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What About Mary (4 parts)

What About Mary? Part One - What We Don't Believe
by Ed Vasicek

One of the great differences between Biblical evangelical (fundamental) Christianity and Roman Catholicism (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism) is our varying views about Mary. They are not just a little bit different, but extremely different.


Although our views differ, we must remember to respect the right others have to believe as they choose, even if we disagree with those views. We are not out to bash but to contrast. It is important to understand these distinctions because a blossoming, but compromised, evangelical movement within Catholicism (and Anglicanism) is backwashing Roman Catholic teaching into Protestant evangelical churches. So let's examine our differences.

On the one hand, Biblical evangelicals believe Mary was a good woman but chosen primarily because she was a descendent of David. God was gracious to her by allowing her to experience the dream of every Jewish young woman: mothering the Messiah. It was God's grace, and not Mary's merit, that gave her this blessing. She was not necessarily the godliest woman at the time, though she was a godly woman of faith. In our viewpoint, women as godly as Mary could be with us today. But we are quick to admit that no woman will ever fulfill the special role Mary had.

We believe Mary was a sinner who needed a redeemer like everyone else. She miraculously conceived Christ by the Holy Spirit and delivered Him while she was yet a virgin. This belief is called "the Virgin Birth" and should not be confused with the additional Roman Catholic belief of "the Immaculate Conception" explained below. Both Catholics and evangelicals believe in the Virgin Birth, but Bible-oriented evangelicals believe that only the God-man, Jesus Christ, was born without a sin nature. Catholics tend to believe that Mary was also sinless.

Catholicism exalts Mary to having been miraculously conceived herself (thus the term "Immaculate Conception"), and they believe Mary's body was resurrected and assumed into heaven. Catholics teach that Mary serves as a mediator between Christians and Jesus. They also believe it is appropriate to sing praises to her and to pray to her--acts of worship that would be considered sacrilegious to us (we would argue such acts are only appropriate when directed toward God). Catholics refer to Mary as the "Mother of God;" we refer to Mary as the "Mother of Jesus," the term used in Scripture. Although both groups would acknowledge that she was the mother of only Jesus' human nature, calling her "the mother of God" is often misunderstood at the popular level. The great divide over Mary is massive.

How can two groups, both claiming to follow Christ, hold such divergent views? The answer boils down to authority--how does Christ lead? Catholicism recognizes three sources of infallible doctrine: (1) the church's decrees and accumulated traditions, (2) the Pope, and (3) Scripture, respectively. Most Catholics sense no burden to defend these beliefs Scripturally; they trust their church. They acknowledge that many of their beliefs have evolved over time, and see nothing wrong with that.

Evangelicals/fundamentalists believe in Sola Scriptura, that the Bible is the only infallible source of doctrine. Every doctrine is to be challenged and refined by accurate Bible study; even the church is accountable to the Scripture and not to be trusted implicitly. The result is that the two belief systems sometimes converge and at other times diverge.

To make matters more confusing, the Eastern Orthodox and the Episcopal/Anglican churches often have a view similar to Roman Catholicism when it comes to the authority of church tradition, though neither group recognize papal infallibility. These churches also perform acts of worship directed toward Mary, but they do not believe in the Immaculate Conception or the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary. These are relatively recent Roman Catholic beliefs.

Catholics believe Mary remained a virgin for her entire life; our understanding of Scripture is that Joseph "kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son" (Matthew 1:25). We also maintain that Jesus was her "firstborn son" (Luke 2:7), not her only-born son. We lean toward the view that she and Joseph had several children after Jesus was born, four sons and a number of unnamed daughters, as per Matthew 13:53-56:

And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?"

Roman Catholics accommodate this passage by postulating that Joseph was an older man and that these children were born from a previous marriage, which is why he is portrayed as much older than Mary in Catholic artwork and some Christmas cards. But, in light of the fact that Joseph only kept her a virgin until Jesus was born, and that Jesus was called Mary's firstborn, such a conclusion seems strained to most evangelical interpreters. We would argue that such a belief evolved over the centuries but was foreign to both the New Testament and the first-century church.

Importantly, we also believe that, "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5).

Now that we have contrasted our beliefs with those of Roman Catholicism, we will begin laying a Biblical foundation: what we DO believe about Mary. Mary's name was not actually Mary, but Miriam, a common Hebrew name. Miriam was probably named after Moses' sister, and there is at least one point of convergence. Miriam was a prophetess who sang a prophetic song (poem) to the children of Israel, tambourine in hand: "Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea" (Exodus 15:21). When Mary was expecting Jesus and visited Elizabeth, she prophesied a poem as well (Luke 1:46-55), sometimes called "The Magnificat." There are 13 quotations in the poem from the Old Testament.

Mary's name is also related to the Hebrew word, "Marah," meaning bitter. Some have understood her name to be prophetic of the bitter suffering she would experience, seeing her Son crucified. The elderly Simeon prophesied to her in Luke 2:35, "and a sword will pierce even your own soul."

Besides her name, we need to remember that Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and all the Apostles were Jewish. Christianity's first description was "a sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5), and that it was. The early Christians were so devoted to Judaism that the big controversy in the early church was whether a gentile needed to become a Jew FIRST (beginning with circumcision then keeping all the laws of Moses) before becoming a Christian (Acts 15). The idea that Jesus came to start a new religion, completely separate from Judaism, is incorrect. Christianity is best understood as a form of Judaism (Messianic Judaism), with most of us relating to God as God-fearing gentiles who are grafted into Israel (Romans 11:1-32).

Joseph and Mary were devout Jews, and they reared Jesus as an observant Jew. Note Luke 2:21-24 to see an example of their obedience:

On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord"), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: "a pair of doves or two young pigeons."

Join us next month for the second installment.

What About Mary? Part II - Bearing the Messiah
by Ed Vasicek

Last month, we looked at the huge differences between the Roman Catholic perspective on Mary and the Bible-oriented evangelical perspective. In what we understand to be the Biblical perspective, Mary was a sinner who needed a Savior (Luke 1:47), she remained a virgin only until Jesus was born (Matthew 1:25--please note the term 'until.'), and she had other, naturally conceived children with Joseph as their biological father (Luke 2:7--please note the term "firstborn," Matthew 13:55-56).

Before we look at Mary's eagerness to be the mother of the Messiah, we need to understand the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah and how they relate to Mary's role.

After Adam and Eve fell into sin, God pronounced a curse upon all involved in the transgression and creation in general. We will pick up midstream with Genesis 3:14-15: "Then the LORD God said to the serpent: Because you have done this, you are cursed more than any livestock and more than any wild animal. You will move on your belly and eat dust all the days of your life. I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."

Note that the serpent (Satan--see Revelation 12:9 to document this) would harm the "seed of the woman" (the Messiah), but this "seed of the woman" would completely crush the serpent's head. The "seed" is the Messiah, Jesus Christ--and the woman is Mary.

In ancient times, a person's lineage was traced through the father. But in the Garden of Eden, God predicts that it would not be the seed of the man, nor of the man and woman together--but the seed of the woman that would crush the serpent's head. This is the first implication of the Virgin Birth.

The second implication of the Virgin Birth is Isaiah 7:14, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." Isaiah probably saw a less-literal fulfillment in his day. A young woman, who was a virgin at the time of the prophecy, married and ceased being a virgin. She conceived a boy who was named Immanuel. But the more literal fulfillment occurred centuries later, when a woman (Mary/Miriam) conceived while still a virgin (this is a real sign) and gave birth to a Son who actually WAS Immanuel ("God with us").

When Matthew quoted Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:21 and applied this passage to Jesus, he added the translation of the name Immanuel ("God with us") to make this very point.

The Virgin Birth was certainly a miraculous sign in its own right, but it also fulfilled an important theological function. In order for the Messiah to redeem the human race, He had to be our "kinsman," yet sinless. Christ was conceived miraculously so that He did not inherit a sin nature (the predisposition to sin that you and I have--nor the guilt of original sin), yet He was truly a descendent of Adam.

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in Luke 1:31, he made this announcement: "You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High."

Mary could not understand this, so she inquired: "How will this be...since I am a virgin?"

Note the angel's explanation in Luke 1:35, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God." So Jesus would be born a holy infant, not tainted by original sin.

Mary's response of faith is meaningful indeed. She was fully submissive to the will of God: "I am the Lord's servant.... May it be to me as you have said" (Luke 1:38). What an awesome attitude she displayed!

Mary knew that few people would believe such an account. Compared to other people groups, the first century Jews were not a particularly superstitious people and would be skeptical about a virgin conception, despite the Old Testament prophecies. Whether Mary even tried to relay the angel's message to others beside Elizabeth is hard to tell.

Joseph had certainly concluded the worst. He decided a quiet divorce was the best route: "Because Joseph, her husband, was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly" (Matthew 1:19).

Joseph and Mary were in a marital state unlike anything we have in modern western culture. In first century Israel, it was typical for a couple to be "betrothed" or "engaged" for about a year before they lived together as man and wife, living separately with their parents. When betrothed, they were considered legally married and, if they broke up, they would need to acquire a divorce. The average man would take that year to construct an addition to his father's house. Then, when the building was completed, the wedding feast was stealthily planned; he would then whisk his bride away in surprise, bring her to the wedding feasts, and then consummate the marriage. Incidentally, this is the imagery of John 14:1-6 and the Parable of the 10 Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) who had to be ready on a moment's notice to accompany the bride to the surprise feast.

Joseph and Mary had been betrothed, and this made them legally married, but they had not yet consummated the marriage. It was during this "in-between" time that Mary became pregnant. Joseph knew that he and Mary had not come together, so his assumption naturally was that she had been unfaithful. Joseph experienced a change of heart when an angel appeared to him in a dream and verified that Mary was indeed supernaturally pregnant (Matthew 1:21-25).

Throughout Mary's life, she would carry the stigma of having been promiscuous, and Jesus would be accused of being illegitimate. Jesus' arguments with some unbelieving Jewish leaders carries a harsher picture if we postulate that they were attacking His dubious parentage. We join one such argument midstream (John 8:18) with Jesus speaking: "'I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.' Then they asked him, 'Where is your father?'"

Later, in the same chapter (John 8:41), Jesus is again arguing His case: "'You are doing the things your own father does.' 'We are not illegitimate children,' they protested. 'The only Father we have is God himself.'"

But the greatest insult came in John 8:48, "The Jews answered him, 'Aren't we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?'"

The nature of the accusation that Jesus was "demon-possessed" is beyond the scope of this article, but the accusation that Jesus was called "a Samaritan" is not. The Samaritans were half Jewish and half gentile. Jesus' enemies were implying that Jesus' father was a gentile (a non-Jew). Decades later, rumors circulated that Jesus' real father was a Roman soldier named Panthera. About 200 A.D., the church father Origen wrote against this rumor:

But let us now return to where the Jew is introduced [Celsus], speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that 'when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera;' and let us see whether those who have blindly concocted these fables about the adultery of the virgin with Panthera, and her rejection by the carpenter, did not invent these stories to overturn His miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost: for they could have falsified the history in a different manner, on account of its extremely miraculous character, and not have admitted, as it were against their will, that Jesus was born of no ordinary human marriage. (Origen Against Celsus 1: Chapter XXXII).

Origen argues if Joseph had been Jesus' true father, there would have been no need to concoct this story about Panthera.

Did Mary realize the stigma she would face when she told the angel, "May it be to me as you have said?" Probably so. Although every Jewish woman dreamt of mothering the Messiah, they probably did not understand that the Messiah would be conceived this way. The scandal of Christ's birth was but a foreshadowing of the scandal of the cross. While the unbelieving community looks at her as just another woman who went astray, we are among those who recognize that she was truly blessed by God (Luke 1:45).

Join us next time for part three of our series, "What About Mary?"

What About Mary? Part III - Mothering the Messiah
by Ed Vasicek

In my previous articles, we discussed that fact that Mary was a mere woman. Though she was certainly a godly person, she was still a sinner who needed the grace of God. She was chosen to bear the Messiah because she was a descendent of David--and betrothed to a man who was a special descendent of David.

Although the Davidic line had not been recognized for centuries, Joseph would have reigned as king if the line had been honored. The ruling line had been cursed about 600 years before Jesus was born! Jeremiah prophesied this message to Joseph's forefather, King Jehoiachin (aka, "Coniah"): "Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime, for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah."

Mary, on the other hand, did not descend from Solomon's line (the ruling line), but descended from Solomon's brother, Nathan. The end result? Jesus is genetically connected to David through Mary; He has the legal right to rule through His stepfather, Joseph, but is not under the curse pronounced upon Joseph's forefather (since Jesus did not actually descend from Joseph's line). He was a legal descendent of Joseph, but not actually a genetic descendent of Joseph.

But little of this mattered to Mary, for David's line was like any other family in first century Israel. In fact, the reigning regent, the paranoid King Herod, was actually a descendent of Esau! This wicked tyrant heard about Jesus' birth from the Magi and determined to destroy Jesus. Before he could order his soldiers to kill all the boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem, Joseph had been warned in a dream to vacate.

Although Joseph and Mary were from the north of Israel (the city of Nazareth in the province of Galilee), they decided to rent a house in Bethlehem, perhaps avoiding the gossip that life in Galilee would bring.

God provided for them: they were now wealthy because of the generosity of the Wise Men. They could readily convert the gold, frankincense, and myrrh into cash. Perhaps they settled for a while in Alexandria, an Egyptian city with a large Jewish population.

We do not know how or when Mary received word of Herod's slaughter of the innocent children. No angel warned the other parents as he had Mary and Joseph. Whereas they appreciated God's grace to them--and the fact that they were singled out to rear the Savior of the world--the couple probably grieved to learn that friends and relatives had lost children to Herod's sword because of their special child! We can only imagine their struggles.

It wasn't long at all until they received a message from the angel that Herod had died (Matthew 2:19-20). Rather than return to a dubious situation in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary decided to return to their hometown of Nazareth in the fertile province of Galilee. Their lives, at this point, were probably typical. Joseph and Mary brought four boys and a number of girls into the world, and Joseph worked as a contractor (although often translated, "carpenter," the word for Joseph's vocation would be better translated "stone mason," although he probably also worked with some wood).

We do know that the childhood of Jesus was uneventful; He was apprenticed in His stepfather's trade. When Jesus later presented Himself as the miracle-working Messiah, his friends and neighbors were completely perplexed. If He had a track record of working miracles or obviously stood out from His peers, we would never read what we do in Matthew 13:52-58

Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. "Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?" they asked. "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren't all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?" And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor." And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

There was one childhood event, however, that was unusual: His visit to the Temple at age 12. Like other Jewish boys, Jesus would make His Bar Mitzvah (becoming a "son of the commandment") at age 13. It was typical for 12-year-old boys to discuss Torah (the Law of Moses) with rabbis, sages, and teachers of the Law in preparation for one's Bar Mitzvah. Jesus had studied well, and the scholars were impressed with His knowledge and interpretative skills.

Joseph and Mary, however, were worried about Him. When the Jews traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate religious holidays (three times a year), they generally traveled in caravans with extended family and friends. Entire villages might make the pilgrimage together. Along the way up to Jerusalem, they would sing the "Psalms of Ascent."

As they were hiking back to Nazareth, Joseph and Mary began looking for Jesus. Their search turned into panic as they realized He was nowhere to be found in the entire caravan. Finally, they turned back to Jerusalem to search for the lost boy. They searched for three days before they found him.

When they received word that He was engaging in Torah study at the Temple, they quickly made their way up toward Mt. Zion. Sure enough, Jesus was engaged in deep discussion with the Torah scholars.

Joseph and Mary did something they were not used to doing: they confronted Him about the unnecessary stress He had brought to them. Jesus defended Himself. In Luke 2:49-51 Jesus speaks: "'Why were you searching for me?' he asked. 'Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?' But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart."

Mary did not understand what was happening, but she quietly processed what Jesus had said. She was not merely the mother of a boy, but she and Joseph were special guardians of the Holy One. They should have expected the Messiah to be more zealous for the Torah than His peers. The Temple should have been the first place they looked!

Mary's quiet disposition and contemplative heart made her an ideal mother for God's Anointed One. She did not understand this unusual life of hers, but she knew God was in control. She probably believed that the pieces of the puzzle would eventually fit together.

What About Mary? Part IV - Finale: Mary's Challenges
by Ed Vasicek

Thus far in our series, we have discovered that Mary was a godly but very human woman. Although all sorts of legends evolved over the centuries, Mary was not all that different from other godly first-century women in Israel.

We believe that she was busy rearing her other children, Jesus' four brothers and sisters (Matthew 13:51ff) when Joseph died (Joseph is last mentioned when Jesus was 12). As Mary's firstborn son, Jesus very likely had to watch out for His mother.

When Jesus was somewhere near thirty (My guess is 33.), it was time for Him to begin His ministry as a sage (rabbi) and train disciples and apostles who would lay the foundation of the church. When Jesus had just a few disciples, He and His followers were invited to a wedding in Cana of Galilee.

Up until this point, Jesus had worked no public miracles. Most Body Builder readers are familiar with the story in John chapter 2. During the wedding reception, the host ran out of wine to serve the people. Let's pick up the story with verses 3-5 from the ESV, "When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, 'They have no wine.' And Jesus said to her, 'Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.' His mother said to the servants, 'Do whatever he tells you.'"

When Jesus addressed his mother as "Woman," he was not being rude to her--not exactly. Such a term in that culture was not a slight as it would be in ours ("Bring me some bread, woman!"). But His statement, "What does this have to do with me" implies that Jesus did not appreciate Mary's interference.

Although Jesus may have had a gleam in His eye, because He did work the miracle, He was gently acclimating Mary to His new role as Rabbi and eventually as Savior. He no longer belonged to His mother or family but to the world. His domestic role as eldest son was at an end. Like all mothers, Mary had to learn to let go.

Although Mary knew that Jesus was destined to be the Messiah, she was probably bombarded with criticisms about Jesus from her other children. Jesus' four brothers rejected His claims as Messiah, as demonstrated by the harsh exchange of John 7:3-7:

Jesus' brothers said to him, "You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world." For even his own brothers did not believe in him. Therefore Jesus told them, "The right time for me has not yet come; for you any time is right. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil."

Jesus' brothers did not come to faith until after the Resurrection. Two of them went on to write books in our New Testament: James and Jude.

So we can only imagine what Mary went through at home. Perhaps, when she heard about how busy Jesus was and the uproar surrounding Him, she may have wondered whether He had gone too far. A text in Mark 3 (vs. 20-21) seems to imply this:  "Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, 'He is out of his mind.'"

But was it only Jesus' brothers who feared He was insane? A few verses later we read (vs. 31-35), "And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, 'Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.' And he answered them, 'Who are my mother and my brothers? And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.'"

Jesus was hurt that His own family thought He was mad. Thus He explains that His spiritual family is more important than His genetic family. The fact that He includes the term "mother" in His statement might imply that Mary was in agreement with her other sons, that Jesus was not sane. Others believe she accompanied them but did not agree with their viewpoint.

Since John the Baptist had his doubts about Jesus (Luke 7:19), should it surprise us that Mary, too, had her doubts? Whereas I do not think Mary ever doubted that her Son was the Messiah, it does seem that she had her doubts about HOW He was trying to establish His Kingdom!

Things got even stranger for Mary when her Son was taken by His powerful enemies at night and illegally sentenced to die. Could Jesus actually be crucified? Then she understood what Simeon's prophecy meant, "a sword will pierce your own soul too" (Luke 2:35b).

As she watched the agony of her Son on the cross, we read: "When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby [John], he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother!' And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home" (John 19:26-27).

Like Mary, John had believed that Jesus was the true Messiah. Like Mary, John was present at the cross with His Savior. In time, when James came to faith in Jesus, Mary would have a loving family that would be united in faith. But, for that fateful period of time, John looked out for Mary in place of Jesus.

We know that Jesus made a special resurrection appearance to His brother, James (1 Corinthians 15:7), and we can but assume that Mary was among the crowd of 500 to whom He appeared (1 Corinthians 15:6).

Mary is mentioned the last time in Acts 1:12-14 as being part of the "Upper Room" crowd. She had found her place as a disciple of Jesus, under the authority of the Apostles. Despite her humble position, she knew that she had experienced the greatest blessing any human could experience, being the mother of the Messiah.

The Bible calls Mary the "mother of Jesus," (as in John 2:1) never the "mother of God."  Although Jesus was God incarnate, He was one Person with two natures (divine and human); Mary was the mother of only his human nature.  We are best to stick with the Biblical nomenclature.

What did she do with the rest of her life? Probably served the church as best she could, and encouraged her naturally born son, James, to lead the church in Jerusalem (which he did). Her heart was no doubt filled with praise as she worshipped the Son she had reared, the One who was both Son of Man and Son of God.

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