It’s no accident that the very first eyewitness of the resurrection was Mary Magdalene. Her testimony has been remembered and celebrated since the earliest days of the Christian faith and remains a wonderful encouragement to us.
Who Was Mary Magdalene?
Tradition has suggested that Mary Magdalene may have been the unnamed sinful woman who knelt at the feet of Jesus weeping and anointing his feet at the Pharisee’s house (Lk. 7:36-50). Regardless, she is named immediately after that story as a woman who had been afflicted by seven demons before meeting Jesus (Lk. 8:2, cf. Mk. 16:9). Clearly, she had a terribly sordid past. It’s striking just how many times Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the gospels. Matthew, Mark, and John all note that she was at the cross when Jesus died: “There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Mt. 27:55-56, Mk. 15:40-41). And Matthew notes that Mary Magdalene was one of the women who followed Joseph of Arimathea with the body of Jesus and watched as He was wrapped in a clean linen shroud and laid in a new tomb (Mt. 27:59). Mary Magdalene was there sitting and watching opposite the tomb (Mt. 27:61). All four gospels record the fact that Mary Magdalene was at the tomb that first Easter Sunday. Matthew highlights the earthquake and the angel announcing the resurrection (Mt. 28:1). Mark underlines the fact that Jesus appeared to her first (Mk. 16:9). Luke notes the fact that she and several other women were the first to announce the resurrection, but the disciples didn’t believe them (Lk. 24:10-11). And John lays out in perhaps the greatest detail both the angels’ announcement to Mary as well as her first encounter with the risen Jesus, whom she initially mistook for the gardener (Jn. 20:14-18).
One of the crucial elements of the gospel accounts is the record of eyewitness testimony. Simon of Cyrene was ordered to carry the cross of Jesus (Mk. 15:21), and it is likely that Mark mentions his sons Alexander and Rufus because they were still living and well known to the first readers of his gospel (Mk. 15:21). When Paul recounts the gospel to the Corinthians he names three eyewitnesses: Peter, James, and himself (1 Cor. 15:5-8). John says that he saw the soldiers pierce the side of Jesus and saw the blood and water come out, “He who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth – that you may believe” (Jn. 19:34-35). Luke says that his gospel is also a record of careful reporting of eyewitness testimony (Lk. 1:2). And the names of all the women function in the same way: “… standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (Jn. 19:25). And after the resurrection, Luke writes, “Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles” (Lk. 24:10). Mark also mentions “Salome” as one of the women at the foot of the cross and again at the empty tomb (Mk. 15:40, 16:1). The point of these names is that they were all living eyewitnesses to these events who could be (and were) cross examined. They could be questioned, and their stories could be tested against one another.
Why Mary Magdalene?
Nevertheless, it is still striking that Mary Magdalene became the central witness. Of all of the women, why her? Of all the disciples, why her? In order to answer that question, we have to back up and zoom out to see the bigger picture. Remember, sin entered the world in a garden when a woman was deceived and betrayed her husband and her God (Gen. 3:1-6). But despite this failure, God promised that He would bring salvation through the woman (Gen. 3:15). Matthew highlights this story in his genealogy of Jesus, going out of his way to identify four disreputable women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (Matt. 1). Remember Tamar was the wife of one of Judah’s sons. He was wicked and God killed him. His brother married Tamar, and he was wicked also so the Lord killed him too (Gen. 38:6-11). And when Judah failed to give Tamar another husband, Tamar dressed as a prostitute and seduced her father in law and bore twin sons by him, one named Perez (Gen. 38:12-26). Rahab hid the spies in Jericho, and she was a prostitute (Josh. 2:1). Rahab and her family were the lone survivors of Jericho, and she married a man named Salmon, the great-great grandson of Perez, and Rahab bore a son named Boaz (Mt. 1:5). Ruth was a Moabitess, a woman from a nation of idolatry and sexual immorality (cf. Gen. 19:30-38, Num. 22-25). And she married Boaz and became the mother of Obed, the grandfather of David, King of Israel (Ruth 4:18-22). Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, and she betrayed her husband and committed adultery with King David before eventually becoming the mother of Solomon (2 Sam. 11-12, cf. Mt. 1:6). One of the other key elements in the overarching story is the story of Israel the harlot. Isaiah says that Jerusalem had become a whore (Is. 1:21). Jeremiah says that Israel was an unclean woman in heat (Jer. 2:20-25). Hosea is commanded to take a wife of whoredom, to marry an unfaithful woman because Israel has been unfaithful to Him (Hos. 1:2). But God promises to allure her back to Himself and speak tenderly to her (Hos. 1:14). And when John saw the vision of the new heavens and the new earth, he saw Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). How is this possible? “God will dwell with them, and they will be His people” (Rev. 21:3). In other words, Mary Magdalene is the central witness because the story of salvation is the story of an unfaithful woman loved by a faithful God. The first disciples understood that we are all Mary Magdalene.
There is no other kind of Christian. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. The healthy do not need a physician, only the sick. Those whose sins are many are forgiven much and Jesus speaks tenderly to them: Mary. Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace. This Easter Peace, this Resurrection life is not something you can get by decoration or singing and going to church. This Easter Life happens when the Risen Jesus takes up residence inside of you. We have the eyewitnesses of the gospels, but we also have millions more eyewitnesses in history – eyewitnesses who have seen the risen Christ in action, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him” (Eph. 2:4-6). And therefore, we who believe with Mary Magdalene, have become eyewitnesses of the resurrection. You know that Jesus lives because He lives in you.