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. (Mark 16:14)
So here’s the resurrected Creator Son of God, freshly back from kicking hell and death in the teeth, sitting down with the eleven survivors of his intense 3-year training. Functionally, this is their graduation ceremony: he’s just about to commission them to go into all the world and represent him. So what does he say to them?
He rebukes them! And he rebukes them, not for what they’ve done, but for what they’ve not done. So what is this big sin that they’ve done, big enough that it needs to take center stage at their graduation? It’s not believing the testimony of others who had seen him.
The previous verse is one example: the apostles didn’t believe the boys who had encountered Jesus on the Emmaus Road: two guys have an experience of Jesus that is both outside the apostles’ control and outside of their understanding of how Jesus does things. Naturally, they’re cautious about a couple of country bumpkins stumbling in well after dark, shouting, “I seen ‘im!”
They had already rejected the testimony of the ex-prostitute who first discovered his empty tomb. And after they had rejected these testimonies, Jesus appeared to them personally. Their reaction was marked by fear and unbelief.
I do not say this to my credit: I understand why the apostles didn’t believe. I know that place of emotional weariness, where I really don’t want one more strange person telling me one more strange experience; I just want to process the grief I’m overwhelmed with. And I know that place of pastoral caution, where I’m thinking violent thoughts about the next freak that feeds my sheep lousy food based on screwball experiences, and I’m about ready to pull an Indiana Jones on the guy. I understand why they didn’t receive the testimonies.
Jesus, however, is not so patient. He clearly expects better of them. He rebuked them for not believing the bumpkins and the ex-hooker.
Our translation doesn’t do justice to the Greek word “oneidizo,” which is being translated “rebuked” in this verse. Here are some of the definitions for the Greek word:
- to reproach someone, with the implication of that individual being evidently to blame.
- to speak disparagingly of a person in a manner which is not justified - 'to insult.'
- to upbraid, to throw it in one’s teeth.
- In a more literal translation, the same word is variously translated, denounce, insult, insulting, reproach, reproached, reviled.
If Jesus is that serious about it, I probably ought to be. I observe a couple of principles from this verse:
- The Head of the Church expects me to believe the testimony of experiences with God from disreputable people. Since Jesus’ birth was announced to shepherds and foreign astrologers, I guess we should not be surprised that he continues to use freaks and outsiders to tell his story.
- But freaks and outsiders have other stories to tell than just God’s story. There is nothing in this verse – or in the rest of Scripture, as far as I can tell – that suggests that we need to believe every story. We still need to discern. We still need to eat the meat and spit out the bones.
- I don’t like this one: If I reject the (true) testimony of freaks, then I’ll not recognize him and his work when it’s my turn for a powerful experience with him. The boys rejected Mary’s testimony, rejected the bumpkins’ testimony; it’s my opinion that this rejection led to their unbelief and fear when Jesus interrupts their grief-filled dinner party later.
- But Jesus doesn’t leave them in that cold, scary place. He breaks into the party and corrects their mistake, which leads to:
- Learning to learn from others’ testimonies appears to be preparation for fulfilling the Great Commission; note that verse 15 follows 14 in the same conversation in Mark 16.