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Mary: Who She Was (and Wasn't)

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  • Mary: Who She Was (and Wasn't)

    by John MacArthur

    Of all the extraordinary women in Scripture, one stands out above all others as the most blessed, most highly favored by God, and most universally admired. Indeed, no woman is more truly remarkable than Mary. She was sovereignly chosen by God—from among all the women ever born—to be the singular instrument through which He would at last bring the Messiah into the world.

    Mary herself testified that all generations would regard her as profoundly blessed by God (Luke 1:48). This was not because she believed herself to be any kind of saintly superhuman, but because she was given such remarkable grace and privilege.

    Myths About Mary

    While acknowledging that Mary was the most extraordinary of women, it is appropriate to inject a word of caution against the common tendency to elevate her too much. She was, after all, a woman—not a demigoddess or a quasi-deiform creature who somehow transcended the rest of her race. The point of her “blessedness” is certainly not that we should think of her as someone to whom we can appeal for blessing; but rather that she herself was supremely blessed by God. She is never portrayed in Scripture as a source or dispenser of grace, but is herself the recipient of God’s blessing. Her Son, not Mary herself, is the fountain of grace (Psalm 72:17). He is the long-awaited Seed of Abraham of whom the covenant promise spoke: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 22:18).

    Various extrabiblical, religious traditions and many superstitious minds have beatified Mary beyond what is reasonable, making her an object of religious veneration, imputing to her various titles and attributes that belong to God alone. A long tradition of overzealous souls throughout history have wrongly exalted her to godlike status. Unfortunately, even in our era, Mary, not Christ, is the central focus of worship and religious affection for millions. They think of her as more approachable and more sympathetic than Christ. They revere her as the perfect Madonna, supposedly untouched by original sin, a perpetual virgin, and even co-redemptrix with Christ Himself.

    Catholic dogma teaches that she was taken bodily to heaven, where she was crowned “Queen of Heaven.” Her role today, according to Catholic legend, is mediatory and intercessory. Therefore, multitudes direct their prayers to her instead of to God alone—as if Mary were omnipresent and omniscient.

    As a matter of fact, many people superstitiously imagine that Mary regularly appears in various apparitions here and there, and some even claim that she delivers prophecies to the world through such means. This extreme gullibility about apparitions of Mary sometimes rises to almost comical proportions. In November 2004, a stale grilled-cheese sandwich sold for $28,000 in an eBay auction because the sandwich purportedly had an image of Mary supernaturally etched in the burn marks of the toast. A few months later, thousands of worshipers in Chicago built a makeshift shrine to Mary in the walkway of a freeway underpass because someone claimed to see an image of her in salt stains on the concrete wall of the abutment.

    No less than Pope John Paul II declared his total devotion to Mary. He dedicated his whole pontificate to her and had an M for Mary embroidered in all his papal garments. He prayed to her, credited her with saving his life, and even left the care of the Roman Catholic Church to her in his will. Rome has long fostered the cult of Marian devotion, and superstition about Mary is more popular today than it has ever been. So much homage is paid to Mary in Catholic churches around the world that the centrality and supremacy of Christ is often utterly obscured by the adoration of His mother.

    Who She Was

    All such veneration of Mary is entirely without biblical warrant. In fact, it is completely contrary to what Scripture expressly teaches (Revelation 19:10). But the tendency to make Mary an object of worship is nothing new. Even during Jesus’ earthly ministry, for example, there were those who showed undue reverence to Mary because of her role as His mother. On one occasion, Scripture says, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed.” His reply was a rebuke: “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:27–28).

    Mary herself was a humble soul who maintained a consistently low profile in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. Scripture expressly debunks some of the main legends about her.

    The idea that she remained a perpetual virgin, for example, is impossible to reconcile with the fact that Jesus had half-brothers who are named in Scripture alongside both Joseph and Mary as their parents: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” (Matthew 13:55). Matthew 1:25 furthermore says that Joseph abstained from sexual relations with Mary only “until she gave birth to a Son.” On any natural reading of the plain sense of Scripture, it is impossible to support the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity.

    Mary’s immaculate conception and her supposed sinlessness are likewise without any scriptural foundation whatsoever. The opening stanza of Mary’s Magnificat speaks of God as her “Savior,” thus giving implicit testimony from Mary’s own lips that she needed redemption. In such a biblical context, that could refer only to salvation from sin. Mary was in effect confessing her own sinfulness.

    In fact, far from portraying Mary with a halo and a seraphic stare on her face, Scripture reveals her as an average young girl of common means from a peasants’ town in a poor region of Israel, betrothed to a working-class fiancé who earned his living as a carpenter. If you had met Mary before her firstborn Son was miraculously conceived, you might not have noticed her at all. She could hardly have been more plain and unassuming.

    And yet she found herself unexpectedly thrust into a critical role in God’s redemptive plan. Next time, we’ll look at the angelic announcement that changed Mary’s life forever.
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