What I’m going to do in this post is talk about a passage that is in your Bible, but shouldn’t be there.
On Sunday, June 5, 2011, the end arrived for an effort that began here in February of 1969. From the time that I arrived at Grace Community Church in 1969, my desire was to teach through the New Testament. I had prepared to do that. I took a Greek minor in college and then a New Testament emphasis in seminary, because I really wanted to spend my ministry in the New Testament. And so the years went by since coming to Grace Church, and it was June 5, 2011, that I finished the New Testament.
I believed when I started what I believe now — that I have held in my hand the actual living Word of God.
I suppose I could have begun the 43-year effort with a long defense of Scripture’s authenticity, or Scripture’s authority, or Scripture’s inspiration, or Scripture’s inerrancy, accuracy, and sufficiency. But while I’ve talked about those things when Scripture talked about them, I didn’t do that. I believe that Scripture is its own defense. I believe that Scripture examined and Scripture understood will make its own case for its authority and inerrancy.
God doesn’t try to prove the Bible to be true. He simply declares the truth. I have never tried to prove to the congregation of Grace Church that what we are reading and what we are hearing is God’s Word. I haven’t needed to do that, because Scripture is its own peerless advocate. Its accuracy, truthfulness, clarity, and power are obvious as its content accumulates. And the weight of it increases with every passage studied. And correspondingly, doubt diminishes by stages until it finally disappears.
For those not exposed regularly to the truth and power of Scripture, some rational defenses may be helpful. But for those who are constantly, regularly, systematically brought into the depths of Scripture, it builds its own case. And eventually what you have is concrete reinforced with rebar — a foundation that does not move.
So I started an exposition of the New Testament, and it lasted for 43 years. I never planned the order. I didn’t go from the first chapter of Matthew to the last chapter of Revelation. The order was, in all honesty, random. And guess what? I realized as I was coming to the end of Luke that the only thing I had left was Mark.
For many preachers, Mark is where you might begin. It’s a newspaper version of the life of Christ. Mark is short, to the point, with very few didactic sections. The word “immediately” is used often. But even though it’s a natural starting place, Mark is where I ended. So I preached through Mark, and at the end of four decades of exposition of Scripture, where did I land? I landed at Mark 16:9-20. So then, after 43 years, I had to tell my congregation that there is something in their Bible that doesn’t belong there.
As Mark ends this powerful history of our Lord Jesus, he does what the other writers do: he ends at the resurrection. In Mark 16:1-5, there’s the testimony of the empty tomb. Then in verses 6-7, there’s the testimony of the angel, who affirms that He’s alive. And then in verse 8, the scene ends this way:
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.
Mark ends abruptly with trembling and astonishment — with awe. The evidence has overwhelmed the women who saw it. They’re stunned into silence. And so is Mark, who drops his quill.
But then we get more. We get Mark 16:9-20, which is commonly placed in brackets in English translations. And this is because we now know that these final verses were not part of the original text that Mark wrote; they were added later. In other words, they don’t belong there.
But why is that? How did that happen? Are there any other sections in Scripture that don’t belong? Did this, after so much careful learning from the precious truths of the New Testament, suddenly undermine our confidence in Scripture?
The question of our confidence in Scripture comes right to the surface when we look at the false ending of Mark. But rather than undermining our confidence, studying this passage actually provides a rich opportunity for us to strengthen our confidence in the Bible we hold in our hands. It gives us the opportunity to go behind and below the cherished English translation into the original manuscripts, and into the long history of careful preservation that assures us the text we have now is accurate to the original.
All translations of Scripture are based on the same ancient manuscripts discovered and studied by very careful scholars through the centuries. The Bible you hold in your hands is a translation from the most accurate of these manuscripts. It is trustworthy. Thousands of people through the centuries, and even into the modern times, pour over these manuscripts so that what we have has vast affirmation. In fact, I would say there is massive evidence that the Holy Spirit not only inspired the Scripture but actively preserved it in its purity through all history.
Because of the uniqueness and importance of Scripture, it has been copied and translated far more than any other piece of literature. All manuscripts in Greek and other ancient translations bring the total number of New Testament manuscripts to 25,000. Such an abundance preserved by the Holy Spirit through faithful men in the church makes it possible to reconstruct the original books with virtually complete accuracy. Nothing else in ancient literature even comes close to this abundant availability of manuscripts and translations, or the uniform consistency of translation across centuries.
Of course, this purity of transmission makes sense. Why would the Holy Spirit go to the trouble of inspiring Scripture and then not providentially protect it? We have so many accurate, consistent manuscripts that we know without hesitation that what we hold in our hands is an English translation of the original with no loss. No less a scholar than A.T. Robertson said that the available manuscripts have enabled textual scholars to accurately reconstruct the original text with more than 99.9 percent accuracy.
Where errors do appear in manuscripts, we are able to spot them through comparison with other manuscripts. These errors are usually inconsequential, and sometimes in modern translations you will see notes in the margins highlighting and explaining these discrepancies. Scholars and translators do not hide these variances. Indeed, by pointing these few instances out, they demonstrate the overwhelming reliability of Scripture.
So, how does this all connect to Mark? What we have in Mark 16:9-20 is a long textual variant that we know, through manuscript comparison, does not belong to the original text of Mark. Scholars uniformly agree that it does not belong in the book. That’s why these verses appear in brackets, to highlight the fact that they aren’t an original part of Mark.
Having now looked very briefly at the reliability of Scripture in spite of the existence of some textual variants, next time we will look specifically at Mark 16:9-20 in order to understand both this false ending and the true ending it obscures.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 2012, titled “Confidence in God’s Word, as It Is Written.”
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