The Obstacle

Road blocks

By Dr. Rick Flanders

“Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.  And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept.  And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.  After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country.  And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them.  Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.”

(Mark 16:9-14)

Verse nine of the sixteenth chapter of the book of Mark begins a very important passage of scripture, although strangely and sadly questioned by critics.  Taking a look at the end of Mark in the newer Bibles will show the Christian reader just how seriously this section is questioned, although an examination of the evidence in favor of it will demonstrate just how groundless the criticism really is.  And the ending of Mark focuses in a profound way upon the solution to the world’s problems, and also on the obstacle to the fulfilling of that solution.  It is indeed a very important passage.

Notice the recurring theme in verses 9 through 14.  Our Lord “was risen” from the dead on Easter Sunday, and several witnesses to this fact came to His followers with the news.  First we read of Mary Magdalene, the one to whom “he appeared first” (verses 9 and 10), who “went and told them that had been with him.”  The account of her experience is given fully in John 20.  But “when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, [they] believed not” (verse 11).  They wouldn’t believe her.

Then we read about “two of them” to whom He also appeared “as they walked, and went into the country.”  This story is told in more detail in Luke 24.  When “they went and told it” to the rest of His followers, they wouldn’t believe them.  “Neither believed they them” (verses 12-13).

Then we come to verse 14, where we are told that Jesus appeared to the apostles “as they sat at meat,” and it is recorded that He “upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.”  The theme of verses 9 through 14 is the unbelief of the believers.  When the Lord arose, and witnesses came to the rest of His followers, they consistently refused to believe.  And the risen Christ rebuked them for their inexcusable lack of faith.

Ironically the factor that has left the critics in the dark about this very passage is their unbelief.  It is their doubt and resulting unwillingness to take at face value the promise of Jesus in Mark 13:31 that “my words shall not pass away” that have prejudiced some against the last twelve verses of Mark.  They conjecture that because a few old manuscripts unexpectedly end the book with verse 8, the original parchments on which Mark wrote the book must have been damaged with the last page torn and the ending lost.  One of the arguments they use for this theory is that the wording of the passage they criticize is supposedly dissimilar to the language of the rest of the book of Mark.  But they are wrong about this.  A phrase that connects this passage with the rest of the book is found in verse 14, where we read that Jesus “upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart.”  Belief and unbelief are recurring themes of Mark, and he alone among the writers of the first four books of the New Testament, which record the words and works of Jesus Christ, connects unbelief with hardness of heart.  Hardness of heart is presented as causing grief in Jesus in chapter 3 in the account of the healing of the withered hand.  Neither Matthew nor Luke (who also record this story) mentions the hardness of the hearts.  In Mark 6, Jesus came back to Nazareth and failed to receive a prophet’s honor from His hometown acquaintances and relatives.  Consequently, He “could there do no mighty work” and “marveled because of their unbelief.”  Later in the chapter He has to deal with the unbelief of His own disciples, and it is attributed to the fact that “their heart was hardened.”  In Mark 8, the Lord’s warning against “the leaven of the Pharisees” is not understood by His disciples, and He attributes their confusion to unbelief caused by hardened hearts.  “Have ye your heart yet hardened?” (verse 17).  Unbelief attributed to hardness of heart is a distinct characteristic of the record we find in the book of Mark, and it is found all the way to the end.  The evidence for the integrity of the book as it has been handed down to us in the vast majority of copies is conclusive.  It is only the unbelief of the critics that blinds their minds to it, and prejudices their judgment of the final verses.  And it is unbelief that is the obstacle which prevents the fulfillment of our Lord’s plan to deliver mankind.  It is unbelief in believers, as described in Mark 9:24 in the words of a man who cried, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”  Unbelief is the obstacle, and it will be faith exercised by His followers that will be the key to their accomplishing the task He gave them!

The rest of the passage (and of the book) also has a clear theme.  Verse 15, of course, records the Great Commission:

“And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”

Then He makes some promises.  The promise in verse 16 is to the person “that believeth.”  Verses 17 and 18 promise certain “signs” to “them that believe.”  Then verses 19 and 20 state that these were among the final statements our Lord made to His disciples before going back to heaven, and before they began the work of evangelizing the world.  We can summarize the message of this passage by saying that verses 9 through 14 rebuke unbelief in Christians, while verses 15 through 20 commend belief or faith exercised by them.  If we are to carry out our Lord’s plan for the world, we must learn to exercise faith in Him, to believe.

The plan for the world laid out by the Lord Jesus is that everybody on earth hears from His followers the Gospel of His grace and salvation.  Men are given the responsibility to decide for themselves whether or not to receive and believe the Gospel, but it is His program that all of them hear it.  Obviously, this program is failing in our day.  The reason is our unbelief.  It is not God’s fault that the mission of Christ is not known to the sinners He came to save.  It is our fault for not believing Him.

Not believing what?  First, it is unbelief concerning the Gospel that stands in the way of fulfilling the plan.  This is where our Lord begins in his recommendation of faith.  Look at His words recorded in verses 15 and 16.  The one who hears the Gospel, believes and is baptized “shall be saved.”  On the other hand, the one “that believeth not shall be damned.”  Notice that it is the Gospel that is the key to saving the world.  The word “gospel” means good news, and the Gospel is news about something that God has done for us.  It is historical.  It informs us about something that has happened.  The Gospel is not a church to join, or rules to keep, or just a creed to recite.  It is news about what God did to rescue the world from its sin and misery.  The God Who created and rules the universe does not stand aloof somewhere in space, cold and unresponsive to our plight.  He did something about it, two thousand years ago.  The fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians spells out the Gospel as the news “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again according to the scriptures.”  On the cross and at the empty tomb God’s Son, the Savior of the world, remedied the damage and undid the consequences of Adam’s sin, and all of man’s problems were solved potentially by what He did.  The Gospel of Christ is the solution to the problems of every man (“every creature”) in the world, and we must believe that.  But do we?

Believing or not believing in the work of Christ spells either salvation or damnation for sinners who must all face judgment for their sins.  This is clear in verse 16.  Those who hear but won’t believe will be damned.  But the verse also says that “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.”  Now baptism is not required for deliverance from eternal damnation.  Those who use this verse to argue that it is do not see or refuse to admit that it does not deal with the case of somebody who believes but is not baptized.  It deals with the one who does not believe, and says he will be damned.  The question of what happens to the true believer in Christ that for some reason doesn’t get baptized (such as those mentioned in Luke 23:39-43, John 12:42, and John 19:38-39) is not handled here (although faith in Christ for eternal salvation is presented as the only requirement in passages such as John 3:16, John 3:36, John 6:47, Acts 16:31, and Romans 5:1).  However there is another kind or level of being saved mentioned in verse 16.  There is a salvation from eternal damnation, and there is also salvation from a worthless life.  Read about this second kind, also wrought through Christ and His cross, in Matthew 16:24-25, Acts 2:38-40, Romans 6:1-14, and Galatians 2:19-20.  The one who goes “all the way” through surrender to God, baptism and what it symbolizes, and the living of a victorious Christian life is saved from the domination of sin in his life, and lives this way by faith.  The Gospel offers us both deliverance from the penalty of sin, and from the power of sin, and its deliverance is accessed by faith.  It is unbelief that prevents the victory and holy living.  It is unbelief that is the obstacle to a consistent, credible, and powerful Christian life.

Next the passage says that we must also believe in the power of God.  Read again verses 17 and 18.  Those who have read the book of Acts recognize that these “signs” are matters of fact and history, and not matters of doctrine and practice.  The promise does not justify Pentecostalism or snake-handling.  But it does describe the response of faith to the challenges of evangelizing the world.  The apostles did these things, not to show off, but to meet the challenges of language barriers, devil-possession, and life-threatening danger.  When they faced the problem of language when a great opportunity for evangelism presented itself on the day of Pentecost, the band of believers did not shrink back and say “we can’t.”  They went forward in faith.  When Paul was bit by a poisonous snake, he did not assume that he was going to die.  He trusted God and kept on doing his duty.  God may not do the exact things for us that He did for His servants in the book of Acts, but our responses to challenges must be borne of faith rather than unbelief.  Even the possibility of evangelizing the world is questioned today by people who are oddly called “believers.”  And yet the Great Commission itself implies the promise that it can be fulfilled!  Read again verse 15.  He said “all the world” and “every creature” and He said it to the men who stood before Him, “Go ye.”  Did He mean that they in the power of God could evangelize the world in their lifetimes?  Obviously, this is what He was saying.  And it is what He is saying to us!  So we must respond by faith!  We must believe that it can be done.

But many are giving up, coming back from the mission field, refusing to venture out on ambitious evangelistic efforts, backing off for lack of finances, contenting themselves with failure, and doing what they do under the dark cloud of unbelief.  Unbelief is the great obstacle to New Testament Christianity, and to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

The commission Christians received from the Lord is to be fulfilled in the same way that Israel was to fulfill their divine commission to conquer the land of Canaan.  They were to do it by faith.  The odds were certainly against them, but they would succeed by divine intervention and supernatural power as long as they marched on by faith.  It is in this way that we are to evangelize the whole world.  The odds are clearly against us, in the purely natural and human assessment of our situation, but we were never expected to fulfill the Great Commission without supernatural help.  The Holy Ghost was given so that we would have “power” to be witnesses for Christ to the ends of the earth.  And we have power when we move by faith.  A great man encouraged his co-workers to go forward on their knees.  The days of doing the work of God by natural means ought certainly to have ended.  We have seen so much failure.  Let us confess to Jesus the sin of our unbelief, and decide to believe every word of the Bible, and to anchor our lives and our work on its trustworthiness.

Mark 16:19-20 teaches us that we must also believe in partnership with God.  “They went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them.”  How often did the Lord Jesus speak of us working in partnership with Him!  We are to take His yoke and do the work in partnership with Him (Matthew 11:29-30).  We are to bear fruit by abiding in Him (John 15:5).  We are laborers together with Him (First Corinthians 3:6-9).  He said that as we obeyed the commission, He would be with us always (Matthew 28:19-20).  Don’t you think that if we partnered with God we could succeed in evangelizing the multitudes, winning men to Christ, planting New Testament churches, sending missionaries to the uttermost part of the earth, and evangelizing the whole world?  But we must believe in His offers to be our Senior Partner, to fill us with the Spirit, to go with us to places we have never been because our unbelief held us back.  Belief will be the key, as unbelief has been the obstacle.

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