My sister Mary

I have to confess that for much of my Christian life, I’d not really stopped to consider the person of Mary and what she contributes to the church today. I knew about the major controversies of church history, and the significant differences between the Roman Catholic understanding and that of reformed Protestantism. But at a personal level, I’d never stopped to ask the question, “What does Mary mean to me?”

And then in the lead-up to Christmas a few years ago, I was asked to speak about Mary and the virgin birth. So I found myself reading the Gospel accounts and asking questions I’d not really asked before. Somewhat surprisingly, it was a blessing to do so. In fact, I was humbled, encouraged and rebuked as I studied Mary. At the same time, I was given new insight into the uniqueness of Jesus and the love of God.

I was humbled because Mary was a young woman from a simple background who, for no other reason that the wisdom of God, was chosen to play a unique part in God’s plan of salvation. She wasn’t rich, famous or powerful. She was plucked from obscurity and set on a course that required sacrifice and suffering. Her fiancé considered divorcing her because she was pregnant. She had her first child away from home in a strange place in a strange town. She was a refugee in a foreign land, where she was driven to protect the life of her child. She treasured up the things Jesus did in her heart, but she didn’t really understand what it meant for him to be God’s Messiah. She saw her son mobbed, applauded, scorned and rejected. She was warned that a sword would pierce her soul (Luke 2:35), and she saw her son die, and then three days later, she went to his tomb only to find his body gone. And, like the other disciples, she waited in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit after Jesus’ ascension.

I was humbled because Mary reminded me that God uses the weak and the foolish to achieve his purposes, and that being loved and chosen by him is only possible because of his grace and goodness, not because of anything I might be or what I might achieve.

Furthermore, as someone like me, chosen by God and saved by Christ, I was struck by the way Mary lived by faith in God’s word and how she persevered in faithful obedience, despite the very real cost to her life. I was encouraged to see God’s purposes as more important than my own comfort, and my hopes for my life and the lives of my family. I was encouraged by Mary’s faithful obedience, but I was also rebuked.

How would I respond if an angel appeared to me? Would I have the courage to question how God would achieve something incredible and then the faith to receive God’s promise that ‘nothing is impossible for him’? Mary—humble, lowly, simple Mary—had faith that rebukes my own lack of faith. She was asked to believe more than I’ve ever been asked to believe (and with far less evidence than I’ve been given), and she just did it. Mary knew God’s word. She knew the obstacles, but she believed God could and would do what he said.

That’s the problem with those understandings that exalt Mary as the sinless Mother of God: they take the real, biblical Mary away—the Mary who is our Christian sister—the Mary with whom we can identify, whose faithful discipleship can humble, encourage and rebuke us—and instead, they give us a Mary who is not like us.

In those understandings, she is sinless—not because her faith in Christ enables her to be declared righteous before the throne of God, but because she was born without the stain of original sin, and remained sinless. She is spared the reality of death, not because her faith in Christ will raise her to eternal life, but because she avoids death and is, instead, assumed into heaven. Furthermore, she is the focus of prayers, not because we can thank the Lord for her faithful witness, but because she is somehow able to receive our prayers and intercede for us in the way the Scriptures tell us only Jesus and the Holy Spirit can intercede.

The cost of exalting Mary is not just that it denies the uniqueness of Jesus as our perfect and sufficient saviour and mediator; it also deprives us of the encouragement, rebuke and wisdom of God, who works out his purposes through people just like us.

5 thoughts on “My sister Mary

  1. Claire
    I’ve pondered for a couple of days as how to respond to your piece on Mary.  Putting forth the biblical and historical case for the ‘Catholic Mary’ was, of course, my first reaction.  Coupled with that was a desire to set the record straight on debunking the commonheld myths that most evangelicals have about the teachings on Mary that the Catholic Church profess.  However, I wish to only say a couple of things that may lead you to ponder further the role of Mary in your own life and Mary as Mother, not sister.

    In reading your article it is obvious that you object to the role of Mary as ‘intercessor’, which, you say, leads to a usurping of the role of Christ as the one mediator between God and man. 

    I think when we look at scripture closely, God uses all sorts of ‘things’ to confer His grace on us.  Angels, men and matter.  Yet, as an evangelical you would have no objection to angels interceding as they do in scripture; or man to man interceding as they do in scripture; or the use of matter in obtaining grace, as it is in scripture.  Yet in all these things, we still recognise that God is the master of all.

    In scripture we have an obvious occasion when Mary intercedes for the people.  The scene is the Wedding at Cana, where, as most protestants tell me, Jesus rebukes His mother for interfering thus confirming she was a sinner.  That may be the case (although that is a debate on its own), the fact is that Jesus proceeds to do as His mother asks.  A point I have seen no protestant make in their use of the text against the CCs teaching on Mary.

    Nestorius denied that Mary was the mother of God – claiming that Mary was Mother to Jesus’ human nature only not His divine.  So the Council of Ephesus put to rest the heresy and proclaimed her the ‘Theotokos’ ie the Mother of God.

    Jesus left Mary to John as his mother and so He leaves her to us all.  May the Theotokos continue to intercede for all Christian people so that we may know Him more so that we may love Him more.  As she told the wedding guests “Do whatever He tells you!”.
    Kind regards

  2. Hi Donna,

    Thanks for your thoughts and my apologies for the delay in responding. As you’ve rightly pointed out, we have very different views on Mary’s identity and what she has to do with the life of a Christian believer.

    You’re right that others in Scripture may intercede, but like Mary at the wedding at Cana, they are all on earth, not in heaven. Can you point to any part of Scripture where someone other than Jesus or the Holy Spirit is said to intercede for believers in heaven before the throne of grace (Rom. 8:27, 34; Heb. 7:25)?

    And can you give a clear Scriptural reference that says we are to pray to Mary or anyone other than God himself?

    As I’ve said above, I think Mary is a great encouragement to us as believers of faithful and bold trust in the promises of God – and I’m not trying to diminish that. Rather I think her contribution is lost if we credit to her things that God’s word does not.

    Hope this helps.


  3. Thanks Claire for your thoughtful response.  I acknowledge your attempt to credit Mary as only God would.  This too is what the CC also teaches – although it would seem from a protestant perspective that we give too much credit, perhaps where it is not due.  I must point out that we believe Mary is a creature, not divine.  All she has is given her by God.  She is not to be worshipped.  What we give her is honour not adoration.  Hope the following helps a little in understanding the Catholic biblical perspective.

    The Saints in Heaven are not dead but are more alive in Christ than we are.  Matt 22:31-32; Mark 12:26-27 tells us that God is the God of the living not the dead, mentioning the OT fathers.

    Rev 5:8 we see an example of the elders presenting to God the prayers of the saints.  This is intercession.  Rev 6:9-11 – we see the saints gone before us praying on our behalf.

    Matt 17:1-3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30-31 we see the transfiguration.  These ‘deceased’ fellows (Elijah and Moses) were conversing with Jesus, Peter, James and John.  This indicates the saints in heaven have capabilities that far surpass our earthly limitations.  Peter’s response indicates the great honour he had for these fathers in the faith.

    Matt 26:53 – Jesus himself calls upon the assistance of 12 legions of angels.  If we are to be like angels (Matt 22:30) then saints in heaven must be capable of coming to the assistance of us just like the angels did for Jesus.  Jesus was not committing idolatry because He didn’t go straight to God, but He used part of His heavenly family to comfort Him.  We are partakers of the divine life, not bystanders.  If we are to imitate Jesus, then we too can call upon their aid.

    Matt 27:47,49; Mark 15:35-36 – the people believed Jesus was calling upon Elijah.  Although He was not, this does indicate that the Jews believed in intercessory prayer.  No-one rebuked Jesus for conjuring up spirits.

    Hebrews 12 speaks of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ that surround us.  Notice in Chp 11 the writer of Hebrews speaks about the OT heroes, then proceeds to say, “therefore, since we are surrounded……”.  If our only witness is through Christ, then why do we have these souls witnessing for us?

    This, of course, is not an exhaustive exegetical response to your objection, however, I hope you can see that scripture is not opposed to the idea of the intercession of the saints and in fact supports it.


  4. Hi Donna,

    I am still not convinced that Scripture supports the intercession of the saints and the role for Mary you are advocating.

    You are right that God is the God of the living and not the dead, and that some great ones who have died have since appeared in history, as you mention at the extraordinary moment of the Transfiguration. But this doesn’t prove your point. It merely shows just how extraordinary that moment of divine revelation was. I doubt too if we can jump from Peter’s rather impulsive and misjudged response to the situation, to honouring Mary and others who have died, as you seem to want to do.

    I think also there are problems with your use of Matt 22:30 to claim that saints can offer us assistance as the angels did Jesus.

    Firstly, Jesus doesn’t call on 12 legions of angels (Matt. 26:53). Rather, he says to those who are arresting him that their swords were foolishness given that he could ask his Father and he would at once put at Jesus’ disposal 12 legions of angels. Contrary to what you have said, Jesus did say that he would ‘go straight to God’ and ask him to send the angels.

    But secondly, I’m having difficulty following your logic. Why are we to be like angels? Matt 22:30 is about marriage at the resurrection, not urging us to be like angels. After all, Christians will judge angels (which always seems a bit amazing to me! 1 Cor. 6:3). And even if we will be like angels in some respects, why does that mean we can now call on saints in heaven to intercede for us?

    In response to your use of Hebrews 11 and the ‘cloud of witnesses’, I think there is a confusion here about the meaning of the word ‘witness’. I don’t think it means that these ancients witness/intercede for us before the throne of God, but that these great ones of the faith witness to us about the faithfulness of God and how to live the life of hope. That is, they demonstrate these things to us, or testify to them in the courtroom of life.

    Finally, to your two references in Revelation. The one in chapter 6 comes from the martyrs in heaven who are crying out for vindication. This is a prayer for themselves addressed to God. The reference to the ‘prayers of the saints’ in Rev. 5:8 might at first glance support your case, but not ultimately. The genre makes it difficult to make definite statements about what is going on. But some important questions are who are the 24 elders? When is this event taking place? What is the significance of the prayers of the saints being ‘bowls of incense’? My view is that this is a scene of worship at the end time, and that the prayers of the saints are part of that worship. To see the elders operating as mediators here directly contradicts 1 Tim. 2:5 which unambiguously states there is one mediator between God and people, namely Jesus Christ.

    I hope this is helpful to you. I’m afraid I’m going to be off-line for several weeks now, so unless others are able to continue this discussion, it will have to rest here.

    God bless, Claire

  5. Claire
    I’ll address a couple of your points and also leave it at that.

    1.  The transfiguration demonstrates that those in heaven are able to communicate.  A point that protestants deny by claiming that the saints in heaven are dead.  The question needs to be asked and pondered – why did those OT saints have to appear in the first place and what benefit was it for Peter & co?  The transfiguration clearly demonstrates that the communion of saints consists of those on earth and those in heaven – all being members of the body of Christ.

    Whether Peter was impulsive or not is not the point.  He was not rebuked by Jesus because he wanted to honour them.  This was an ordinary and common thing for a Jew to do.  We cannot say to Catholics that their honour given to the Saints is unbiblical, when clearly Jesus had no problem with it.

    2.  Sure, Jesus did not use 12 legions of angels, but look at the number of times angels come to the aid and assistance of people. Jesus certainly would not have mentioned it if He thought it inappropriate.  Heb1:14 tells us that angels are ministering spirits sent forth to serve.

    In Matt 27:52-53 we see that the tombs of the saints were opened and they appeared to many. 

    3.  My point about us being like angels is to demonstrate that if angels can intercede for us as heavenly beings then the saints in heaven should also be able to intercede for us.

    4.  Back to Hebrews and the ‘cloud of witness’.  If, as you say, that these witnesses will testify for us in the courtroom of life, then surely that is a type of intercession.  If I take 1Tim 2:5 to the conclusion that you suggest I should, then we don’t even need this cloud of witness, because Jesus can do it for us.  More so, we should not ask anyone on earth to pray for us because we can go straight to Jesus and that we would be denying the truth of 1Tim2:5 (according to reformed theology).

    5.  Rev 6 does not refer to prayers for themselves.  If you read on you will see they are referring to the saints on earth.  When in heaven there is absolutely no need to pray for yourself because you have made it!  However, they can pray for those who are still fighting the good fight. 

    You are right to suggest that Rev 5:8 is a scene of heavenly worship.  The early church fathers have some interesting things to say about this mysterious book.  I don’t think you can deny that the elders (whoever they are) are presenting the prayers of the saints to the throne of God (intercession).  I don’t think this is at the end of time as time does not exist in heaven, nor does the text allow for that interpretation.  Verse 13 says…every creature in heaven and on earth….

    Thanks for the chat
    God bless

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