Chapter 9: Godly Women in the Synoptic Gospels
by Tom Wilson, Scotland
As the Lord Jesus went about doing good, healing all that were oppressed by the devil, Acts 10.38: adults and children, men and women, Jews and Gentiles were blessed. Among the women were those drawn to Him by desperate need, such as the woman with the issue of blood, and the foreign woman from the border region with Tyre and Sidon, Matt.9.20; 15.22. Their need was met, but we have no evidence that they proved to be godly women. There were other women, who came into blessing without seeking it. Peter’s mother-in-law and one of Nain’s widows did not go to, or send for, the Saviour. When the Lord entered into Peter’s home, immediately they told Him of her need and He healed her, Matt.8.14; Mk.1.30; Lk.4.38. In a second case, the widow of Nain received her dead son raised to life, when the Lord intervened without her crying out to Him Lk.7.11-16. A third case of healing that was needed but apparently not requested is encountered in an unidentified synagogue, where there was a woman who had been possessed by "a spirit of infirmity eighteen years" whereby she could not straighten herself to stand upright, Lk.13.11. Despite the presence of critics, the Lord healed that "daughter of Abraham". We have no evidence of the spiritual progress those three women made. At Jairus’ request, the Lord had raised his twelve-year-old daughter. We have no record of her life, long or short, on which to speak of her spiritual condition. She was the youngest of those women whose blessing heaven noted. Those women may all have proved to be earnest and well-meaning, but we shall not number them in the roll of honour we construct from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Somewhere on the Lord’s last journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, an unnamed woman, deeply impressed by His teaching, exclaimed: "Blessed is the womb that bare Thee" Lk.11.27. The Lord does not diminish the woman’s appreciation for the godly mother who bore Him, or her appreciation of the Word of God He preached. However, in His reply He stresses the need to keep the Word. If we knew how she treated the Word of God thereafter, we might be able to determine whether she was godly or not. A second group of earnest seekers were those mothers who brought young children to the Lord that He might lay His hands upon them and bless them, Matt.19.13-15; Mk.10.13-15; Lk.18.15-17. They braved the crowds and the "stern disciples [who] drove them back and bade them depart." Their noble exercise was richly rewarded by the Lord’s attitude to the maternal desire to see their children blessed. The women of Jerusalem were well-intentioned in their desire to mitigate the suffering of those being crucified, Lk.23.27-31. Sympathy and probably a measure of patriotism motivated them to give. There may have been godly women among them, but we do not have proof.
Of all the women, who appear briefly in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the woman who ventured into the Pharisee’s house to anoint the Lord’s feet, Lk.7.36-48, is the one who undoubtedly began well. She had been a notoriously sinful woman, although no specific sins are attributed to her. We need not speculate about her past; we know that was dealt with by the Lord’s word of forgiveness and by His sacrificial work. The woman remains without a name and without her shame being detailed to satisfy human curiosity. But her tears, her touch and her tenderness to the Lord were not ignored. Her treasure (her long-necked bottle of ointment) anointed His feet in an act of devotion she could never recall. Perhaps she had sinned much, she was forgiven much and not surprisingly she gave much. She began well; hopefully she continued well to be known as a godly woman.
The New Testament word for "godliness" or "piety" is the Greek word used for "the fear of the LORD" in the Greek translation of the Old Testament found in passages such as Prov.1.7 and Isa.11.2. It is the word that encapsulates the right attitude of heart to God and His Word; it is reverential fear of God that produces the inner reality God seeks. It involves carefulness to obey His every desire, and absolute commitment to please Him. That inner sense of deep respect and awe cannot be hidden; it manifests itself in a way that even the world notices. The world also recognises what is no more than a form of godliness, 2Tim.3.5; an outward show without that inner reality. The world finds nauseating anything less than an absolute commitment to pleasing God and obedience to His every desire. The Scottish poet Robert Burns’ lampooned such imitations of godliness in "Holy Willie’s Prayer" and his "Address to the Unco’ Guid, or the Rigidly Righteous". The godly then are those who live well for God because their attitude to Him and His will has been shaped by His Word. They are those whose priorities are determined in heaven and worked out on earth. They are those who display outwardly what they are inwardly. The Word of God has highlighted outstanding examples of godly women whose reverential ways and practical deeds we should honour.
In 1Tim.6.11, Paul exhorts the man of God: "Follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness", an exhortation that godly women have heeded since Paul first wrote to Timothy. Over the centuries, both men and women have earnestly pursued that course. The narrative of the Incarnation of Christ features three women who pursued righteousness and godliness. The women were not in the same age bracket. Mary, the youngest may have been in her late teens, a young woman espoused to be married. Her cousin Elisabeth was "well stricken in years", Lk.1.7,18,36, advanced in years at least as far as conceiving a child was concerned. Anna, the third was considerably older. With delicacy Luke describes her as "advanced in many days" (A.V. "of a great age"). By any standards she is an old woman. Scholars differ as to exactly how old she was but she was at least 84 years old.
These three may have represented a huge range of ages, but in heaven’s sight they had very much in common. All three were righteous in God’s sight, a commendation expressly stated of Elisabeth, Lk.1.6. Gabriel’s message to the bewildered Joseph defended the young virgin’s honour in Joseph’s eyes and for future generations, Matt.1.19-24. The prophetess Anna’s devotion is encapsulated in the verb "serve", the same verb that is used to describe Zacharias’ highest ambition for his nation to be realised after every enemy is under Messiah’s feet, Lk.2.38; 1.74. Zacharias may have had temple worship in mind as he praised his God. (Luke also uses this verb in rendering in Greek the Lord Jesus’ quotation of the commandment from Deut 6.13; 10.20: "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God"). These three women followed after righteousness in an age such as Malachi described in which, he charged, Judah was acting treacherously and even their priests were corrupting the covenant of Levi; see in particular Mal.2.1,2.
The second feature these three women had in common was their readiness to hear God speak. Each listened intently and reacted as heaven desired. To Mary appeared the angel Gabriel "that stand[s] in the presence of God" Lk.1.19, 26-38; the same angel, who had earlier been sent to speak to Zacharias, Lk.1.11-20. He had been sent twice to Daniel, Dan.8.16 ff.; 9.21 ff. No angel appeared to Elisabeth, though it is likely that, despite his dumbness, she learned from her husband what Gabriel had said. She was filled by the Spirit to deliver a wonderful doxology. Anna the prophetess valued the word of the Lord and spoke of the new-born child to all who looked for redemption in Israel.
Mary’s righteous character was also one that heaven commended, as to that perplexed young woman Gabriel’s message announced: "Thou hast found favour with God", v.30. Immediately she began to reason, but found no answer to her being highly favoured. What was unfolded was truly staggering: it revealed that her Son was to be called Jesus but also the Son of the Highest, the Possessor of heaven and earth as Abraham knew Him, Lk.1.31,32; Gen 14.19. The Son would be great, a King upon the throne of David for ever, Lk.1.32,33. Her inquiry clearly was not based on unbelief, as Zacharias’ response to a less-staggering revelation had been. She listened without demur. The only sign she was given was the conception of John, Lk.1.36. Her faith was grounded in the brief statement: "With God nothing shall be impossible" Lk.1.37. This young woman was to be especially favoured and to prove especially faithful. We should be careful that she is not forgotten. More than any other woman she gave her body "a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God", something she considered her "reasonable service" Rom.12.1. Her conscientious, intelligent consecration we will always honour. That service brought upon her a depth of reproach few in our day could bear, or have borne. We sing about being:
Happy reproach to bear,
Shame for Thy sake to share,
Since we the crown shall wear
When He shall come.1
1Anon. "How bright that blessed hope", Believers Hymnbook, No.76.
But for her, reproach was not merely the words of a song; it was her way of life day in and day out, probably from late teens until she left this scene by way of death. Hers were "the incalculable honour and immeasurable burden" of being "the mother of my Lord". Nowhere does the glory of godliness shine brighter in a woman than in her two commitments: to serve as a humble handmaid, doing the will of God, and to do so without questioning.
Elisabeth’s Spirit-inspired beatitude conveys the wonder of incarnation that neither her husband Zacharias nor Joseph seem to have fully grasped. In 58 words in the original text, she bows before the Lord to own the fruit of Mary’s womb as her Lord, Lk.1.42-45. With largeness of heart she blessed Mary and strengthened her faith to believe God would perform "those things which were told her from the Lord". We see, in her, godliness beyond that seen in righteous Zacharias. As a result, she was given a welcome sign; the child leapt in her womb, Lk.1.41,44, whereas Zacharias’ sign was, in a measure, judgmental; he was dumb for a period, Lk.1.20,22,64. We see the glory of a godly woman: she will receive the Word of the Lord; it will banish envy and may also evidence in other ways heaven’s approval.
Anna may have been born long before either Elisabeth or Mary, but we meet her as the third of those women who followed after righteousness and godliness. Her prayer and fasting had been marked over the years, but now we see her arrive at the right instant and address her praise, striking the very note Gabriel had struck, Lk.2.38. In holy moments, as the saints of God remember their Lord, when no voice is heard, from time to time sensitive souls sense that someone had silently struck a note in tune with the Spirit’s leading. How often a godly sister has struck that voiceless note of praise in her heart and stirred other hearts! There was with the godly Anna an overflow to seeking hearts: "She spake of Him to all them that looked for redemption" Lk.1.31-33; 2.38. Anna, like Mary and Elisabeth, was a godly woman whose "price is far above rubies" Prov.31.10.
Paul expected that Timothy would exercise himself unto godliness, 1Tim 4.7. The apostle added that those who fed on profane and old wives’ fables would be unfit for such exercise. During Christ’s public ministry there were godly women who exercised themselves unto godliness. None of them supposed that "godliness is a way of gain" 1Tim.6.5, R.V. Scribes, who might abuse their position to exploit widows and so, rob widows’ houses, Mk.12.40; Lk.20.47, had stood condemned by the selfless giving of a poor widow who cast in her two mites, the sound of which was scarcely heard on earth, yet echoed throughout heaven, Mk.12.41-44. Her two mites only made a farthing on earth, but weighed against the shekel of the sanctuary they were of immense worth. Those unscrupulous scribes also stood condemned by the selfless (and discreet) giving of those women of Galilee. Matthew reports that there were "many women … which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto Him" Matt.27.55. The Synoptic Gospels provide the names of some of those women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Salome, probably the wife of Zebedee, and Mary the mother of James the less and Joses. Not content with having ministered financially to the Lord Jesus during His Galilean ministry, they followed Him on His last journey to Jerusalem so that He and His disciples might be supported en route to Jerusalem and during the time He was resident there. They were not to know how brief the period over which they could minister to their Lord, but they grasped the opportunity and will be rewarded fully at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
Among those women are some about whom we know a little. Mary of Magdala, north of Tiberias on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee, out of whom the Lord cast seven demons, Mk.16.9; Lk.8.2. All too readily many have assumed that her demon possession drove her into immorality, but the Scriptures offer no grounds for such a conclusion. Probably, this widespread belief can be traced back to Gregory the Great, Pope from 590-604 who suggested that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the "woman in the city, which was a sinner" Lk.7.37, were one and the same person. Delivered from the awful power of seven demons, Mary proved to be one of the Lord’s most devoted servants. She heads the list of ministering women in each of the Synoptic Gospels, Matt.27.56; Mk.16.1; Lk.8.2. There is no suggestion that she headed these lists because her financial situation enabled her to contribute most. We know that heaven takes account first of the willing mind, then God accepts what a man (or woman) has and not what he (or she) does not have. Mary was clearly a willing and a cheerful giver, 2Cor.8.12. That godly woman was exercised unto godliness and will be rewarded for her deep reverence for her Lord that evidenced itself in her giving. She was in part rewarded with seeing the Lord early on the morning He rose from the dead.
A second woman of note in Luke’s list was Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod Antipas’ steward, Lk.8.3; 24.10. She occurs second in Luke’s two listings. In the honours lists of the day, Mary would never have featured ahead of a woman from the palace, but Joanna was given grace to company with Mary, despite, in a sense, being overshadowed by her. Like Mary Magdalene, she belonged to an illustrious band, each member of which had known healing or deliverance by Christ: "Certain women which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene … and Joanna" Lk.8.2,3. They had benefited from the Lord’s ministry of healing, which, to our knowledge, none of the twelve had experienced. Joanna had known great deliverance and so loved much, a love that Luke observes was seen in action. Joanna was a remarkable example of the salvation the grace of God had brought, Titus 2.11; she was also a remarkable example of godliness. Mary, Joanna and "many others" had been "with Him" Lk.8.1-3, not that He might send them forth to preach, but because they ministered to Him of their substance. These women were clearly "persons of substance". We know that not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble, are called, 1Cor.1.26, but here were some of rank and standing following our Lord. Their following was not spasmodic; the imperfect tense of "ministered" shows theirs was a continual ministry, Lk.8.3.
Joanna’s husband was a high-ranking officer at court - Herod’s steward, the same Herod who executed John the Baptist to avenge an aggrieved woman, Lk.3.10. Only Luke mentions Joanna. Through her, directly or indirectly, the gospel must have reached Herod’s court. Here Joanna and later Manaen in Acts 13.1 show that even the royal court could not remain impervious to grace. Joanna left the court of the usurper Herod who had no right to be king to follow the despised but true king, Jesus of Nazareth. Joanna was another remarkable example of one to whom the word of Christ was important. How clear the evidence that grace had touched her!
We should not underestimate the pressures of court life, as Herod imprisoned John and the Lord Jesus began to preach and to heal the sick, then to send out His twelve disciples to preach and heal, Lk.9.1,2. The godly Joanna made her choice; she chose reproach and an uncertain existence following the itinerant Servant of Jehovah. She may even have incurred Herod’s wrath. She may also have put her husband under pressure, causing tensions previously unknown by both husband and wife. If she followed the Lord with her husband’s agreement, who can estimate how much they conjointly put at risk by so doing? As a family, they might have lost job and home and rank and privilege. How her example contrasts with the great emphasis on security, particularly financial security that in our day grips so many of mature years! In common with the godly "widows indeed" about whom Paul wrote, she trusted in God and "diligently followed every good work" 1Tim.5.5,10. At great personal cost, she followed her Lord, as godly women still do. She exercised herself unto godliness.
Susanna - not to be confused with the heroine of "The History of Susanna" in the Apochrypha - is the third name in Luke’s list, Lk.8.3. Earthly records may be silent about her background, but heaven will reward her greatly. Little more is known of Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, or of Salome, the wife of Zebedee, Matt.27.56, possibly the sister of Mary, "the mother of Jesus" Mk.15.40,41. It is likely that James and Joses were well known among first-century Christians, if not as well known as the apostles James and John, Mk.1.19. Clearly, these mothers had children that were respected among the Lord’s people. Their mothers’ devotion to Christ had not soured their children against Christ. Those mothers were able to meet their family responsibilities and yet meet obligations to minister in practical ways to the Lord and His people.
We honour them both for the financial burden they bore over a period of years, and note that they had other links to the testimony that we should not ignore. They exercised themselves unto godliness.
In presenting the truth of God to the saints in Crete, the apostle Paul was aware of the need to stress godliness. Characteristically, there had been nothing attractive about the inhabitants of Crete before the gospel reached their island. C. 600 BC, their own prophet Epimenides had described them in far-from-glowing terms as "liars, evil beasts, slow bellies", Titus 1.12. The islanders had not improved in the intervening years. Lying, dangerous, idle and gluttonous, there were few virtues to admire in men and women like that! Paul’s letter indicates that in Crete at that time there was still a great need among the recently converted in every generation, both among male and female. The Holy Spirit had a ministry for Crete’s Christians, much of it emphasising features of godliness, sometimes presented positively, sometimes negatively. In the opening verse of his letter to Titus, then labouring among them, Paul highlights the acknowledging of "the truth that is according to godliness" Titus1.1, R.V. It is unfashionable in some religious circles to correct where there is doctrinal error, and even where there are behavioural traits or practices that do not commend the gospel. Paul had sent Titus to Crete to deal with a range of issues. His mission statement required him to face up to such issues: "To set in order the things that are wanting." The demands on Titus would be great, as he would "ordain elders in every city" and admonish and reject heretics, Titus1.5; 3.10,11. Nonetheless, "the truth that is according to godliness" was also to correct the deviant behaviour of first-century Crete. It was in accord with that truth that Paul had to withstand Peter to the face because he was to be blamed, Gal.1.11-21. Peter had been free to enjoy table fellowship with Gentile Christians until some visitors came from Jerusalem. Peter was rebuked by Paul for behaviour that was undermining New Testament truth.
The only record we have of Mary, the Lord’s mother after He performed that first miracle at the wedding of Cana of Galilee, Jn.2.1-11, is recorded by the three Synoptic Gospels, Matt.12.46; Mk.3.31; Lk.8.19-21. The setting was Capernaum, after the Lord had made it "His own city" Matt.9.1. Mark’s account takes note of two visitations to Capernaum. Although the Scripture is silent about where the two delegations came from, it is often assumed that both came from Nazareth. Mark describes those who formed the first delegation as "His friends" Mk.3.21 A.V., R.V.; Wycliffe translates "kinsmen"; J.N.D. "relatives"; Tyndale more literally "they that belonged to Him". Whether "they that belonged to Him" were relatives or nominal disciples, we should note that Mary is not mentioned in connection with that first visitation, the purpose of which may have been to bring the Lord’s ministry to an abrupt end. Whatever the "friends’" motive may have been, it was not of God. In their ignorance, they dared to accuse Him of insanity: "He is beside Himself". Deliberately, others were attributing the Lord’s miracles to Beelzebub, the prince of demons, Mk.3.22.
However, Mary is associated with the second delegation in Mark’s account. Her voice is not heard. There is no indication that she was instrumental in the visit to Capernaum taking place, nor is there any indication as to which brother in the family led the delegation. Unlike the first delegation of whom Mark wrote, there are no unworthy attributions made as to the source of the Lord’s miracles, although at this point it would seem that His brethren still did not believe in Him, Ps.69.8; Jn.7.5. At a moment of great crisis, as the accusation of His being in league with Satan is being articulated, the delegation appears outside the house where the Lord and His disciples are to be found. The Lord, surrounded by the multitude, Mk.3.32, was busy talking to the people, Matt.12.46, thus making it difficult for the Nazareth party to reach Him. Will the Lord leave the perplexed multitudes and meet with His mother and brethren?
The Lord had earlier set before men priorities that must mark His followers: "I am come to set a man at variance against his father and the daughter against her mother … a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me" Matt.10.35-37.
The arrival of His mother and brothers provided an opportunity to teach them that in the Lord’s own service there were priorities. He would not leave the multitudes perplexed by accusers without clearly refuting their allegations that He healed by demonic power. He cast out demons by the Spirit of God, not by the power of Beelzebub, Matt.12.24-28. His miraculous powers He continued to exercise in order to bless both the physically and mentally afflicted. His immediate priority was with the circle that surrounded Him, confirmed by the very movement of His eyes, Mk.3.34; and of His hand, Matt.12.49. Indeed He states that His immediate concern was all who did the will of God. Those linked with Him by natural ties were without; those who were in scope of His then-present ministry were within; many of whom were committed to doing the will of God, Mk.3.31,34.
Was the Lord failing to show respect to His mother and brothers? Gently, on a previous occasion, the Lord Jesus had pointed out to Mary that at that time His hour had not come, Jn.2.4. Now with equal gentleness, He showed that in His hour of public service, natural ties could not take precedence over the spiritual bonds the Spirit had formed between Himself and those who did the will of God. His mother and His brothers were to accept the change of relationship that the will of God demanded of Him and of them. He must work the works of Him that sent Him, Jn.9.4. When those works were completed and the Lord raised from the dead, He would adjust Mary Magdalene’s understanding that she and others might learn that He was not about to restore the relationships they had known prior to Calvary. He would introduce them into a new relationship, calling them "My brethren", Jn.20.17, but He would not be visibly present with them, as He had been for so long.
We hear Mary’s voice twice in John chapter 2: "They have no wine"; "Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it", Jn.2.3,5. In the three records of the delegation of which she was a part, her voice is not heard. Whatever may have been her reasons for accompanying her sons, she saw the Lord’s word as final. She acknowledged what He said as "truth according to godliness". For her, it meant accepting the will of God. The Lord did not need to say to a godly woman like Mary: "If in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you" Phil.3.15. Willingly and reverently, she bowed to the truth the Lord unfolded.
In providing guidance to the assembly where there were widows indeed, the apostle Paul sets out principles by which to decide which widows should have priority in financial support. Age was one criterion. Account was also taken of the widow’s record of good works. However, the apostle also looks at the widow’s family circle, not just her own children, but also her nephews. They were to learn first to show piety (or godliness) at home, 1Tim.5.4. Where the widow’s children or nephews (or "grandchildren", R.V. or "descendants", J.N.D.) were unbelievers, there may have been unwillingness to help, but not if her son or daughter or other relatives were believing; they were expected to bear the burden of care, rather than the assembly, 1Tim.5.4,16. To do less that that would be to deny the faith and be worse than an infidel, 1Tim.5.8. Of interest to any seeking examples of a godly woman is the description of the past deeds of "a widow indeed". She would be one who had known what it was to trust God and to have a developed life of prayer. She would also have used her home to lodge strangers; to wash the saints’ feet, and to relieve the afflicted, 1Tim.5.10. In her use of her home, she had shown piety (or godliness).
Like those "widows indeed", Martha and Mary appear to have used their home to meet needs they had noted. Like the named and unnamed women who exercised themselves unto godliness in ministering to the Lord during His itinerant ministry in Galilee, Martha and Mary expended much on Christ, both in extending hospitality to Him and, in Mary’s case, in anointing the Lord’s feet with a pound of ointment of spikenard. The exercises of those two godly and apparently unmarried, sisters are, in the main, centred on their home. There they showed piety (or godliness) not towards their relatives in the flesh, but to the Lord, to Whom they were not bound by spiritual ties.
We first meet Martha and Mary in "a certain village", Lk.10.38. Martha stands out in the context; she had taken the initiative to invite the Lord Jesus into her house. He is a welcome guest in her home. The context is interesting. At 9.51, the Lord had begun His last journey to Jerusalem. The time that He should be received up was upon them. He had set His face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem. Previously in Luke’s account, the Lord had sent out the twelve to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. Now He "sent messengers before His face … to make ready for Him" Lk.9.52. Chapter 10 opens with a third set of messengers being sent "before His face". Luke numbers them as "other seventy also", Lk.10.1. They were to enter into homes, not all of which would welcome them, Lk.10.6. Where they were received in peace, they were to eat and drink what was given them, Lk.10.7. They returned with joy to give their account of their mission, Lk.10.17-20. It was at this juncture that the lawyer posed the question that led to the Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan, within which He spoke of the Samaritan’s care of the half-dead Jew and of the care the inn-keeper would lavish on that recovering Jew, Lk.10.30-36. We meet Martha at this point where the numbers in the Lord’s party include the twelve and the unnumbered messengers and the other seventy also. Many of the party would need some hospitality, and there would be others like the man who fell among thieves, who might need care. She stands forth as one willing to receive in peace the Lord Himself and most likely some of His followers. She, probably the elder of the two sisters, welcomed the Lord into her house.
Martha did not have the financial resources of Shobi, Machir and Barzillai, who ministered to David and his men, but, like the Macedonian saints, she was probably willing to extend the riches of her liberality beyond her own means, 2Sam.17.27; 2Cor.8.2,3. In financial terms at least, she was prepared to be burdened and others eased, 2Cor.8.13. But the pressure of the occasion described by Luke exhausted her energies more than she expected.
Unlike the seventy, she had lost the joy of her service, because she was distracted by burdensome care. She was no female equivalent of Demas, who, loving this present world, abandoned his field of service; but she may have needed the counsel Archippus received: "Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it" Col.4.17; in her case, without coercing another into sharing her burden. Nonetheless, she will have her reward for the care the Lord was to find in that home on other occasions. He later visited that home in its grief, John chapter 11, and when they (Martha and Mary) made Him a supper, Jn.12.1,2. Over the period He was in the vicinity of the city, just before He was crucified, the Lord spends a night or nights in Bethany, Mk.11.11. It is unlikely to have been in Martha’s home, given the prevalent dangers.
An assembly of the Lord’s people is enriched greatly where there are godly women whose homes are used to entertain the Lord’s people and the Lord’s servants. Without the willing cooperation of his wife, a godly married man could not fulfil the necessary conditions for eldership: "given to hospitality" 1Tim.3.2; "a lover of hospitality" Titus 1.8. Much of the tiring labour associated with the godly women named in Romans chapter 16 may have related to hospitality, a ministry not limited to elders’ wives, Rom.12.13. The household of Stephanas had "addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints", 1Cor.16.15. Such dedication to meeting the needs of others would be difficult without a godly woman’s commitment. Paul’s evaluation of Aquila and Priscilla leaves a deep impression that both husband and wife were workers together with Paul, Acts18.2,3,18,26; Rom.16.3; 1Cor.16.19. In Priscilla’s home, her piety would be seen as Martha-like she spread the table for Paul and others, and Mary-like as she sat at the apostle’s feet, as he expounded the truth of God. Indeed Acts 18.26 places the mighty Apollos in her home, where her piety was seen both in her domestic duties and her ability to contribute to Apollos’ understanding of "the way of God". This is evidence that she, like Mary, had absorbed the Lord’s teaching, in her case through the apostle Paul.
Mary of Bethany had shown piety at home, but in a markedly-different way. She chose "that good part" that would not be taken from her. We do not hear her voice in Luke’s vignette. Indeed, the only time we hear her speak is when she meets the Lord, before He proceeds to the grave where Lazarus had been laid. Mary was content to be at the Master’s feet to learn as His disciple; at His feet in her hour of deepest need when she needed His comfort after Lazarus died, and at His feet as a worshipper to expend her best on Him, Lk.10.39; Jn.11.32; 12.3. In the home, personal prayer exercises and the study of the Word of God should mark both godly men and women.
In Luke’s account, no mention is made of the sisters’ brother Lazarus. He is not reported as present in the home into which Martha welcomed the Lord. Certainly, Martha makes no appeal to him that he might remonstrate with Mary. We are allowed to see these features of godly women in two very different characters where neither husband nor brother influences them.
The man had been lame from his mother’s womb and now the crowd sees him walking and leaping and praising God, Acts 3.8. Greatly wondering, the people rushed to where Peter and John were being held by the man they had miraculously healed. Immediately, Peter denies them the possibility of explaining the miracle by attributing it to their "own power or holiness [literally, godliness]". Drawing attention to Christ, Peter emphasised that it was "His name, through faith in His name, hath made this man strong" Acts 3.16. The presence of so many godly women around the cross and thereafter at the tomb should cause us to wonder greatly. They took their stance at the cross in their desire to honour their Saviour in death. Under tremendous pressure they stood but not on account of their own power or godliness. These women had no inherent power of their own or godliness independent of Christ. They were godly women whose faith in Christ upheld them, when great men failed or fled. Like Peter and John who healed the lame man, they did not depend on their own resources.
Only John mentions Mary, the Lord’s mother standing by the cross and the disciple whom He loved, Jn.19.25, but the Synoptic Gospels mention the presence of "many women" Matt.27.55; Mk.15.41; Lk.23.55. Specifically named are Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses and Salome, the mother of Zebedee’s children, Matt.27.56; Mk.15.40. They, and other women from Galilee, stood with the Lord’s acquaintances, beholding the horrific events that occurred at that crucifixion, Lk.23.49.
Others were drawn to view the three suspended between heaven and earth, Lk.23.48. Luke’s word, one of three Greek verbs translated in the immediate context by the English verb "to behold", Lk.23.48,49,55, records that those people had come as spectators to absorb the detail of the actions and experience the atmosphere in which they were taking place. For undisclosed reasons, they had come to witness the scene; now, as they began to return, they smote their breasts, probably little affected by the spectacle, Lk.23.48.
Lk.23.49 notes the Lord’s acquaintances standing afar off watching. Luke’s wording may echo Ps.38.11 (LXX): "My friends and my neighbours drew near before me and stood still; and my nearest of kin afar off." The acquaintances, those known to the Lord, probably included relatives and at least the eleven disciples. The women of Galilee are classified separately. The acquaintances and the women formed the group who, grief-stricken, watched. But what did these women see? They saw how He suffered and deep impressions were made on their minds and hearts, as Luke’s change of verb may infer, Lk.23.49.
The women also "beheld" how His body was laid, Lk.23.55,56. The verb "beheld" shows that they watched "attentively"; there may be even in the word a sense of their approval of how the Lord was being buried, as their minds attempted to interpret what they saw. The Lord was buried by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. We learn from Jn.20.15 that those women like Mary of Magdala would gladly have buried Him. At His birth there had been a Mary and a Joseph. At His death there was more than one more Mary and another Joseph. But burying the body of Jesus was a task allocated to Joseph, and not to any of those faithful women named Mary.
We should honour those women who were interested in how the Lord was buried. The manner of His burial mattered to them more than any thing. They were not there to record the fact of His burial; they were there to view the fitness of His burial. We are offered no insight into the grief that wracked their being. But we do know that, having seen how Christ was laid in that new tomb, there crept over their souls an unnatural peace, for they returned home and rested. For the first time in 1500 years the sacred record notes some who rested on the sabbath, Luke 23.56. Before that day, the one and only time we read of any resting on the sabbath was Ex.16.30, just after the manna was first given.
Mark notes that, most likely before the sabbath began on the Saturday evening, a group of three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses and Salome, had purchased the spices they thought they would need for what they may have thought would be their last act of devotion to their Lord, Mk.16.1. While it was yet dark, probably around 5 am, undaunted by the darkness or the dread of the tomb or the dangers faced by followers of the crucified Christ, they set out for the place where the Lord had been laid. Matthew’s account reveals that day had not yet begun to dawn, 28.1; Mark confirms that they reached the sepulchre "at the rising of the sun" Mk.16.2. Jn.20.1,2 reveals that Mary reached the sepulchre ahead of Mary and Salome and that, on noting the tomb was open, ran to report to Peter and John that "they" (whether Romans or Jews) had removed the Lord’s body. Meanwhile at the tomb angelic messengers had announced that the Lord was risen, Matt.28.5; Mk.16.6,7; Lk.24.5-7.
Luke observes that a third group of women arrived very early in the morning at the place where Joseph and Nicodemus had laid the Lord. He notes that there were "certain others" with the women of Galilee, Lk.24.1; that party included Joanna, Lk.24.10. They too received the angelic witness that the Lord was risen and the angelic reminder that the Lord had spoken plainly of His crucifixion and resurrection on the third day, Lk.24.7, which they were able to relate to the apostles.
Doubtless these women experienced a great range of emotions over the early hours of that first Lord’s Day. They were "amazed" Mk.16.8; "much perplexed" Lk.24.4; "affrighted" Mk.16.5; "afraid" Mk.16.8; Lk.24.5; "trembled" Mk.16.8; Mary Magdalene "wept" Jn.20.11, but there was also "great joy" mingled with fear, Matt.28.8. However, among their reactions, unbelief did not arise. Mary Magdalene’s testimony to the apostles about the Lord appearing to her "seemed to them idle tales", which "they … believed not" Mk.16.11; Lk.24.11. The two earnest but despondent disciples who were journeying to Emmaus, did so in unbelief, Mk.16.12; Lk.24.22-24. When the Lord Himself appeared to the eleven, He upbraided them for their unbelief, Mk.16.14. John identifies Thomas as stubbornly unbelieving, Jn.20.24-29. Even, on meeting their Lord on a mountain in Galilee, there were some who doubted, Matt.28.16.
Had any observer asked those women to explain their remarkable behaviour over those three or four days from the time their Lord had been delivered into the hands of sinful men, they would have said with Peter and John: "Why marvel ye at this? Or why look ye on us, as though by our own power and holiness [godliness] we had [done this]?" Acts 3.12. They had ventured to that tomb, despite the guard Rome had provided, at a time when no male follower of Christ did. They had seen the angels that made the Roman guard as dead men; they had gazed on countenances as lightning and raiment white as snow and shining, and been able to converse with them. They had accepted angelic testimony to Christ’s resurrection and remained resolute despite the disbelief among the apostles. These were remarkable, godly women.
Writing of the virtuous woman of Proverbs chapter 31, A. J. Higgins1 remarks that the Spirit of God "takes all the virtues of chapters 1-30 and displays them - in a woman … not a man … a woman is seen displaying all the beauties and qualities of Proverbs." The godly women who appear in the Synoptic Gospels display irrefutable evidence of God being at work in them. They are the embodiment of much the Lord Jesus taught, manifesting features against which there is no law, Gal.5.23. They were prepared to deny themselves and take up the cross and follow Christ. The world thought they were losing their life for Christ’s sake in their futile devotion to Him. One day the universe will learn that they have found life and, in His public acknowledgement of them and their work, that the Lord is no man or woman’s debtor, Matt.16.25.
1Higgins, A.J. "Proverbs - What the Bible Teaches". John Ritchie Ltd, 2008.
Those women appeared in the Gospel narrative at critical times: around the time of the Lord’s incarnation, at particular times in His public ministry and prominently in the climactic period of His death and resurrection. No one observing their meritorious deeds need ask them: "Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" Esther 4.14. It was clear that they had been raised up to play a part in God’s great purpose. In every generation, there are critical times at which God raises up godly men and women to do His will. In those crises, the weight of a godly life means more than eloquence and the extravagant claims a tongue might make. Certainly, those women whose exploits are recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke, have been weighed in God’s just balances and have not been found wanting.