We usually think of Jesus walking, teaching and healing while with His twelve apostles. Yet, as we look closer at the Gospels, we discover many women who loved Jesus and were interested in what He said and did. Some, like Martha and Mary, offered Him hospitality. Others, like the Samaritan woman, brought a crowd to Him. A grateful woman poured perfume on Him. Another washed His feet. His mother stood by Him. Others, like Joanna and Susanna, followed Jesus and the Twelve, and helped “support them out of their own means” (Lk. 8:3 NIV).
But of all these women, the life and character of Mary Magdalene shines brightest. Have you wondered why the resurrected Christ chose to show Himself to her first? (Mk.16:9). There’s something special about her. She shines bright compared with the attitudes and behavior of the apostles. She had much to teach them through her actions. She can also be a model for us today.
She was tormented by demons.
Not much is said about her background. “Magdala” means “a tower.” Perhaps some called her Magdalene because of her strong character. But it’s more likely she came from the town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. While it was common then to identify a woman in relation to a relative, like “Joanna the wife of Chuza” (Lk. 8:3), Mary Magdalene is mentioned 12 times by name with no family connection. To some this suggests that she was unmarried. Yet there is something more telling about her past – a connection with demons.
We read that “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases” followed Jesus. Among them was “Mary Magdalene from whom seven demons had come out” (Lk. 8:2). Sometimes evil spirits cause diseases. When the demon is gone, good health returns. If demons “come out,” how do they “come in”?
From what I’ve observed in Colombia where I’m a missionary, there’s usually some family history of witchcraft, drug abuse, incest, prostitution, etc., which allows a demon to possess a non-Christian. Those who’ve met someone possessed, understand the fear and helplessness of this Mary. It’s not uncommon for the possessed to consider suicide. It was in this condition that she met Jesus.
Demons don’t normally come out without a struggle. In the case of the demon-possessed man from the Gerasenes, the demons “begged Jesus again and again not to send them out” (Mk. 5:9-10). In Mary Magdalene’s case, Mark said she was one “out of whom Jesus had driven seven demons” (Mk. 16:9). An understanding of this background is key to understanding her passion to follow Jesus.
What’s your devotion to Jesus like? Could it be described as “passion”? Jesus contrasted the Pharisees to another sinful woman to make clear this spiritual reality: “He who has been forgiven little loves little” (Lk. 7:47). Since each of us has been forgiven much, like Mary Magdalene we should also love passionately. Yet we take our sin too lightly, and come to Christ with little urgency. We think we’re fairly good citizens needing just a little push to get to heaven. It’s impossible for Pharisees, and their modern equivalents, to love as this Mary did.
She followed and served Jesus.
Once Jesus had made her completely free, she followed and served Him. Perhaps you’ve encountered enthusiastic Christians who love to serve. Maybe you are one. Mary Magdalene teaches us two important lessons. First, to serve Him as He wants, you must be free. Too many Christians try to serve while still bound to sad memories and bitterness associated with our sinful past. We get used to living under such a cloud. If so, stop serving and seek full freedom. Freedom in Christ is not academic doctrine; it’s a real experience available to every believer.
Second, to serve Him as He wants, we must follow Him. The fact that we are busy is not enough. We must be willing to serve the Lord with others. Most Christian service is carried out in teams: Our Lord Jesus formed an apostolic team. Paul traveled and served together with others. Mary Magdalene served Jesus with other women. Teams are usually made up of different personalities and this can easily become a problem. You’d be surprised at how many conflicts exist among missionaries who serve the same Master! Even the apostolic team had its conflicts (Mk. 9:34). Mary Magdalene did not distance herself from team service. She loved Jesus with passion, yet worked with “many others … helping to support” Him and the apostles (Lk. 8:3).
Men (Lk. 8:1): The Twelve were specially chosen by Jesus. They were sometimes bossy and critical of others. Mary Magdalene must have noticed this, yet she did not compete with them. She was content in her role.
Rich Women (Lk. 8:3): Among those who served was “Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household.” The wealthy are not always easy to work with, yet there is no evidence that Mary entered into conflict with such.
Pushy Women (Mt. 27:55): Jesus called two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to join the Twelve (Mk. 3:13-19). Their mother also followed Jesus. When the other apostles were distracted, she brought her sons to Jesus and said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” This caused tension among the disciples (Mt. 20:21-24). Jesus called her sons the “Sons of Thunder” (Mk. 3:17). Did this name have to do with the temperament of their mother? Yet we find no conflict between Mary Magdalene and this woman. She shared Jesus with pushy women.
Relatives (Jn. 19:25): John records that Mary Magdalene was at the cross with Jesus’ mother and aunt (Jn. 19:25). They had family ties to Jesus; Mary Magdalene did not. Family connections can cause friction in teams, yet this Mary loved and served Jesus with no evidence of competition or jealousy. Can you work with those who think they’re closer to Jesus or more spiritual than you are?
She stood by the cross.
Mary Magdalene is most remembered for being at the cross. Some might consider her standing there to be passive. But look closer. Together with the others, she had walked from Galilee to Jerusalem. Jesus was taken captive on Thursday; these women must have wondered all night what would happen next. Can you imagine their hurt as they heard the cries, “Crucify him”? On Friday they followed Him to Calvary. They saw Him nailed to the cross. They found no moral support from the Twelve; one had betrayed Him and another had denied Him.
Imagine how emotionally hurt Mary Magdalene was. But Matthew records more events to add to her pain: “Those who passed by hurled insults at Him” (Mt. 27:39). Yet Mary Magdalene was not ashamed of Jesus. Then three hours of “darkness came over all the land” (27:45). I once experienced a total solar eclipse. We lived for a few minutes in total darkness. I felt a strange coldness.
During those three hours, Mary Magdalene and the other women must have felt that darkness as “Jesus cried out again in a loud voice … and gave up His spirit. At that moment … the earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life” (27:50-52). Imagine the panic – earthquakes, open tombs, risen dead! We are told that the soldiers “were terrified” (27:54). What kept Mary Magdalene by that cross? Why didn’t she flee with the others? I think her background made the difference. Unlike the Pharisees, being forgiven much, “she loved much” (Lk. 7:47).
How does our devotion to Christ respond to injustice? Do unanswered “Whys?” move us from Him? How do we respond to ridicule? Do we, like Peter, distance ourselves from Jesus? And what about times when the future seems uncertain? Do we remain close to our Lord? Sometimes the death of a loved one shakes us. Sometimes earthquakes (unemployment, divorce, division) shake our foundations. Sometimes there are resurrections of forgotten problems. Like Mary Magdalene, regardless of circumstances, let’s remain close to our Lord.
She watched Jesus’ burial.
Jesus died on Friday afternoon. The Sabbath began at sunset, so there were only a few hours to prepare His body for the tomb. “As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph … Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body” (Mt. 27:57-58). John tells us that Joseph was “accompanied by Nicodemus … The two of them wrapped it with the spices, in strips of linen” (Jn. 19:39-42). While they were doing this, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb” (Mt. 27:61).
Would you have criticized Mary Magdalene if she had gone home after the crucifixion? But she stayed until the tomb was sealed. A devoted heart always goes beyond duty. Do you measure your service? Do you compare your devotion with that of others? A heart truly in love with Christ doesn’t make such comparisons!
She returned to the sepulcher.
When a sinful woman poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, some disciples got upset and asked, “Why this waste?” (Mt. 26:8). Wasn’t it also a waste when Mary Magdalene and the other women “went home and prepared spices and perfumes” (Lk. 23:55-56)? They knew Nicodemus and Joseph had already wrapped the body with “about seventy-five pounds of spices” (Jn. 19:39). Wasn’t that enough? A devoted heart doesn’t reason like that. It didn’t matter what others had done, they wanted to express their deep appreciation.
So many Christian songs have been composed. Why another one? So many Christian books and tracts have been written. Why another one? So many rich Christians give to the Lord’s work. Why bother with my small contribution? So many gifted evangelists present the gospel. Why should I? So many large organizations help the needy in this world. Why bother with one new family that moved next door? A loving heart doesn’t ask such questions. Like Mary, we also want to give Jesus something that smells good. “Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:16). Such acts are also called “a fragrant offering … pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18).
“Very early on the first day of the week” Mary Magdalene and two other women “were on the way to the tomb” (Mk. 16:1-3). What made these three women get up so early? The angel at the tomb knew: “I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.” Then he surprised them with the good news: “He is not here; He has risen, just as He said” (Mt. 28:5-6).
She met the risen Christ.
Mary Magdalene and the other women went to the sepulcher “looking for Jesus” (Mt. 28:5). Near the sepulcher they experienced another “violent earthquake” as the angel rolled back the stone (Mt. 28:2). You may have some difficulties along the way, but everyone who truly seeks Jesus eventually finds Him. “‘You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:13-14). John records the moving encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ. The disciples visited the empty tomb and went home, “but Mary stood outside the tomb crying” (Jn. 20:10-11). She was alone. She saw the two “angels,” but in her distress she didn’t recognize Jesus next to her. But then He called her name, and she cried, “Teacher!”
Sometimes our natural distress can distance us from the Lord’s intended blessing. The Lord may be using fellow Christians, even angels, to try to comfort our hearts. We hear their words but do not let them reach our soul. We see evidence of the Lord’s kindness, yet in our pain we don’t allow Him to cheer our hearts. Are you alone? Hurting? The same Jesus who felt for Mary Magdalene feels for you. He calls your name. He invites you to turn from your sorrow to worship Him.
Her report was questioned.
When Jesus was tempted by the devil, He answered “Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only” (Lk. 4:8). After worship comes service. Jesus instructed Mary Magdalene to take a message to the “mourning and weeping” disciples (Mk. 16:10). The Lord was concerned for them. When we open ourselves to His comfort, He gives us grace to comfort others (2 Cor. 1:3-4). Mary Magdalene was special to the Lord, but she was not the only one.
Mary wiped her tears away and did exactly what Jesus said – and she did it immediately. How did the disciples react to her message? “When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it” (Mk. 16:11). She shared the good news joyfully, but the disciples didn’t believe her. Have others questioned your report? Have you been suspected of distorting the truth? How did Mary Magdalene react? Did she rebuke the disciples for being sexist in refusing a female witness? Did she swear, like Peter, to add weight to her words? (Mt. 26:74). Did she storm out in protest? No, no, no.
Mary Magdalene did what Jesus asked her to do, and left the disciples’ reaction with Him. We read that “later Jesus appeared to the Eleven … He rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen Him after He had risen” (Mk. 16:14). Then, as always, He stood by them. The Lord ensures that the truth will eventually come to light (Lk. 12:1-3). Are others casting doubt on your motives? Do you feel misunderstood? Be like Mary Magdalene: speak the truth, worship the Lord happily, and continue doing what the Lord has given you to do. Opposition never justifies bitterness or paralysis.
What do we do?
A young man once asked me how to obtain passion for Jesus. Mary Magdalene shows us: First, come to terms with your sinfulness. Unless you realize all that Christ has done for you, you will always “love little.” Second, keep following Christ – not the disciples, a local church, historic saints, or even doctrines. Follow Christ with others, but do not follow others. Third, don’t let your heart get divided. Snacks ruin a good appetite. If you follow religious conventions and try to meet human expectations, you’ll find enough satisfaction to lose your appetite for the real thing. Learn from Mary Magdalene: “She loved much” (Lk. 7:47).
By Philip Nunn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org