Matthew 27:56-61; Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18

It is good to finish this series with a study of Mary Magdalene. She had the closest relationship with Jesus, just like Eve had at the beginning, and is a fantastic example to all of us. Like Mary, we need to acknowledge all those things from which we have been set free. (John 8:31-32; John 8:36; Romans 8:1-2) Having done that, we need to have a daily, intimate relationship with Jesus, not returning to our past, but building on all that He has done, recognising that, without Him, we are nothing. Just as Eve was so thrilled to walk with God in the garden, I'm sure that Mary Magdalene was just as thrilled to see Jesus, especially after His resurrection from death.

Mary Magdalene's story is very closely linked with Jesus. We know very little about Mary herself because the Bible provides no personal details of her age, status or family. However, she certainly played a lead role in the most powerful and important parts of Jesus’ life on earth. Mary Magdalene was the leader of a group of female disciples, believed to have been present at the cross after the male disciples (all except John) had fled during Jesus' arrest and wrongful conviction for blasphemy. They had also been there at His burial. Mary had been a devoted follower of Jesus, entering into the close circle of those taught by Jesus during his time preaching and teaching in the area known as the Galilee. She became prominent during the last days, accompanying Jesus during His travels and following Him to the end. "These women were helping to support them out of their own means." (Luke 8:1-3)

Mary Magdalene is the only person named by three of the gospel writers as a witness to Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. Matthew, Mark and John specifically mention Mary Magdalene as a witness to the crucifixion, along with various other women. (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25) Luke talks describes "women who had followed Him from the Galilee" standing at a distance. (Luke 23:55) In listing witnesses who saw where Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, Matthew and Mark both name only two people: Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" (who, in Mark's gospel, is "the mother of James"). (Mark 15:47; Matthew 27:61)

Being a good witness

In Matthew, Mark, and John, Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection. Both Mark and John say that the first appearance by Jesus after His resurrection was to Mary Magdalene alone. (John 20:16; Mark 16:9) Mary's role as a witness is unusual because women at that time were not considered credible witnesses in legal proceedings. The gospels of Mark and Luke record that the rest of the disciples did not believe Mary's report of what she had seen: "it seemed to them like nonsense". (Mark 16:11; Luke 24:11)

In Luke's gospel, the resurrection is announced to the women at the tomb by "two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning" who suddenly appeared next to them. (Luke 24:4) Mark and Luke describe how a disciple called Cleopas (together with an unnamed companion) were walking to a village called Emmaus when they met a fellow traveller who they later realized was Jesus. (Mark 16:12; Luke 24:13-31) This happened after the private appearance to Mary Magdalene. Neither Mary Magdalene, nor any of the other women, are mentioned by name in Paul's catalogue of appearances as listed in his first letter to the believers at Corinth (chapter fifteen). In fact, Paul writes only that Jesus "appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve". Following her initial report of having seen Jesus after His resurrection, Mary Magdalene disappears from the New Testament. She is not mentioned in Acts and nothing more is written about her in any of the apostles' letters.

Will the real Mary Magdalene please stand up!

Among the women who are specifically named in the New Testament, Mary Magdalene’s name is one of the most common. In Matthew's gospel, we find that the author names three women in sequence: “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses and the mother of Zebedee’s children.” (Matthew 27:56) Mark lists a group of women three times and, each time, Mary Magdalene’s name appears first. Then, in the gospel of Luke, the author lists the women who went to the tomb of Jesus: “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women with them”. Once again, Mary Magdalene appears at the head of the list. This consensus in the minds of the gospel writers suggests that Mary Magdalene must have held a central position among the women who followed Jesus, whether as a disciple or in some other capacity.

Her name, Mary Magdalene, suggests that she came from a town called Magdala. (There is still a place today called Magdala, one hundred and twenty miles north of Jerusalem on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.) In Jesus' day, its main business was fishing so, as a woman living in Magdala, Mary may have worked in the fish markets. Under the Roman occupation, heavy taxes were levied on every part of life and women would not have been exempt. Moreover, her name, Mary "of Magdala", could indicate that she was unmarried. A married woman would have carried her husband's name but Mary had taken the name of a place. Two thousand years ago, unmarried women were viewed with suspicion. There were few approved options available to women to earn a living and most depended on the support of either their father or their husband. In later years, particularly amongst Christian churches in Europe, it was widely assumed that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute. It is even possible that the description of Magdala as a place of fornication developed specifically to support this belief. It was certainly a story that appealed to many churches, that used the image of Mary as a prostitute - a "fallen woman" - who then found redemption, as a powerful lesson. It sent a signal that, no matter how low we may have fallen, we can be redeemed by Jesus. However, powerful as this image may be, it is not the story of Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned in each of the four gospels in the New Testament, but not once does it mention that she was a prostitute or even a "sinner". At some point, Mary Magdalene became confused with two other women: Mary, the sister of Martha, from Bethany and the unnamed woman in Luke's gospel "who lived a sinful life", (Luke 7:37) Both of these women anointed Jesus' feet with perfume and wiped them with their hair.

A demonic past

However, both Mark and Luke tell us that Mary Magdalene had been possessed by seven demons. (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9) Again, this may have led to her being seen as a "fallen woman" by later church leaders, but what could have caused her to be in this position? There are so many ways that demons can find access and take up residence in our spirits.

  • The occult. One of the biggest risks is to dabble in occult practices, because they invariably involve specifically inviting demonic spirits to come into our lives. God’s word is very clear about the dangers: "Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 19:31)
  • Deliberate sin. Situations may develop that provoke an ungodly response on our part or an unwillingness to let go of some sinful activity or relationship in our life. This can provide an "open door" for demon activity in our lives. For example, we may be offended by someone and our inability to forgive that person allows a "root of bitterness" to grow in us. The longer we allow this to persist, the more it will begin to restrict us in other relationships until we find that we cannot love as Jesus loves.
  • Oppression. If we are born again through the Holy Spirit, then demons have the ability to oppress us and hold us back in our growth and relationship with the living God, but it is not possible to be "demon possessed" because the Holy Spirit will not allow any demon to share our heart with Him. We may be attacked physically or emotionally, but our spirit is sealed by the Holy Spirit.

Demon activity can be seen like a tree. It has several roots that remain unseen, under the ground. But it also has branches that spread and grow, affecting our visible behaviour and reactions. For example, fear can be a very strong root with several branches that cause us to respond negatively when things are spoken or seen in various parts of our lives. Fear may have entered our lives even when we were in the uterus but, as the Holy Spirit guides us, we can pray for Him to shine a light on specific causes that we can then ask Jesus to deal with, breaking off both root and branch in the Name of Jesus. (Matthew 16:19) If we are not confident about praying in this way, we can also ask another, mature Christian to pray with us. Remember: the protection is in the blood of Jesus and the power is in the name of Jesus, along with fasting. (Mark 9:29) Getting rid of the root cause is always more powerful than dealing with the symptoms and cuts off several branches at the same time.

Set free to serve and support

When Jesus looked on Mary in her deranged state, He saw - by faith - the wonderful helper that she would become for Him on His journey. He saw her heart, not just her outward appearance. He saw her potential. He felt angry at what a mess the demons had made of her, but He also knew the power He had to change her life and her future. Whatever weakness Mary may have had, that made it easier for demons to take over her life, is not stated in the gospels. But we do know that, when they met Jesus, they were no match for Him. As Jesus Himself said: "He had come to destroy the works of the devil". (1 John 3:8) Jesus was known as an exorcist. In all the gospels, examples are given of Jesus speaking to demons, taking authority over them and setting people free from their influence. The exorcisms and healings probably go together to illustrate Jesus' teaching that "the kingdom of God is at hand!" (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15)

At that time, people believed that demons only possessed people who had done something wrong and deserved to be possessed. They thought that good, virtuous people were protected from demon possession. This does not seem to have been the case for Mary, who was a single woman of means. For Mary, her deliverance seems to have been the catalyst which made her become a follower of Jesus. The message that Jesus preached still seems to have particular appeal for people who are on the margins of society.

When Jesus was crucified by the Romans, Mary Magdalene was there, supporting Him in His final, terrifying moments and then mourning His death. She was the first person to discover the empty tomb and a witness to the resurrection. What a testimony for someone who had been an outcast but was completely restored by one word from Jesus! She was there at the beginning of a movement that was going to transform the whole world; a movement of which we are part today.

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