Mary, the Mother of Jesus: Defining True Greatness

One of the truly great women of the Bible is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was a woman of faith, courage, humility, praise, and prayer. She was a good wife and mother, and an exemplary disciple of Christ. Nevertheless, Mary often is not given the recognition she deserves, and that is primarily due to all the fanciful things that have been taught about her, such as that she was a “perpetual virgin,” or that she answers prayers and dispenses grace. These unbiblical things tend to make the average Protestant Christian avoid studying her life, which is too bad because she was an awesome believer. We can learn a lot from the woman who was chosen by God to bear His Son.

A Woman with a Pedigree

Mary’s family pedigree was exalted and spotless. She was born into spiritual royalty because she was a descendant of David through his son Solomon, and down through the kings of Judah, including such greats as Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah. [1] Mary, of course, did not choose her family heritage, one that made it possible for her to bear the promised Messiah. Nevertheless, Old Testament Scripture made clear that the Christ would be from the line of David, and there is little doubt that the subject was discussed in her home, just as godly people today often speak of the Rapture and return of Jesus Christ. However, it is clear that Mary never thought of herself as better than others, and instead saw herself as an Israelite whose work was to be a good wife and mother, and to live her life in service to God.

A Woman of Faith

We do not know how cold, or perhaps even snowy, it was that December day in Galilee when the young woman we know as Mary was surprised by the angel Gabriel. [2] We do know that Mary would have been in her early teenage years, most likely twelve to fourteen years old. We can tell her age because she was engaged, but not yet married, to a man named Joseph, and yet was physically mature enough to both have and rear God’s Son, something she did for at least a couple of years without much family support. While twelve to fourteen may seem very young to us, it was common in biblical times for women to be married at that age, and much older than fourteen would have been uncharacteristically old for marriage in her culture. We can better understand the great courage and faith Mary had when we realize that she was not a middle-aged and experienced woman of the world, but rather a young woman of faith who accepted the call to be the mother of the Christ.

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28b NASB). [3] The angel told Mary that she had “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30), and that she would be impregnated by God and give birth to the promised Messiah, whose “kingdom will never end” (v. 33). Although we do not know a lot of details about Mary’s life, we can tell from Scripture that even at her young age she was familiar with Scripture, and would have immediately understood some of the immensity of the task being asked of her. She also would have known, though only in part, the personal price she would have to pay to be the mother of the Messiah.

Part of the price she paid was the doubt, suspicion, and rejection she encountered because of her virgin conception and birth. Neither Mary nor her fellow believers were expecting a virgin birth. Isaiah 7:14 is quoted in Matthew 1:23 (“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son…), and therefore Christians, with 20/20 hindsight, realize that Isaiah was at least in part foretelling a virgin birth. But in its context, the “son” in Isaiah 7 was born during the lifetime of Isaiah (Isa. 7:15-17), and there is no historical record that the Jews were expecting a virgin birth until it actually happened. [4]

On being told she would have a child, Mary herself said, “How will this be, since I am not knowing a man?” (REV). [5] Mary was confused about how she would get pregnant when she was not “knowing,” actively having sexual relations with, a man. The angel told her that she would be impregnated by God Himself (Luke 1:35). Mary believed what the angel Gabriel told her, but it had to occur to her that it would be difficult, and often impossible, to get people to believe what she would tell them. Even so, in a statement of faith that has echoed through the ages and been an inspiration for millions of believers, she replied to the angel, “Behold!, the slave-maid of the Lord, may it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38b REV).

Mary’s humility and faith shine brilliantly through her statement. She referred to herself as the “slave-maid” of the Lord, indicating that she completely submitted her will, her agenda, even her life, to God. The Greek word I translate “slave-maid” (following the well-known biblical scholar, R. C. H. Lenski), is doule, the feminine form of the better-known masculine noun doulos, and it can refer either to a servant or a slave. In the biblical culture, servants were not owned, and thus were free to stay or leave as they wished, and they were paid for their work. Slaves, on the other hand, were owned and thus were not free to come and go, and they were seldom paid for any service. Also noteworthy in this context is that a slave was the sexual property of the owner, something that devastated many marriages in the ancient world. Mary did not think of herself as a servant who could leave if the employment was unfavorable or the pay was not good enough. No, she thought of herself as the slave of God, willing to do whatever He asked. A better example of faith could hardly be set by anyone at any time.

A Woman of Character

Very shortly after the angel told Mary she would be pregnant by God, she left Nazareth and went south into the hill country of Judea, to the house of a relative named Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron, and married to Zechariah, who was also from Aaron (Luke 1:39-56). Scripture does not tell us why Mary went to visit Elizabeth, but we can quite safely assume that it was to prepare herself for the storm she knew would break when her pregnancy became known.

Scripture never tells us why she picked Elizabeth to go visit for three months. She may have prayed about it and gotten direction from God, or perhaps it was because Gabriel mentioned Elizabeth when he told Mary she would bear the promised Messiah. Scripture also never tells us to what degree she wrestled with concern, perhaps worry, perhaps even fear, of what would happen to her when her pregnancy became known. She may have even wrestled with how to tell Elizabeth, and whether Elizabeth would believe her. What a weight must have come off her shoulders when she went into the house of Elizabeth. She had barely said “Hello,” when Elizabeth loudly proclaimed that Mary and the child were blessed by God.

Luke 1:42b-45
(42b) …“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!
(43) But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
(44) As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
(45) Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

God revealed to Elizabeth via the holy spirit upon her what she could not have known by her senses; and her words provided comfort and assurance to Mary. Furthermore, like Mary, Elizabeth was also a woman of faith and humility. Herself pregnant by a miracle, Elizabeth nonetheless was honored to be in the presence of the mother of the Messiah, and asked how it was that she was so favored. A humble heart is one of the great characteristics of a godly person, and Mary and Elizabeth stand as wonderful examples to us today.

Mary responded to Elizabeth’s prophecy with a beautiful psalm. [6] If it came by revelation the text never says so, and even if it did, we know that what came from her mouth lived in her heart. Mary’s psalm reveals much about her.

  • It reveals the praise for God that lived in her heart, that burning and upwelling love and thankfulness that expressed itself in praise and overshadowed any personal grief she would have from her service to God. She said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” and it truly did.
  • It revealed her knowledge of Scripture, because many things she said relate directly to verses in the Old Testament (cp. v. 46 with Ps. 34:2; v. 47 with Isa. 61:10; v. 48 with Ps. 138:6; v. 49 with Ps. 111:9; v. 50 with Exod. 20:6; v. 51 with Ps. 98:1; v. 52 with 2 Sam. 22:28; and v. 53 with Ps. 107:9). Mary obviously paid attention when the scrolls were read in synagogue, and believed what she heard.
  • It revealed her humility, for she again referred to herself as the slave-maid of God (v. 48). She was one of the few who loved God with her heart, soul, mind, and strength, and expressed that love in selfless service to Him.
  • It revealed the inner strength in her soul and her keen insight into life. Surely the mother of the Messiah would be a woman with great inner strength, and it comes out in her psalm. She boldly proclaimed things that God had done and will do, including scattering those who are proud and bringing down rulers. The rulers in her world were men like Herod the Great, who would soon try to kill her son. Rather than being awed by their earthly power or the glitzy life they lived, she saw the evil in what they did and was quick to proclaim that God would deal with it, which she had to know would be in part through the agency of the child in her womb.
  • It revealed her compassion for those who, in this life, have been downtrodden and abused. Mary proclaimed that the humble would be lifted up, the hungry would be filled with good things, and mercy would be extended to Abraham and his seed forever.
  • It revealed that Mary believed in the Messianic Age, the coming kingdom that would be ruled by her son, when there would be no more hunger, disease, war, or political oppression. She knew God would be merciful to the seed of Abraham “forever,” even as he had said to the ancient fathers and had recorded in His Word.

Mary and Elizabeth were both great women of faith, one very young, and one very old, and they spent three months together, talking and praying about what was to come. No doubt they did their best to prepare Mary for the joys and tribulations of being the mother of the Messiah. Little did Mary know that, even as her virgin pregnancy was unexpected, and a shock and stumblingblock to the Jews, so the path of peace and love that her son would take would be a shock and stumblingblock to her.

A Woman of Courage

After spending three months with Elizabeth, Mary went back to Nazareth, knowing that she was heading into a storm. The people of Nazareth would not be as Elizabeth was. No, they would be shocked, hurt, dismayed, doubtful, and express every other emotion that “nice” parents and relatives of “nice” girls usually express when a beloved daughter shows up pregnant. It is a testimony of the courage and faith of young Mary that she went home to face her relatives, knowing what the situation would be like. People today, who avoid conflict, lie to cover their actions, have a “victim mentality,” and make excuse after excuse, could learn a lot from Mary.

We can imagine the scene. Mary’s pregnancy was discovered, likely because her expanding tummy showed a little after three months, and perhaps also her complexion had changed. No doubt there was shouting, endless questions, and many tears. The rabbi would have been called to see if there was anything about a virgin birth in the Old Testament. Eventually Joseph was told. He did not believe Mary’s story either. Can you blame him? Who could have guessed? But Joseph’s godly character showed itself in the situation. He was not a hard, vindictive man who wanted Mary publicly embarrassed, he was content to make the divorce a quiet family matter. No doubt Mary prayed for wisdom and peace, and God was good, showing Joseph in a dream that Mary really was pregnant by God.

Knowing the truth about Mary, Joseph acted decisively and took Mary home as his wife (Matt. 1:24). At this point Mary had a husband who was a husband indeed: a friend, ally, and confidant. Joseph was a godly man who valued truth over convenience. We know this because now Joseph would be included in the storm that raged around Mary and her soon-to-be born baby. Interestingly, it has been 2,000 years since Jesus was born, and there is still a storm that rages around the truth of who Jesus is, a storm that some people enter into for God’s sake and truth’s sake, and that others avoid, usually because they “don’t like conflict.”

The storm of doubt, anger, and unbelief raging around Mary and Joseph was most likely the reason why they did not return to Nazareth after Jesus was born in Bethlehem. They stayed in Bethlehem for almost a year and a half, until the angel told them to flee to Egypt to save young Jesus’ life. For their part, Mary and Joseph had better things to do than try to explain their situation to unbelieving relatives in Nazareth. They needed to get started raising God’s Son, who was not only the Savior of the world, but their Savior as well. There is a lesson for us in how Joseph and Mary lived, because far too many people waste their lives trying to justify their actions to angry and unbelieving people who are never satisfied. Like Joseph and Mary, we need to get about doing the work of the Lord, and not be distracted by complainers.

A Woman of Self-control

Both Joseph and Mary recognized the tremendous significance of the birth and pedigree of the Messiah, and the gospel of Matthew makes it clear that they did not have sexual intercourse until after Jesus was born.

Matthew 1:25 (KJV)
And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

That Joseph did not “know” Mary before she gave birth to Jesus is a clear statement revealing that he did not have sexual intercourse with her until after Jesus was born. In today’s world, when it seems that a large percentage of Christians do not wait until marriage to have sexual intercourse with their partner, the discipline and focus of Mary and Joseph stands as a sterling example, showing that if we really want to, we can follow not only the Law of God, but the heart of God as well. After all, there was no law saying they could not have sexual intercourse after marriage, but both of them knew the obvious: if they had sexual intercourse, it would give place for others to doubt that Mary really had been impregnated by God. So they waited until Jesus was born before engaging in sex, so there was both a virgin conception and a virgin birth of the Son of God.

A Woman of the Word

Most Christians do not pay too much attention to the regulations in the Law of Moses that pertain to the birth of a firstborn son and the ritual cleansing and sacrifices that had to be offered afterward. However, to one who called herself the slave-maid of God, His Word and His regulations were the law she lived by. After all, how can you say you love God and then not do what He says? Joseph and Mary diligently carried out all the regulations in the Law of Moses concerning the birth of a firstborn boy (Luke 2:21-24). [7]

A Woman of Meditation and Reflection

Just as the world was taken by surprise at the virgin birth, Mary was herself surprised by much that happened in the life of her son. She developed the habit of keeping her own counsel, treasuring things in her heart, pondering them and no doubt praying about them. For example, imagine how surprised she was on the night she gave birth. She was spending time with her new family, unnoticed by the world around her. Their peace was suddenly shattered by some shepherds who burst in to see the baby, excitedly telling what seemed to be a wild story about being frightened by a brilliant light and seeing the hillsides covered with God’s army of angels. [8] Very quickly the news spread, and the woman who had given birth in obscurity was now being spoken of all over town. Mary was no doubt surprised by all the commotion, but took in the things that were going on, treasuring them in her heart and pondering them (Luke 2:19).

She would still be treasuring those things in her heart twelve years later when she and her husband took their family to the Passover in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52) after which they went back home to Nazareth. By this time Mary’s family had grown considerably. Jesus was her firstborn son, but Scripture tells us she also had James, Joseph, Simon and Judas, and daughters as well (Matt. 13:55 and 56). Thus, by the time Jesus was twelve, Mary was in her mid-twenties and would have been well on her way to having the eight children the Word of God indicates she had, which would not be unusual in her culture.

Mary was busy with the younger children, so as they headed home, Jesus was trusted to stay with the family on his own. After all, he was almost as old as Mary herself had been when the angel told her she would bear the Messiah. But when Joseph and Mary rounded up the family that night, Jesus was nowhere to be found. The panic that arises in the heart of any mother whose child is missing is hard to describe, and Mary and Joseph hurried back to Jerusalem, only to find Jesus sitting in the Temple with the teachers of the Law.

Upon being reproved for his inconsideration, Jesus asked Mary and Joseph why they did not know that he must be in his Father’s house. After that, however, Scripture tells us that, for his part, Jesus now stayed subject to his parents as he grew up, and it also lets us know that neither Mary nor Joseph understood what Jesus meant in the Temple that day. However, Mary once again treasured up these things in her heart (Luke 2:50 and 51).

A Woman of Understanding

Parents understand that children must leave the nest, so to speak, and live on their own as adults, but parenting instincts do not just go away when a child reaches a certain age. Parents need understanding and maturity to let children live their own lives as they grow up. Children, who for years have needed seemingly constant care and attention, grow and mature, and may come to resent what they see as needless “mothering.” They want to be on their own, making their own decisions. For Mary and Jesus, that separation, in mind if not in living space, was unique for both of them. Mary not only had to let her son go, but also begin the relationship with him that was destined from his conception: that he was the Savior, and Mary, like the rest of us, was a sinner in need of salvation. For Jesus’ part, he had to walk in the fullness of his calling, realizing that there was much about him and his life that Mary, in spite of her love for him, would not fully comprehend.

The mature relationships between mother and son, and sinner and Savior, no doubt took some time to develop. Their relationship was perhaps made more complex because, at some point before Jesus started his ministry, Joseph died. Although Scripture does not directly say that, Joseph’s conspicuous absence in the Gospel narratives during the years of Jesus’ ministry allows us to draw this conclusion with certainty. Thus, Mary, now the family matriarch, would tend to oversee the family more decisively than she otherwise may have done. One example of Mary still acting as his mother, and perhaps being a little pushy, occurred early in his ministry at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). Mary pointed out that the host ran out of wine. Jesus answered her politely but firmly, addressing her as “woman.” It is much harsher in English than in Greek. It was a polite but appropriately distant way of addressing her, showing that Jesus had begun to define his life as Lord and Savior. He had faced the Devil himself in the wilderness of Judea, his ministry had begun, and it would be different than his mother imagined. Earthly relationships were being subjugated to divine mission.

Perhaps Mary reminded herself of how surprised she was to learn from Gabriel that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. If she did, it no doubt helped her keep in perspective how surprised she was at the way the ministry of her son was playing out. She even got to the point of thinking that Jesus had lost his mind about his mission and purpose, and rounded up her other sons to bring him home (Matt. 12:46; Mark 3:21 and 31). Jesus was not trying to be rude to his family when he did not go out to greet them, but instead looked at those around him and said, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33a and 35). Jesus was trying to get his family to realize what they must come to know if they were to be saved, that they all had to become his followers and disciples, for he was the Messiah.

A Disciple of Christ

It is not surprising that the spunky, godly teenager who God picked to be the mother of His only Son would grow and mature to be an important member of the early Church. Nevertheless, there is no hint that she ever tried to throw her weight around as “the mother of Jesus.” The humility she showed in her teenage years, when she called herself the “slave-maid” of the Lord, was still present when, in her mid-forties, she stood at the foot of the cross and looked up at her son and Lord. There is no evidence that she understood more than the other disciples. Like the rest, it seems clear that she did not comprehend his substitutionary death for all mankind. Nevertheless, she quietly accepted his direction to go home with the Apostle John (John 19:25-27) and understood the appropriate distance in the relationship when Jesus again addressed her as “woman.”

The last mention of Mary is in Acts 1:14, after her son ascended into heaven. The disciples had assembled in Jerusalem and she was counted among them. Her work as the mother of the only Son of God was done, and her place was in the Church, as a disciple. Many people today go to great lengths to be “someone great.” Mary showed us that true greatness comes from placing your life in God’s hands and doing whatever He calls you to do. She accepted the task that God assigned her in spite of its difficulty, and she lived with humility and great faith, even in becoming a disciple of her son, the Christ. You do not get any greater than that.

Endnotes

[1] The genealogy of Mary is recorded in Matthew 1:2-16. It is often thought that Matthew contains Joseph’s genealogy and Luke contains Mary’s, but this cannot be correct. For one thing, Mary is never mentioned in Luke, while Joseph is the last person in Luke’s genealogy. Furthermore, Mary is in the genealogy in Matthew 1:16, between Joseph (her father) and Jesus (her son). The reason for the confusion is that in almost all versions, Joseph is said to be the “husband” of Mary. Although the Greek word most versions translate “husband” is normally translated that way, it does not have to be, and in the Aramaic text, the word is more normally translated father, and a completely different word, meaning ‘husband,” is used just three verses later in verse 19. When Joseph is counted as Mary’s father, and then Mary and Jesus are counted, there are indeed fourteen generations from the exile to Babylon to Jesus, just as Matthew 1:17 says.
[2] We believe Jesus was born in mid-September (Cp. Ernest Martin, The Star that Astonished the World; ASK Publications, Portland, OR, 1996, pp. 67-102). That would mean that Mary was impregnated by God in December.
[3] Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission.
[4] The Hebrew word that most English versions translate “virgin” (almah) does not have to be translated that way, and can refer to a young woman who is not necessarily a virgin, as many commentaries admit. This is especially important when we realize that there is a Hebrew word that more naturally does refer to a virgin (bethula). The Jewish Publication Societies Bible says “young woman,” as do some Christian Bibles such as the RSV*1, NRSV*2, and Moffatt Bible.*3 Furthermore, the future tense, “shall conceive” may be also translated “is pregnant,” as is represented in those same versions. Given the fact that Isaiah 7:14 does not demand a virgin birth, but can refer to a natural pregnancy and birth, it is no wonder that the Jewish people thought the birth of the Messiah would be a natural childbirth, and that is especially true when we take into account that no other verse in the Old Testament clearly supports a virgin birth. The wonderful thing about the Hebrew text in Isaiah 7:14 is that allows for, but does not demand, a virgin birth, so the text can readily apply to the virgin birth of Christ. *1 Scripture quotations marked (RSV) are taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, © 1952, 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. All rights reserved. *2 Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, © 1989, all other information the same as RSV, *3 Moffatt Bible, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, 1994.
[5] This is a very literal rendering of the Greek text. To “know” someone was an idiom in both Greek and Hebrew (and Latin as well) for having sexual intercourse with that person. It is interwoven into the very fabric of humanity that our self and our sexuality are inseparable, and the most intimate knowledge of a person comes through sexual relations. That is one reason why we feel so deeply violated when someone forces himself or herself on us sexually. In this verse, the word “know” is in the present tense, active voice, indicating that Mary was not currently ‘knowing” anyone, i.e., having intercourse with anyone. Given that, it is no wonder she was confused as to how she was going to get pregnant.
[6] In this psalm, or hymn, some of the words are moved forward for emphasis, so the text literally reads: “Magnify does my soul the Lord; Rejoiced has my spirit in God my Savior.” The opening word in the Latin versions is Magnificat, and so the psalm is known theologically by that name.
[7] These regulations provide convincing proof that the Magi did not come to Bethlehem the night of Jesus’ birth, but rather quite a bit later (we believe about 16 months later). Scripture is clear that Joseph took his wife and child and left for Egypt in the middle of the night after the Magi left his house. However, according to the Law of Moses (Lev. 12), a woman had to wait for 40 days after childbirth to bring the boy to the Temple, which Luke 2:22 said they did. Also, a woman was allowed to sacrifice only what Joseph and Mary did, doves or pigeons, if they could not afford a lamb (Lev. 12:8). Had the Magi visited Jesus on the night of his birth, Joseph and Mary would then have certainly been able to afford a lamb.
[8] In Scripture, angels almost never appeared in the sky, and when they did the text lets us know that. A quick study will show that angels regularly appeared on the ground, and there is no reason to suppose that this record would be different unless it specifically said so.

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