Each year as we approach the Christmas season and the threshold of a new year, I have found it rewarding to reflect on the uniqueness of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. As one who believes in the authority and inspiration of the Scripture there is the hope and conviction that the return of Christ is not only imminent, but that even those momentous events described in Matthew 24 and Revelation 6-18 cannot be far away. The world, for the most part, however, does not hold to such a belief. The world celebrates Christmas without Christ and this grows more blatant as the years go by. And not only that, but many today resent the singing of carols or any sort of religious emphasis during the season of the year. Some have even suggested changing the name of the season to some secular, nondescript name. In fact, do we not now live in a age in which only one prejudice is tolerated—anti-Christian bigotry?
Michael Novak, the eminent columnist, once said that today you can no longer hold up to public pillorying and ridicule groups such as African-Americans or native Americans or women or homosexuals or Poles, and so on. Today, the only group you can hold up to public mockery is Christians. Attacks on the Church and Christianity are common. As Pat Buchanan once put it, “Christian-bashing is a popular indoor sport.”1
But this should not surprise us. The world view, which more and more Americans have opted for, even if by default, is that of secular humanism with its hope in mankind, not the God-man, Christ Jesus. Ironically, coupled with this world view is a certain despondency, disappointment, and discontentment with the job mankind is doing. This has opened the door for the New Age movement and its confidence in mankind, but also its belief in what amounts to demonic powers, the powers that are behind all the religions of the world, the cults, and occult. The world has always had its religious leaders and false messiahs. Christ warned that in the last days many false messiahs would arise, which, as John tells us will culminate in the Antichrist (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3).
Of the religions of the world, Christianity is unique because it stems from the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the greatest man who ever lived. In Jesus, we have One who has virtually changed every aspect of human life, but sadly, most people are completely oblivious to the reality of how He has so completely impacted the world. Certainly one of the great tragedies of the Christmas holidays each year is not just the commercialization of His birth, but the way it is trivialized even when people do speak of His birth and Christmas as an expression of the “spirit of giving.” As Kennedy points out,
. . . How tragic it is that people have forgotten Him to whom they owe so very much.
Jesus says in Revelation 21:5, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Behold! [idou in Greek]: “Note well,” “look closely,” “examine carefully.”) Everything that Jesus Christ touched, he utterly transformed. He touched time when he was born into this world’ He had a birthday and that birthday utterly altered the way we measure time.2
The person, work, and life of Jesus Christ stands as irrefutable evidence against the secular world view and all the religions of the world regardless of their makeup. No one else is qualified or capable to meet the needs of fallen humanity or restore that which was lost by Adam in the fall of man. A striking illustration of this is seen in Revelation 5:1-11. A careful study of the context and content of Revelation 6-19 suggests that the seven-sealed book, which only Christ can open, contains the story of mankind losing his lordship over the earth to Satan, the usurper, and its recovery through the God-man Savior, the Lion who is also the Lamb. He alone is able to accomplish what no one else in the universe can, and, based on His death as the Lamb and His resurrection as the Redeemer/Savior, He recovers what was lost through the judgments of the sealed book.
Thus, as we consider the uniqueness of Christ, we also need to recognize this uniqueness demands our allegiance and commitment as believers. It demands that we rearrange our priorities and stand as luminaries in a dark and dismal world holding forth the message of the unique Christ, the God-man Savior of the World. Jesus Himself sought to impress this mindset on His disciples when He stated, “You are the salt of the earth, … You are the light of the world …” (Matt. 5:13-16).
In the person of Jesus Christ, we have one so unique that His life cannot be explained by natural processes. His person and life defy the natural. The uniqueness of Jesus Christ presents evidence, as Josh McDowell has so well written “demands a verdict,” that this Man is not only unique, but the Savior of the world.
To properly consider the uniqueness of Christ, let’s first consider the uniqueness of Christianity.
The Uniqueness of Christianity
Alone of all the beliefs of mankind, be they religious or political or philosophical, “Christianity (including its Old Testament foundation) is based upon historical acts and facts. Other religions are centered in the ethical and religious teachings of their founders, but Christianity is built on the great events of creation and redemption.3
The Moslem faith is based on the teachings of Mohammed, Buddhism is based on the teachings Buddha, Confucianism on the teachings of Confucius, Marxism on the teachings of Marx, and evolution on the teachings of Darwin. Not one of these is based on the observation of historical data or facts, but on the teachings and theories of men. Remember, evolution is based on theory—not on observable data.
Christianity, however, is founded, not on what Jesus taught (and this distinction is vital to grasp) but on who Jesus is and on what Jesus accomplished. Of course, as Christians, we stand firmly on His teachings. No one ever spoke and taught like Jesus, but ultimately, the value of what He said was dependent upon who He was and what He did and the abundant historical evidence that authenticated His life and words. This gave the teachings of Christ authority and placed them alone in the category of absolute truth. The truthfulness of Jesus and His teachings stand on the validity of historical records which are subject to investigation and examination.
All other beliefs are based on the teachings and ideas of those who were nothing more than mere men. No matter how brilliant, charismatic, or powerful they may be, there is no guarantee of their objectivity, accuracy or ultimate ability to deliver what they have promised.
The uniqueness of Christianity, however, ultimately depends on the uniqueness of its central figure—the Lord Jesus Christ. Some try to place Christ among the great religious leaders of history, as one among many, but this is grotesque and absurd. Either He was who He said He was and who history demonstrates Him to be, or, as someone has put it, He was on par with ‘a man who thinks he is a poached egg.’ Christ’s uniqueness is so great that no one, absolutely no one, can compare with Him.
But there is another evidence of the uniqueness of Christianity as an outgrowth of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is the awesome impact of Christ through the church on mankind and history. In his excellent book, What If Jesus had Never Been Born?, Kennedy give an overview of some of the positive contributions Christianity has made throughout the centuries. Following this overview, he develops this in great detail. Here are a few highlights:
- Hospitals, which essentially began during the Middle Ages.
- Universities, which also began during the Middle Ages. In addition, most of the world’s greatest universities were started by Christians for Christian purposes.
- Literacy and education for the masses.
- Capitalism and free enterprise.
- Representative government, particularly as it has been seen in the American experiment.
- The separation of political powers.
- Civil liberties.
- The abolition of slavery, both in antiquity and in more modern times.
- Modern science.
- The discovery of the New World by Columbus.
- The elevation of women.
- Benevolence and charity; the good Samaritan ethic.
- Higher standards of justice.
- The elevation of the common man.
- The condemnation of adultery, homosexuality, and other sexual perversions. This has helped to preserve the human race, and it has spared many from heartache.
- High regard for human life.
- The civilizing of many barbarian and primitive cultures.
- The codifying and setting to writing of many of the world’s languages.
- Greater development of art and music. The inspiration for the greatest works of art.
- The countless changed lives transformed from liabilities into assets to society because of the gospel.
- The eternal salvation of countless souls!4
These are some of the many contributions brought about by the preaching of the message of the gospel of salvation in Christ. Such happened because of the spiritual change that Christ brings into the hearts of men. After summarizing these contributions, Kennedy concluded:
When Jesus Christ took upon Himself the form of man, He imbued mankind with a dignity and inherent value that had never been dreamed of before. Whatever Jesus touched or whatever he did transformed that aspect of human life. Many people will read about the innumerable small incidents in the life of Christ while never dreaming that those casually mentioned “little” things were to transform the history of humankind.5
The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ
The Anticipation of His Coming
The fact of fulfilled prophecy is a unique feature of Christianity. The coming of Jesus Christ was prophesied in minute detail regarding His lineage, nature, place of birth, where He would be raised, His career, purpose, the specific manor and nature of His death, His resurrection, and many other fulfilled prophecies. And all of these prophecies were made hundreds of years before His birth or first advent.
The Nature of His Birth
His birth was, of course, the most unique birth in all of human history. Though ancient mythology was filled with tales of demi-gods who were supposed to be the progeny of lustful unions between women and gods (demons), there was nothing even close to the narrative of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Christ’s birth stands alone in history. By the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, God Himself took up residency in a virgin’s womb in embryonic form so that after a natural nine-month pregnancy, she gave birth to a son who was also God’s Son. He was the God-man Savior—not a God-indwelt man. He was both true and genuine humanity and undiminished deity united in one Person forever. No other birth was like this in fact or fiction.
As a result of this unique birth, Christ was able to bypass the curse of sin and the curse of Jeconiah so that He was uniquely qualified as the sinless One to both go to the cross to die as the Lamb of God and to reign on the throne of His father David as the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev. 5).
The Uniqueness of His Person
This is found, as mentioned above in the divine/human natures of Christ—two natures united in one person. The Bible makes the claim that Jesus Christ is both God and Man. As God He created all things (Jn. 1:1; Col. 1:16). As man He was sinless and came as the sinless substitute to die for mankind’s sin. But the declaration of Scripture and the evidence of His life affirm that He was not half man and half God, but totally man and totally God united in one Person.
He is God’s indescribable and unfathomable gift to the world. He is the most unique Person of the universe. No other religious leader has ever seriously made such a claim for no other could support it by their life.
The Uniqueness of His Life
His life is unparalleled in beauty, scope, character, and effect. No one ever spoke like Jesus Christ, did the things He did, or made the claims He made.
In view of Christ’s mighty words and works, and the perfect and sinless person men found Him to be, the claims He made cannot be dismissed. People cannot, in all honesty to the historical evidence, dismiss Christ’s claims as those of a mad man or reject Him as a fraud. Modern skeptics try to attribute his miracles and claims to simply the character of his life. But they do this simply because of their prejudice against the light (truth) and against the miraculous, not because there is a lack of bona fide historical evidence.6
The Uniqueness of His Death
His death is also unique, not because He was crucified, but because it was prophesied in Psalm 22 long before death by crucifixion was known in Palestine. Second, it is unique because of the manner in which he died, displaying his sinless and holy character. And third, because of the miracles surrounding his death—the darkness, the earthquake, and the opening of the graves. After seeing Christ on the cross and the events of that day, the Roman centurion who had seen hundreds die on a cross said, “truly this was the Son of God.”
The Uniqueness of His Resurrection
Other religious and philosophical leaders have come and gone, risen and fallen, but none have come back from the dead to carry on their work as did Jesus Christ. This too is unique, not only because Jesus Christ stands alone in this respect, but because of the Old Testament predictions and the incontrovertible evidence for the historical fact of the resurrection—the empty tomb, His post-resurrection appearances, and the transformed lives of his disciples, not to mention the continuation of Christianity in the face of the greatest adversity.7
The fact is, men reject Jesus Christ, His birth, miracles, and resurrection not because of a lack of evidence, but (1) because they have never really researched the evidence with an open mind, or (2) do not want to submit to his authority and claims, or (3) because they have a basic anti-supernatural philosophy, a prejudice against the miraculous, or both.
They approach history with a preconceived notion and then adjust the evidence accordingly. In other words, before they even begin their historical examination they have determined the content of their results.
Many historians approach history with certain presuppositions and these presuppositions are not historical biases but rather philosophical prejudices. Their historical perspective is rooted within a philosophical framework, and the metaphysical conviction usually determines the “historical” content and results. The “modern” researcher, when presented with the historical evidence for the resurrection, will usually reject it, but not because of historical examination.
The response will often be: “Because we know there is no God”; or “The supernatural is not possible”; or, “We live in a closed system”; or “Miracles are not possible”; etc.… All too often it is the offshoot of philosophicalspeculation and not historical homework.8
An illustration of what McDowell is talking about is the Jesus Seminar which recently claimed to search for the ‘Jesus of history’ who they claim is different from the ‘Jesus of faith.’ It is the view of those involved in the Jesus Seminar that the historical Jesus was a bright, witty, countercultural man who never claimed to be the Son of God, while the Jesus of faith is a cluster of ‘feel-good’ ideas that help people live right but are ultimately based on wishful thinking. In discussing the Jesus Seminar, Strobel quotes Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson and writes:
Johnson systematically skewers the Jesus Seminar, saying it “by no means represents the cream of New Testament scholarship,” it follows a process that is “biased against the authenticity of the gospel traditions,” and its results were “already determined ahead of time.” He concludes, “This is not responsible, or even critical, scholarship. It is a self-indulgent charade.”
He goes on to quote other distinguished scholars with similar opinions, including Dr. Howard Clark Kee, who called the Seminar “an academic disgrace,” and Richard Hayes of Duke University, whose review of The five Gospels asserted that “the case argued by this book would not stand up in any court.9
What makes Christ’s person unique? The virgin birth of the Son of God, the incarnation, the birth of the God-man. Only the virgin birth can give an adequate answer to the phenomena of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
(1) In Christ’s life and ministry, he demonstrated who He was--the God-man, the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. He also declared His purpose—to die for our sin.
(2) In His death on the cross, Christ accomplished that purpose. He bore our sin in His sinless body on the tree. He died as our substitute, and took our judgment.
(3) By His resurrection, God proved the value of His Son’s death and the sinlessness of His Person. It proved Him to be the unique God-man.
As ordained in the eternal counsels of God, historically for man, it all began in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4) when Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, Jesus. But this was no ordinary birth. Rather, it was the result of the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:35). Though anticipated in the prophets for hundreds of years, it all began with that first Christmas when the Son of God became flesh and began to dwell among men.
Luke 2:1-14. Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. 2:2 This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.2:3 Everyone went to his own town to be registered.2:4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David. 2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child. 2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.2:7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
2:8 Now in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping guard over their flock by night. 2:9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified.2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for take note, I proclaim to you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people: 2:11 to you is born today in the town of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 2:12 This will be the sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” 2:13 Suddenly a multitude of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
2:14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”
The following well known anonymous composition of the nineteenth century beautifully demonstrates the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World.
One Solitary Life10
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village, where He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself.
He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves.
While He was dying, His executioners gambled for His garments, the only property he had on earth. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today He is the central figure of the human race.
All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life.
1 D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1994, Introduction.
2 Kennedy, p. 1.
3 Henry Morris, Many Infallible Proofs, Creation Life Publishers, 1974, p. 10
4 Kennedy, pp. 3-4.
5 Kennedy, p. 4.
6 The following are a list of books that clearly set forth some of the awesome evidence for Christ: The Case For Christ, Lee Strobel, Zondervan Publishing House, 1998; The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Craig Blomberg, InterVarsity Press, 1987; The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, F. F. Bruce, Eerdmans, 1960; The Evidence for Jesus, R. T. france, InterVarsity Press, 1986; Jesus Under Fire, Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, Zondervan, 1995; The Resurrection Factor, Josh McDowell, Here's Life, 1981; Evidence Demands a Verdict, A Campus Crusade for Christ Book, 1972. Many more could be cited.
7 Two more outstanding books on the evidence for the resurrection are Knowing the Truth About The Resurrection, Our Response to the Empty Tomb, William L. Craig, Servants Books, 1988, and Did Jesus Rise From the Dead, The Resurrection Debate, Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, Terry L. Miethe, Editor, Harper & Row, 1987.
8 Josh McDowell, More Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Campus Crusade For Christ, 1975, p. 6.
9 Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ, Zondervan, 1998, p. 127.
10 Some have attributed this to Philips Brooks, the author of "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
“I don’t think there is a place for me at the table,” a young woman told me a number of years ago. She was talking about how she felt in her Church.
Her comment has haunted me. The image I have of Jesus from the Gospels is of one who went out of his way to welcome women at the table and in his ministry. Read against the backdrop of first-century, Middle Eastern, Judaic culture, Jesus’ words and actions are strikingly inclusive.
Women’s Place: In the Home
Jewish culture in the first century was decidedly patriarchal. The daily prayers of Jewish men included this prayer of thanksgiving: “Praised be God that he has not created me a woman.”
A woman’s place was thought to be in the home. Women were responsible for bearing the children, rearing them and maintaining a hospitable home. Men were not to greet women in public. Some Jewish writers of Jesus’ time, such as Philo, taught that women should never leave the home except to go to the synagogue.
Generally marrying young, a woman was almost always under the protection and authority of a man: her father, her husband or a male relative of her husband if she was a widow.
This left women in a very vulnerable position within Judaism. They had little access to property or inheritance, except through a male relative. Any money a woman earned belonged to her husband. Men could legally divorce a woman for almost any reason, simply by handing her a writ of divorce. A woman, however, could not divorce her husband.
In the area of religious practice, women were in many ways overlooked. Men were required to pray certain prayers daily, but women were not. While the study of Scripture was regarded as extremely important for men, women were not allowed to study the sacred texts. Rabbi Eliezer, a first-century teacher, is noted for saying, “Rather should the word of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman.”
At the Temple in Jerusalem, women were restricted to an outer court. In synagogues they were separated from the men and not permitted to read aloud. They were not allowed to bear witness in a religious court.
But Jesus defies these expectations in at least four ways, which have implications for us.
Jesus Speaks With Women in Public
First, Jesus refuses to treat women as inferior. Given the decidedly negative cultural view of women in Jesus’ time, the Gospel writers each testify to Jesus’ treating women with respect, frequently responding in ways that reject cultural norms. He recognizes their dignity, their desires and their gifts.
Jesus, for example, speaks to women in public. He steps forward in a crowd of mourners to speak with the widow at Nain, and to call her son back to life (Luke 7:11-17).
He cures a woman who had been crippled for 18 years, laying hands on her in the Temple and saying, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity” (Luke 13:12). When the leader of the synagogue becomes indignant that Jesus has healed a woman on the Sabbath, Jesus uses a title of particular dignity for her, “daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13:16).
While the expression “son of Abraham” was often used to indicate that a male Jew was recognized as bound by covenant to God, women had never been called “daughters of Abraham.” With this title, Jesus recognizes this woman as having equal worth. In John 4:4-42, Jesus ignores two codes of behavior. He initiates a conversation with a foreigner, a Samaritan. In addition, this foreigner is also a woman. Her surprise is included in the narrative: “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (John 4:9).
Jesus not only speaks with her but also enters into a prolonged dialogue, a dialogue which recognizes and honors her thirst for religious truth. Ultimately, he reveals his identity as the Messiah. When his disciples return, they are clearly uneasy with Jesus’ behavior. John includes the questions they are afraid to verbalize: “What are you looking for? Why are you talking with her?” (John 4:27).
The Gospel writer does not hesitate to conclude the story with a comment that, although in Jewish thought a woman’s testimony was not trustworthy, here the Samaritan woman’s excited words are heard and acted upon. “Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified” on his behalf (John 4:39).
Respect and Compassion
Second, Jesus refuses to view women as unclean or especially deserving of punishment. Women who were menstruating or persons who had any flow of blood were considered ritually unclean. In this condition, women were not allowed to participate in most religious rituals. Anything or anyone she touched was deemed unclean.
The most dramatic story concerning a woman in this state is the account of the woman who had a flow of blood for 12 years (Luke 8:43-48). Luke emphasizes Jesus’ compassion for the woman by the way he situates the story.
Chapter 8 features Jairus, an official of the synagogue, coming to Jesus to beg him to cure his daughter. While they are on the way, this frightened, suffering woman, who has been ill and consequently isolated for years, touches his cloak. Jesus turns his attention from the synagogue official to the woman. He wants to know who touched his garment. By religious norms, the woman’s touch—even of his cloak—rendered Jesus unclean.
If the woman expects him to be angry with her for approaching, she is greatly surprised. He says nothing of her ritual impurity, but instead addresses her as “Daughter,” says that her faith has saved her and tells her to go in peace (8:48).
Jesus recognizes the dignity of women in situations that seem by ritual law to demand judgment, for example, the sinful woman who anoints Jesus (Luke 7:36-50) and that of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11).
In both cases he sees the person as someone deserving compassion. In Luke’s narrative of the anointing woman, after Jesus is touched and anointed by a woman who is a recognized sinner, we hear the expected reaction from Simon, his host. This prominent religious leader, a Pharisee, is dismayed and says, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner” (Luke 8:39).
Not only does Jesus tell the woman that her sins are forgiven, but he also uses her actions and the love which prompted them to teach his offended host! Jesus’ question is pointed: “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 8:44).
The question urges Simon to look beyond the categories by which he has always lived and to see her as a sincere woman, as a woman of great love.
Jesus clearly teaches that the one who keeps all the rules is not necessarily the better person. “Her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love” (Luke 8:47).
In John’s account of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), a trap is laid for Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees who bring the woman to Jesus present the case, the judgment and the punishment, and wait to see if he will reject the Mosaic law in favor of the woman.
Jesus wisely evades the entire legal debate and confronts them instead with a more fundamental truth—that none of them is without sin. When the accusers have all left, Jesus speaks compassionately with the woman. He does not gloss over her sin, but in his refusal to condemn her, he invites her to a new place of freedom and a new image of herself.
Third, Jesus steps over expected boundaries between men and women by his acceptance of women as disciples. Unlike rabbis of his day, Jesus taught women about Scripture and his way of love. Matthew tells of Jesus’ mother and brothers asking to speak to him. “He said in reply…, ‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers’” (Matthew 12:46-50). His use of both masculine and feminine words clearly indicates that some of his disciples were women.
The familiar story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42 highlights Jesus’ acceptance and blessing of Mary’s desire to learn. She is described as one who “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak” (Luke 10:39). This is the typical position of the male disciple. To sit at the feet of a rabbi meant that a person was one of his disciples.
Martha, on the other hand, takes the expected woman’s role of providing hospitality. Perhaps she herself thinks it improper for Mary to act as a disciple. Regardless, Jesus will not deprive Mary of her opportunity. “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42).
Of particular interest is the fact that Jesus not only taught women, but some women traveled with him and ministered to him.
In Luke 8:1-3, Jesus is described as journeying from village to village, preaching and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. “The Twelve” were with him and several women: “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom several demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.”
Mark, too, says of the women present at Jesus’ crucifixion, “These women had followed him when he was in Galilee and ministered to him” (15:41). This picture of women disciples is astounding, given that Jewish women at this time were not to learn the Scriptures or even to leave their households.
Jesus was doing something startlingly new.
Receiving Jesus’ Self-Revelation
Fourth, not only did Jesus have women disciples, but the Gospel writers also assure us that they were prominent recipients of Jesus’ self-revelation. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that he is the Messiah.
Martha, who is the sister of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, in the midst of her confusion and grief over her brother’s death, struggles to name what she believes about Jesus. While they stand at the tomb, Jesus reveals to her, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
In all of the Gospels, women disciples are the first witnesses to the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene sees Jesus but is not believed (Mark 16:11). In John’s account (20:11-18), she recognizes Jesus when she hears herself called by name, testifying to the close relationship they had. Jesus tells her to go to the other disciples and tell them, “I have seen the Lord.”
In Matthew, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and sends them to tell the disciples that they will see him in Galilee (28:1-10). Luke’s version also has the women announce the Resurrection, but he adds, “Their story seemed like nonsense and they [the apostles] did not believe them” (24:11). The two disciples on the road to Emmaus seem to doubt the women’s story as well (Luke 24:22-24).
Lesson for Us
The Gospels point us toward including women’s voices and gifts. While we live in a time and culture far different from that of the historical Jesus, his way of welcoming and responding to women has much to teach us.
Many women in the Church today still feel invisible and unheard. The woman who wondered if there was a place for her at the table in her Church was not questioning whether she would be welcome at the Eucharist or able to sit at a parish council meeting. Her desires go deeper than that. She, like other women in the Church today, wonders if there is really an openness to both her spiritual desires and her insights.
Is the Church today a place where a woman can sit, like the woman at the well, and explore her questions openly without fear of being considered negative, hostile or pushy? Is the Church a place where a woman’s voice and her experience are valued even—and especially—when she brings a new perspective or, like Jesus himself, challenges the way things have always been understood? After all, women joined the apostles in prayer between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost (Acts 1:13-14).
Perhaps a now-familiar parable that Jesus told about a woman captures it best. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened” (Matthew 13:33).
Jesus recognized that women had gifts for discipleship, and he was not afraid to call these women forth. Some women today need to hear that the Church recognizes their “leavening,” and welcomes their creativity and spirituality for the gifts that they can be to the “whole batch” that is our Church and our world.
Barbara Leonhard, OSF, is an Oldenburg Franciscan who has a BA in theology from Marian College (now University), an MA in biblical studies from the Catholic Theological Union and a PhD in Christian spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union.