Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18)
Is Mary the “Queen of Heaven” or an instrument to reveal the Gospel? How should we understand Mary? Recently Rowland Ward has outlined for us how the Roman Catholic Church has turned her traditional teachings about Mary into the authoritative teaching of the church [“Jesus and His Mother,” New Horizons (Dec. 2002): 6–7, 9]. According to Ward, there are four authoritative teachings that have emerged since 1854:
1) Mary, at the time of her conception, was preserved from the stain of original sin.
2) The church declared Mary “Mother of God,” “Mother of Heaven.” As such, like God, she becomes the source and bestower of grace; like God, she is also to be viewed as an object of worship.
3) The church declared that after Mary died, her body and soul were immediately joined together, and she was enthroned in heaven as queen.
4) The church declared Mary the “Mother of the Church.”
Presently, Ward reports that the Roman Catholic Church is looking into a fifth doctrine; Mary is coredeemer with Christ. If we stand in the tradition of our Reformed fathers, I think we would agree with Rowland Ward that a cultic religion about Mary has emerged in Roman Catholicism that has no connection to the teaching of Scripture. On the other hand, as children of the Reformation, we must be cautious not to overreact against the teachings of Roman Catholicism about Mary. We must be open to see how Biblical revelation is truly portraying her. I believe a key to that portrayal can be found in the manner Paul interprets Sarah’s life, the wife of Abraham (Galatians 4:21–31).
In ethnic Jewish history, there has been a tendency to elevate, isolate, and exalt Sarah to a position of prestige and honor. In effect, she is the epitome of the Hebrew woman. But the Holy Spirit does not direct Paul to be concerned with Sarah’s ethnic position of status in Hebrew history. Rather, Paul is concerned with what God is revealing through her life in the redemptive history! In contrast to the bondwoman Hagar, Sarah is the free woman, associated with the covenant of prom-ise—the heavenly city of Jerusalem (Zion).
Let me suggest that we follow this same principle of Biblical interpretation with respect to Mary! The Bible is not interested in elevating, isolating, or exalting Mary to any status that makes her complimentary to the activity of God. Nor is the Bible interested in making her an object of worship or a distributor of grace. Rather, Biblical revelation has a serious interest to teach us something about our relationship to the gospel through her! Let us say it plainly: the Bible is not interested in elevating Mary to a status that resembles deity; rather, like Sarah in the Old Testament, the Bible is interested in teaching us how Mary serves the revelation of the gospel to Christ’s church!
In order for us to grasp how Mary serves the revelation of the gospel to the church, we must understand the revelation of the gospel in Matthew’s birth narrative. We must keep in mind that the focus of Matthew is the coming of Immanuel; redemptive-history has been waiting for the presence of God (“God with us”) to dwell in all His power, glory, and righteousness in the midst of His people. Indeed, that day has come! Jesus, the Savior of sinners, has come both as priest and sacrifice for us! But Matthew also wants you to understand the immediate impact that Immanuel has upon the lives of those surrounding Christ’s birth!
Specifically, Mary and Joseph appear in Matthew’s gospel in order to show the incredible impact that the coming and presence of Christ has upon the lives of each person in the church. In Mary and Joseph you are to see your life in Christ. You are to note that as Christ comes into the world, lives change! Nothing is the same since Christ came!
There are at least two points we need to note in Mary’s life:
1) The placing of Christ by the Holy Spirit in Mary (incarnation) typifies the placing of Christ by the Holy Spirit in us as we are saved and are being saved (if you will, a “spiritual incarnation”).
2) In Mary, we have the posture of the church as we live in this world.
A Spiritual Incarnation
Returning to the first point, let us begin with a reminder that the incarnation is the eternal Son of God becoming flesh! How does this event occur? By the almighty power of the Holy Spirit placing Jesus in Mary! Now please follow my thinking on this: the Son of God is placed within Mary by the Holy Spirit! There is a parallel to this pattern in our relationship with Christ. How is Jesus placed in your heart? Jesus is in your heart because the Holy Spirit has placed Jesus in your heart! The Bible teaches that such an action is a birth process. Specifically, you are born from above; you are born of the Spirit of God. And who does the Spirit put in your heart through this birth process? Jesus, who saves you from your sins!
Are you capturing the pattern? What a glorious pattern it is! The way in which God redeems the sinner follows the same pattern as Christ’s incarnation! We can actually say that being born again in the Bible is a “spiritual incarnation”. Christ is brought to dwell in your heart through the power of the Holy Spirit! The pattern of the incarnation of Christ coming in history is extended by God’s sovereign grace to a “spiritual incarnation” of God saving us who are sinners in His sight! Herein lays God’s revelation to us through Mary! Mary is not only the chosen vessel of Christ’s incarnation in redemptive-history, but this incarnation is also a forecast of how God will spiritually transform each one of us in Christ’s church. Simply put, the Holy Spirit places Jesus in the inner confines of our being!
In drawing our attention to this parallel, I am not attempting to minimize or trivialize the profound and miraculous once-and-for-all event of the incarnation of Christ. As we know, there is absolutely no gospel without it! Indeed, Christ’s incarnation is the climax of the opening chapter in the entire New Testament canon. There is no forgiveness from sin, no new covenant, and no salvation without the incarnation of Christ! Christ must enter a fallen creation by the power of the Holy Spirit, born of a woman, if anyone is to be born from above!
A Picture of the Church
In the second place, Mary depicts the posture of the church as we live in this world! Mary is the picture of how we live in the process of our sanctification each day! What becomes extremely interesting to note is that in Matthew’s birth narrative Mary never speaks a word. She remains silent.
This silence is significant. Mary’s condition brings accusation; it brings the appearance of scandal and hideous sin each day. It brings an unjust charge. Mary does not rise up to defend herself against her accusers, against the appearance of scandal!
Once again you see the life of the church and your life in Mary! Immediately as the New Testament opens, God reveals in Mary how the church is called to live in a world of persecution and injustice. The theme covers the pages of the New Testament canon; the posture of Mary is the posture of Christ’s church as Christ’s church is the posture of the suffering Christ before His accusers at the crucifixion.
Indeed, Christ stood silent (I Peter 2:21–25). What recourse does Mary have? What sustains her in this time of false accusation and the appearance of scandal? How is she vindicated in a time of injustice? Is it not our human reaction to plead with Mary to speak on her own behalf? Indeed, she should defend herself since she is not guilty! Surely, it is a just act for her to justify herself! So why does Mary not speak? Let me suggest that the reason is because Mary is vindicated; she is sustained in the same way we are in the church! The power of the Holy Spirit has placed the presence of Christ within her. Only the presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit vindicates and sustains her.
Our own voice cannot vindicate us before our accusers; the essence of justice does not lie with the things that we say. The only way your daily walk is vindicated before your accusers is if the Spirit has placed the Christ in your heart. The living Christ that is within you is the sole means of vindication and justice against the wicked world. In Mary this great truth is driven home. Mary had the Christ within her; she needed nothing more. Christ is totally sufficient; her union with Christ vindicates her for eternity before her accusers. Herein lay the victory and contentment of our daily walk.
Dr. William D. Dennison is the Associate Professor of Interdiscplinary Studies at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia.