By Pastor Glenn Pease
Abraham Lincoln said in December of 1839, "Many free countries have lost their liberty, and ours may loose hers, but if she shall, be at my proudest plume, not that I was the last to desert, but that I never deserted her." Lincoln was a man of loyalty to his country, and his loyalty made him a great man. We want to look at a woman who was loyal to her Lord, and also became great because of it. Mary Magdalene was not the last to desert Jesus in His hour of crisis. She never deserted him at all. She was not only loyal to the end, our text tells us she was loyal beyond the end, for even after death she maintained her loyalty, and was the first to come to the tomb.
No woman ever became so famous so fast as Mary Magdalene did by this early morning act of devotion. All of womanhood has been raised to a higher level because of Mary's love and loyalty. Because of her the first word spoken by the risen Christ was woman, and the first name spoken was Mary. We may say that love is blind, but the fact is, love sees what no one else can see. Love enabled Mary to see the angels that Peter and John did not observe. She was the first to see the risen Lord, and hear him speak. Her love kept her near the tomb when the doubts of others scattered them. Her love was rewarded with acts of love in return.
A woman in deep devotion anointed Jesus for His burial, but the disciples did not understand. A woman in deep devotion was first at the tomb. The evidence is clear that women are more sensitive and loving in their devotion. No one among His male followers ever gave Him the comfort He needed. They slept while he sweat in agony. They ran, and they denied Him when He needed support. Only women anointed Him, showed Him love and hospitality, stood at the cross and rose early to come to the tomb.
We know so little about Mary, but her name is mentioned 14 times in the Gospels. That is more than any male follower of Christ except the three in the inner circle-Peter, James, and John. Mary Magdalene has excited the interest of more poets, artists, and musicians than any other woman in the Bible, and she has a prominent place in more biblical novels than any other woman. One of the problems, however, is that she has somehow come to be identified with the sinful woman that wiped the feet of Jesus with her hair. Back in the fourth century with link was made, and it became a tradition which has not been broken to this day, even though there is no basis for believing Mary was ever a wicked woman.
The Catholic church strengthen the tradition by establishing Magdalen houses all over the world for fallen women. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word Magdalen as "reformed prostitute." The result is that thousands of sermons have been preached on the life of sin Mary was saved from. For all we know, she may have been a very sinful woman, and if she was, the glory of her life and devotion is not in the least diminished. The woman at the well had been with 5 husbands, and she was living with a man unmarried at the time she met Jesus, but Jesus saved her, and she became a powerful witness in Samaria. Mary could have been a sinful woman also, but the point is, the Bible nowhere even hints that she was, and, therefore, honesty demands that we give her the benefit of the doubt, and respect her past rather than cast doubt on her morality.
The only fact we have concerning her past is recorded by Dr. Luke in Luke 8:2 where he tells us of those who followed Jesus in His ministry. After referring to the 12 he says, "And also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out." She, along with other women who had been healed, followed Christ with deep devotion because His healing power had given them life and freedom. They had been delivered from Satan, and now they were devoted to the Savior in deep gratitude. There is no call to read into this deliverance any rescue from a life of sin. Their bondage was sickness rather than sin. You can speculate that they were all wicked women, but that is all it is, for the Scripture does not put one blot on their character.
Let us then build our judgment of Mary on the foundation of what the Bible says, and not on tradition. Let's examine the clear positives of revelation, and not the vague negatives of speculation. Our text begins with a description of the depth of her devotion. The sun had not yet risen, but she was up and on her way to the tomb while it was yet dark. As far as she knew Jesus was dead, and she would never see him again, but she was still motivated by His love. Her life still had meaning because of Him.
Freud once wrote a letter to Princess Marie Bonaparte, and in it he said, "The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life he is sick." The disciples at this point were in grave danger, and had Jesus not risen, some or all of them would have likely developed psychological problems. Mary, on the other hand, was in better health because of Jesus, and even when she thought He was dead she was not frozen into inaction, and paralyzed by despair. Mary was motivated to act, for she was still grateful to Christ, and still saw a way by which she could express her love and appreciation. The other Gospels tell us that she and the other women had gotten spices, and they intended to finish the job of giving Jesus a decent burial.
The haste had been great because of the approach of the Sabbath, and these women were not satisfied with the half a job that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had done. Their Lord had given His best to them when He was alive, and they were determined to give Him their best in death. Why Mary was so anxious to get there we can only guess. Possibly she just couldn't sleep, and couldn't be satisfied until she had done her best. One thing is for sure-Mary was not a woman of indecision. She was clearly a leader among women. Every time her name is mentioned in a list of women she is always first. She was first at the tomb because that was the kind of woman she was. She was a leader and always out in front. She was a winner, and not a waiter.
Some people are always waiting to live. When conditions change; when we get these bills paid; when the kids grow up; when I retire; and on and on it goes. People are always waiting to live, and ever planning to live in the future, but just enduring circumstances in the present. Mary was a now person. She was up and doing, and not waiting to see what would happen. She had a plan to be carried out as soon as the law allowed. Obstacles did not hinder her. The fact that the tomb was guarded and sealed did not stop her. The fact that it was Passover, and all of Jerusalem would be filled with strangers, did not delay her. She was up and heading for the tomb while it was still dark.
She is still a woman possessed, but no longer by the demons of darkness. Now she is possessed by the love of the Prince of Light, and this makes her fearless of the dark. Perfect love casts out fear, and we see it here in the life of Mary Magdalene. We learn from Mary that if you want to do something to express your love don't wait to see how things will go. She thought Jesus was dead, but still she did it now. Marie Ray wrote, "We have only the present moment, sparkling like a star in our hands-and melting life a snow flake."
Mary didn't wait, but she went, and her love was richly rewarded. Jesus believes in that proverb about the early bird getting the worm. Mary was first at the tomb, and the first to see the risen Lord. Her great love motivated her, and Jesus honored that love by selecting her to be the first person to whom He revealed Himself alive. Peter and John were the two key leaders who came to the tomb, but Jesus chose Mary. She was there, not only first, but by her own choice. Peter and John would not have even come at all had it not been for her telling them what had happened. It is obvious that Jesus deliberately chose Mary to be first. Spurgeon wrote, "...Mary was selected to see Christ first, because she loved Jesus most. John loved Jesus much, but Mary loved Him better; John went away when he saw the empty sepulchre, but Mary stood without and wept."
John is the one writing this whole account of Mary being the first, and so we do not see him having any resentment against Mary, or the Lord, for selecting her to be first. Some are not so kind as John, however. John Calvin, for example, does not sound very delighted with the Lord's choice of a woman to be first. In his commentary on John he writes, "It may be thought strange, ...that he does not produce more competent witnesses, for he begins with a woman: But thus the saying is fulfilled, that God chooseth what is weak, and foolish, and contemptible in the world, that he may bring to naught the wisdom, and excellence, and glory of the flesh." Calvin writes as if to justify the choice of Christ, but I cannot help but feel Spurgeon has the best view of the situation, and that Mary is chosen because of her great love and devotion.
Not even Mary, however, saw the actual resurrection, for John says she arrived while it was still dark, and the stone had already been taken away. The fact is, no one but God and the angels witnessed the actual rising of Jesus. G. Campbell Morgan writes, "It is more than interesting, it is arresting, to remark in passing that we have no historic account of the rising of Jesus, but we have accounts of the risen Jesus." If Mary came before sunrise, and the resurrection had already taken place, then there is no certainty at all as to just when the actual event happened. Alexander Maclaren, the great Bible expounder, had an interesting conviction. He wrote, "The act of resurrection took place before sunrise. At midnight, probably, the Bridegroom came. It was fitting that He who was to scatter the darkness of the grave should rise while darkness covered the earth..... The earthquake and the decent of angels and the rolling away of the stone were after the tomb was empty."
Whatever the case, when Mary looked she did not wonder when He arose, but rather, who had stolen the body of her Lord. Resurrection was not in her mind at all. She jumped to a false conclusion immediately. Her first impression upon seeing the evidence was a negative one, and she ran to tell the Apostles of the bad news. The first message that Mary carried on that first Easter was negative because it was not based on fact, but on her imagination. Her mind was filled with a false concept of what had happened at the tomb, and in desperation she ran to Peter and John for help. Why did she suddenly sense the need for male help? It was because she was convinced she was dealing with men who had robbed the tomb. She was hurt, and she needed help to find the body.
We see here that the very finest people can misinterpret circumstances, and they can bring much unnecessary grief to themselves. Mary was so sure of herself, but she had completely misread the evidence. The result was she told Peter and John a complete falsehood. She said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him." She was blaming some mythical "they" for her anguish. They are always the cause for the world's problems. If they would just leave us alone we would be okay. Mary's "they" like most "theys" do not exist. She was causing her own problem because she thought "they" stole her Lord's body. We are the inventors of our own enemies so often, just as Mary was.
Jesus had shattered the chains of death, but Mary was still in bondage because of her ignorance. She saw the stone was gone, and her Savior was gone, and she gave it the worst instead of the best interpretation. So often we, like Mary, jump to conclusions, and we suffer sorrow when joy could be ours with a more positive interpretation of the evidence.
We say, they have taken our Lord,
And we know not where He lies,
When the light of His resurrection morn
Is breaking out of the skies.
Glory was ready to burst all around her, and yet she was in gloom. So many remain in gloom when glory is real. It is because facts are not enough. The resurrection is a fact, but facts have no power until we are aware of them, and until we accept their reality. Two plus two equals four is a fact, and it would be a fact whether we believed it or not. So also the resurrection is a fact whether we believe it or not. But only those who, like Mary, come to believe it, and encounter the living Christ will experience the reality of the glory of the resurrection. Mary was the first, but Jesus was not content until all His followers became aware that He was alive. It is now the goal of His church to reach the whole world with this message of victory over man's greatest enemy. May God help each of us to do our part.