After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Matthew 28:1-6
Jesus had a large following of women. We will try to unravel the confusion of their names shortly (there were a lot named “Mary”), although that is not our ultimate purpose here. Our purpose is to contemplate that it was the women who were the first to be told Jesus had risen from the dead and the first to see the risen Lord. In fact, according to the gospel records, the angels spoke to no one else except the women. And, it was the women who were given charge to inform the disciples.
This is remarkable, given the prevailing view toward women in the Jewish culture of that day. Although it pains me to go through it, consider the following: *
Although this seems foreign to us now because Jesus changed all of this (although God’s word never put women in this position), we need to understand the view toward women in that day in order to feel the weight of what God did at the resurrection. It is also important as a rebuttal to those who vainly try to posit that the resurrection was a myth created by the disciples. No Jewish male would write such a thing in which it was women who first heard the good news from the angels. And, that it was to the women that Jesus first showed Himself. This is unthinkable if one were making it all up. If you wanted to create a story in that culture to convince people Jesus rose from the dead, you wouldn’t make your key witnesses women.
But God did. And He did it in spades.
The gospel accounts tell us that there were many women who followed Jesus and ministered to Him. When He was crucified, they were standing by watching, and no doubt, grieving:
Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. Matthew 27:55-56
And John tells us this:
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. John 19:25
Additionally, as we saw in our opening verses from Matthew:
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. Matthew 28:1
There are a lot of women named Mary in the gospel accounts!
So, this brings us to the confusion, and sometimes source of rebuttal, regarding perceived contradictions in the account of the women. I’ll give you my take (with apologies to those who believe Mary had no sisters or brothers :), so that we can continue without being confused by “which Mary are we talking about?”.
The gospels record what appears to be five different women named Mary:
Someday I will detail why I came to the following conclusion, but for now I will tell you that I believe Mary (2) (3) and (5) are all the same person. I will also someday tell you why I believe why it is possible that two sisters would both carry the name Mary.
So, we have three named Mary who we will internally rename so that we don’t get confused:
So, in John’s account, 19:25, “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene”, I believe you should read this as three women, not four: “Mary the wife of Clopas” is an appositive of “his mother’s sister”. This is the better understanding from the Greek.
So, you can kind of see what John was faced with in that verse:
“Near the cross of Jesus stood Mary, Mary and Mary.
Which, in our temporary substitution for clarity, reads:
“Near the cross of Jesus stood Mary, Aunt Mary and Magdalene.”
So, who went to the tomb in Matthew 28:1?
Who followed Joseph of Arimathea to see where Jesus had been laid in Matthew 27:61?
Who does Mark list as being at the cross in Mark 15:40?
Hopefully, that will help clear up some of the confusion when one comes to reading about the women and their part in the resurrection story. It may also give you a greater appreciation for Aunt Mary and her prevalent role.
But let’s now return to our purpose. The women, first of all, were no small part of the life of Jesus. They were following Him from town to town and sacrificially providing for Him. Here is Luke’s account:
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. Luke 8:1-3
Here we find two more names: Joanna and Susanna. They are listed here because Jesus had cured them of demons and disease. Joanna is listed as one of the women who is found testifying of the risen Jesus to the skeptical disciples. (Luke 24:10)
We don’t know the background of Mary Magdalene. What we do know, however, is that Jesus healed her of seven demons. If the number seven is taken literally or figuratively, they had completely consumed her. But then Jesus touched her life and she was made whole. Her subsequent dedication to Him is found throughout His final days and resurrection.
If we follow John’s account: Mary Magdalene came early Sunday morning, while it was still dark, to the tomb. Was she doing what she had seen Jesus do countless times—being with the Father early in the mornings? No doubt she was still heavily grieving the loss of her Lord. Shockingly, the stone had been rolled away. She went into the tomb and found the Lord’s body gone. This must have been emotionally devastating to her. She is crushed. Her Lord had been savagely scourged, then crucified and put to death and buried in a tomb. And now, on top of all of that, someone had taken His body and violated his grave. She must have been in shock as she ran to tell Peter, who then, with John, ran to the tomb and also found it empty. The men returned home. No angel appeared to them.
But Magdalene, who had followed them, was left standing outside the tomb, weeping deeply. And as she wept, she stooped to look into the tomb again and saw two angels, one at the head where Jesus had lain and one at the feet. They asked her why she was weeping and she said that it was because they had taken away the Lord’s body and she didn’t know where it was. Poor Mary, so filled with grief, eyes so full of tears, a heart so deep in pain. Maybe this is why it appears as if she didn’t even recognized them as angels. Her world was turned upside down. Her heart, no doubt, was wrenched and her world in complete turmoil… until, someone behind her asked: “Who are you seeking?”
And then Jesus called her name.
And, for this woman, nothing would ever be the same again. Oh, what unspeakable joy! He was alive! He had conquered the grave!
The women were the first to know the tomb was empty. They were the first to see the risen Lord. They were second-class citizens. Of no account. But God blessed them mightily—the God who has a heart for the lowly and the outcast; the God who has compassion for the oppressed and the downtrodden.
And this is the God who called your name. He is the One who called mine. And that is why, for those of us in Christ, nothing will ever be the same again.
He is risen, indeed!
Who are you seeking?
* Thanks to William Lane Craig, “Reasonable Faith”, for these quotes, page 367