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18. Mary Magdalene

18. 3 Mary: Pattern For Witness

Those who observed Mary’s first anointing of the Lord’s feet began to say within themselves “Who is this that forgiveth sins also?” (Lk. 7:49). But, presumably, they didn’t verbalize it, when they easily could have done. Why not? Was it not that Mary’s anointing was an unspoken testimony that indeed, Jesus had forgiven her sins?  

Mary Magdalene is always noted first in the appearance lists in the gospels. It is unusual that the first appearance would involve women as in that culture their role as witnesses would not be well accepted. It is a sign of the veracity of the account, because if an ancient were to create such a story he would never have it start with women. But inspiration disregards this. The Lord so wanted those women to be His leading witnesses. Joachim Jeremias quotes extensively from Jewish sources to show that “a woman had no right to bear witness, because it was concluded from Gen. 18:15 that she was a liar” (1). And Josephus (Antiquities Of The Jews 4.219) concurs: “Let not the testimony of women be admitted because of the levity and boldness of their sex”. And so it should not surprise us that He chooses today the most unlikely of witnesses, indeed, those who somehow shock and arrest the attention of others.  

2 Cor. 2:14-17 seems to have a series of allusions back to Mary’s anointing of the Lord:

2 Cor. 2

Mary’s anointing

Maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place (:14)

The house filled with the smell of Mary’s anointment

For we are the smell of Christ (:15) in our witness of Him to the world

Mary must have had the same smell of the same perfume on her, as was on Jesus whom she had anointed with it

Making merchandise of the word of God (:17 RVmg.)

As Judas coveting the anointing oil for mercenary gain

The simple point of the allusions is that we like Mary are spreading the smell of Christ to the world; she is our pattern for witness. 

“Go tell my brethren…” (Mt. 28:10) is quoting from the LXX of Ps. 22:23, where in the context of predicting the Lord’s death and resurrection, we read that therefore “I will tell of Your name to my brothers”. The “I” is clearly Jesus Himself; and yet, as we have elsewhere shown at length, when His people preach in His Name, this is effectively Him preaching. And so the first preacher of the Lord was to be those women. They were to tell His brethren the good news of His resurrection, or, as Ps. 22 puts it, to declare the Name of Yahweh to them. For His resurrection was the declaration and glorification of that Name to the full. Thus Acts 4:10-12 definitely connect the Lord’s resurrection and the declaration of the Name. The “things concerning the name of Jesus Christ” would have been those things which concern His death and resurrection.    “I will declare thy name unto my brethren” (Heb. 2:12) uses the same Greek words as in Mt. 28:10, where Mary is told to go tell her brethren of the resurrection.  Rom. 15:8,9 speaks of how it is the Lord Jesus personally who was to fulfill those words through His death, which confirmed the promises of God: “Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name”. And yet these words are applied by the Lord to Mary! She was to be Him, in the fulfillment of the great commission to tell the world. Mary was told to go and tell her brethren: “I ascend unto my Father…” (Jn. 20:17). She was not to tell them ‘Jesus is going to ascend…’. She was to use the first person. Why? Surely because in her witness she was to be to them the voice of Jesus. And so it is for us all; we are witnesses in Him, we are Jesus to the eyes both of our brethren and this world.  

The women were told by the risen Lord: “Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me” (Mt. 28:10). In Acts 12:17 the same Greek words are used by Peter: “Go show these things…to the brethren”. Peter felt that his deliverance from prison was like the Lord’s resurrection, and perhaps consciously he used the Lord’s words to Mary Magdalene. Peter then went “to another place” just as the Lord did on saying those words. He saw that his life was a living out of fellowship with the Lord’s mortal experiences, every bit as much as our lives are too. The same words occur also in 1 Jn. 1:2,3: “That which we have seen and heard [the teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus] declare we unto you”, our brethren. It’s as if John is acknowledging that the Lord’s commission to Mary was in fact binding upon us all; for we are represented by her.  

Mary was told to spread the good news of the resurrection: “Go to my brothers and say to them…” (Jn. 20:17). And she obeyed: she “went and announced…” (Jn. 20:18). Putting this alongside the other gospel records, this is all in the context of the disciples being commanded to take the good news of the risen Lord to all men. Surely Mary is being set up as an example of obedience to that command. She overcame all her inhibitions, the sense of “Who? Me?”, the embarrassment at being a woman teaching or informing men in the first century…and as such is the pattern for all of us, reluctant as we are to bear the good news. “Among the Hebrews women only had limited rights and above all could not act as witnesses” (2). And yet, the Lord chose Mary to be the witness to His resurrection to His brethren. He turned societal expectations on their head by setting her up as the bearer of the good news to them. Why? Surely to shake all of us from the safety of our societal and human closets; that we, whoever we are, however much we feel inadequate and ‘this is not for me’, are to be the bearers of the Lord’s witness to all men. In passing, note how Luke’s inspired Gospel was compiled from the testimonies of “those who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and servants of the word” (Lk. 1:2,3). Some of the events he records could only have been told him by women; and so the Spirit accepted their witness, and encouraged them to make it because God accepted their witness. Only women were witnesses of the Lord's burial- yet belief in His burial is listed by Paul as an essential part of the faith. Yet the only reason the early believers had  to believe this was the testimony of women. The women went to preach the news of the resurrection with “fear and great joy”. But putting meaning into words, what were they fearful about? Surely they now realized that they had so failed to believe the Lord’s clear words about His resurrection; and they knew now that since He was alive, they must meet Him and explain. So their fear related to their own sense of unworthiness; and yet it was paradoxically mixed with the “great joy” of knowing His resurrection. And there is reason to understand that those women are typical of all those who are to fulfill the great commission. 

Mary went to tell others “what she had seen and heard” (Jn. 20:18), and John in one of his many allusions back to his Gospel uses these very words about all the apostles- “that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you” (1 Jn. 1:1,3). He and the other brethren took Mary as their inspiration in the work of witness, as should we. John’s record seems to reflect how he saw parallels between himself and Mary in their witness to the resurrection. They both “came to the tomb” (Jn. 20:1,4), stood outside, “stooped” and looked into the tomb (Jn. 20:5,11), “beheld…saw” (Jn. 20:5,12). Yet Mary was the first to see the risen Lord. The testimony of a woman didn’t count in the 1st century world, and yet God chose her to be the first witness. In doing so, He was teaching that the work of witness and the sheer power of what we are witnesses to can transform the most hesitant and inappropriate person into a preacher of the irrepressible good news, even with the whole world against them. It’s as if John is saying in his account of the Gospel that Mary was in some ways his pattern; he and her were to be connected. He wasn’t ashamed to thus identify himself with the witness of a woman. Ps. 68 is prophetic of the Lord’s death and resurrection. Verse 18 is specifically quoted in the New Testament about His ascension. Verse 11 predicts that: “The Lord gave the word: the women that publish the tidings are a great host”. This primarily concerns the publishing of the Lord’s resurrection, although the imagery is based upon the singing of Miriam and the women of Israel after the Red Sea deliverance. Clearly enough, women were to play a major part in the witness to the Lord’s resurrection. This was shown by the women being commanded to go tell their brethren that the Lord had risen indeed. And yet there is ample evidence that it was women who in practice were the more compelling preachers of the Gospel in the first century ecclesia. The simple fact is that God delegated to women the duty of witnessing to what was for Him the most momentous and meaningful act in all His creation- the raising of His Son from the dead. He was clearly making a point- that those whose witness this world may despise, are those He uses. And in this we can take endless personal encouragement, beset as we are by our own sense of inadequacy as preachers.  Indeed, in Mt. 5:14,15, the Lord speaks of how we are the light of the world, giving light to the world in the same way as "they" light a lamp. Who are the "they"? The point has been made that to 1st century Palestinian ears, the answer was obvious: Women. Because lighting the lamps was a typical female duty, which men were not usually involved in. Could it not be that the Lord Jesus even especially envisaged women as His witnesses? Did He here have in mind how a great company of women would be the first to share the news that the light of the world had risen?

The zeal of Mary to be an obedient witness is remarkable. All Jerusalem knew the story of the risen Jesus still on “the third day” after His death- only someone totally cut off from society would have not heard this news, as Cleopas commented (Lk. 24:18 Gk.). If the whole of Jerusalem knew the story about the resurrected Jesus on the third day after His death, and the male disciples were evidently still nervous and doubtful about everything, it must be that this tremendous spread of the news had been achieved by Mary and the women.  

Yet it must be realized that initially, Mary was not such a great witness. Jn. 12:1 RV informs us that “Jesus therefore…came to Bethany” and the home of Mary. “Therefore”. Why? Because the Jews had just “given a commandment, that is any man knew where he was, he should show it” (Jn. 11:57). And therefore Jesus came to Mary and Martha’s home. Why? So that they could no longer keep secret their faith in Him. The meal they put on was not just female, standard hospitality. It was, in this context, a brave public declaration of their identification with this wanted man. And the way in the last week of His life the Lord chose to sleep there each night was surely done for the same reason: to lead them to open identity with His cause and His cross. “Much people therefore of the Jews knew that he was there” (Jn. 12:9). And so with us, the Lord brings about circumstances so that our light can no longer remain under a bucket.


(1) Joachim Jeremias Jerusalem In The Time Of Jesus ((Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969) p. 374.

(2) Carla Ricci, Mary Magdalene (Minneapolis MN: Fortress, 1994) p. 189.