From Despair to Ecstasy
The noted theologian Dr. Carl F. H. Henry once wrote about the resurrected Jesus: “He planted the only durable rumor of hope amid the widespread despair of a hopeless world.” A rumor of hope! That is the keynote for our study in Mark 16.
Here, at the entrance to an empty tomb, we hear the first whisperings of that wonderful rumor: “He has risen!” Soon that rumor will begin echoing through the narrow stone-paved streets of Jerusalem: “He has risen!” Then it will be magnified and amplified across the province of Judea: “He has risen!” Ultimately it will shout, like a blast of thunder rolling across an awestruck world: “He has risen!”
But the rumor begins amid hopelessness and despair. Mark writes:
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).
Mark 16 begins with the darkest day in human history but ends with the discovery of the empty tomb. We see the women who found the empty tomb, and they are leaving that place full of such joy and explosive hope that they dare not breathe a word to anyone. Look closely at the last two sentences of this passage: “Trembling and bewildered [Greek ekstasis], the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid [Greek phobeo].”
I have added the Greek words to these sentences so that we can see more clearly what Mark is telling us. It would be a mistake to read that last phrase, “they were afraid,” in the conventional English sense that these women felt terrified, threatened, frightened, or scared. It is true that the Greek word used here for “afraid,” phobeo, is often used in the New Testament to mean “terrified, struck with fear or alarm.” But that word is also commonly used to mean “struck with awe and amazement” and even “filled with reverence, worship, and pious obedience.” And the previous sentence makes the meaning clear. The Greek word that the New International Version translates as “bewildered” is ekstasis, from which we get our English word ecstasy. Ekstasis means “to be amazed, to be beside oneself with profound awe (especially religious awe), to be thrown into a state of mingled startlement and wonder.” So these women were not terrified or frightened, nor were they bewildered and confused. They were caught up in an ecstasy of wonder over the discovery they had made: Jesus is alive!
The Tomb and the Grave Clothes
The first thing to be examined in Mark’s account of the resurrection is the stone that had sealed the body of Jesus inside the tomb.
The women came full of worry and concern over the stone that blocked the mouth of the tomb, but when they arrived, the stone was rolled away. You can visit the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which many scholars and historians believe was the tomb of Jesus. We can’t know for certain that it is the actual tomb, but we do know that it fits the description of the gospel accounts. I believe it is the tomb of Jesus.
If you visit the Garden Tomb, you will find that the stone is no longer there. It was removed or destroyed sometime during the decades or centuries after Christ. But you can see a narrow groove carved in the stone in front of the empty tomb. The massive, disk-shaped stone was rolled in this groove to either seal or unseal the tomb. The entrance to the tomb is almost as tall as a man, so the stone used to cover that entrance must have weighed at least a thousand pounds. That’s why these women were concerned about the stone. Unless someone moved the stone, they would not be able to anoint Jesus’s body with spices and burial perfumes. When the women arrived, they were shocked to find that the stone already had been rolled back. The tomb was open.
Matthew tells us that very early, long before daybreak, an angel had come and rolled back the stone. His face was like lightning, brilliantly shining, so that he dazzled and dismayed the guards who were standing watch over the tomb. They fell to the ground as dead men. When they recovered their senses, they stumbled off in fear.
Later, when the women arrived, there was no sign of anyone outside the tomb, but the door of the tomb was open. This told them that something amazing had happened. So they crept closer, looked inside—and the body of Jesus was gone. That which they had come to anoint was no longer there.
The most amazing fact of all—a fact that immediately confronted these women as they entered the tomb—was the presence of the grave clothes. The body was gone, but the grave clothes were left behind. In Luke 24:12 and John 20:6–8, we find a description of the grave clothes. The cloth that had been around the Lord’s head was neatly folded and separated from the other grave clothes. The grave clothes, the strips of linen that had been wound around the body, had not been unwrapped or unwound. They were lying in the form of a person, as though the body had vanished from inside them.
The other gospels tell us that when these women left the tomb, they ran to the disciples and told them the news; then Peter and John came running to the tomb. When Peter and John saw the grave clothes, they were convinced that Jesus had risen. The presence of the grave clothes, together with the way they were arranged, has never been explained.
The power of the evidence, including the evidence of the empty tomb, was one of the reasons Christianity spread so quickly in the early days of the church. Hundreds of eyewitnesses could confirm every detail of the gospel story. There was even physical evidence of the resurrection. No one had to question whether the tomb was truly empty or not, because the tomb was there for anyone to inspect, just beyond the walls of the city. Anyone in Jerusalem could take a fifteen-minute walk to the tomb and see that the disciples were telling the truth.
Although skeptics and rationalists would like to dismiss the resurrection with a wave of the hand, the evidence does not allow it. The resurrection is not a legend. It is the central fact of human history.
The Message of the Angel
So Jesus is no longer in the tomb, but the tomb is not unoccupied. Mark records:
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’” (mark 16:5–7).
The angel’s message to these women contains the answer to twenty centuries of skepticism. The angel first says, “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.”
Furthermore, the angel tells them, “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.’” The angel identifies a specific geographical spot on the face of the earth as the place where Jesus will be found: Galilee. This statement underscores the claim of Scripture that Jesus is alive, that he rose bodily, and that he appeared to people at a specific juncture of time and space.
Notice also the gentle, compassionate touch in those words. The angel tells the women to give a special message of hope to Peter. The last time we saw Peter, he was standing in the courtyard of the high priest during the trial of Jesus. A servant girl was following him around, accusing him of being one of Jesus’s disciples, and he was avoiding her, running from her, denying the truth, trembling in fear. But the angel says, “Tell his disciples and Peter.”
The angel also said, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”
Just as he told you. The resurrection should not have taken his followers by surprise, because he had already said he would be crucified, rise on the third day, and meet them. The angel’s message is not a new message but a repetition of what they had already heard from the Lord’s lips. Everything he said will be fulfilled.
The Rumor Spreads
The empty tomb, the empty grave clothes, and the message of the angel had a profound effect on these women. It filled them with hope, with joy, with excitement. In an instant, they were transported from the depths of despair to an ecstasy beyond our imagining. So they went out with gladness to begin spreading this rumor of hope, just as the angel had told them—the only durable rumor of hope the world has ever known.
This glorious rumor was hastened along by the appearances of Jesus before witness after witness. The first appearance was to Mary Magdalene. John’s gospel tells us that after the other women left the tomb, Mary Magdalene lingered. There, in the early morning light, Jesus appeared to her. She went running with the news, and Peter and John came to the tomb, saw the grave clothes, and were convinced.
Believing Is Seeing
One of the powerful impressions left by Mark’s account of the resurrection is this: the women believed, although they did not see. They saw an empty tomb. They saw empty grave clothes. But they did not see the Lord. Nevertheless they believed.
How wonderful it must have been to have seen the risen Lord! All those who did so were regarded with unusual respect and awe in the early Christian community. Of course, not all were privileged to do that. When Jesus appeared to Thomas and invited him to touch his wounds, Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (john 20:29).
Peter would later write, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 peter 1:8). That has been the experience of millions of believers, beginning with that first Easter morning and continuing to this day. We have not seen the risen Lord, for he departed this realm of visible things many centuries ago. But we have the testimony. We have the evidence. As Luke writes in Acts 1:3, “He presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” These convincing proofs are persuasive to the intellect and encouraging to the soul. They awaken hope within us, just as those women found their hope awakened by the empty tomb and the word of the angel.
Out of that hope, a rumor was born. It is the only durable rumor of hope the world has ever known. For those who have not yet heard this wonderful rumor, the world is still a dark place, as empty of hope as that terrible Saturday between the cross and the resurrection. But we have this rumor to share with the world. It is like a brilliant light at midnight. It is like food in a land of famine. It is the good news, the greatest rumor ever told.