Mary Magdalene: The First "Apostle" of the Good News of the Resurrection
[ From The Editors: This article is the final in a series calling attention to thirteen people who, though being dead, instruct us (Heb. 11:4). They speak to us through the testimony of their lives as written in Scripture. The series is called "People of the Past With Lessons for Today". It is also available in book form, (Kindle, Nook and old fashioned print and ink). These passages and people can equip us and motivate us toward greater service to our Lord.]
Mary Magdalene cometh and telleth the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and that he had said these things unto her (John 20:18).
She was a servant to the bitter end.
Even after most of the male disciples had fled for their lives, Mary Magdalene remained and witnessed Jesus' crucifixion (Matthew 27:55-56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25). She saw where His body was laid to rest in Joseph's tomb, and helped to prepare the spices and ointments for embalming the body (Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47, Luke 23:55-56). She was not able to go to the tomb immediately on account of the Sabbath; yet, as soon as she could, as morning began on the first day of the week, she was there to finish embalming Jesus' body (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1-2, John 20:1).
Mary Magdalene had been following Jesus for some time; she is first mentioned in Luke 8:2 as one of the women who went along with Jesus as He traveled through the cities and villages preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom. Her name indicates she is from Magdala, believed to be a town near Tiberias in Galilee near the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had cast seven demons out from her. It would seem that Mary assisted in ministering to Jesus and His disciples from her substance in Luke 8:2-3 and Matthew 27:55-56 as well.
We can only imagine what Mary was thinking as she went to the tomb beyond her concern, with the other women who traveled with her, about how they would move the stone in order to reach the body of Jesus (cf. Mark 16:3). She had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the One promised by God to rule, and yet He was dead, executed as an insurrectionist by the Romans. She saw from her own experience how the demons were subject to Him; she heard His marvelous teachings and the authority with which He taught them. Yet, for the time being, it seemed all for naught; nevertheless, as a final gesture of appreciation, love, and service, the time had come to finish preparing the body as it would decompose like every other.
Yet, as she arrived, she noticed that the stone had been moved (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1). She and the other women were disturbed and went back to Simon Peter and John, informing them that the stone had been moved and someone had taken the body of Jesus (John 20:2). After they had seen the empty tomb and had returned to their place, Mary remained there at the tomb, weeping (John 20:3-11). She looked into the tomb and saw two angels asking why she wept (John 20:12-13; cf. Matthew 28:2-5, Mark 16:5-6, Luke 24:4-7). She was not weeping for joy; she wept because someone had taken the body of her Lord, and she did not know where the body was (John 20:13b).
Then, all of a sudden, a man stood near her. He wanted to know why she wept. She presumed him to be the gardener, and asked him where he had taken the body of Jesus so that she could take it away and properly prepare it (John 20:14-15).
He then called to her by name: "Mary." Then she knew. "Rabboni!" she exclaimed; it was Jesus! He was no longer dead, but alive! Jesus then sent her to inform the disciples how He had risen from the dead. She, and the other women, dutifully did so with great joy (John 20:16-18; cf. Matthew 28:6-8, Mark 16:7-11, Luke 24:8-10).
Thus Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus in His resurrection and the first person sent to tell others of the resurrected Jesus. In this sense she is the first "apostle of the Gospel of the resurrection," not as one having authority, but as the first witness to Jesus risen from the dead and the first person sent (which is what "apostle" means) to tell others of the good news of His resurrection.
It is only in the story of Jesus' death and resurrection in which Mary Magdalene features prominently. The Scriptures never again address her by name; we assume she is present with the other unnamed women in Acts 1:14 and thus is part of the first church in Jerusalem following the events of Acts 2:1-47. After she proclaims to the twelve disciples that Jesus is risen from the dead, she fades into obscurity.
This is all that can be firmly known about Mary Magdalene. Her moment of prominence, followed by her fading from view, has led to an abundance of speculation about her and her relationship toward Jesus. Some medieval scholars associated Mary Magdalene with both the Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus in John 12:1-8 and the unnamed sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50, and thus Mary Magdalene was considered as a former prostitute. Others suggested that Mary Magdalene was the unnamed woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. There is no basis upon which to draw either of these conclusions; we have no reason to believe that these different characters are all to be conflated, and they are most likely four separate women, not one or two. Most recently some have speculated that Mary Magdalene was actually Jesus' wife, and she and Jesus (or perhaps just Mary) actually moved to France and raised children. There remains no Biblical evidence that Jesus was married. We have every reason to assume that Mary Magdalene was married, just not to Jesus; perhaps her husband had died or otherwise had no difficulty with her following after Jesus.
But we can see for certain that Mary Magdalene was a woman of great faith in Jesus the Lord. Even when everything seemed lost, she still considered Jesus to be her Lord. She had come to anoint His body for burial, expecting it to decompose like every other body, a touching memorial for the One who had done so much for her.
She was rewarded greatly for that strong faith. We have every reason to believe that Mary Magdalene will join with fellow Christians in the resurrection of life on the final day, and yet she already maintains a place of prominence in the faith as the first witness of the resurrected Jesus. Such witness is extraordinary in a world in which a woman's witness was not reckoned of much value; testimony to such things was expected from men. This is the type of story you do not make up if you want to be taken seriously; nevertheless, it is recorded in all four Gospels, and it is recorded because it is true and it really happened.
Mary Magdalene loved and served Jesus and witnessed to His resurrection. We do well to love and serve Jesus as well, even in times of distress, even if all seems lost. We never know when Jesus will turn our sorrow to joy or our disappointment to victory. Let us proclaim the good news first proclaimed by Mary Magdalene, that Jesus is risen from the dead, and maintain our trust in Him as Lord!
By Ethan R. Longhenry
From Expository Files 20.1; January 2013