In Mark the figure at the empty tomb is no ordinary angel. In fact Mark doesn’t call him an angel at all. He’s described as “young man” and it’s significant. Only one other person in Mark is so described and he’s found at the arrest of Jesus.
A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. (14:51)
For years people have speculated as to the identity of this man. Does the ending of Mark offer a clue? Not exactly. It does, however, reveal a powerful meaning in Mark’s abrupt ending.
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! 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 and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
The copies closest to the original do not contain 16:9-20.
Why doesn’t Mark record Jesus’ encounter with the disciples? Why show himself in Galilee and not immediately in Jerusalem as Luke records? The answers are found in the description of these two men.
The Disciple Who Abandons His Call
Whatever the naked man’s identity, he’s clearly a symbol in Mark. Note the ways in which he embodies the disciples.
He’s “following Jesus.” “Following” for Mark is the essence of discipleship. Three times Jesus calls men to follow him and each time they leave everything to follow him (1:14-20, 2:13-14). The five men (Peter, Andrew, James, John, Levi) form his core. In all, He chooses twelve men so “that they might be with Him” (3:13-14). When Jesus returns to his hometown, Mark poignantly adds they, “followed him” (6:1). In “following Jesus” the young man is acting like a disciple.
He’s “wearing nothing but a linen garment.” Two “linen” garments are mentioned in Mark. The other is wrapped around the dead body of Jesus (15:46). Given Mark’s penchant for symbolic connections, it looks like the linen garment here represents the death Jesus has called his disciples to die. On the road to Jerusalem, after prophesying his own death, Jesus teaches his disciples,
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
Dietrich Bonhoffer aptly said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” The linen represents that death.
“He fled naked, leaving his garment behind.” The disciples left everything to follow Jesus (1:14-20, 2:13-14, 10:28). By deserting him, they left the one thing that still remained – the call to follow Jesus. The “young man” likewise leaves the linen garment and embraces his nakedness, the biblical symbol for shame (Genesis 2:25, 3:7-11, 9:20-29, Exodus 20:26, Isaiah 47:1-15, Revelation 3:17).
The Disciple Who Embraces It
This isn’t the last word on the “young man” however. If he’s a symbol of the disciples desertion at Gethsemane, the “young man” at the empty tomb, hints at their future restoration.
He’s “wearing a white robe.” Note how this man is also described by his attire. Instead of nakedness or a linen garment, he wears a “white robe.” The only other mention of such a robe is in Revelation 6:11
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.
It’s a symbol for the martyrs. The first “young man” fled from death. This “young man” appears to have embraced it.
He is “sitting on the right.” When James and John requested to be seated on Jesus’ right and his left in his “glory,” Jesus turns their attention to the cross and asks them if they can do the same (10:35-40). The position of the two thieves clearly reveals that such places are prepared for those who die with Him (15:27).
He calls the disciples to once again follow Jesus. The young man’s message is simple and direct. “Go tell the disciples and Peter ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him just as he told you.'”
Why do they have to return to Galilee?
Why dosen’t Jesus just meet in Jerusalem as he does in Luke?
For Mark It’s the place where the disciples were called. Jesus through this young man is calling them to start over again. Like His message to the church of Ephesus (Revelation 2:5) “Consider how far you have fallen, Repent and do the things you did at first.” Jesus continues to go before them. The only question is will they start over – will they follow – will they follow him this time to the end?
Mark’s sudden ending leaves the call and the failure of the women ringing in his audiences ears.
Will you follow? Will you?
Jesus is waiting.
What do you think?