This third recorded saying of Jesus on the cross is only recorded by the apostle John: ‘But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.’ As we can see, there are really two sayings, one to Mary and one to John.
Whenever we look at the life of Jesus we see it was different from other lives. Often his actions seem to go from the extraordinary to the ordinary and back again. Speaking to his disciples about a hungry crowd numbering several thousand, he mentions their need of food – an ordinary assessment; then he proceeds to feed them all from a few loaves and fish – an extraordinary action. Travelling across the sea of Galilee on one occasion, we see that he is asleep because he is tired – an ordinary action; then he stands up and calms the storm – an extraordinary action. Here on the cross he has informed a dying criminal that he will enter Paradise – an extraordinary word of authority and comfort; he follows this announcement by ensuring that his mother was taken care off suitably – an ordinary request.
We are not told when Mary arrived in Jerusalem. No doubt she had been in the habit of attending the annual Passover. Probably she had been among ‘the women that followed him from Galilee’ (Luke 23:49). If that is the case, she has experienced a week of highs and lows, of pleasant moments when she saw Jesus respected and admired and perplexing occasions when he was abused and hated. And it is descending into an abyss of horror, at least from Mary’s perspective. Her firstborn son is not only dying, but dying a criminal’s death. Did her mind go back to what had been said to her at his birth by the angel Gabriel, about the greatness of the kingdom of her Son (Luke 1:26-33)? All that could go wrong seemed to be going wrong as far as a surface meaning was concerned. Yet, in fact, nothing was going wrong as far as God’s intentions for his Son and his work of salvation were concerned.
How many women does John refer to?
As we read John’s description in 19:25 it is possible to interpret it as referring to three women or to four women (only John mentions that Mary the mother of Jesus was there). If John means three women, they would be (1) Mary the mother of Jesus, (2) her sister Mary the wife of Clopas, and (3) Mary Magdalene. Against this view is the presence of the same name in the one family, which was highly improbable in a Jewish family. If John means four women, they would be (1) Mary the mother of Jesus, (2) her sister, (3) Mary the wife of Clopas, and (4) Mary Magdalene.
When we turn to the other Gospels we discover that at least one other woman was there: in Matthew 27:56 a woman at the cross is described as the mother of the sons of Zebedee (James and John) and in Mark 15:40 a woman at the cross is called Salome. This means that it is possible that the mother of James and John was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. If that is the case, then John was the nephew of Mary and the cousin of Jesus. This would explain at a practical level why John was asked to take care of Mary. The fact that John does not name his mother is actually a confirmation that she is intended, because throughout his Gospel John does not mention either himself or his family members by name.
It is very striking that the ones who are closest to Jesus physically at the cross are a group made up of several women and one man. Why were they there? The answer, I suspect, is straightforward. They loved the Sufferer and therefore were faithful to him. Sometimes we wonder how we can be faithful to Jesus in such a difficult day as ours is? Well, it is not yet as difficult as standing by the cross of shame in a literal way. But the steps of faithfulness to Jesus are governed by the strength of our love for Jesus and the enjoyment of his love for us.
A prediction fulfilled
We noticed in earlier studies with regard to the two previous sayings of Jesus on the cross that each was a fulfilment of prophecy. The first saying is connected to the prediction that the Messiah would make intercession for the transgressors and the second saying is connected to the prediction that he would be numbered with the transgressors. The third saying was also connected to a fulfilment, although the original prediction had been made after Jesus was born when Simeon, a man Mary met in the temple, told her that a sword would pierce her soul (Luke 2:35). Now it was happening. She was now experiencing that piercing – it was a mixture of grief, disappointment, bewilderment and tender love. Yet although she did not realise it at the time, the occasion of her greatest distress would also become the basis of her eternal comfort, through what her Son was doing on the cross.
A connection to Psalm 22
As we know, psalm 22 is a Messianic psalm, perhaps the most profound of them because it describes the agony of Jesus on the cross. Twice in the psalm Jesus refers to his mother: ‘Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God’ (vv. 9-10). Jesus needed God’s protection and provision at his birth when there were so many dangers around. Spurgeon comments that Jesus, now ‘fighting the great battle of his life, uses the mercy of his nativity as an argument with God’. One of the church fathers Eusebius commented that Jesus, as he surveyed his mangled body, looked back to the formation of it at his birth and comforted himself that the God who had originally provided it and honoured it by the indwelling of the Spirit, would yet make it, once it was immortal, the joy of the angels and the support of his people.
Select of the elect
The four women display their loyalty and love to the Saviour by remaining near to him as he was rejected by others. Their actions show bravery because it could be dangerous to be identified with a condemned criminal. In this they are an example to those who follow Jesus. No doubt their presence was a comfort to Jesus as he was hanging in pain on the cross.
But as Jesus looks at the group he selects one of them along with John who was standing near them. ‘Amidst the howling sea of evil passions with which his cross was encompassed, the dying eyes of the Saviour rested with a sense of profound relief on the little group of loyal and loving hearts. But it is especially told that his glances rested on his mother and his favourite disciple. These were the two dearest souls to him on earth, and his eyes lingered on them’ (Krummacher).
A term of affection
When Jesus calls Mary ‘Woman’, it is possible for us to regard it as not being a term of endearment because it is not the way that we would speak to our parents. But that is merely a cultural practice. When Jesus used this title of his mother he was not indicating distance but loving respect. A good translation would be ‘Dear woman’. We can see a similar way of speaking by him to Mary in John 2:4, in the account of the wedding in Cana.
A word of new direction
Yet as we look at the saying we should conclude that Jesus here seems to be telling Mary that from now on she would relate to him in a different way. It is hard not to see here something similar to what Jesus said about his family on a previous occasion: ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’ (Luke 8:21). Mary would now relate to Jesus as a member of the family of God and not as his mother. ‘But grace submits and is quiet; and what would have rent in pieces the mere heart of nature, is most loving, and tender, and soothing to the heart of grace. Mary receives it all with sweet acquiescence in the will of Jesus, and with grateful recognition of his thoughtful love in the hour of his agony. She goes meekly and promptly with John, as a mother now to him, and abides in his house, as a son now to her. John henceforth is her son; Jesus, her Son no more, is her Redeemer, her Lord, and her God’ (Moody Stuart). She and John, once Jesus’ physical relatives, would be his spiritual relatives for ever.
Supplied her physical and spiritual needs
Mary is now a middle-aged woman, probably in her early fifties. Over thirty years have passed since that wonderful day when the angel Gabriel told her that she would be the mother of the Messiah. It is likely that she has been a widow for a number of years. She needed to have someone to look after her. It seems that Jesus did not want his mother to see him die, because John says that he took Mary home at that time, and several hours were to pass before Jesus would expire. In this we see something of Jesus’ loving concern. But it was not merely a temporary arrangement, for she was to live with John for the rest of her life. One tradition says that Mary lived for twelve more years under the care of John.
For her spiritual needs, Jesus committed her to the care of the disciple he loved. The question naturally arises, ‘Why did Jesus not commit his mother to the care of her family?’ ‘This was doubtless because of their attitude to Jesus Christ, for at that time his brethren did not believe in him (John 7:5). Spiritual fitness called for the influence of the Apostle John, for the truest bond between men is sympathy with Christ. We are accustomed to say that “blood is thicker than water,” but we may add to this that “spirit is thicker than blood”. Our relation to Christ is the strongest element in life, and love to him is the determining factor which brings into play the truest human sympathies’ (Griffith Thomas). Jesus wanted his mother to live in an environment of spiritual love, where her soul would be cared for tenderly and graciously.
This was a high honour that was given to John. Jesus entrusted to him the care of Mary. This is a reminder that Jesus knows our character. Earlier in his Gospel John refers to those to whom Jesus would not commit himself or entrust himself. But it was different with John. Jesus expressed confidence that John would fulfil this role. No doubt, many years later, when John on entering heaven at his death heard from Jesus the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ part of it was for his care of Mary.
John’s first recorded act after the death of Jesus was the occasion when he and Peter went to the empty tomb (John 20:10). After discovering that it was empty, they went to their own homes. What a message John had for Mary that day! Her Son was alive, risen from the dead, no longer the apparent victim but now the mighty Victor. No doubt, in later years, they often reflected on what they had known and seen of Jesus. The fellowship between John and Mary and others would have been sweet.
We can ask ourselves this question: What is the best way of becoming a spiritual helper to other people? The answer is obvious: the person with the strongest spiritual hand will be the one who also leans most on the breast of Jesus. That was where John was often found (John 21:20), and from that precious position he was enabled to be strong for those in need. A heart occupied with Jesus will have hands ready to serve Jesus.
Obedience to the fifth commandment
As we look at the outlook and behaviour of Jesus on the cross we should be struck by his obedience to the law of God as expressed in his loving concern for his mother. In particular we see his observance of the fifth commandment, to honour one’s parents. This is another reminder of the perfection of Jesus.
We are already familiar with this but it is worth repeating. Jesus lived a holy life for several reasons. First, he lived for the glory of God. Second, he obeyed the law of God as the representative of his people. Third, he needed to have a perfect life in order to be accepted by God as the sacrifice for sin.
Wherever we look at the life of Jesus we see something attractive and beautiful. Often his obedience is presented through one of God’s commandments. On the cross he displayed this beautiful obedience in a number of ways. He showed his love to God by praying to him to forgive the soldiers, he showed his love to sinners by praying for the soldiers and forgiving the penitent criminal, and he showed his love to God and his law by honouring his mother. Truly the law of God was in his heart and even when he came to the time of greatest trial and darkness his love for that law came through.
This is a challenge for those who have elderly parents. One’s responsibility for them lasts as long as they are alive. Jesus has left us an example of following in his steps. He ensured that his mother would have the ideal physical and spiritual care after he was gone. His own sufferings did not relieve him of that duty and out of love to his Father’s law and his own mother he took care of her. Although on the cross he was engaged in the work that would redeem his people he found the time to provide for his mother.
Mary needed a Saviour
Mary went to Calvary as a sad mother. But her Son did not go there as a disappointed or frustrated Son. He went there in order to be his mother’s Saviour. Although she had unique privileges connected to her being the mother of Jesus she was still a sinner. She was not saved by what she did for Jesus but by what Jesus did for her. She had to trust in him as her personal Saviour in the same way as the penitent thief and the Roman soldiers. At the cross we are all equal. We are equal in our status as sinners, we are equal in our need of salvation, and we are equal in that we can only be saved by faith in Christ.