THE WOMEN at THE SEPULCHRE
REV. GEORGE W. BETHUNE, D.D.
It is a strong testimony to our Lord’s character, that, although his crucifixion greatly confounded and dismayed his followers, their affection for him was in no degree shaken. They had not faith enough to solve the mystery of his shameful death, but would not doubt his sincerity. Even when the meek Master sat submissively among the furious mob in the high priest’s hall, a look of his gentle countenance recalled the panic‐stricken Peter to himself, and changed his blasphemous denials into bitter tears of contrition; and the two disciples that were walking to Emmaus on the third day after He was crucified, notwithstanding their sad perplexity, speak of Him as “a prophet mighty in deed and in word before God and all the people.” (Luk 24:19.) All his seeming ignominy and abandonment by God could not convince them that He was an impostor; and, therefore, they loved Him still as their Friend and their Lord. Theirs was love triumphing over doubt, rather than faith working by love,—the courage of the heart, enduring while the strength of the mind failed; another proof that, though faith is greater than reason, and hope an advance beyond faith, charity is highest in the Christian scale. Hence the superiority of the women in constancy to Christ, through trials under which the zeal of apostles fainted. They loved more. This is seen in their pious regard for the lifeless body of the Master, and the rich reward of their fidelity on the morning of his resurrection.
It is usual to speak of the women at the sepulchre of Christ as “The Marys;” but there were among them Salome, the mother of James and John, Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and others, (Luke 24:10). The Marys were, however, the most prominent in the loving service. There were five of that name among the intimate few of our Lord’s choice; Mary, the blessed Virgin‐mother of his humanity; Mary, the mother of Mark, whose house was afterwards consecrated by that memorable prayer‐meeting of the church, held during the imprisonment of Peter, in answer to which he was delivered by God’s angels (Acts 12:12); Mary the wife of Cleophas or Alpheus, mother of James (the less), Joses, Simon and Judas, (not Iscariot,) the near kinsmen of Jesus; Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, who embalmed her name in eternal fragrance when she poured her costly perfume on her Lord, anointing him for his burial; and Mary of Magdala, “out of whom were cast seven devils.” (Mar 16:9.) The word Mary among the Hebrews signifies bitterness, and was, doubtless, given first to some child of sorrow; but, as the tree which God showed Moses made the waters of Marah sweet, so the tree of Christ’s cross has made this name sweet in the Christian’s ear, for he remembers the Marys who stood so faithfully near it, and were so highly honoured by the love of Him who was crucified and rose again. The Marys of our narrative were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (the less) and Joses.
After the blessed Master had “poured out his soul unto death,” (Isa 53:12) the eleven, fearful of being recognised as his immediate disciples, and being persons of no influence, shrunk from asking leave to honour the mangled remains; but Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man and a Pharisee, who was a disciple of Jesus, though not avowed, besought Pilate secretly “that the body of Jesus might be given him;” (Jhn 19:38) and being joined by Nicodemus, (“which at the first came to Jesus by night,” (Jhn 3:2)) also a Pharisee and a man of rank, who “brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes about an hundred pounds’ weight,” the two “took the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury (John 19:38-40); “and laid it in Joseph’s own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre and departed. And there was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, sitting over against the door of the sepulchre.” How long the weeping ones watched there we are not told, but the next day the chief priests and Pharisees, with the permission of Pilate, “went and made (as they thought) the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone and setting a watch.” (Mat 27:62-66.)
Dissatisfied with the hurried manner of the burial, the two Marys and the other women, consulting together, determined to attempt a more perfect embalment of the precious body. They “returned (to the city) and prepared spices and ointments, and rested the Sabbath‐day according to the commandment,” (Luke 23:54-56,) having no doubt appointed to meet (their homes being different) early on the day after. Accordingly, very “early in the morning of the first day of the week,” (Mar 16:2) while it was yet dim dawn, before the sun was fairly risen, the two Marys, who had perhaps been together, as they were most active in the preparation of the unguents, with Salome (as Mark tells us), set out on their way to the sepulchre, which they appear to have approached before the other women.
Here there is some little difficulty in fixing the order of the incidents, as the Evangelists tell the story each in a different way, though without any material discrepancy; but it seems to have been this: “They said among themselves (i.e. the two Marys and Salome), Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?” (Mar 16:3.) Mary Magdalene, more courageous or more eager, presses on before the others, sees the stone rolled away, and the body gone. Frantic with this new affliction, for such it was to her then, she hastily turns back, and, running, “cometh to Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.” (John 20:1-3.) In the mean time, the other Mary and Salome, joined now by the other women, reach the sepulchre, and entering in, are affrighted by a vision of an angel like a young man in a long white garment, who “saith unto them, Be not afraid; ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified; he is risen; he is not here; behold the place where they laid him! But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter, that he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him, as he said unto you. And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre, for they trembled and were amazed; neither said they any thing to any man, (or any one, that is, they were dumb with fear,) for they were sore afraid.” (Mark 16:5-8.) Mark makes mention only of the angel who spoke; Luke speaks of two, (the other silently, as was natural, acquiescing in the testimony,) and adds to the communication: “Remember how he spake unto you, when he was yet in Galilee, saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. And they remembered his words.” (Luke 24:1-8.) We must suppose that this interview with the angels occurred after Mary Magdalene had left the sepulchre the first time, as she did tell Peter and John that the Lord’s body was not there, but at the same time had no knowledge of his resurrection, so plainly testified to by the supernatural messengers, and evidently both understood and believed in by the women who heard it; for, had she known of it, she would have given them the angel’s message. (Compare John 20:9.) Peter and John, on hearing Mary’s tidings, go at once toward the sepulchre. They ran both together; and the other disciple (the Evangelist is speaking modestly of himself) did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he, stooping down, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie; and the napkin that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw and believed, (not that the Lord was risen, but that his body was not there;) for as yet they knew not the Scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. Then the disciples went away again to their own home. “But Mary,” who by this time had reached the sepulchre again, stood without “weeping; and, as she wept, she stooped down and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white, sitting the one at the head and the other at the feet where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary! She turned herself and saith unto him, Rabboni! which is to say, Master! Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended unto my Father; but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God. Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.” (John 20:3-18.) That Mary Magdalene saw the Lord first, Mark distinctly asserts (Mar 16:9); and that she first saw him by herself, the spirit of the narrative proves; but, though John speaks only of her, we gather from Matthew’s rapid account that the second Mary and others of the women also met the Lord before their final return to the city. It is true, he (Mat 28:1) names in the beginning only the two Marys, (because they were the principal actors and reached the sepulchre before the rest,) but he afterwards changes the phraseology, and tells us that the angel spake “to the women,” (Mat 28:5) giving the communication in the same language as that used by Mark and Luke, but quite different from that used by John when describing Mary’s meeting with the angel. He then adds, that “as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail! And they came and held him by the feet and worshipped him. Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go and tell my brethren that I go before them into Galilee, and there shall they see me.” (Mat 28:9-10.) This is clearly a different scene from the interview of Mary Magdalene with our Lord, described by John, which must have been before this; unless, as is quite probable, each evangelist gives what he considered the most striking things that occurred to the women on this illustrious morning, without breaking his continuous story by nicely separating the various incidents. Certainly, there is no discrepancy between the several narratives injurious to their credibleness; but, on the contrary, the different forms of their united testimony to the same important facts prove the absence of all collusion.
The pious women, as they were commanded, “told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest.” They did not all give the information at the same time, nor did all the disciples hear it at the same time. It is not probable that on a morning so full of prodigies the women kept closely together, or that the disciples were not going in and out. Suffice it to say, they all heard the good news, and “it was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.” (Luke 24:9-10.)
In reviewing the narrative, the first thing that strikes us is
The honour done to pious women.
The apostle Paul argues the superiority of the man to the woman in the relations of this life, and in the external order of the church, which is conformable to them, because “Adam was first formed, then Eve.” (1Ti 2:12-13.) Such was the arrangement of the divine Creator, and therefore should it be acquiesced in cheerfully by the woman, by the man without presumption. But adds the apostle: “Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, was in the transgression.” (1Ti 2:14.) She was the first sinner, and therefore should be humble; yet man was also a sinner, therefore has no ground for pride. In eternal heaven the relations of this life will cease, and the distinctions consequent upon them cease also. “For in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” (Mat 22:30.) The spiritual, inner church, which is the beginning and earnest of heaven, anticipates this resolution of temporal differences. There is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28.) All are equal, except as grace makes them to differ. All are kings, all are priests unto God. So long as the church is in the world, its external organization must be conformed to the order impressed by God on human nature here; but truly and substantially we are “all one” in Christ Jesus. Gloriously does the Gospel redeem believing woman from the disgraces of the fall. If by her sin entered, followed by death, she brought forth the Lord of light and life. If the Tempter prevailed over her, her seed has bruised the venomous head of the old serpent. If she doubted the word of God first in the transgression, her faith clung to the Word made flesh, when apostles fled in dismay. If she led the way to evil, the risen Saviour sent by her the glad news of immortal hope to the despairing disciples. How strong was her influence to work ruin! Let her now, under the encouragements of mercy, consecrate it to work good. Let her, in humble emulation of the Virgin‐mother, sanctify the image of the Babe Jesus, that clings to her nursing bosom, for the following of Jesus. Let her, like the holy women of whom we have been reading, honour the Lord’s body, his church, prepare the spices of grace for its embalmment when it seems cold and dead, and watch with weeping prayers for its revival by the power of God. When female piety is awake, watchful and zealous, the morning of gracious joy is not far distant; nay, has already dawned.
The sustaining power of love.
It was not the sex, but the Christian virtue of these women, that triumphed in this awful extremity. If they were more faithful, it was because they loved more. Love is the fulfilling of the law, so it is the perfection of Christianity. Faith and hope may seem to fail, but love “never faileth.” (1Cr 13:8.) Mary’s mind is troubled, but her heart, controlled by divine love, though it trembles, points like the faithful needle to God. Every thing is sad without her Lord. She stands by him to the last. It is but little she and her sisters can do, but, like Mary the sister of Lazarus, they do all that they can. They weep at the foot of the cross, gazing upon his dying face. They follow his body to the tomb. They watch him in his mortal sleep; and, though driven away by the ruffian guard when the seal was set upon the door, they prepare spices for the last melancholy rites, and hope against hope to use them; even when this last desire is disappointed, and the sacred dust cannot be found, they linger, and weep, and look upon the place where the Lord lay.
Love absorbs all other passions of their souls. They fear not the chill damp of the dark morning. Nor do they shrink with natural terror from approaching the place of the dead, though for aught they knew the impious watchmen were still there. The earthquake and the lightning countenance of the angel in lustrous garments, whose apparition made the keepers shake and become as dead men, though they filled the women with reverent awe, do not terrify them so that they cannot joyfully receive the annunciation of life from the dead. Mary Magdalene is no more startled by the angel than by the person she supposes to be the gardener. She has the same answer for both: “They have taken away my Lord;” (Jhn 20:13, 15) the same question for both: “Tell me where they have laid him.” Light grief is garrulous, Mary’s has few words: “They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.” Who is her Lord but the crucified One? She has no thought of forsaking or concealing her allegiance. He is still her Lord; all she is and all she has is his, though he is dead and buried and gone. So her first word on recognising Jesus is “Rabboni,” (not merely Master, as our translators render it, but) My Master! (Jhn 20:16.) “Rabboni” was uppermost in her heart, and “Rabboni” rises first to her lips.
This overcoming love was not the impulse of the occasion. These women had long been associates of our Lord, grateful for various benefits received from his merciful hands, listening to his gracious instructions, beholding his many miracles, and ministering to his simple wants. (Luk 8:3.) The recollection of the past was sufficient to resist the motives for despair suggested by the present. Affection so deeply rooted could not be uptorn by the storm, though never so violent. Here then is there a lesson for us. If we would be faithful to our Lord, firm in the hour of temptation, resolute against difficulties, and persevering through all that we may encounter on our way to heaven, we must cultivate the love of Christ in our hearts; study his sweet and enlightening words, contemplate his attractive character, meditate on all his kindnesses to us and his people, hold frequent, nay, constant communion with him; and, above all, make his manger, his cross, (the mystery of which, so appalling to the disciples, is plain to us,) and his throne, where He now sits dispensing the blessings of his purchase, the themes of our familiar thought. Thus will the love of Christ shed abroad in our hearts, fill them with love for him; and as love grows perfect will it cast out fear, discontent, and every evil desire. Love must be intelligent, and therefore faith must precede love; but if “faith worketh by love,” (Gal 5:6) love richly reciprocates its teaching by giving faith an energetic courage it could not have of itself.
The conduct of the true believers in trial.
Trial is the discipline by which our heavenly Father educates his children for the higher sphere of immortal life. It must “needs be” that trials come. (1Pe 1:6.) We are tried in our persons, our fortunes, the troubles of our friends; but these are light compared to the trials of our faith by spiritual distresses and the dealings of God with his church. There are many passages in our Christian life, when we see no light; many occasions in the history of the church, when we are tempted to oppose the Divine will and say: “Be it far from thee, Lord, this shall not be unto thee!” (Mat 16:22.) But what trial can we ever be called to pass through so great, so dark, so mysterious, as that of the early disciples at the time of our narrative? It is true, they had clear prophecy, and the plain words of the Master himself foretelling his passion, and, with it, his resurrection. We may say that they ought to have hoped on through all, joyfully anticipating the assured result. Yet have we exceeding great and precious promises (2Pe 1:4) to cheer us through every possible affliction; and how often does our courage falter, and, with trembling knees and desponding hands, do we walk sadly on our painful way! What must have been their conflict of feelings, when they saw Him, who they trusted would have redeemed Israel, arrested like a thief, mocked, scourged, buffeted, spit upon, hung upon the then accursed cross between two vile criminals, and then enveloped in the blackness of his Father’s anger, out of which they heard the cry: “My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me!” (Psa 22:1; Mat 27:46; Mar 15:34.) We can never be tried as they were, when the bleeding body of their dead Lord lay in a tomb sealed and guarded by his enemies. Yet here the example of these faithful women has most valuable lessons for us, which, as we have greater advantages than they, we should improve to a greater faithfulness. They were not sure, though they ought to have been, that the Lord would arise; we know that the light of his salvation is certain to succeed the night of our sorrow.
Let us keep near to the cross. Though Jesus is risen, he delights most to meet his people near the scene of his sufferings, especially when they remember that the Crucified is now on his throne. The agonies of Jesus, his fidelity even until death, (and such a death!) put to shame our petty griefs. What must we have suffered, had He not suffered our chastisement for us? He who took off from us so much sorrow, would not permit any sorrow now to come upon us, were it not for our best good; and his sufferings assure us of his sympathy, his fitness and willingness to help in every time of our temptation. Besides, the most severe trials work out, through the divine blessing, the greatest good. When these disciples were in dismay at the crucifixion, God was preparing by the cross the hope and glory of his church. All seemed lost at the moment all was gained. When Jesus gave up the ghost, He bought eternal redemption. While He lay lifeless in the tomb, He was spoiling death and him that had the power of death, that He might make a glorious ostentation of their spoils. In like manner, the believer’s afflictions, (at the greatest light, and but for a moment,) work out for him “a far more exceeding and an eternal weight of glory.” (2Cr 4:17.) Thus may we learn to endure patiently and hopefully for his sake, who endured infinitely more for ours.
Let us not be discouraged by trial from zeal in our duty. Though the Master’s face be hidden, we know his fidelity and his love, so let us love on and serve him still. It is the surest way to secure a quick return of his Divine manifestation. The women were most faithful. Their sorrow did not prevent their preparation of the spices; they kept the Sabbath according to the Lord’s ordinance, notwithstanding their extremity; and early in the morning, as early as they could go, they are at the sepulchre, ready for the pious service of honouring the cold remains of their Master. Verily, they had a rich reward, for they saw the Lord first. So it is with us. In no way does consolation so soon reach a bruised spirit, as when the afflicted one shakes off the moody stupor which grief naturally falls back upon, and goes forth from his retirement to do good in the Lord’s name, in the Lord’s cause, or among the Lord’s poor. Jesus is sure to meet such an afflicted one, who makes not his own suffering an excuse for not ministering in the service of mercy.
Especially is this true, when the church is tried by the remissness and coldness of Christ’s professed servants. At such times a weak faith most shows its weakness. When the church is prosperous, when Christians are earnest in prayer, when converts are multiplied, it is easy to be zealous, to be borne on by the ardour of those around us, and to work because sure of success. It is in the time of lukewarmness and desertion that we are most needed, and it becomes us to labour most earnestly. If few pray, so much the more reason that we should persevere in entreaties for the Divine blessing. If few work, so much the more reason for our exertions that the interests of the church be not utterly abandoned. If the impenitent around us be hardened and careless of their souls, so much the more reason that we should strive to arouse them, lest they perish for ever. Though the church seem cold and dead as the body of Jesus in the midnight tomb of Joseph, if we have any grace left, we should prepare and bring it, as these women did their spices, to preserve it from utter corruption. When the Lord comes, as he certainly will, in his reviving power, happy will they be whom he finds so watching. They shall see him first, first hear his cheering words, and be the bearers of the good news first to those that sit in darkness.
Neither let us shrink and fail, because those higher in office or of greater natural ability are remiss or discouraged. While the apostles were hidden in their homes, disconsolate and idle, the women were successfully seeking their Lord. Mary Magdalene carried the first tidings to the earnest Peter and the loving John; and the other women to the other nine. Peter ran hard, and John faster, but Mary Magdalene first saw the risen Jesus. Thus ever is faithful weakness made exulting strength.
Happy women! Would that we had your love, your courage, and your zeal! Then should we have a rich share in your reward.