How would the story be changed? How differently would the story be told if…
Once upon a time, Sleeping Beauty was awakened by a kiss from Prince Charming.
A Long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Luke Skywalker destroyed the Death Star.
Knowing how the story ends takes away a lot of the tension. You don’t have to worry as much about the characters or the success of the heroes. When they are in danger, you know they will make it through because you already know how it ends.
Not knowing how something resolves or how it ends creates a tension and uncertainty. It makes you want to know more, keeps your attention until it resolves. Will the heroes survive and make it out of the tough situation? It is the unknown, the unexpected that keeps you hanging on the edge of your seat.
One of the best devices to aid in creating audience tension is the Cliffhanger. You put the main character in some precarious setting and then stop the show before the moment resolves. Then you have to tune in at the “Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel” in order to see what happens next.
Today, many TV shows have a season finale that involves a cliffhanger. People then have to frustratingly wait until next season. One of the most famous cliffhangers spawned a whole national discussion that gave the nation an escape from the news of a presidential election, an ongoing hostage crisis, and a gas shortage.
The characterizing phrase from this moment was, “Who Shot JR?” back in 1980.
One of the Gospels about Jesus does this same thing; the Gospel of Mark.
It is the shortest of the gospels but tells the story in the best way. It is actually meant to be read in one sitting.
It moves very quickly using words like “immediately” or “suddenly”. It is filled with movement, displays of power, emotional responses.
Jesus is the main character and you as the audience learn who is He is in chapter 1 verse 1. The demons that Jesus encounters also know who He is. The only ones who don’t really know are the Disciples, the twelve men selected to follow Him.
Of the disciples, the story focuses on Peter, the second most important person in the story. He is the first disciple mentioned by name (Simon), he is the last disciple mentioned.
The question becomes for the audience… will the disciples, will Peter, ever figure it out? Will they ever see Jesus for who He really is?
Chapter 8 is the pivotal point. Jesus chastises the disciples by saying, “Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Is your heart hardened? ‘Do you have eyes, and not see, and do you have ears, and not hear?’” 8:17-18
After this, Jesus heals a blind man by touching him twice. The first time, the man’s sight is partially restored, he sees things blurry, like wearing someone else’s glasses. Then after the second touch, the man sees Jesus clearly.
Jesus then asks the disciples the most important question: “Who do people say that I am?” He wants to know how well they see Him. Are they seeing things blurry or clearly? The people are a bit confused about His identity, but Peter says boldly, “You are the Messiah!” 8:29
Peter and the disciples see clearly for one moment. But then Jesus changes course and begins to teach about His eventual crucifixion and death. And Peter, who just 3 verses earlier proclaimed Jesus the Messiah begins to rebuke Jesus and Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for not seeing clearly.
Chapter 9 lets Peter see Jesus in His glory, called the Transfiguration, but they still don’t keep the focus very long.
The fast moving story covering several months slows down when they reach Jerusalem. Now the story goes day by day. In these days, Jesus promises a betrayer to which Peter says he never will but is willing to die for Jesus.
The last time a disciple is active in the story is when Peter denies even knowing Jesus in 14:66-72. He can no longer see Jesus clearly, he is afraid.
Now if you were in the first century, this story would have been read to you. Mark, the writer of the story is historically tied to Peter, traveling with him and attending him.
I believe this gospel was written while Peter was still alive. People would have come to the church gathering to hear the great Peter speak. While Mark or someone is reading this story, Peter would be on the front row listening to all his stories of failure with Jesus. Really? The man who denied Jesus isn’t the legend we’ve been hearing about.
Then the last day of Jesus’ life, when He is crucified goes hour by agonizing hour; starting at the 3rd , then the 6th, finally dying at the 9th hour at the beginning of a lunar eclipse.
This is an unexpected ending for the hero of the story if this was the first time you’ve ever heard it. A true tragedy.
None of the disciples are mentioned in the rest of Mark. On the day of Resurrection, it is the women who go to the tomb. The scene is disturbed, the women are getting more and more concerned when they are given a message: “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has been resurrected! He is not here! See the place where they put Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see Him there just as He told you.’”
Notice how Peter’s name is specifically mentioned again, to bring him back into the story. Then the story ends with the greatest cliffhanger possible. The women are afraid, afraid to tell anyone. THE END
That’s where Mark ends. In the various manuscripts that have survived from antiquity there is evidence of 4 different lengths of endings, the one preserved in many Bibles today is the longest. But it has a different style, different vocabulary and some questionable statements. It is not from the same source.
But the cliffhanger ending, I believe is intentional. As a storyteller, the audience (who’s been sitting for an hour) is now primed and ready to hear the “Rest of the Story” as Paul Harvey says. It serves as an introduction for Peter who can then stand up and share his eyewitness testimony, how he now sees Jesus clearly and how Jesus has forever changed his life.
This follows closely his own descriptions in the books he wrote for the New Testament.
Some of my favorite verses 1 Peter 3:15-16, I believe reminisces from his own experiences of denial and unwillingness to answer when asked about Jesus. 15-16—“set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense (an answer) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect.”
He says in 2 Peter 1:16—“For we did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.”
Mark’s missing ending is a classic literary cliffhanger to introduce the eyewitness Peter. When Peter died in Rome (traditionally crucified upside down), this closure of the story was lost.
The problem is that the cliffhanger is unsettling until it is resolved. So the endings are attempts to finish the story.
Nothing is more frustrating for a modern TV show to end a season with a cliffhanger, but have the next season cancelled before that story is completed. That’s what is happening here.