Mark 16:14–20

Jesus has commissioned His church to a global mission: to preach the gospel in all the world and to make disciples among the nations. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul concludes his series in the gospel of Mark.


We will continue now with our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark, and this is scheduled to be our last sermon on Mark. I will be reading this morning from Mark 16:14–20, and I ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then, after the Lord 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, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen.

Week after week, I have declared to you when we read the Scriptures that this is nothing less than the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God. Being the Word of God, we are called to give obedience to it. Please be seated. Let us pray.

O Lord, as we look at these final words of the gospel of Mark, we pray that You would use them to quicken a deeper dimension of faith within our souls, that our devotion to You may be increased. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Yardstick Standard

Over the years, we have had some distinguished visiting guests in our midst. Particularly, I am thinking now of one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, Dr. Roger Nicole.

I remember that on one occasion during an important theological controversy, Dr. Nicole offered this question: “If the building that houses the Bureau of Standards and Measurements in Washington, D.C., were blown up along with the standard yardstick by which we measure the thirty-six inches that make up a yard, would our understanding of the yardstick be destroyed with that explosion? If we lost the original normative standard of one yard, would we not by the existing copies in our possession be able to reconstruct that original yard to within a zillionth of an inch of accuracy?”

The reason for the analogy Dr. Nicole offered was that the Bible as we have it today does not contain the original manuscripts written by the prophets, Apostles, and those agents of revelation whom God superintended in the original writing of sacred Scripture. Through the centuries when the church has confessed her confidence that the Bible is inspired, inerrant, and infallible, that confession has always been qualified by the statement that what we speak of is simply the autographa, or the body of original manuscripts. In other words, the church—at least Protestantism—has not advocated for the inspiration of translations or copyists.

The original Scriptures have been copied thousands of times through the ages. In many cases, even the monks whose sole task was to spend their lives carefully, assiduously, precisely copying the existing manuscripts they had word for word, line upon line, accent upon accent would have variations between the monks of one locale and the monks of another locale. Therefore, we say that we do not believe in the infallible inspiration of copyists.

So, the question is raised, If we do not have the original manuscripts, and all we have are copies, and those copies include errors of transmission, why do we still speak of having an infallible Bible? Do you feel the weight of the problem?

Let’s go back to Dr. Nicole’s analogy of the standard for the yardstick. The science of textual criticism, which is the science of reconstructing the original documents, is one of the most exact, impressive sciences that we have in the field of biblical studies. We have thousands of manuscripts that have been copied from the first century onward, and by examining all those carefully and the textual families in which they exist, it has become a rather precise science to reconstruct the original documents.

The Long Ending of Mark

Why have I been telling you about textual criticism? The most difficult text in all the New Testament in terms of trying to reconstruct its original content happens to be the text I just read a few moments ago, which in the nomenclature is called the “long ending” of Mark.

When the textual scientists look at all the existing manuscripts and try to determine what was in the original, they look at external information, such as the collection of manuscripts and quotations of the original text by first and second-century church fathers. They also look internally to see if there are any abrupt changes in syntax and style and so forth. I really believe that the reconstruction of the New Testament is as accurate as the reconstruction of the yardstick if we lost that building in Washington, except for this chapter of Mark.

The long ending of Mark is problematic for this reason: all the best manuscript evidence, as well as internal analysis, would lead us to conclude that the last few verses from the gospel of Mark were not in the original version, and I am almost compellingly convinced to agree. So, why do translators include it?

Translators believe that the longer ending is a suitable conclusion to the gospel of Mark. Without it, Mark would end in chapter 16, verse 8, where we read: “So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Mark is brief and terse throughout his gospel, but that is a little too terse for most readers. They want the book to say a little more, and so it is believed that in the very earliest part of the second century, the Christian church wanted to give an appropriate conclusion to the abrupt ending of Mark.

Be that as it is, we ought not be disturbed by that, but let us look at what is found in this long ending and see that the doctrines found therein are consistent with what is taught everywhere else in the New Testament. There is one tiny section of it that raises some eyebrows, but we will get to that in a moment.

The Gospel to Every Creature

Let us begin at verse 15, where we have a quotation from Jesus with respect to the Great Commission. There is no question in church history and in biblical analysis that our Lord gave the Great Commission. Whether it should appear here in the last portion of Mark is the question, but there is no question that Jesus gave this commission, where He said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”

We examine the Great Commission every year in our mission conference, but it is something we need to examine every Sunday because it is central to the life of the church that our Lord has given us a mission. He has enlisted us into this mission, which is to preach the gospel, and the gospel has a definite content.

Jesus did not give us the mandate to preach entertainment or the latest psychological theories. The mandate is to preach a particular message that can be gleaned by looking at the Apostolic record itself. The gospel has a definite content. It has to do with the announcement of the person and ministry of Jesus and how the benefits of His life and death can be appropriated to us by faith.

The gospel is not that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. The gospel is not that if you come to Christ, you will have purpose for your life. Those things may be true and may be interesting and inviting to certain people, but that is not the gospel.

The gospel has to do with the life of Jesus, His work, His atonement, His resurrection, His ascension, and the salvation that is wrought by Jesus, which is appropriated by faith and by faith alone. That is the gospel. The gospel is not my personal testimony. My personal testimony may relate to your circumstances, or it may not. But the gospel relates to everybody’s circumstances.

The extent of the preaching of the gospel is, according to our Lord’s directive, to every creature in all the world. I mentioned in previous mission conferences that yesterday set an all-time record for people in the world who died without ever hearing the gospel. More people died yesterday who have never heard the gospel of Jesus than in any day in human history. That record set yesterday broke the record that was set the day before, and today we will break the record that was set yesterday.

More people will die today in the world having never heard the gospel than died yesterday or the day before then. The population explosion of the world has made it difficult for the church’s missionary task to keep up with the numbers of those perishing without ever hearing of Jesus. This is His last mandate: go into all the world, to every creature, that they would hear the gospel.

Faith and Baptism

Next, the text tells us that Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” This message may be a little confusing. Some people look at it and see this as the biblical text that says baptism is necessary for salvation because our Lord said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Therefore, the inference is drawn that just as faith is a necessary condition for salvation, so is baptism.

However, the rest of the New Testament makes it very clear that the only absolutely necessary condition for our salvation, which is not only necessary but sufficient, is faith. Anyone who truly puts his trust in Christ will be justified at that very second. We see examples in the Scriptures of those who were saved who were not baptized, for example, the thief on the cross.

Let me state it this way for you, if you’ll allow me to make a fine distinction. Remember that if it is the woman’s prerogative to change her mind, it is the theologian’s prerogative to make fine distinctions. The distinction is that baptism is not necessary to salvation, but it is necessary for sanctification.

Why do I make that distinction? We are commanded to be baptized, and if we do not obey that command, that is a failure in terms of our being conformed to the image of Christ and our obedience in relation to our sanctification. Even though we all have an obligation to be baptized, that baptism does not necessarily mean that if we have it, we will be saved, or if we do not have it, we will be lost.

Notice in the second clause of Jesus’ statement, He says, “He who does not believe will be condemned.” Notice the absence there of the term “baptism.” Jesus does not say in a parallel fashion that he who is not baptized will be condemned. But faith is necessary for salvation, and the lack of it will result in condemnation.

The State of Condemnation

You remember John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That is quoted all the time. What is John 3:17? “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

Then John goes on to say, “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Jesus says in that same context, “He who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18).

I stress this point for this reason: Jesus did not come into a world of innocent people in order to bring them salvation. Our Lord came into a world that was already universally under the condemnation of God. People who have never heard of Jesus are not condemned because they rejected Jesus of whom they have never heard. So, we breathe a sigh of relief, and we think that, therefore, we do not have to worry about their condemnation. On the contrary, they are already in a state of condemnation because they have universally rejected the general revelation of God the Father, who has made Himself known and clear to every creature. Every creature down to the last one of us has exchanged that knowledge for an idol, exchanged the truth for a lie, and serves and worships the creature rather than the Creator, which exposes the whole world to condemnation.

Signs of Those Who Believe

Jesus goes on to say, “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” You may have already detected the one statement in the text that is problematic, but my guess is that you might have responded to the wrong one.

Let us look at these things again. Jesus says that these are the signs that will follow those who believe. First, “They will cast out demons.” Did that happen with the Apostles in the book of Acts? Yes. That was fulfilled. “They will speak with new tongues.” Did that happen in the book of Acts in the Apostolic age? Yes.

“They will take up serpents.” Did that happen? Was not Paul, when he reached his hand into the fire, bitten by an asp who affixed himself to Paul’s hand? This poisonous snake, after Paul shook it loose, did no damage to the Apostle Paul. I wonder how many of you zeroed in on that one as one that was not really fulfilled. This, of course, is the proof text for snake-handling cults. Many of us have heard about cults of people who put testing their faith by handling poisonous snakes, usually rattlesnakes, copperheads, or moccasins, at the heart of their Christian faith. The idea is that if they handle these snakes and have the proper amount of faith, they will not be fatally wounded by these snakes. Some of the people in snake-handling cults become very proficient at handling snakes without irritating them and become able to play with the snakes without getting bitten. But every year, we read reports of those in such cults who, indeed, are stricken by serpents. This was not designed by the Word of God to produce a ritual to prove our faith as some suppose. But we do have the Apostolic record of one at least, the Apostle Paul, who survived an encounter with a deadly snake.

We have no biblical record, however, of anybody drinking poison and surviving it. We do have an extrabiblical testimony from early church history about one Christian who, in persecution, was forced to drink something like hemlock and nevertheless survived the experience without even becoming ill. That is, again, extrabiblical, and even though it is extrabiblical, it would certainly fulfill this prophecy.

“They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” The fulfillment of that prophecy has been well-attested in Scripture.

The Heavenly Session

Near the end of the text, we get these words: “So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.” Listen to that sentence, the last clause: “He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.” Two of the most important activities of our Lord are compressed into less than one sentence.

This is a reference to the ascension of Jesus, which is of extreme importance if we look carefully at Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts. After the resurrection, Jesus did not go to Mexico or the United States. Rather, He ascended into heaven, fulfilling the office promised to the faithful Messiah, wherein He goes into heaven for His coronation as the King of kings and Lord of lords.

At the end of the confession of the ascension comes the confession of the “session.” In the Apostle’s Creed, we say that He “ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God.” At our church, we have a session, which is a group of elders. They are called the session because these elders meet regularly in an ecclesiastical session, where they are seated together and make judgments and decisions by which the church is governed. There are a number of members in our session.

In heaven there is only one session member, and that is Jesus, our supreme elder who is seated at the right hand of the Father. The Father has delegated to Christ all authority in heaven and on earth. That is why we say He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. His authority governs every event, every molecule, and every person’s life in the world today. We do not have to wait for His second coming for Jesus to be Lord. He is Lord right now, and He is right at this moment seated at God’s right hand, which is the seat of heavenly authority.

He Goes before Us

Then we read, “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.” The ending of Mark’s gospel affirms that Jesus left this world, ascended into heaven, and was no longer present with us, but in the same breath it is expressed that as the Apostles went about their ministry, the Lord was working with them. Hence the confessional statement that says, touching His human nature, Jesus is no longer present with us, but touching His divine nature, He is never absent from us.

Our Lord Himself, when He announced His imminent departure to His disciples, said: “Yet a little while, you will see Me no more for I am going away. And where I’m going you won’t be able to come right now. Nevertheless, I’m with you even to the ends of the earth.”

The task given to the church is not a task to be accomplished by human effort alone. The task we are called to carry out is to be done with the help of the Lord who works with His people, who goes before His people. Even in His resurrection announcement that we read last week, Jesus told the women, “Go and tell the Twelve that I am going before them into Galilee.” That is His pattern. We go and find out that He has already been there. He does not follow the ministry of the church. He leads the ministry of the church, as the Scripture says.

Confirmed By Miracles

Finally, it says, “And confirming the word through the accompanying signs.” The Bible does not have a word for miracle. There is no word for miracle in the New Testament. There are three words for miracle: there are signs, powers, and wonders. All three of those give us the substance by which we extrapolate of concept of a miracle. These signs that we call miracles are given to the church primarily and essentially to confirm the truth proclaimed by the Apostolic testimony.

In the Old Testament, agents of revelation were demonstrated to be messengers from God because of the miracles they performed. Some people say, “If I see a miracle, I’ll believe in God.” You cannot define a miracle as a miracle until you first know that there is a God, because a miracle, by definition, is something that only God can do.

In the Old Testament, when God said to Moses, “You go to Pharaoh and tell him, ‘Let my people go,” and then go to the people and say, ‘Let’s go,’” Moses had two Herculean problems: to persuade Pharaoh and to persuade the people. Moses asked God, “How are they going to know that You sent me?”

How did God answer Moses’ question? He said to Moses, “Take your staff and throw it on the ground.” When he did, it turned into a serpent. God said, “Now, grab its tail.” Moses did, and it turned back into a staff. Then He said, “Moses, put your hand in your garment,” and he did. Then God told him, “Pull it out,” and it was leprous. God said, “Do it again.” So, Moses put his hand in his garment, pulled it out, and it was clean. God said: “That’s how they are going to know. I’m going to confirm My word through signs. I’m going to confirm your authority.”

The New Testament says that Jesus and the Apostles are authenticated by the miracles that God wrought through them. Keep in mind that the Word of God is confirmed by miracles, not miracles by the Word of God.

Finally, the gospel in the longer ending ends with one word: “Amen.” That word, which is based upon a Semitic word for truth, simply means, “This is the truth.” What you have been listening to every week in all our gatherings together as we have followed closely through the gospel of Mark is the truth of God.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.