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 Issues | Ecumenical |Biblical teaching on Mary

This page has two sections:

1) What the Bible Teaches about the Virgin Mary

2) The Place of Mary in the Saving Purposes of God

 

Section1:

What the Bible Teaches about the Virgin Mary

The Annunciation

Luke's Gospel contains the most detailed account of the life of the Virgin Mary.   The words spoken by the angel Gabriel show that she was favoured by God and that the Lord was with her:   ?Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!? ch 1 v 28.   ?Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favour with God.?   Mary's initial response was to ?be greatly troubled ' and to fear, which was the response of other faithful saints who had been visited by an angel. Although Mary questioned the angel Gabriel:   ?How will this be, since I am a virgin?? she quickly showed humility and faith in God's word: ?behold, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.?   In this way all Christians should humble themselves before God, recognising that they are God's servants and believe God's word.   As Jesus instructed his disciples:   ?When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ?We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.?'

The Testimony of Elizabeth

Importantly, Elizabeth in Luke chapter 1 also recognised the faithfulness and blessedness of Mary.   It is worth noting the character of Elizabeth, that she was righteous before God and walked blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord (ch 1 v 6) and who was filled with the Holy Spirit (v 41).   Elizabeth's praise of Mary is therefore significant because it came from a righteous and faithful woman filled with the Holy Spirit.   Elizabeth praised Mary: ?blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!? (v 42).   Elizabeth also showed humility toward Mary when she visited (v 43) ?and why is this granted me that the mother of my Lord should come to me.?   Elizabeth then praised and acknowledged Mary's faith in God's word spoken to her: ?Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.? However, it must be noted just why Mary was held with such high esteem by Elizabeth.   It was because of the fruit of Mary's womb and because she was the ?mother of my Lord.?   Because Mary was the mother of Jesus Christ.

The Magnificat

Mary's response to Elizabeth's praise of her was to praise God.   Mary did not praise herself or think of herself worthy to receive such blessing, but praised God for His salvation and for blessing her.   These verses known as The Magnificat contain the bulk of the recorded words of Mary in Scripture.   (See Luke 1.46-56)

From Mary's words should be noted the abundance of Old Testament quotations. There are verses or portions of verses from many Old Testament books including the Song of Hannah in the book of Samuel, a number of Psalms, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Malachi, Zephaniah, Deuteronomy, Daniel, Ezekiel, Job and Genesis.   Whether by hearing or by reading, Mary's memory was full of Scripture.   When she came to praise God she used words which had already been inspired by God.   Mary stands as an example to Christians of someone with a faithful knowledge of Scripture and who used it in her praise to God.

Secondly, her humility is again evident.   She spoke of her humble estate and described herself as God's servant.   She also acknowledged her need of a Saviour.   She recognised her own sin, and position before God.   Mary's own honest and humble declaration of herself in a few words makes nonsense the honours, titles and exaltation Roman Catholics and others bestow upon her.   Any clear reading and understanding of these few verses must lead to a rejection of the idolatry accorded to her by Roman Catholicism.   Christians would do well in learning from Mary true humility and submission before God.   ?Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility towards one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.   Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you. ' (1 Peter ch 5 v 5-6).

Thirdly, Mary's thankfulness should be noted. ? My spirit rejoices in God my saviour, from now on all generations will call me blessed, for he who is mighty has done great things for me. ?   Mary is an example of what it means to have a thankful spirit.   All those who have been saved have so much to be thankful for and should emulate Mary in cultivating a spirit of praise and thankfulness to God for what he has done.  ?And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.' Colossians ch 3 v 17

Fourthly, Mary remembered God's former dealings with his people. ?His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation?   In reciting these portions of Old Testament Scripture Mary remembered and showed appreciation for the way God worked for and through his people. No doubt she was recalling the way God had blessed Joseph, Moses, David, Esther and Daniel; but had also brought low Pharaoh, the Canaanites, the Philistines, Sennacherib, Haman and Belshazzar.   All Christians should imitate Mary by examining the way God has worked through history and how he has dealt in the lives of his saints since God is the same yesterday, and today and forever. (Hebrews ch 13 v 8)

Finally, Mary's faith in God's promises are evident.   ?He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring for ever. '   She recognised that the promises made to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him were finally coming to fruition through her Son.   Mary sets an example of trust and faith in God that he will keep his promises.

Faithfulness during her lifetime

Mary was faithful to God in obeying the angel's command but also, along with Joseph, in keeping the Old Testament requirements regarding circumcision and purification (cf. Lk 2.12-22)

Later her faithfulness and obedience are still evident not least that she was a witness to the crucifixion and, after the resurrection, was to be found as part of the community of believers : ?All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.' Acts ch 1 v 14.

Mary fallible

However, although Mary is a model of Christian faithfulness and obedience, the few references to her in Scripture also show that she did not entirely understand Jesus or His mission and that on occasion He had to rebuke his mother.   When His parents searched for the young boy Jesus in the temple responded ?Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house??   ?And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them.' Mary's reaction was ? to treasure up all these things in her heart. ' In these few verses the character of Mary is revealed, her humanness and lack of understanding of Jesus' mission but also her faithfulness and love.

When Jesus was preaching to the crowds Mary and his brothers came to speak to him, but instead of patiently waiting until the crowds had dispersed they desired to see him. Jesus' response to them was to exclaim that:   ?My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.?   This response repudiates any notion of Mary being worthy of any more respect than any other believer.

It is also noteworthy that Jesus' brothers did not understand Jesus' mission nor it would seem did they believe in him at the start of his ministry.   They said to Jesus: ?? For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.? For not even his brothers believed in him. ' (John ch 7 v 5). If Mary had a better understanding (and maybe faith?), would this have reflected on her other children having more faith and understanding of Jesus?

Conclusion

Therefore, although Mary sometimes did not fully understand Jesus' mission and had to be rebuked, yet she feared and submitted to God, was faithful to His word, and was humble and faithful before Christ's birth, during his lifetime and after his ascension into heaven.   All Christians should learn from her example.

 

See also the below Churchman article where William Bridcut examines from the Bible as to whether Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life after giving birth to Jesus:

Did Mary Remain a Virgin? (Churchman article issue 111/1)

 

Section 2:

The Place of Mary in the Saving Purposes of God

The grace and mercy of God

 

Throughout Scripture we see that God delights to use the things of little repute.   He chose Israel not because they were the greatest of the nations but simply because of His own love (Dt 7.7,8).   When Israel wanted a King he gave them the ideal model of an earthly king - Saul.   But when Saul failed he provided them with a man after His own heart, David, the youngest son, a shepherd boy.   Likewise Mary was a simple girl.   Despite the efforts of some to invent legend we know virtually nothing about her, she arrived unannounced on the stage of human history and yet has a supporting role more important than any other.   This is the way God works and it ought to be a great encouragement to those of us who are inclined to feel out of our depths in His work or believe that we are insignificant in the scale of things.   God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty (1 Cor 1.27).

The world of our day revolves around personalities.   All too often the Church imitates this and we can seem to believe that somehow the Christian message is more credible or truer if a sportsman or actress endorses it.   In reality it is all too easy for the personality to get in the way of the gospel.   The reason that God chooses the weak and simple is in order that we should not glory in ourselves, but that the glory should rest in Him (1 Cor 1.29).   It is significant therefore that Mary's song of praise (Luke 1.46ff) moves quickly from speaking of herself to glorifying God.   This is a worthwhile model, we enjoy the praise of others but are we always eager to reflect that praise onto our Lord?

Mary's place in the saving plan of God

If the incarnation shows us how God delights to use our weakness for His glory then the Apostle Paul shows us how God the Son gave up His glory in order to take on our weakness.   Unless it was revealed Paul could not have known what he affirms in Philippians chapter 2.   The eternal Son of God emptied himself (or made himself of no reputation), in order to be found among us.

In a way it mattered little whether Mary was a princess or an ordinary peasant from Nazareth.   It mattered little whether Jesus was born in a palace or a stable.    When we consider what was taking place, from God's perspective there is surely no difference between princess and peasant, the step down, the extent of self-emptying is no different.   But from our perspective the choice of Mary and Joseph, the stable, the shepherds, all shows us something in terms we can understand and relate to about how much Christ gave up for us, about how much God has stooped down in order that he might lift us up.

The coming of the Son of God was part of the plan of God from before the beginning of the world. It is an idle game to speculate whether God could have done it any other way.   What we see throughout the Bible is that God is consistent in His practice of using people, even downright unsuitable people on occasions, in order to accomplish his saving works.    He does not just play with us as if we were a collection of tin soldiers.   We are His creation, made in His image and it seems to be His delight to draw us into his purposes.   In the Old Testament we see this again and again, despite their failings God chose men and women to fulfil His purposes.

So it is with Mary, in her we see that God's saving plan is accomplished through human beings.   She does not add anything to salvation, and yet she is part of God's saving purposes.   Before grace was shown to her she was nothing special, now we remember her as blessed by God because God chose to work through her.   It mattered that Jesus should be born, that the Son of God took flesh and was made man.   It mattered that he was fully divine and yet fully human.   God's saving plan could not have been achieved without this.   Jesus took His human nature through Mary.   Quite how the mechanics of the virgin birth worked is not revealed to us but it mattered that Jesus was human, flesh of flesh and bone of bone.

Therefore in all these things what we should chiefly learn from Mary is not about her, nor about ourselves, but about God and his saving work, about the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and what that means to us.

The child born to die

When the child was taken to the temple Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her soul (Lk 2.35).   We understand what this means because we have the benefit of hindsight.   Doubtless it was something of a mystery to Mary at the time, but one of those things that she treasured up .   When she stood at the cross watching her Son die she knew the truth of what had been said.    Yet it seems that even she had not grasped the true significance of what His death meant.   Surely she could have known because of the words which the angel had spoken to Joseph in his dream - Mary your wife ... will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.

The sword of grief pierced her heart as she watched her Son die on the cross, but hidden away were the treasures of the truth she had stored up - that He was not simply her son but the Son of God who had taken flesh and been made man.   He was dying not as some mistaken radical, but for the sins of His people.

There is much that we can learn from Mary about what it means to respond to the grace of God, and about how we can be slow to grasp the working of God.   Yet in the end Mary, like all the people of God in the Bible should point us away from themselves and to the Lord Jesus Christ.   Mary was immensely privileged, blessed by God.   Yet even so in the grace and mercy of God the privilege that was shown to her is available to us because the Son of God died for us on the cross.   We too can be counted in the family of Christ if we in obedience to His word, put our faith and trust in Him, and in Him alone.

Jesus said ? My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it' (Lk 8.21).

 

The contents of this page are based on a series of Cross†Way articles from 2002 in anticipation of ARCIC's report on the Virgin Mary (released in May 2005). These articles can be downloaded as a pdf on the publications section - Leaflets for download on the website, titled 'Learning from Mary', or purchased as a booklet from Church Society.

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