The Three Marys
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His outer garments and made four parts, a part to every soldier and also the tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece. So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, to decide whose it shall be"; this was to fulfill the Scripture: "They divided My outer garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots." Therefore the soldiers did these things.
But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then He said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.
- John 19:23-27
This is a close-up look at a family dealing with a crushing event in their lives. In a historical context this is the Son of God, dying for the sins of all mankind, bidding farewell to His earthly family. But on a more personal, immediate note it is a man being executed in pubic, making arrangements with one of His closest friends for the future care of His mother. And while we have this close-up in view, have you noticed yet that these three women, who are at the foot of the cross during Jesus' darkest hour, are all named Mary?
I would like to describe the relationships between these women and how three women named Mary ended up at the cross of Christ.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus
The first Mary mentioned is Mary, the earthly mother of Jesus. The name that she carries along with the other two appears in the Greek N.T. as Maria or Mariam. These were Greek versions of the Hebrew name Miriam (the name of Moses' sister).
Most of what we know about her comes from either Matthew or Luke's early account of Jesus' life. She lived in Nazareth and was engaged to a man named Joseph, a carpenter. She conceived a child through the power of the Holy Spirit and visited her cousin Elizabeth during her pregnancy.
After being informed of this fact by God, Joseph took her as his wife and soon Jesus was born in Bethlehem. She and her family lived for a time in Egypt but eventually settled back into life at Nazareth, their home town.
Luke records an episode some twelve years later where she and Joseph anxiously searched for Jesus thinking Him lost, but eventually finding Him in the temple. After this episode we do not see her or Jesus until He begins His public ministry. Mary did not follow Jesus on His ministry journeys but we do see them together at a wedding early in His ministry.
What she thought of Jesus during this time is not known. We do know, however, that when Jesus was still a baby and prophecies about His future were made by Simeon and Anna (prophets who were at the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was brought there to be circumcised), Mary was amazed. And when she found Jesus in the temple as a boy and He admonished her that He was in His Father's house, Mary treasured or pondered over there words in her heart.
During His ministry, there is another episode described by Mark where Jesus' family, including Mary, seek to speak to Jesus. They were concerned about His personal welfare, hearing that His ministry was beginning to cause a great stir among the people.
In Mark chapter three, Jesus responds to His earthly family by declaring that fidelity to the spiritual family (those who believe) has priority over fidelity to one's earthly family, even His own.
The final scene where we actually see Jesus and His mother together is at the foot of the cross where He tenderly gives over the responsibility for her care to John, His beloved Apostle. We see Mary one other time and it is after Jesus' ascension when she is in the upper room along with the Apostles, family members, and other disciples (Acts 1:14).
Mary, the Sister of Mary
The second Mary we see at the foot of the cross is Mary, the sister of Jesus' mother. It may seem odd that two sisters have the same name, but there are explanations.
The Bible definitely says that they are sisters and mentions that this second Mary was the wife of Clopas. Some ancient manuscripts have margin notes saying that this Clopas (who was also called Alphaeus) was the brother of Joseph, Jesus' earthly father. This would mean that two brothers (Joseph and Clopas) married two sisters who either had similar names or were part of a blended family.
In addition to this, Mark tells us (Mark 15:47) that she was the mother of James (the less) and Joses. James ("the less" because he was younger or shorter than the other Apostle named James) became one of the twelve Apostles. We have several sightings of this second Mary throughout the New Testament.
For example, Matthew 27:54-56 tells us that she was one of the women who had followed His ministry from its early days in Galilee and had supported the Lord.
She was also present at the crucifixion, as we read in John, and was at the empty tomb on resurrection morning (Matthew 28:1) having brought spices to properly bury the body.
She was among the women who reported the resurrection of Jesus to the Apostles and is probably among the people mentioned by Luke in Acts 1:14 where He lists those in the upper room with the Apostles. At one point he mentions "the women", referring to those women who had followed and ministered to Jesus during His ministry.
In John 19, we see her supporting and comforting her sister as her nephew and Lord is being crucified.
The third Mary mentioned in John is Mary Magdalene. Magdalene is probably a reference to where she came from (Magdala was a town in the region of Galilee where Jesus was from).
In Luke 8:1-3, we learn that Mary had been among a group of women who had been healed by Jesus of various illnesses and possession by demons.
Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out
- Luke 8:2
This Mary was part of that group of women who followed and ministered to Jesus, and as Luke writes,"…were contributing to their (Apostles) support out of their private means." This is the only information that we have about her initial contact with Jesus.
Some have said that Mary Magdalene was the sinful woman (prostitute) that anointed Jesus with oil. There is no biblical basis for this, and is mainly a Hollywood contrivance used to advance a plot line involving Jesus and this woman. For example in the movie, "The Passion", she is portrayed as the adulteress saved by Jesus and anointing His feet with oil. The Bible, however, records that it was Mary the sister of Martha who did this on one occasion (John 11:2). Aside from her healing by Jesus, the Bible mentions that Mary Magdalene was one of the women who followed and supported Jesus' ministry, and was with the other two Marys at the end of His life on the cross.
She is among the women who go to Jesus' tomb, and when they find Him gone she tells Peter and John. After this she returns with these two Apostles to the tomb and when they depart, she is left alone weeping. At this point John tells us that she sees two angels near the tomb and then Jesus appears to her. She is confused at first thinking that he is a caretaker, but soon recognizes the Lord and tries to cling to Him. He comforts her and tells her to return and tell the Apostles that she has seen the risen Lord.
This Mary, a faithful disciple who had served the Lord from the beginning of His ministry, was granted the privilege not even the mother of Jesus received, the privilege of being the first person (man or woman) to witness His resurrection.
The Way to the Cross
It is interesting that there were three Marys who found themselves at the foot of the cross on that day. Interesting because they had the same name and were present at the most significant event in history, the death of the Son of God on a Roman cross.
What is also of note is that even though they had the same name, the way that each of them eventually came to be there was very different:
Mary, the mother of Jesus, came through a divine call.
God, through the angel Gabriel and through a mighty miracle, called upon her to believe. Of course, she had to submit to God's will and accept as true the calling she had, but hers was a call directly from God.
Starting with her sense of amazement as she watched this child grow, to the witness of His first miracle at Cana, Mary followed the path from divinely called servant to faithful disciple in the upper room at Pentecost. The prophet Simeon told her that one day a sword would pierce her soul, and on that day at the cross she felt that pain as her Son, and now Lord, suffered on the cross before her very eyes.
Mary, wife of Clopas; mother of James the less and Joses; sister of Mary the mother of Jesus, came to the cross by association.
She was closely connected to Jesus' family (some scholars think that the two families shared a home after Joseph died). Her son was a disciple, then an Apostle of the Lord. Through her close association with the family she became an early disciple, already ministering to and supporting the work of Jesus and the Apostles when He began His early work in Galilee.
Mary continued in that supportive role in helping her sister deal with the death of her Son, Jesus (who was her own nephew), and remained faithful. Our last glimpse of her is that of being among the women to report the resurrection of the Christ, and then awaiting the grand day of Pentecost with the Apostles in the upper room.
Mary Magdalene came to the cross not through a divine call or association, but through the mercy of Jesus Himself.
She was a castaway, ill, possessed by demons, beyond hope or help in her society. That she had seven demons says that she was seriously dysfunctional, seriously disconnected emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Jesus personally cast out her demons and brought her back to a right mind, and from that time on she served and supported His ministry along with the other women.
When you read about her actions after the crucifixion, however, you get the sense that she had a strong character and was a leader among the women. For example, she runs ahead to the tomb (John 20:1).
- She reports to Peter and John and then is joined by the other women.
- She returns to the tomb with the Apostles.
- She speaks to the Angels.
- She sees Jesus first.
- She's the one who gives the message to the Apostles that He is raised and will ascend to the Father.
Her initial contact with the mercy of the Lord drew her to follow Him not only to the cross, but beyond the cross to the tomb where she was rewarded by His glorious resurrection. Aside from the interest of knowing more about the three Marys present at the cross on that day, this lesson also shows us how most people find their way to the cross:
1. Some Receive God's Calling
This is a tricky thing to explain without giving the wrong idea. I am not saying that God calls some and rejects others like the Calvinists teach (election/predestination). However, we do see Bible characters (like Samuel) who, from an early age, had a sensitivity for the things of God.
Of course these types of people have to obey the Gospel and must remain faithful like all Christians, but somehow their hearts are tuned to God from early on. You can refuse to respond or kill the desire to know God (Saul did, Demas did) but some people are, somehow, more attuned to spiritual things than others.
I believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was one of these.
- Her answer to Gabriel was without fear, showing great humility and poise.
- Her greeting to Elizabeth (full of quotations from the Scriptures) shows that she was already highly sensitive and ready for God's call.
Some today are like this, always searching, never satisfied in the desire to know God's will and purpose for their lives.
2. Some Come to the Cross by Association
How many times have I heard Christian brothers say to me, "If it weren't for the prayers and encouragement of my wife, mother, etc., I'd never have known Christ." This is the way most people come to the cross; they are led there by someone else: a friend, a relative, or a spouse.
Mary, wife of Clopas, was converted by watching her sister raise Jesus and by her son's association with the Savior. These are the ones who brought her to Calvary on that day.
3. Some Are Brought Through Ministry
Mary Magdalene was hurting and Jesus took away that hurt. This enabled her to hear the message and heal her soul. The various ministries of the church, whether they are: visiting, helping the poor, comforting the sick and lonely, teaching, counseling, etc.
All of these are extensions of Jesus' healing ministry to those who are hurting. Like Mary Magdalene, if we care for the hurts that people have, we may also have an opportunity to speak the saving message of Christ to them as well.
These women and their stories teach us a few important spiritual lessons:
- It doesn't matter who or how you are called, the decision is always the same. Will you believe and obey, or will you reject Jesus Christ? Many that were called by Jesus, healed by Jesus, and associated with Him also refused to believe and obey Him. Only those who believe and obey gain the blessings of the calling.
- It doesn't matter who or how you are called, the destination is always the same. The cross of Christ. All roads lead to Calvary. Eventually, every person has to pick up their cross and follow Jesus.
- It doesn't matter who or how you are called, the future is always the same. Resurrection with Christ. The Roman Catholic Church tries to make Mary, the mother of Jesus, special by saying that she did not see death and was brought up to heaven in bodily form (like Enoch in the Old Testament). Of course there is no biblical support for this very human theory. That is not to say that Mary's resurrection will not be special, but it will not be any more special than yours or mine.
In I Thessalonians 4:13-17, Paul explains that the faithful (including the three Marys) as well as you and I will rise out of the grave to a glorious eternity when Jesus returns. Because of this promise I conclude our study by asking the following question:
How is Christ calling you? Is He calling you through:
- A hungry heart?
- An encouraging word?
- A kindness or service by one of His disciples?
Do not put off responding to Him with the faith and obedience that will lead you to His cross and on to a glorious resurrection.