God chose an extraordinary young woman to be the mother of Jesus Christ. What are some characteristics we can all learn from this woman of faith?
If you knew you only had moments left to live, who would you speak to? What would you say? What loose ends would you want to tie up? It is often in the crucible of such pressing situations that priorities are revealed.
Jesus, during the intense agony of the crucifixion, dedicated some of His last words to tenderly express concern for His mother, Mary. Noticing Mary standing nearby, Jesus directed her attention to His disciple John, saying, “Woman, behold your son!” (John 19:26). Turning to John, He added, “Behold your mother!” (verse 27). Even in this excruciating moment, Jesus ensured that His mother’s physical well-being would be looked after.
Who was this remarkable woman who had been tasked with rearing, providing for and looking after the Son of God?
Sadly, many people’s familiarity with Mary is summed up in an oft-repeated but seldom thought about prayer, the Catholic “Hail Mary” prayer: “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” To learn about the many problems with praying to Mary, read our article “Should You Pray to Mary?”
Though her persona has been inappropriately elevated by many, the real Mary of the Bible was a remarkable woman. What can we learn from the life and story of Mary, the mother of Jesus?
A challenging introduction
Mary, or perhaps Miriam, was a descendant of King David. Most scholars consider the genealogy in Luke 3:23-38 to be the lineage of Mary.
Mary is first introduced in the Bible as “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph” (Luke 1:26-27). Her betrothal to a respected member of society was vital. Life was precarious for women in Judea and Galilee in the first century. They were often viewed as chattel with few or no inherent rights. Marriage was the path to some degree of liberty and dignity and, in many cases, was necessary even for survival.
Mary’s betrothal to Joseph was more than a modern engagement. According to William Barclay, betrothal “was absolutely binding. It lasted for one year. During that year, the couple were known as husband and wife, although they had not the rights of husband and wife. It could not be terminated in any other way than by divorce” (The New Daily Study Bible, 2001, Vol. 1, p. 22).
Mary’s life—which up to this point appeared to have followed traditional expectations—was shockingly overturned. Luke explains that the angel Gabriel was sent by God with what must have been astonishing news.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS” (Luke 1:30-31). Mary’s response—“How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (verse 34)—affirms the miraculous nature of this conception.
One can imagine the shock such news must have produced within Mary’s family and community. Being “found with child” outside of a marriage covenant was scandalous. Mary probably faced ridicule, social ostracism and likely scorn from others. One can imagine the gossip and sideways glances she must have endured.
In fact, Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, had determined to privately divorce her (Matthew 1:18-19). But God supernaturally intervened to provide Joseph with the understanding and perspective needed to preserve the family unit (verses 20-25).
Clothed in humility and meekness
Mary’s response to this life-altering news reveals much about her character. Mary was clothed in humility and meekness. There was no “Of course I’m the one!” response to this remarkable news. Instead, we find Mary glorifying God while acknowledging her own humble place in comparison (Luke 1:46-49).
Mary’s faith in God was vibrant and powerful. It served to shield her during the challenging events that poured unexpectedly into her life.Furthermore, in what could have been perceived as a slight had she been motivated by pride, after Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced God’s plan (Luke 1:26-38), it appears that all further communication was delivered through her betrothed, Joseph (Matthew 1:20-24; 2:13, 19, 22). A prideful person could have argued, “Well, I’m the chosen one; God should tell me directly.”
Of course, humility and meekness were necessary traits for the Messiah’s mother. God can work with those who have “a contrite and humble spirit” (Isaiah 57:15) because they are pliable and yielding to the will and plan of God. God is able to do great things in and through the humble (James 4:6, 10; 1 Peter 5:5-6). In Mary, God found a humble, meek servant—a young lady determined to obey God and yield to His purpose.
A woman of courage
Mary’s meek spirit did not mask a weak or timid individual. Instead, Mary was a woman of courage and strength.
Because students of the Bible know the rest of the story, it can be difficult to fully appreciate the perilous situation Mary found herself in after Gabriel’s astonishing news. Mary did not have any promise that Joseph would stand by her, yet she courageously shared the news (Matthew 1:18-19).
The miracle in her womb brought considerable risk to Mary. She risked shame, abandonment, abuse and even stoning. The very real possibility of being “put away” would have had devastating consequences on her life.
Mary apparently faced these difficulties with courage. Her courage to tell Joseph was just the beginning. Imagine how Mary might have started that conversation. She then perhaps had to share the news with family, friends and the community. How many people believed her fantastic account?
Such courage is deeply rooted in a relationship with God (Joshua 1:7, 9). It does not form overnight. Rather, it reflects a lifetime of building a relationship with God.
Mary’s courage was further bolstered through positive, uplifting relationships with other faithful individuals. Her relative Elizabeth is described as “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments” (Luke 1:6). Mary sought encouragement and support from Elizabeth as she navigated this challenging time (verses 38-41, 56).
Shielded by faith
Mary was also a woman of faith. A careful reading of Luke 1:26-38 shows that Mary didn’t seek proof from Gabriel when she received his startling news. Instead, she asked for an explanation. Her question was how (not whether) God’s plan would come to fruition. This is an important distinction, as it highlights Mary’s trust and belief in God and His ability to miraculously follow through.
This stands in contrast to Zacharias’ response when Gabriel announced that Zacharias and Elizabeth would have a child (Luke 1:5-18). Zacharias struggled to believe this news (verse 18). As a result, Zacharias was made mute for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy “because [he] did not believe” Gabriel’s announcement (verses 19-20).
Mary had pleased God with her trust and faith (Hebrews 11:1, 6). Mary’s faith in God was vibrant and powerful. It served to shield her during the challenging events that poured unexpectedly into her life.
Mary had the necessary faith to believe Gabriel’s announcement and act on it.
Mary’s faith and trust were not situational. She heard so many promises about her Son’s future.
- For example, Gabriel announced, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
- Simeon prophesied that Jesus was “a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your [God’s] people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
- The prophetess Anna spoke openly of the redemption that would come through Jesus (verses 36-38).
Mary must have been intrigued by these promises and, like many of Jesus’ followers, likely anticipated Jesus would soon restore the national glory as the promised Messiah and the heir to the throne of David. Yet, as the months of Jesus’ public ministry went on, it became clear that a great deal of understanding had been left out. How did that impact Mary?
Mary was widowed and lived to see her Son brutally beaten and crucified. At the end of Jesus’ physical life, Mary was a silent witness to the crucifixion. There is no indication that her faith and trust faltered. Her example of faith is incredible.
Who was Mary, the mother of Jesus?
Mary was not the divine, serene, angelic or mystical being so often portrayed in medieval artwork.
Instead, Mary was in many ways like everyone else. She was a sinner who needed a Savior and anticipated His arrival. Yet she was a very special lady, greatly blessed by God, who endured incredible testing and served in a remarkable way.
One can imagine the stories Mary will be able to share after she’s resurrected to eternal life at Jesus’ return—anecdotes of tragedy, humor and joy. As Mary said, “Henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).
It is unknown how long she lived after Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet there is much for Christians to ponder. What was it like for Mary to be part of the Body of Christ years after His death and resurrection? Was she well-treated, or was she persecuted by the Jews around her? No one really knows. Legend and lore have long corrupted her story, and the truth in this regard is unknowable.
What we can know is that Mary was a remarkable woman. The brief biblical insights into Mary’s life provide a wonderful example for Christians of all ages. We can all profit by following Mary’s example of humility, courage and faith.