. They came to honor Him by anointing His body with spices.
Now, let’s pick up with verse 1 of chapter 16.
Mark 16:1–8 NASB95
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large. Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. “But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’ ” They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Jesus had risen from the dead, just as He had told His disciples that He would do. His resurrection was proof that He was the Son of God, just as He said He was. And it was further proof that God had accepted Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf.
God had allowed Jesus to experience death so that we who follow Him in faith could have eternal life.
And He had raised His Son from the dead to demonstrate that He has the power to similarly raise those who put their faith in Jesus as the only one who can reconcile fallen and sinful man to the God against whom we all have rebelled in our sins.
But I mentioned earlier that this was a controversial passage of Scripture. What did I mean by that?
Well, if you look at the beginning of verse 9, you’ll see some sort of notation in your Bibles that what follows in the rest of this chapter doesn’t appear in the early manuscripts that have been found of the Gospel of Mark.
In my Bible, verses 9-20 appear in brackets, and there are a couple of footnotes about the early and late manuscripts.
Now, to understand this controversy, you have to realize that we have never seen the original manuscript of this Gospel written by the Apostle Mark.
Remember, there were no publishers nor printing presses around at the time. Mark would have written his Gospel by hand, and it would have been copied by hand over and over again throughout the centuries until the invention of the printing press.
Archeologists have found complete manuscripts of the New Testament dating back to the fourth century A.D. The two oldest that have been found, along with many other partial old manuscripts, do not include verses 9-20.
Complicating matters even more is the fact that some later manuscripts include the last half of verse 20 after verse 8, while others have it at the end of the chapter.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the verses were added later, by someone else. In fact, the early manuscripts that have been found include space at the end of the chapter that could suggest whoever copied from Mark’s original manuscript had left space for more verses.
And one of the major themes of Mark’s Gospel is that Jesus’ disciples should serve God by being bold witnesses of Jesus, even in the midst of persecution.
So, it would seem odd for him to end His account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection with the negative example of a group of women who were too afraid to tell anyone of His glorious resurrection.
And there are some Bible scholars who believe that verses 9-20 were added later by others to deal with just that problem.
Let’s take a look at what those 11 verses say, and then I want to talk about choices.
Mark 16:9–20 NASB95
Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons. She went and reported to those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping. When they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it. After that, He appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking along on their way to the country. They went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either. Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.
So we have two versions here of what happened after Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome encountered the angel who told them that Jesus had risen and that they should go and tell Peter and the other disciples.
We have the version we just read, where verse 20 says that they told Peter and his companions and repeated the angel’s instructions.
And we have the version we read first, the one that ends with verse 8, where the women left the tomb in trembling and astonishment and said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
This is a major point of what’s called textual criticism, which is an area of Bible study that concentrates on the style and mechanics of biblical text, rather than on its content and meaning. And it is a point that is sometimes used by those who would call into question the authority of Scripture.
So, it strikes me that we might ask why God would have allowed this question to go unresolved for so many centuries.
Before I give you my answer to that question, let me give you some perspective on the reliability of whatever Bible translation you are using.
More than 25,000 ancient New Testament manuscripts have been found and catalogued so far, including 5,600 manuscripts and fragments in the original Greek, and some of those fragments date back to the second and third centuries A.D.
Compare that to seven existing manuscripts of Plato’s works, the earliest of which dates to 1,300 years after he wrote them. Or to 10 existing manuscripts of Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars, the earliest of which dates to 1,000 years after he wrote it.
William Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays during the 1600s, and not one of his original manuscripts has been found.
So, we have better evidence of the Bible’s completeness than we do of the complete works of William Shakespeare.
But what about the accuracy of the Bible? Can we be sure that what we read today is what the original authors wrote? That’s part of the question textual criticism seeks to answer.
And, indeed, there are portions of the New Testament that are in question, as we have seen in these 11 verses at the end of the Gospel of Mark.
But let me put that in perspective for you. The New Testament includes about 20,000 lines of text. Of those 20,000 lines of text, just 40 of them remain in question after the scholars have examined the oldest texts that have been found. That works out to about one-quarter of one percent of the complete New Testament text.
Compare that to Homer’s Iliad, the most famous book written in ancient Greece and “the second best-preserved literary work of all antiquity, with 643 copies of manuscript support discovered to date. … Of the approximately 15,600 lines that make up Homer's classic, 764 lines are in question. These 764 lines represent over 5% of the entire text, and yet nobody seems to question the general integrity of that ancient work.” (https://www.allaboutthejourney.org/bible-manuscripts.htm)

In real terms, the New Testament is easily the best attested ancient writing in terms of the sheer number of documents, the time span between the events and the document, and the variety of documents available to sustain or contradict it. There is nothing in ancient manuscript evidence to match such textual availability and integrity.” (Ravi K. Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? Word Publishing, 1994, 162.)

In short, you can trust that God, working through His Holy Spirit, has given us an accurate and complete rendering of His Word, even though it was written thousands of years ago.
So what about these contentious verses at the end of Mark’s Gospel? If the Holy Spirit was active in helping the early church Fathers to discover the books and the letters that were truly God-breathed, and if the Holy Spirit was active in ensuring that those books and letters were transmitted to us with near-perfect integrity, why did He allow this glaring question to remain at the end of Mark’s Gospel?
Why are there two contradictory endings that seem so equally viable?
Here’s my answer to that question.
I believe that by recognizing the fact of two endings in conflict with one another, we find ourselves with the same choice as the women at the end of verse 7.
“Go and tell,” the angel said to them.
And there’s an irony to how they responded in verse 8. Throughout Jesus’ ministry on earth, whenever he commanded people to be silent about the miracles He had done or about His deity, they went out and told others anyway.
But here, when they had been told to go and tell, these women became silent.
But then, we read the alternate ending to this Gospel. We read of them regaining their courage and telling Peter and the disciples what they had seen.
We read of Jesus appearing to them and telling them to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation, and we read that this is just what they all did, preaching everywhere the good news of a Savior who had died and been raised from the dead so that all who believe in Him could have eternal life.
The tension between these two conflicting endings is much like the tension that we Christians experience.
Will we be silent in fear. Will we close up our mouths so people don’t think of us as Jesus freaks? Will we be quiet when proclaiming Christ might cost us our jobs or our friends or even our lives?
Will we be like the women of verse 8?
Or will we be like the women of verse 20?
“You will be my witnesses,” Jesus said in the Book of Acts. “Go and make disciples,” He said in Matthew 28. “Go and tell” the angel said here in Mark 16.
Every day, you make 35,000 decisions. And every day, one of those decisions is whether you will be like the scared and disobedient women of verse 8 or the courageous and obedient women of verse 20.
I pray that you will choose well.
Now, if you have followed Jesus Christ in faith, I want to invite you to join us this morning as we participate in the Lord’s Supper.
This is one of two ordinances given by Jesus to believers. The other is baptism. Neither the Lord’s Supper nor baptism have the power to save you — we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
But both baptism and the Lord’s Supper were commanded by Jesus as acts of obedience to Him and as ways of proclaiming that we who follow Him in faith belong to Him.
So, if you have made the decision to follow the risen Christ in faith that He is the Son of God and Redeemer of your soul, then I hope you will join us as we participate in this sacramental meal that dates all the way back to when Jesus shared it with His disciples at the Last Supper on the night before He was crucified.
Go ahead and open your communion boxes — and I want to again thank Amy Ford for putting these together for us.
If you are a Christian watching at home, feel free to join us with bread and juice or water — the early church used both as part of its communion observance.
The conditions during the Last Supper were different than the conditions we have here today, but the significance was the same as it is today.
Jesus told His disciples that the bread represented His body, which would be broken for our transgressions.
Let us pray.
Please go ahead and break your loaves and distribute the bread to your participating family members.
Matthew 26:26 NASB95
While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.”
As Jesus suffered and died on that cross, his blood poured out with His life. This was always God’s plan to reconcile mankind to Himself.
“In [Jesus} we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us.”
Let us pray.
Please share the cups from your boxes with your participating family members.
Matthew 26:27–28 NASB95
And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.
Take and drink.
“Now, as often as we eat this bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
Maranatha! Lord, come!
Here at Liberty Spring, we have a tradition following our commemoration of the Lord’s Supper.
Normally we gather in a circle, hold hands and sing Blest Be the Tie That Binds. For just a little while longer, we will dispense with the holding hands part, but if you could all circle around, it would be great to continue to honor this tradition as well as we can.
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