Mary Magdalene. The name conjures all sorts of modern misconceptions. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code portrays Mary as the secret wife of Jesus who mothered His descendants which later emigrated to the south of France. That book may have earned him a lot of money but it still inhabits the fiction shelves of bookstores. And with good reason—Brown’s plot twists are actually borrowed lies that were refuted long ago.
God’s Word, on the other hand, remains an unshakable and unchangeable source of truth. It stands as the only reliable testimony to the life of Mary Magdalene. The real Mary was a woman who had been delivered from the relentless torment of demonic possession. Christ miraculously rescued her from her horrendous spiritual captivity, and she remained faithfully devoted to Him. In fact, even when the other disciples fled from Christ in His darkest hour, she remained faithful.
An Eyewitness of the Crucifixion
Matthew, Mark, and John all record that Mary Magdalene was present at the crucifixion. Combining all three accounts, it is clear that she stood with Mary (the mother of Jesus), Salome (mother of the apostles James and John), and another Mary (mother of James the Less and Joses).
John, describing the scene at the crucifixion, said the women were “standing by the cross” (John 19:25). They were close enough to hear Jesus speak to John and His mother when He committed her to the beloved disciple’s care (John 19:26–27).
Mary Magdalene and the other women remained near the cross until the bitter end. There was nothing for them to do but watch and pray and grieve. It must have seemed the greatest possible disaster, to have the One whom they loved and trusted above all torn from their midst so violently. There they stood, in a crowd of bloodthirsty fanatics who were screaming for the death of their beloved Lord. With the mad furor of hatred at the very pinnacle of intensity, they could easily have become victims of the mob. But they never shrank away completely. Such was the magnetism of their loyalty and love for Christ.
In fact, it was only thanks to Mary Magdalene that the disciples even learned where Jesus’ body was laid after His death. Mark records that Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Christ in order to give it a proper burial. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses secretly followed Joseph to the tomb and “were looking on to see where He was laid” (Mark 15:47).
Mary Magdalene’s love for Christ was as strong as anyone’s. She took note of where and how He had been laid in the tomb. After all He had done for her, it must have broken her heart to see His lifeless, mangled body so poorly prepared and laid in a cold tomb. She was determined to wash and anoint His body properly. So Luke 23:55–56 says she and the other Mary began the preparation of their own burial spices before the Sabbath began. Mark 16:1 adds that they purchased still more spices as soon as the Sabbath was officially over (sundown on Saturday). In spite of their deep grief, they earnestly desired to give the Lord a burial befitting His greatness and their profound love for Him.
The First Witness of the Resurrection
Mary Magdalene had remained longer than any other disciple at the cross. She was also the first to reach His tomb at daybreak on the first day of the week. Her devotion was never more plain than in her response to His death, and that devotion was about to be rewarded.
There was evidently no thought of resurrection in Mary Magdalene’s mind. She had seen up close the devastating effects of the bitter blows Jesus received on the way to the cross. She had witnessed firsthand as His life ebbed from Him. She had watched as His lifeless body was unceremoniously wrapped in linen along with hastily prepared ointment and left alone in the tomb. The one thought that filled her heart was a desire to do properly what she had seen done so hurriedly and haphazardly. She thought she was coming to the tomb for one final expression of love to her Master—to whom she knew she owed everything.
The apostle John, himself an eyewitness to some of the dramatic events of that morning, gives the best description:
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. . . . But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” (John 20:1–3,11–13).
Matthew 28:2 records that the rolling away of the stone was accompanied by “a severe earthquake.” We also know from Matthew and Mark that at least two other women (“the other Mary” and Salome) had come to help. They had discussed the difficulty of rolling the great stone (a massive wheel-shaped slab that rested in a trough) away from the mouth of the tomb, but by the time they arrived, the stone was already rolled away.
Mark 16:5 and Luke 24:3 both say the women went inside the sepulchre and found it empty. Mary Magdalene’s first inclination was to assume that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. She immediately ran out of the tomb and back up the same trail she had come from, apparently planning to go for help. Before running far, though, she encountered Peter and John, on their way to the burial site. She breathlessly told them about the empty tomb, and they both took off running to see for themselves. There Peter found the empty grave clothes and a headpiece folded and set aside. John joined him inside the tomb. Seeing the grave clothes still intact but empty was enough, John says, for him to believe. He and Peter left the scene immediately (Luke 24:12). It was probably at that point that the other women went into the tomb again to see for themselves (Mark 16:4).
Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene, overwrought with the new grief of thinking someone had stolen the body, remained outside the tomb alone. She stooped to peer in, and it was then that two angels appeared inside the tomb (John 20:12). Only one of the angels spoke. To the women inside the tomb, he said, “He is not here, for He has risen” (Matthew 28:6; see Mark 16:6; Luke 24:6). Then the angel instructed them, “Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead” (Matthew 28:7). Those women then “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy” (Matthew 28:8).
Mary seemed to have remained outside the tomb, still disconsolate over the missing body. Evidently she had taken no notice of the empty grave clothes. It seems clear that she had neither heard the angel’s triumphant news, nor did she understand how elated Peter and John were when they left the tomb. The angel came and spoke directly to her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20:13). Through her broken-hearted sobs, Mary replied, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him” (John 20:13).
It was then that she turned and saw Jesus. At first, through her tear-filled eyes, she did not recognize Him at all. His countenance was different—glorified.
Jesus spoke: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” (John 20:15). Mary, thinking He was the gardener, pleaded with Him to show her where they had taken the body of Christ. “Mary.” At the sound of her name she finally recognized that strangely familiar voice.
Mary’s grief instantly turned to inexpressible joy (John 20:16), and she embraced Him as if she would never let Him go. Jesus’ words, “Stop clinging to Me” (John 20:17), testified in a unique way to the extraordinary character of Mary Magdalene. Most of us are too much like the apostle Thomas—hesitant, pessimistic. Jesus urged Thomas to touch Him, in order to verify Jesus’ identity (John 20:27). It is remarkable and sad—but true—that most of Jesus’ disciples, especially in this postmodern age, constantly need to be coaxed nearer to Him. Mary, by contrast, did not want to let go.
Jesus thus conferred on her a unique and unparalleled honor allowing her to be the first to see and hear Him after His resurrection. Others had already heard and believed the glad news from the mouth of an angel. Mary got to hear it first from Jesus Himself.
God is glorified when He redeems the worst of sinners and uses them for the greatest of purposes. Mary Magdalene stands out in Scripture as a shining example of that. She was rescued by Christ from the hopeless bondage of seven demons. And she was chosen by the Lord to be the first person on the planet to see and hear her resurrected Lord.
That was her extraordinary legacy. No one can ever share that honor or take it from her. But we can, and should, seek to imitate her deep love for Christ. Be comforted in the knowledge that God derives greater glory and we develop deeper gratitude when He intervenes in the most hopeless situations.