The Magnificat

And Mary said,
“My soul doth magnify the Lord / and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath looked upon the low estate of his handmaid / for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things / and holy is his name.
And his mercy is unto generations and generations / on them that fear him.
He hath showed strength with his arm / He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart.
He hath put down princes from their thrones / and hath exalted them of low degree.
The hungry he hath filled with good things / and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath given help to Israel his servant / that he might remember mercy
(As he spake unto our fathers) / toward Abraham and his seed for ever (Luke 1:46-55).

God was doing great things; He was worthy of praise. The mother of the Lord Jesus gives God praise for what He was accomplishing through her and the Child who would be born.

maryMary has come to visit her relative Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist; Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is carrying the Lord because her child leapt in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice (Luke 1:39-41). Elizabeth declares Mary and her Child blessed (Luke 1:44-45). In response Mary begins this beautiful poem/song of praise to God for what He is accomplishing.

Luke 1:46-55 is frequently called the Magnificat (Latin for “he/she/it magnifies”, the first word of the poem/song in the Latin Vulgate of Luke 1:46). Mary speaks as a mother of promise in the same chord as Hannah sang generations before (cf. 1 Samuel 2:1-10). The composition is in Greek but throughout is constructed in terms of Hebrew poetry and praise.

Mary begins by magnifying and rejoicing in God as Savior; this joy is rooted in recognizing that He has raised her up from her lowly estate so as to be the mother of the Lord, and she recognizes that the generations to come would consider her blessed (Luke 1:46-48). God who has done this is mighty and holy, full of mercy to those who fear Him, a constant refrain regarding the nature of God (e.g. Joel 2:13; Luke 1:49-50).

Mary then perceives what God is doing by lifting up a lowly peasant girl to bear the Christ child: God shows strength and has scattered the proud; He elevates the lowly and brings down princes from their authority; the rich are sent away with nothing while the hungry are filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53). In the greatest sense God is fulfilling His promises to Abraham and Israel through the Child whom she will bear, remembering the mercy He has shown toward them (Luke 1:54-55). Thus ends Mary’s song.

Many have over-emphasized Mary’s role and place in the scheme of God’s redemption of His people, yet we do well to keep in mind that God did do great things through her and that she is blessed for having given birth to Jesus our Savior. Mary can tell that the story is not going the way that many had expected it; most were not thinking of the Christ being born of a peasant girl in the backwoods of Galilee (Luke 1:26-27, 2:21-24). The King would not be raised among nobility in a palace; the Messiah would not be trained by the foremost rabbis of the day. By elevating Mary God already was showing how Jesus would be about exalting the humble and humbling the exalted. The Christ of God would be familiar with common people and would be able to identify with those otherwise marginalized or cast out (Matthew 9:10-14, 11:16-19). As Mary was a “nobody” whom God made “somebody” by choosing her to bear the Lord, so the Lord would make many “nobodies” into “somebodies” and dismiss “somebodies” as truly “nobodies.”

Mary’s song ought to resonate to this day among those who look to her Son as the consolation not only of Israel but of the whole world. In the Kingdom of God in Christ everyone has a place; “nobodies” can be somebody. There is no room for the proud and the self-exalted; the Lord is about humility and service. God will help His people and remembers the mercy He extends to those who share in the faith of Abraham. We do well to magnify God and rejoice in the Savior, for He has showed strength with His arm, has elevated the lowly and brought low the mighty. Such is the prayer and hope truly known and understood only by those who are humble, lowly, brought low, in despair, marginalized, and/or oppressed. Let us come to the Lord with humility and meekness and magnify His holy name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Most Holy Tomb

But Mary was standing without at the tomb weeping: so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she beholdeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain (John 20:11-12).

Sometimes God illustrates profound truths with momentary events. If you pass by too quickly you will miss it!

We are not informed of precisely how Mary Magdalene processed the events transpiring before her on that momentous Sunday morning. She is distraught, weeping, no doubt attempting to make sense of what she was seeing: His body was gone, and therefore, where had it been taken (John 20:1-13)? She had first gone to the tomb, ran back to inform Peter and John of its emptiness, and had come back again (John 20:1-11). As she looks in again, she sees two angels; John indicates one was seated where Jesus’ head had lain, and the other where His feet had been placed (John 20:12). In John’s account, they simply ask her why she was crying; she answered but we hear nothing more of the angels, for Mary then turns and encounters Jesus as the Risen Lord (John 20:13-16). She saw the angels, no doubt, but did she believe that their existence and placement there had any significance?

Every Gospel account has some angelic presence at the tomb. Matthew speaks of one angel rolling the stone away and proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28:2-7). Mark speaks of him as a young man in a white robe sitting on the right side; he also proclaims the resurrection of Jesus (Mark 16:5-7). Luke describes two men in dazzling apparel standing by the women also proclaiming Jesus as Risen (Luke 24:4-10). Therefore, it is only from John’s account that we see two angels sitting where Jesus’ head and feet had lain, simply asking Mary Magdalene a question, knowing that soon enough she will find her soul’s delight.

At this moment many rush to harmonize in an attempt to defend the historical integrity of the Gospel narratives. Yet we do well to contemplate why John highlights these particular details. The narrative could have continued without significant violence had Mary just run into the “gardener” after Peter and John left. Why, therefore, does John point out that Mary saw the two angels? And why is he so specific about where they sat?

The Evangelists, particularly John, only provide the details they want you to know. And John very much wants us to understand the significance of those angels and why they sat as they did. It is written in Exodus 25:18-22:

And thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, at the two ends of the mercy-seat. And make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end: of one piece with the mercy-seat shall ye make the cherubim on the two ends thereof. And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, covering the mercy-seat with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the mercy-seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And thou shalt put the mercy-seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.

As all good Israelites would know, God commanded Moses and Israel to build Him first a Tabernacle, and in the Most Holy Place in that Tabernacle would rest the Ark of the Covenant containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, a powerful sign of the covenant between God and Israel. On top of that Ark was the “mercy-seat,” and the mercy-seat was flanked on either side by cherubim. The mercy-seat is where God placed His presence and spoke to Moses; the mercy-seat is also where Aaron would bring the blood of the sacrifice to make atonement for himself and Israel (Leviticus 16:11-16). When Solomon built the Temple he built cherubim on both sides of the Most Holy Place for the same purpose (1 Kings 6:23-28).

John had already pointed out how Jesus spoke of His Body as a Temple (John 2:18-22). And here in the resurrection John hints at imagery fleshed out fully by the Hebrew author in Hebrews 9:1-28: in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, He embodies the Tabernacle/Temple service and thus provides the ultimate atonement. Just as the cherubim were placed on the two ends of the mercy-seat on the Ark of the Covenant, so the two angels sit on the slab on which the body of Jesus was laid. The empty tomb is now the Most Holy Place; where His body had lain represents a new mercy-seat, the place where God Incarnate would soon again speak with Mary (John 20:12-16). The angels declare the rock slab where the body of Jesus was placed as the new place of atonement where the holy sacrifice of God rested.

The spiritual implications of this association are staggering. If the tomb is as the Most Holy Place, and the slab upon which Jesus was lain as the mercy-seat, we have further associations between Jesus and the most holy sin-offering described in Leviticus 6:26-29. Far from being unclean or defiled because of bearing sin, and far from being separated from God, Jesus’ body, as the perfect sacrifice for sins, is most holy, bringing cleansing and sanctifying its location (Hebrews 10:5-10). The timing remains significant: the Most Holy Place is not reckoned as the cross or even the upper room but the empty tomb. John is not denying the need nor the efficacy of the cross as is evident in John 1:29, 3:14-15; nevertheless, John is demonstrating that Jesus’ atonement cannot be disassociated from His resurrection. Jesus’ death and resurrection allow for our atonement; He gave His life for sin but received it again in power from God (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, Hebrews 9:11-28). Both of these come together in the empty tomb: the angels sitting where His body, sacrificed for our sin, had lain, and yet the tomb is empty because He is risen. Thus it was the Most Holy Place; the Most Holy Place is now embodied in Christ (John 2:20-22, Hebrews 9:1-14).

And there remains the typology of the Ark of the Covenant and the mercy-seat. The Ark of the Covenant was the sign of the covenant, the repository of the Law by which Israel would be governed; the mercy-seat is where God would meet Moses and Israel, maintain His presence, and upon which the blood of the sin offering would be presented on the Day of Atonement (Exodus 25:18-22, Leviticus 16:11-16). And so it is with Jesus: He is God in the flesh, the image of the invisible God, Mediator between God and man (Colossians 1:15, 2:9, 1 Timothy 2:5). He gave His life as a ransom for sin (Matthew 20:28). God was present in Him and spoke through Him to us (Matthew 1:18-25, Hebrews 1:1-3). That empty tomb is our Ark of the Covenant, both a reminder of where Jesus’ dead body lay, killed for our sin, yet was raised in power, gaining the victory over the forces of evil, sin, and death, the ground of our hope for both forgiveness of sin and ultimate victory over sin and death (Romans 8:1-3, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

The reference is quick and fleeting and might be easily missed, yet it provides a glorious key of understanding, wonderfully illustrating how Jesus embodies the story and thus the hope of Israel. The empty tomb was, for a moment, the Most Holy Place; the slab of rock where Jesus lay the mercy-seat. Yet He is Risen, and is the embodiment of the covenant, its atonement, and its holiness. Let us serve the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and find atonement and redemption in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus and Women

And it came to pass soon afterwards, that he went about through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good tidings of the kingdom of God, and with him the twelve, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary that was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuzas Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who ministered unto them of their substance (Luke 8:1-3).

There is another report out alleging Jesus was married. This time it comes from a small papyrus fragment written in a Coptic (Egyptian) dialect around 400 CE, saying, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …'”. No doubt many will try to make much of this evidence, perhaps trotting out Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code and its speculations about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene, having children, and ending up in France, and such things, and create quite a stir.

There could have been people who lived centuries after Jesus who believed He was married. There may be some hints of such beliefs in Gnostic literature written by people who infused beliefs about Jesus into Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy. Then again, many Gnostics were ascetic, rejected marriage, and, for that matter, did not believe Jesus was truly human but only seemingly so (cf. 2 John 1:7-10). Interestingly, until this particular fragment, there was no explicit, concrete ancient evidence confirming that anyone believed that Jesus was married.

There would be no real scandal if Jesus were married; He could easily have still kept the Law and fulfilled all the prophecies made regarding Him if He were married (cf. Matthew 5:17-18). Marriage was expected among the Pharisees and Sadducees; it was more optional among the Essenes. Yet it is good to remember that the ancient evidence is profoundly one-sided on the question: no New Testament author suggests Jesus was married, no early Christians suggest He was married, and even if this papyrus scrap is legitimate and means what it says, it was written over three hundred years after Jesus’ death and no one will suggest that the original composition was anywhere near the first century. The historical evidence is firm: Jesus was unmarried.

But it is good to consider why there is so much fascination with this subject. Why do so many speculate about whether Jesus was married or not? What is it about Jesus and His relationship with women that draws such interest?

We learn from Luke 8:1-3 that many women followed Jesus. In a time and day when most women stayed in the home and would rarely, if ever, go far from the house without their husbands, it was the privilege of only a few to be able to go and travel with one like Jesus. At least some of these women were of some means since they provided financial support for Jesus and His ministry. Perhaps some of the women were widows; some seem to be married and their husbands still alive. Perhaps there was understanding between those husbands and their wives; perhaps the fact they followed Jesus seemed scandalous.

This asexual magnetism between Jesus and the women who followed Him is likely the main source of fascination. Throughout the generations there have been stories about charismatic, persuasive men who, in the name of philosophy, power, or religion obtained a large following, perhaps of both men and women, and took advantage of the situation toward lascivious ends. But Jesus is not about this at all. Jesus loves women, not in order to use them, exploit them, take advantage of them, or even just to enjoy them, but to save and redeem them (Matthew 20:28, 1 John 3:16).

Humans, in their carnal mindset and sin, find this difficult to understand. Such demonstrates the marked difference between Jesus and most people: it was not about Him at all. He loved people no matter their condition, no matter how previously sinful, no matter how attractive, no matter how prosperous, capable, or intelligent. Therefore, many women believed in Him and followed Him to the end: some of the women watch while He is crucified, and some of the women come upon the empty tomb first on the day of His resurrection (e.g. John 19:25, 20:1-18). In society they might not have much standing (cf. Luke 18:1-8); in Jesus they have equal inheritance in eternal life (Galatians 3:28).

The New Testament makes it clear that marriage is not sinful but honorable among all (Hebrews 13:4), yet if Christians can remain single and focus on glorifying God, they should do so (1 Corinthians 7:6-9). All evidence points to Jesus our Lord as remaining single and celibate. Many reasons can be offered, and many likely have some legitimacy, yet in the end, Jesus serves all women and provides the opportunity for all women (and men) to be saved through His life and death, and to have hope for eternity through His resurrection (Matthew 20:28, Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58). Many women loved Jesus, not for carnal reasons, but because they found in Him a loving Teacher and Savior in whose eyes they were more than just a body or something to be used. In Jesus all men and women have equal dignity and opportunity to share in His Kingdom and eternal life!

We should not be surprised when our sex-obsessed society turns their gaze to Jesus and wonders why He lived as He did. Men and women followed after Him because of His great power and instruction, recognizing that He is the Holy One of God and has the words of eternal life. He truly loved both men and women, not in any carnal way, but fully, seeking no benefit for Himself but always devoted to the needs of others, dying to ransom and redeem sinful people. Let us praise God for Jesus, and seek to love everyone, both men and women, as He has loved us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Family

While he was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, seeking to speak to him.
And one said unto him, “Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, seeking to speak to thee.”
But he answered and said unto him that told him, “Who is my mother? And who are my brethren?”
And he stretched forth his hand towards his disciples, and said, “Behold, my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).

One can hardly overstate the importance of family, both in the ancient and modern worlds. Family connections provided the only real “safety net” of the day; one’s standing in one’s family often defined one’s career and marriage prospects, let alone religion and ideology. One of the worst fates a person could experience was to be bereft of family, excluded from family, or to be a part of a family whose name was dishonorable in the community.

One’s family tends to share in commonalities: a common bloodline, and therefore common characteristics. We have latent expectations that children turn out a lot like parents; athleticism, intelligence, skills, and temperaments tend to be inherited characteristics. If one person in a family gains prominence, it tends to be easier for other family members to also gain prominence as well.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that family would have a role in Jesus’ life and teachings. During His life, those who knew Him from His youth had challenges accepting His authority since it seemed so inconsistent with His family’s social place (cf. Matthew 13:54-58). A lot of people put some emphasis on Jesus’ earthly family: Mary His mother is prominent in the eyes of some, and there are no lack of conspiracy theories about Jesus possibly having a wife and family and how His descendants would become kings. There is no legitimacy to any such tale, but it goes to show just how much we associate people with their families; it is easy to assume that whatever made Jesus great would be passed on to other family members as well.

At one point during His ministry, Jesus’ mother and (half-)siblings wished to speak with Him (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21). Concerning what specifically we are never told; considering Mark 3:21 and John 7:5, it probably was not for good. Nevertheless, Jesus is in the middle of teaching the people, and He takes the opportunity to teach a most profound lesson. He declares that those who are really His brother, sister, and mother are not those who are somewhat biologically related to Him, but those who “do the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Let us first make it clear what Jesus is not saying. He is not attempting to justify people dishonoring their biological parents; He affirms the commandment to honor one’s father and mother (Matthew 19:19), and puts it into practice by making sure that His mother is provided for after His death (John 19:25-27). We should not assume that He intends any disrespect to His earthly family whatsoever with His declaration, and Jesus is certainly not trying to overthrow the institution of the family.

So why does Jesus make such a strong declaration? He does so in part because of the tendency we noticed above: it would be easy for the people to look to Jesus’ earthly family to provide future leadership and to exalt Jesus’ earthly family in inappropriate ways; this is also seen in Luke 11:27-28. The honor and praise is well-meaning but dangerously wrong-headed.

And its wrong-headedness makes up the bulk of the reason why Jesus says what He does. Families are known for their strong connections and the emphasis on what they share in common; Jesus has come to reveal first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles as well that they should honor their spiritual connection with God as primary in their lives, and thus the common relationship they share as children of their Heavenly Father should be preeminent, far more valuable than any earthly connection (cf. Matthew 6:33). Jesus is not trying to say that anyone can become His spiritual “mother”; He is using the terms on the basis of connecting the physical to the spiritual. Yet all can become spiritual brothers and sisters of Jesus through the reconciliation with the Father made possible through His blood (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-17). Had His physical brothers and sisters persisted in unbelief, their genetic relationship to Jesus would not have somehow saved them; while James and Jude will take on prominent roles in the early church, it is not because they are Jesus’ brothers, but Jesus’ servants (James 1:1, Jude 1:1). Nepotism may get you somewhere on earth, but physical nepotism will not get anyone anywhere in heaven!

Jesus’ teaching is powerful: yes, there is great value in the physical family, and those commitments should be honored (cf. 1 Timothy 5:1-16), but the earthly family should never be made an idol. Instead, as with all good things that come from God, we should perceive how the physical is a shadow of the real and spiritual: participation in the family of God is of the greatest importance, and that which we share in common in Jesus can overcome anything else that could divide us. No one need be excluded from Jesus’ family; there is not one who cannot become an adopted son/daughter of God and thus brother/sister of Jesus. During His earthly life Jesus did honor His physical family but took every opportunity to more greatly honor His spiritual family, bought by His blood. Let us join together as Jesus’ family and honor our Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Brothers

For even his brethren did not believe on him (John 7:5).

For many of us, the one refuge we can count on in life is family. Even if everyone else is against us and berates us, we like to think that our family members will still accept us and believe in us.

Yet, on the other hand, our family tends to know us all too well. They watched us grow up and many have rather “incriminating” stories about our pasts. Sometimes family members refuse to see any growth or change in us; in their eyes we are still quite young, quite inexperienced, or quite mischievous, even if we have grown up and have learned our lessons.

Jesus had no ordinary beginning, and while we are not given much information about His early years, we have little doubt that they were not very ordinary, either. Contrary to certain religious traditions, it does not seem as if the household comprised only of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. We are told that He has brothers and sisters– James, Joseph (or Joses), Simon, and Judas (cf. Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3).

We do not know much about them. It seems as if they are not terribly much younger than Jesus, since they are old enough to have formed beliefs, and they are known in the community of Nazareth. We can imagine, however, what it might have been like to be the younger brothers of Jesus– the One who always seemed a bit different, One with whom they grew up, but now the One who is making rather grandiose claims about Himself and is engaging in work that is well beyond your average Galilean carpenter!

While there is much we do not know, there is one thing that the Gospels make certain– His brothers do not believe in His claims regarding Himself. In Mark 3:21, Mark informs us that “they who were of” Jesus went to Capernaum to seize Jesus because, in their estimation, He was out of His mind. In John 7:3-5, His brothers are all but taunting Him, challenging Him to go up to Jerusalem and prove to be who He claims to be, for they did not believe in Him. Jesus’ responds in ways likely not much less acerbic, declaring that it is not yet His time, and that while the world cannot hate them, it does hate Him (John 7:6-8). Sibling rivalry indeed!

At first, this might seem incredible to us, and it may lead to some doubt. Jesus suffered temptation, and yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15); wouldn’t His brothers have noticed this in His first thirty-four or so years? Did they not understand how their mother had conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, and did they not hear about all of the signs that accompanied His birth (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2)? How could they not believe in Him?

Yet, when we think about it, we can make some sense of it. There is a reason why it is said that familiarity breeds contempt. With the exception of Jesus at the Temple when He was 12, we do not get the impression that Jesus was active in ministration until His baptism and temptation (cf. Matthew 3-4). If you know Jesus as your older brother who lives in Nazareth of Galilee and who works as a carpenter, perhaps even working together with you in that trade, and then all of a sudden He claims to be the Son of God, abandons the trade for at least a portion of the year, gathers twelve fishermen, zealous, tax collectors, and others around Him, and starts proclaiming this message of the impending Kingdom of God, we can see why they would think Him a little crazy. This is Jesus, from the backwaters of Galilee, the carpenter. Who does He think He is? Why is He doing things that very likely will get Him into trouble, and by extension, His mother and brothers? We can see why Jesus spoke as He did in Matthew 13:57/Mark 6:4: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household”!

So Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him. That was probably not a good testimony for Him, but we get no indication that He compelled or coerced them into believing. They had as much of a chance to share with Him in the work of God as everyone else did (cf. Matthew 12:49-50).

Jesus’ brothers were good Jews, however, and they would have been in Jerusalem for the Passover in that fateful year when their elder Brother would be crucified. And then we learn something extraordinary.

[The eleven] with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:14).

Wait a second! Here Jesus’ brothers are listed as in prayer with their mother, the other women, and the eleven disciples. Something clearly happened. But what?

The Gospels do not provide direct testimony, but later on, Paul mentions that when Jesus was raised from the dead, He appeared to over five hundred brethren, and then to James (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). James here is the same James who is listed as Jesus’ brother in Matthew 13:55!

How all of this happened is not detailed precisely. It is entirely possible that Jesus’ brothers came around at some point during His ministry, but there’s no evidence of such. They would have seen Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and we know that at least James, and likely the rest of His brothers, saw Jesus in the resurrection.

And that is the power of the resurrection– unbelievers are often made believers! James will become a prominent elder in the Jerusalem church and the author of the letter bearing his name; according to Josephus, he is martyred at the hands of the Jews (Acts 15:13, 21:18; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9). Judas, otherwise known as Jude, is responsible for the letter bearing his name. Both of them refer to themselves as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1, Jude 1:1). Can you imagine? Those who once did not even believe in the claims of their older Brother, who thought Him crazy, now call Him Lord and are willing to be known as slaves of their elder Brother!

Jesus is Lord, and the proof is in the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was the difference that changed recalcitrant brothers into willing servants. Has Jesus’ resurrection changed your life? Let us trust Him as Lord and do His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mary, Mother of Jesus

But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).

One of the figures in early Christianity that has captivated many is Mary the mother of Jesus. Her legend has steadily grown throughout the past two thousand years to incredible heights. When we think about Mary, it is likely that much of what comes to mind is based on these later legends. We get a picture something akin to one of the ancient icons: a younger woman, holding Jesus as a baby, quiet, serene, seemingly confident.

Yet most of what is believed about Mary comes from pious legends that came far after the New Testament. What can be gained about Mary from Scripture is much more human, and much more compelling.

We meet Mary in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. She is a young Jewish girl living in Nazareth in Galilee, a teenager, betrothed to the local carpenter Joseph (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:26-27). The angel Gabriel visits her with a most compelling story: with her consent, she will conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Child will be Jesus, the Son of the Most High, the promised Branch of the house of David who will reign over Israel forever (Luke 1:28-35). Mary consents, exhibiting great faith in the God of Israel, and in so doing she proves to be the first person to suffer shame and indignity for the cause of the Lord’s Christ (Matthew 1:19-24, Luke 1:38). She was now the virgin who would bear the Immanuel child (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23)– a peasant girl from Nazareth! The irony is not lost on her, as is made plain by her song of praise often called the Magnificat– a declaration of how the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled through the power of God (Luke 1:46-55).

Her wonder only grows as the Child is born. He is born during a visit to Bethlehem, and shepherds come to see the Child after Gabriel declares to them that the Savior, Christ the Lord, was born (Luke 2:6-19). While presenting Him in the Temple, she marveled as Simeon the prophet spoke of the Child as salvation, a Light for the Gentiles, and glory for Israel– and how He would be the cause of fall and rising for many, and will pierce through Mary’s own soul, so the thoughts of many would be revealed (Luke 2:22-35). Magi came from the east, bearing presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, fit for a king, and bowed down before the Child (Matthew 2:11-12). It was a very auspicious start. But what did it all mean?

Contrary to what many believe, Mary would go on to have some children with Joseph– James, Joseph (or Joses), Simon, Judas, and some girls (Matthew 1:25, 13:55-56, Mark 6:1-3). We see Mary again when Jesus is 12 at the Passover festival in Luke 2:41-51. The family left town but Jesus stayed behind, and they spent three days looking for Him, and finally found Him in the Temple, sitting with the teachers, asking them questions, and amazing all who saw Him. Mary cries out to Him in her distress: “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I sought thee sorrowing” (Luke 2:48). His response did not make sense to them: did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house (Luke 2:49-50)? Despite not understanding this, she treasured this– along with all the past events– in her heart (Luke 2:51).

For most of the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, Mary His mother does not seem to be present often. She is confident of His divine power and prods Him a bit during the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-11). After that event He and His disciples stayed with her (John 2:12). A little later we see “those who were of Jesus,” understood to be His family, went out to seize Him because of all of His preaching activity, because they were convinced that “He [was] out of His mind” (Mark 3:21). We can be fairly certain that His brothers were involved, since they did not believe in Him at the time (John 7:2-5). Perhaps Mary was unaware of what they were doing and had no part in it; perhaps Mary was not only aware of it but went with them. There is also the episode where Mary and Jesus’ brothers were attempting to speak with Him, and He took the opportunity to teach how His true family are those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 12:46-49, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21). The reason for the visit is entirely unexplained.

There seems to be a disconnect with all of this. Did Mary not receive all of these statements and signs about who her Son would be? How come she did not understand Jesus’ words in the Temple? Even if she had no part in the actions of her other sons, how could it be that they did not believe in Him? Didn’t she tell them about Gabriel, the promises, and everything else? How can all of this be?

Some have speculated that all of this shows that the birth story was a later “add-on” to the Gospel; we need not go to such extremes. Instead, let us again consider the expectations of His brothers, at least, and quite possibly His mother also. As good Jews, they were waiting for the Messiah. They would have imagined the Messiah, the King in the line of David, the One who would rule over Jacob, as doing so in a very physical and concrete way. They expected Jesus to be King in Jerusalem, conquering nations and restoring Israel to its glory. Everything Gabriel told Mary could be understood through this perspective. But Jesus was not doing these things. It was clear that God was with Him, and that He had divine power, but He was preaching and teaching about a very different sort of Kingdom. He made it fairly clear that He did not come to overthrow Rome as much as to overthrow the works of the Evil One and sin.

Perhaps this is why Mary did not expect to find Jesus in the Temple asking questions; she may have imagined Him to be destined for a throne in Jerusalem, and not among those teaching in the Temple. Having an overfilled house in Capernaum, preaching and teaching, seemed as madness. This was not the expected script!

The next time Mary is mentioned is at the crucifixion, when Jesus makes provision for her, commissioning John to care for her (John 19:25-27). We know that Mary is watching her Son die on the cross. It is quite likely that the full effect of Simeon’s words was crashing down upon her (Luke 2:35). As to her faith and confidence in her Son, in the purpose of God for Him, in whether or how the predictions God made were being fulfilled, we know nothing.

The next time we do know something is also the last time Mary is mentioned in Scripture. Mary and the brothers of Jesus were part of the 120 who were gathered in the upper room between Jesus’ ascension and the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:12-15). While she might have doubted before, and she most likely did not fully understand the sort of Messiah her Son would be, by now she fully believes and understands. Jesus her Son did not remove the Roman yoke to rule an empire from Jerusalem. He had done far better– He had defeated sin and death, removing the burdens that no man has ever been able to bear, and was crowned Lord of lords, and King of kings (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-2, 10:4, Revelation 19:16).

Ultimately, Mary’s story is mostly left up to our imagination. We know that she was full of faith in God, willing to bear the reproach of the Lord’s Christ, and was there for her Son from birth to death and even beyond. She certainly understands that He has power from God, but it seems doubtful that she really understood the plan that God established for her Son. Perhaps her confidence at times wavered; perhaps she persevered in belief, even when she did not understand everything and when her children did not believe. She watches her own beloved Son die on that cross, and we can only imagine the heartache she experienced in so doing, and all the more so if she did not fully understand God’s purpose for Him. Yet, in the end, she is numbered among the disciples of her own Son, and is praying with her now repentant children, no doubt that God’s will through Jesus be fully manifest as it would be on Pentecost.

We would like to know more about Mary, but we must remember that this is the story of Jesus, not His mother. Yet Mary still encourages us in our faith, for no matter how many internal trials and difficulties she experienced, she began with faith in whom her Son would be, and either maintained or returned to that faith by His death and resurrection. Her faith became better informed as He grew, taught God’s purposes, and then fulfilled them. She was, no doubt, not ashamed to be called His disciple, and neither should we. Let us be encouraged by Mary’s example and serve her Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mary and Her Ointment

But there were some that had indignation among themselves, saying, “To what purpose hath this waste of the ointment been made? For this ointment might have been sold for above three hundred shillings, and given to the poor.”
And they murmured against her.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor always with you, and whensoever ye will ye can do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could; she hath anointed my body beforehand for the burying” (Mark 14:4-8).

Mary sought to honor her Lord. He had, after all, just raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45, 12:1-3). She felt it was appropriate to bring out this very expensive ointment– the “spikenard”– worth more than three hundred denarii, or over six thousand dollars in buying power today. This is a staggering sum even today!

This “waste” was acutely felt by some of the disciples. Granted, Judas’ motivations about his indignation are suspect, as John 12:4-6 indicates, but we have no reason to believe that the indignation of some of the other disciples was likewise suspect. They had been used to a life of relative poverty while following Jesus, and this entire episode seemed entirely out of place for Jesus considering His mission, purpose, and method (cf. Matthew 8:20, 20:25-28).

The sentiment of some of the disciples had some basis in nobility– after all, even today, $6,000 would go a long way in helping people who have nothing. The impulse to take such a “luxury” and use the proceeds to help the poor is not a bad thing, and Jesus does not censure that impulse. What matters is the timing.

Thus He tells His disciples that they will always have the opportunity to help the poor, but they will not always be able to enjoy His physical presence. The idea that the “poor are always with you” is not license to neglect the poor or to give up any endeavor that attempts to provide benefits for the poor. Instead, Jesus is justifying this particular “extravagant waste,” pointing out that the poor will remain, but He will not always be with them.

Mary is most likely unaware of the significance of what she is doing. What she does in honor as a good work is really a preparation for burial. Since He will die just before the Sabbath– a high Sabbath at that– there will not be proper time for anointing the body (cf. Mark 15:42-46). Three women will bring ointment with which to anoint the body of Jesus on the first day of the week, but by then He will be raised from the dead (Mark 16:1). Thus, the only anointment of His body for death came here, in the house of Simon the leper, by the hand of Mary.

This is a poignant story, and Jesus’ testimony about how the story of Mary and the anointing will be proclaimed wherever the Gospel is proclaimed demonstrates His great confidence in the plan of God that is unfolding (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). And so it is; almost two thousand years later and halfway across the world we now consider her story and the good work that she did for Jesus.

It is very easy for anyone to get so thoroughly invested in a cause that they begin to neglect themselves and their own souls. Yes, we are called to serve and not be served, just as Jesus did (Matthew 20:25-28). But even Jesus accepted this anointing. He not only allowed Mary to do her good work, He blessed it and its memory. It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), but if no one receives, no one can give!

This is not license for selfishness, but a good reminder for us to accept the good works of others on our behalf, and seek to be the examples we should be. Let us serve God wholeheartedly, doing good works and accepting good works, and reflect our Savior!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Gospel in Jesus’ Birth

And the angel said unto her, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

This is the day that many in the world set aside to consider the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. It is important for us to take note that God never commands us to observe the birth of His Son, and we have no example from the New Testament of such an observance. We do not even know the day of His birth– December 25 was fixed hundreds of years later, and more because of the pagan festivals that surround that date than anything from the Scriptures. Since the shepherds were out at night with the flocks (Luke 2:8), it is most likely that He was born in spring or fall.

Nevertheless, the birth of Jesus is an important event. It is the moment at which the Word becomes flesh and dwells among mankind (John 1:1, 14). It is the occasion of the miracle of the virgin birth (Matthew 1:22-23). It is also the beginning of the fulfillment of the hope of Israel– and it is the feeling of hope that is about to come to pass that makes the story of Jesus’ birth so memorable. Isaiah spoke of the one who would prepare the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3-5) and Malachi speaks of the Elijah to come (Malachi 4:5-6): the angel Gabriel told Zechariah that his son would fulfill these things (Luke 1:13-17).

As a good Jewish girl, Mary would know all the predictions that were made about the Messiah– born to be the King, the One favored by God (cf. Isaiah 9:1-5, 11:1-10, etc.). And then the angel Gabriel comes to her and tells her that the child she will bear by the Holy Spirit will fulfill these things. He will be called great, the Son of the Most High. He would receive the throne of David. His Kingdom would never end.

These promises were no longer in the distant future. They were here in the flesh. God’s great plan was being realized in the flesh (Ephesians 3:11)!

The Good News of Jesus of Nazareth begins here. In the messages of the angel Gabriel and the Holy Spirit through Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, and Anna, we learn how Jesus will overturn the way the world works (Luke 1:47-55), suffer and die (Luke 2:35), but would rule over a Kingdom without end (Luke 1:30-33), and would be light of revelation to both Jew and Gentile (Luke 2:31-32, 38). Redemption was here!

Jesus of Nazareth was not born on December 25, but we can take advantage of the focus on Jesus’ birth to proclaim the message of His birth, life, death, resurrection, and lordship, just as Gabriel and the Holy Spirit did in those days of pregnant expectation so long ago. Let us find our hope in God’s redemption through Jesus Christ, and proclaim the wonder of Jesus in our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Immanuel

But when he thought on these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name JESUS; for it is he that shall save his people from their sins.”
Now all this is come to pass, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, And they shall call his name Immanuel;”
which is, being interpreted, “God with us” (Matthew 1:20-23).

The Incarnation is one of the most profound and challenging truths found in the pages of the New Testament. The One through whom all creation came forth now as a human being. God humbling Himself by taking on the form of a man (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). How amazing! How unbelievable!

For many years men pondered over the Incarnation. Many of the heresies of the first millennium came about because of such speculations: was Jesus born the Son of God, or did He become the Son of God in baptism (adoptionism)? Was He truly a man, or did He just appear to be a man (docetism)? Did Jesus have two natures or one nature, and how did those natures work together (Nestorianism, monophytism)?

The Scriptures make it clear that Jesus was God from the beginning, the Word made flesh (John 1:1, 14). In Him is the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form (Colossians 2:8-10). Matthew affirms that Jesus’ birth fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, and that Jesus is the Immanuel child– God with us. In the flesh. In a man that can be seen, felt, and heard (cf. 1 John 1:1-3).

How can this be? We cannot understand exactly how it came about, but we can be sure that it was accomplished through the power of God. The Incarnation is another reminder that the “foolishness” of God is wiser than the wisdom of men, and that in Jesus Christ God has made void the “wisdom” of the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). To the unbelieving world, the idea of God in the flesh is pure folly. To those of us who believe in God, His power, and His wisdom, it is part of a wonderful plan to save mankind (Ephesians 3:10-11).

The implications of the Incarnation are astounding. It is easy to look at Jesus and think about Him as God the Son, as the great and powerful Lord who quiets the sea and casts out demons (cf. Matthew 12, 14, etc.). Yet He is also human, learning obedience through the things He suffered (Hebrews 5:7-10). This is the profound reality of the Incarnation: God the Son needing a diaper change. The Word made flesh babbling as an infant, crying and needing the tender care of His mother Mary. The Lord learning how to walk and move about.

The Bible does not reveal a whole lot about Jesus’ early life and upbringing, but the very fact that He is both God the Son, the Word made flesh, and a growing child is quite amazing. It ought to remind us how Jesus is not so removed from us as to not be able to understand our difficulties (cf. Hebrews 4:15-16)!

To think that God the Son took on the form of flesh in order to live, suffer, die, and be raised again so that we could have eternal life is beyond humbling (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). When we think about all that Jesus would go through as Immanuel, God with us, it should lead us to greater appreciation of the Incarnation and His life and a renewed zeal to serve Him and His purposes. Let us praise God that Jesus is our Immanuel and obey Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry