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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:Christ overcomes the unbelief which first meets his resurrection
Text:Mark 16:9-14 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

NOTE:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 124
Psalm 6:1-3
Psalm 68:1,8,12
Hymn 81
Psalm 146:1-3

Scripture reading and text:  Mark 16:9-14
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus,

Each year we remember and celebrate the resurrection of Christ.  When I say that, our thoughts typically go to Easter Sunday.  However, we also remember and celebrate Christ’s resurrection whenever we get to Lord’s Day 17 of the Catechism.  Moreover, there is also a sense in which every single Sunday is a commemoration of the resurrection.  After all, the reason why we worship on Sunday is because it is the Lord’s Day, it is the day that our Lord rose from the dead.  So no apology needs to be made if we again give attention to the events surrounding Christ’s resurrection as we look at this text from Mark. 

Now when we speak about the resurrection of Christ with people who aren’t Christians, most of them will find the idea unbelievable.  As Christians, we present a claim that no one else makes.  Muslims don’t claim that Muhammad died and then rose again.  Jews don’t claim that Moses died and then rose again.  But Christians claim that Jesus died and then rose to life.  This is a radical claim and many find it difficult to swallow.  People just don’t come back from the dead after three days.  It doesn’t happen.  This has been studied and the science is conclusive.  Even some who claim to be Christians accept the conclusions of unbelieving science.  They say that Jesus could not have risen from the dead in history.  When the Bible speaks of it, it is not speaking in scientific or historical terms as we understand them.  They say that it’s obvious: the Bible is speaking metaphorically.  Jesus rose from the dead not in the sense that his heart started beating again and his lungs breathing, but Jesus rose from the dead in the hearts of his disciples.  His body remained in the tomb.  But brothers and sisters, this is just another subtle form of unbelief.  People just refuse to believe what the Bible plainly says about the resurrection of Christ.  It’s unbelief. 

Unbelief is everywhere in our text for this morning.  Even in the first hours after his resurrection, people just don’t believe that it had happened.  They can’t believe it, won’t believe it.  In this passage, we’ll see how Christ overcomes the unbelief which first meets his resurrection. 

We’ll consider: 

1.      The witnesses to whom he appears

2.      The disciples whom he rebukes

Now before we get into the text itself, there is an issue that needs to be addressed.  You probably noticed the note in the NIV above verse 9:  “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.”  This is a true statement, but it is not a complete statement.  What the note fails to tell us is that the vast majority of Greek New Testament manuscripts do have these verses.  These verses are referred to by the church fathers.  Also, we should note that earlier does not necessarily mean better.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this because some of it gets quite technical.  Let me say this:  there are good reasons to continue regarding Mark 16:9-20 as part of the canonical Word of God.  One of those reasons would be the recognition and usage of the church.  The church has long recognized these words as the voice of the Good Shepherd.  For example, in Lord’s Day 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism, there is a quote from these verses.  We confess as a church that Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” 

There are those who say that the language of verses 9-20 is too different for Mark to have written it.  Even if that were to be true, what does it prove?  It merely proves that someone else finished Mark’s work for some reason.  But imagine arguing that the last chapter of Deuteronomy is not the Word of God because Moses didn’t write it.  Moses wrote the rest of Deuteronomy, but since chapter 34 describes his death, he obviously didn’t write that.  And if Moses didn’t write it, then it can’t be the Word of God.  It doesn’t follow.  It doesn’t follow here either. 

Like I said, I don’t want to spend too much time on this.  There are good arguments to defend the place of this passage in the Word of God.  There are good theories explaining why we have these differences in some of the manuscripts.  We’re going to proceed with the conviction that this is the Word of God, breathed out by the Spirit and profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.

Now let’s go to our passage, beginning with verse 9.  We’re told explicitly that it was on the first day of the week that Jesus arose from the dead.  The resurrection didn’t happen on Saturday, only to be discovered on Sunday.  No, Scripture is clear that Christ walked out of the tomb early on Sunday morning, before the women arrived.  That Sunday morning the hands that had been nailed to the cross twitched and moved again.  That Sunday morning two eyelids that had been crusted with blood opened.  The Saviour who had been dead was now just as alive as any of us are alive at this moment.

His first appearance was to Mary Magdalene.  Our passage says that she was the one out of whom Jesus had driven seven demons.  There’s another record of Jesus doing that in Luke 8:2.  Christ had delivered her from demonic forces.  Afterwards, she followed him with fervour.  Along with some other women, she went with him everywhere and provided for his needs.  She was obviously someone special to our Saviour.  She’s chosen as the one to whom he would first appear.  But why does Mark mention the fact that he had driven seven demons from her?  Some commentators say that this is evidence of a later sloppy attempt to round off Mark’s gospel and that it indicates that this is not an authentic part of the Word of God.  After all, we know Mary Magdalene already, because she has been mentioned three times before this.  As if we now here need an introduction.  But there is a good reason for mentioning the seven demons from which she had been delivered by Jesus. 

Mary Magdalene was living proof of the power of Jesus over Satan.  Amongst all his followers, she was the one most aware of his power.  Jesus has conquered demons and Satan – and now, having risen, he has power over death.  She would more readily believe that before anyone else.  It wouldn’t take much to convince her.  She was what one commentator (J. Van Bruggen) called his most impressive war trophy from his battles against the evil one.  Now she’s put forward as the first one to whom Jesus appears.  Mary Magdalene can see that the conqueror of demons, of her demons, arose from the dead.  He has victory over everything related to sin.  That’s important for all of us to remember:  we have an exalted, victorious, mighty Saviour. 

She sees that and she immediately believes.  She runs to the eleven disciples.  Where are they and what are they doing?  Mark doesn’t tell us exactly where they were, but he does tell us what they were doing.  They were in mourning.  They had lost their rabbi.  Jesus had spoken about this moment in Mark 2.  He said that when the bridegroom would be taken away, there would be fasting – in other words, it would be a time of grief.  Now the bridegroom had been taken away.  They were grieving over him.  There’s no expectation that he’s coming back from death.  Though he told him that he would rise from the dead on the third day, there’s no remembrance of his promise.  There’s just raw grief at having lost a beloved friend and teacher.

Mary Magdalene comes to them and reports that Jesus is alive.  She had seen him.  From the parallels in the other gospels, we know that he spoke with her.  He could be touched.  He was not a ghost – he was really Jesus, come back to life.  But verse 11 tells us the reaction of the disciples:  they disbelieved.  It could not be.  In Luke 24, we read that the disciples regarded this report as nonsense.  In other words, they treated Mary’s testimony like many people today treat the resurrection of Christ.  It can’t have happened.  Resurrection doesn’t happen, won’t happen.  When you’re dead, you’re dead and that’s it.  End of story. 

However, our risen Saviour didn’t give up.  He went on to appear to two of the broader circle of disciples.  The testimony of a woman was not highly regarded.  So perhaps the testimony of two men would convince the disciples that he had risen.  Under Old Testament law, two witnesses were enough to establish the truth of a matter. 

These two were walking in the country.  From Luke’s gospel, we learn that they were on the road to Emmaus, which was about 11 Km west of Jerusalem.  Mark says that they saw Jesus “in a different form.”  That raises a couple of questions.  Different from what or when?  And in what sort of form did he appear to them?  “A different form” means that he appeared to them in such a way that they didn’t recognize him.  It could refer to the fact that they would have expected Jesus to appear bloody and bruised from his crucifixion.  Or it could refer to the fact that after his resurrection, Jesus was glorified and, like on the mountain of transfiguration, this meant a change in his appearance.  Both are possibilities, though the latter is more likely.  It is clear from the other gospels that his disciples don’t always immediately recognize him after the resurrection.  There is something different about Jesus.  Certainly, he was raised with a glorious body.  Paul speaks of that in 1 Corinthians 15.  He was raised in glory, in power, with a spiritual body.  The gospel promises that this is the kind of body with which we will be raised as well.  Believing in Christ, we have the promise of a different form, a form which will not be affected by the curse of sin.

The two disciples saw Jesus in this different form.  They eventually recognized that it was him.  They spoke with him.  He taught them.  He ate with them.  It became quite clear that this was their risen Saviour.  They believed what they saw.  Then they went back and reported it to the other disciples.  Two witnesses – two male witnesses, and what’s the response now?  Still unbelief.  Still the eleven who loved the Saviour and walked alongside him, listening to his teaching, following him every day, they refuse to believe that he is alive again.  This is a thing that cannot be true, no matter how many witnesses there are.  Do you see how stubborn they are?  They’re locked into a certain way of thinking and they can’t break out of it.

These disciples are desperately in need of an intervention.  They need someone to come and shake them out of their unbelief and overcome it.  They will soon be sent out with the good news, sent to the ends of the earth.  The one who sends them out will be the one about whom they preach.  The one who sends them out will be the Christ they proclaim as risen.  They can proclaim him as risen because they have seen him risen. 

For this reason, our Lord Jesus goes to make a personal appearance to the eleven disciples.  They were gathered together for a meal somewhere.  He shows up.  Notice that like elsewhere in the gospel of Mark, everything here is compressed.  It’s all concise.  The gospel of Mark doesn’t give us access to all the details.  We could fill in the blanks with the help of the other gospels, but we need to remember that Mark tells the story the way he does for a reason.  His interest here is not in the first words that Jesus speaks to his disciples.  He doesn’t give us a report of any conversation that goes back and forth between them.  Instead, his focus is on their unbelief and how Christ responds to it. 

He rebukes them.  In English the word “rebuke” is not a nice word, and it’s even less so in Greek.  Back in Mark 15, this very word was used to describe how the criminals crucified with Jesus reviled him.  The word has a harsh connotation.  Basically, Jesus really gave it to them. 

Why?  Because of their unbelief and hard-heartedness.  Our translation has “stubborn refusal,” but the original says, “hard-heartedness.”  Maybe you’ve heard of arterial sclerosis – that’s the medical term for a hardening of the arteries.  Well, the word here in Greek is sklerokardian, hardness of heart.  Their hearts have been not pliable and open to the message of the resurrection.  In this regard they have hearts of stone.  The message can’t penetrate in order to be received and believed.  For this hardness of heart and for their lack of faith, they are culpable.  They are blameworthy.  The disciples are not innocent victims.  They should have believed when they heard the witnesses.  They should have believed Mary Magdalene.  They should have believed the two from the road to Emmaus.  They should have believed not only because of their testimony, but also because Jesus himself had said that this would happen.  He promised that he would rise from the dead on the third day.  If they really loved him, why did they not believe him?  Why were they not ready and waiting for the testimony of these witnesses?  No, they deserved the rebuke they received from Christ.    

But the fact that he personally delivers the rebuke is still a matter of grace.  Because what they really deserve is not a rebuke (which then leads to faith), but abandonment.  Though they said they loved Christ, though they followed him for three years, they still didn’t believe him and almost seemed to want to stay in their grief.  Three witnesses are sent, but they hold on their disbelieving grief.  What do you do with these sorts of disciples?  Well, we see Jesus rebuking them, but still holding on to them as his disciples.  This is an act of grace.  This reveals his character.  He is an embodiment of divine grace, not giving sinful, disbelieving people what they deserve, but coming after them, rebuking them, and dragging them to the light.  This is what Jesus does.  In Revelation 3, he writes a letter to the church at Laodicea.  In verse 19, our Saviour says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.”  This is what he does in our text too.  In love, Jesus persists, he rebukes, and finally overcomes their unbelief.  With him before them, they finally believe that he is risen. 

Loved ones, this reminds us that there is a gracious Saviour for those who are stubborn and hard-hearted, slow to believe.  There may be teachings in the Word of God with which we struggle.  Maybe it’s not the resurrection, maybe it’s something like providence.  Some find it easier to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, than that God is directing all things for our good, including things that we experience as tragic.  But take heart.  We have a gracious Saviour who persistently comes after us with his witnesses.  He persistently comes after us with his Word in the Bible.  He does not break the bruised reed or extinguish the smoldering wick.  He has extraordinary patience for weak and sinful disciples.  Yet we cannot ignore him, nor can we make excuses for our unbelief.  We are still responsible when we refuse to believe the teachings of Scripture.  We’re called to turn from our wrong thinking and strive to consistently follow everything the Bible says.

And when it comes to the resurrection of Christ, we should believe it, even though we have not yet seen him face to face.  Christ says in John 20 that we are blessed when we believe without having seen him.  We must believe on the basis of the witness given to us in the Scriptures.  Scripture speaks not only of Mary Magdalene and the two on the road to Emmaus, and not only of the eleven, but also of 500 others who saw our Lord alive.  Scripture tells us of how Paul encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Why then do so many in the world around us continue to disbelieve?  There were so many witnesses to the resurrection of Christ!  These disciples in our text were obviously not gullible people.  They didn’t instantly believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  They were skeptical right from the start.  They needed a personal appearance from Christ before they believed.  But it wasn’t merely the appearance of Christ that brought them out of their unbelief.  It wasn’t just evidence presented to them that persuaded them that the tomb was empty.  There was more happening than meets the eye.  How does a heart go from hard to soft?  How do eyes go from blind to seeing, ears from deaf to hearing?  People don’t make this happen to themselves.  It needs to be done to them.  Who does it to them?  The Holy Spirit.  He is the one who creates faith, also faith in the fact of the resurrection.  No one will believe that God raised Jesus from the dead unless the Holy Spirit works that conviction in the heart.  He works through means.  He works through witnesses.  He works through ordinary people like you pointing to the witness of Scripture.  But ultimately if someone will come to life and find salvation in the risen Saviour, the Holy Spirit has to perform a heart transplant.

People in the world around us disbelieve, not because of any intellectual problem, but because of sin, because of hardheartedness.  They don’t disbelieve because they’re stupid, but because they’re sinful.  Conversely, we don’t believe because we’re so smart.  We don’t believe because we have the intelligence to discern good evidence from bad, and reach good logical conclusions based on the evidence presented.  We don’t believe because we have the brains to do it, but because of grace.  God has graciously worked in our lives with his Word and Spirit.  Recognizing that keeps us humble.  We’re not super-smart people – we’ve just been shown mercy.  Left to ourselves, we too would be wondering what kind of idiots could believe that someone would come back from the dead.  We’re also reminded here of the need for prayer when we witness to unbelievers in our lives.  We need to pray for the Spirit to open eyes and ears, to soften hearts so that they believe the witness of Scripture, so that they believe that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead.

Brothers and sisters, in our text Christ was not only victorious over death, but also over unbelief.  Over the centuries, he has continued to win his victories over those who stubbornly refuse to believe.  There are some amazing stories of grace.  I was recently reading a book entitled The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.  The book is about how God graciously pursued a radical feminist lesbian professor of English.  By the power of his Spirit and Word, working through witnesses, Christ overcame Rosaria Butterfield’s unbelief.  It wasn’t an easy process (she describes her conversion as a train-wreck), but she’s now a Christian and the wife of a Reformed Presbyterian pastor.  A very unlikely convert, indeed.  She gives all the glory to God for that and we should too.  And we should never be pessimistic about the possibility that he can do the same in the lives of others, even working through us to make it happen.  Our risen Saviour is powerful.  Our risen Saviour is victorious.  Our risen Saviour is gracious.  AMEN.


Merciful Saviour,

We praise you as mighty and victorious.  You have conquered all our enemies.  You cast out those seven demons from Mary Magdalene.  You delivered her and we have also experienced your deliverance.  We praise you as our gracious Saviour.  You don’t throw slow and clumsy disciples to the curb, and for that we thank you.  Thank you for your patience with us.  We know how dependent we are on your grace every day and we humbly ask for more.  Please strengthen our faith wherever it is weak.  Please help us with your Spirit to trust your Word, not just the parts that we like, not just the parts we’re comfortable with, but your whole Word.  And we ask again for you to use us as your witnesses.  Please work through us to overcome unbelief in our friends, neighbours, and family members.  We pray that you would soften hardened hearts with your Spirit.  Please make people willing to hear and believe the gospel of salvation in you.  We ask that because we care about these people around us and most of all, because we love you and want your Name to be exalted and praised by more people

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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