Jesus is Good to Women
JESUS FLIPS THE SCRIPT
When sleeping women wake, mountains move.
Women During New Testament Times
Included in conservative Jewish prayer books is a threefold daily prayer: “Praised be God that he has not created me a gentile! Praised be God that he has not created me a woman! Praised be God that he has not created me an ignoramus!” (Tosephta Berakoth 7:18). Bearing children for her husband, especially boys, defined a woman’s primary goal during Bible times.1 In modern day, North American Christianity, most do not understand the emphasis and value of bearing sons. Young adults in the U.S. are choosing to marry later. Pictures on social media of gender reveal parties of pregnant mom’s and their doting husbands show equal responses of unbridled joy at learning whether the baby is a boy or girl. But still today, in other countries like China, India, and Pakistan we read of female infanticide, the practice of selectively aborting female fetuses, and the same cultural valuing of boys over girls.2
During the time of the Bible a woman’s worth and honor centered on having many children (Deut. 25:5-10) and childlessness was viewed as a curse (Gen 29:21-30:24).3 As stated in Leviticus 27:1-8, women were worth half the amount of men. So a male child was welcomed more than a female.4 Considered as property in Hebrew society, women held a secondary position legally.5 Jewish women did not have access to the inner courts of worship in the Temple. Extra biblical sources explain how women could not read or speak in the synagogue; but could sit and listen in the special women’s section.6 Judaism did not have regard for the witness of a woman.7 Girls were excluded from admission to formal rabbinic schools.8 With the value of sons over daughters, few places to receive formal education, and strong cultural restrictions for women, it is no wonder the men thanked God morning, noon, and night for not creating them as a woman.
Jesus Challenges the Status Quo
Jesus completely flips the script as He welcomes women and restores their dignity and worth. He understands His purposes and plans to spread the gospel and make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20) includes, and will not take place, apart from the involvement and contribution of women. Whereas the culture of the time largely discounted women, Jesus did exactly the opposite. Nowhere in the Scriptures do we find an instance where Jesus belittles, yells at, shames, or harasses a woman. He treats women with kindness and respect. He does not shy away from speaking truth, but does so in an honorable way. Jesus is good to women. The following snap shots offer a few examples of how Jesus related to women and how His interactions contrasted with societal and cultural norms. Jesus initiates and crosses cultural barriers with the Samaritan woman. He invites women like Mary of Bethany to learn from Him. He gratefully receives financial support from women like Mary Magdalene. He seeks out, values, and honors women. Jesus’ words, attitude, and actions demonstrated the opposite of what society modeled and taught about women.
The circumstances surrounding Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well are both significant and noteworthy. Rather than taking the eastern route from Judea to Galilee, most often taken by Jews because of their hatred for the Samaritans, Jesus had to pass through Samaria (v4, emphasis mine). John records the longest private conversation Jesus has with anyone in the New Testament in John 4:4-42.
Jesus broke through several cultural and gender barriers. According to Jewish teaching, Samaritans were hated half-breeds and unclean. Jews, who remained in Palestine after the Assyrians defeated Israel, married with Assyrian settlers which violated God’s Law. The Samaritans built their own temple and sacrificed animals and worshiped God on Mount Gerizim. The Jews who returned from Exile despised the Samaritans.9 For centuries hostility reigned between the Samaritans and Jews.
Speaking to women in public was warned against in Jewish culture. Speaking to a Samaritan woman would have been especially avoided.10 Jesus’ disciples marveled (other translations use: wondered, surprised, and amazed), their religious teacher and leader spoke with a Samaritan woman in public (v27).
Jesus arrives in Sychar and the disciples went into town to look for food (v8). Tired and thirsty from the journey, Jesus initiates a conversation and asks a Samaritan woman for a drink from Jacob’s well (v7). The woman is surprised by the request, as Jews did not use dishes used by Samaritans. A Rabbinic law of A.D. 66 stated Samaritan women were considered as continually menstruating and therefore unclean. Anyone who drank from a Samaritan woman’s vessel would be declared ceremonially unclean.11
Though most scholars have concluded the Samaritan woman lived an immoral life as an adulteress, it is interesting to note Jesus does not instruct her to “sin no more” as He does to the woman caught in adultery in John 8:11. It is unlikely she would be divorced five times for adultery, as no man would marry a convicted adulteress. No evidence of anyone divorcing five times exists in the ancient world.12 We are not told how her circumstances brought her to the place of having had five husbands. They may have been tragic with multiple losses and unexpected widowhood. Jesus’ knowledge of the woman having five husbands demonstrated divine, prophetic character. Regardless of people’s different views on the woman’s conduct, we see Jesus offering her living water and life eternal (v10, 14).
The conversation that takes place between the woman and Jesus reflects God’s desire for all to hear about Messiah. We are also shown an example of Jesus engaging a woman discussing deep theological truths. The woman sees an ethnic barrier (v9), the disciples see a barrier based on gender (v27), Jesus moves past these barriers and teaches salvation is for anyone who accepts His offer of living water (vv13-15). He teaches on the nature of God (v21-24) and clarifies where misunderstandings or lack of knowledge exist (v22). The woman is inquisitive and knowledgeable of a Messiah who will declare all things (v25). And here John records the first person Jesus openly reveals Himself as Messiah: the Samaritan woman at the well. (v26). Her immediate response is to go and tell the people in her city about Jesus and many believed because of her testimony (v39).
We learn through the Samaritan woman at the well that Jesus initiates with women, crosses cultural barriers, and offers the living water of eternal life to all who believe in Him.
More than sister to Martha and Lazarus and avoider of household chores (Luke 10:40), Mary of Bethany serves as an important example of Jesus’ invitation for women to be learners and participants in discipleship and kingdom building. When Luke describes Mary “listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet” (v39) he is describing what disciples did in the first century. This posture of a woman as a disciple would have shocked most Jewish men. Serious disciples prepared to be teachers and women were not allowed to participate as such.13 Paul uses this same phrasing where he uses the expression “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3 KJV) when describing his educational pedigree studying under the renowned rabbi, Gamaleil. Rather than limiting His teaching exclusively to men, Jesus teaches women. His investment in women yields personal blessing.
As Jesus’ disciple and one who experienced first hand the miracle of having her brother raised from the dead, Mary knew God’s power (John 11:38-44). She also paid close attention to what Jesus taught and understood He was God. At the last supper in Bethany, six days before the Passover, Mary anoints Jesus for His burial with costly perfume (John 12:1-8). The companionship Jesus shared with Mary and her siblings was a source of support as He faced the upcoming challenge of the cross.14 Mary, through her lavish act of devotion, ministers to Jesus and she demonstrates an understanding of what Jesus had tried to convey to the disciples earlier about going up to Jerusalem and dying at the hands of the Gentiles and rising again on the third day (Mark 10:33-34). The men responded with trying to jockey for positions of honor (Mark 10:35-41) and Peter even rebukes Jesus (Matt. 16:21-23). Mary alone encourages Jesus to obey the Father and follow through on what the Father had revealed. In the following days, the fading smell of the perfume and Mary’s fierce loyalty served as a reminder to our Lord that He was not alone.
Jesus commands His followers in the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20). This command is for both men and women, and all are charged with receiving instruction and learning God’s will through the Scriptures. Jesus’ inclusion of women in both discipleship and ministry seemed scandalous to the society at that time, but actually restored the original picture God had in mind at the initial creation of man and woman. Together men and women were to co-labor as God’s image bearers to rule God’s creation (Gen. 1:26-28).
We learn from Mary from Bethany the importance of focusing on Jesus and His teachings, that theology precedes action, and the participation of women in discipleship and ministry is what God had in mind when He created men and women.
Leadership and Love
Mary from Magdala in Galilee, also known as Mary Magdalene, is described as having seven demons cast out of her.15 Mentioned in all gospel accounts, Mary is mentioned 13 times in the New Testament. She is listed first in the synoptic gospels when the authors mention a loyal group of Jesus’ women disciples (Matt.27:55, Mark 15:40-41, Luke 8:2). John devotes 18 verses in his gospel describing the resurrection of Jesus and Mary being the first one to see the risen Christ. She is highly regarded and nowhere in the scriptures do we find an association of her with the life of a former prostitute.
In Luke 8: 1-3 we read of the group of women who identified as Jesus’ disciples, listed first is Mary Magdalene. The women mentioned are parallel with the Twelve in grammatical structure as both use the same phrase “with Jesus.”16 This inclusion of women in ministry as disciples of a great master was unusual in first century Palestine.17
Significant and noteworthy is Jesus willingly receiving monetary support from these women. They contributed to the support of Jesus and the Twelve through their private means (v3). This is another example of opposites as the traditional role of the man as provider is reversed.18
The deep devotion of Mary Magdalene is seen as the disciples leave the empty tomb and return home, leaving Mary crying outside the tomb (John 20:10-14). The greatest honor bestowed on Mary Magdalene was being the first to see the resurrected Christ. God’s choice of a woman as first witness actually lends greater credibility to the narrative historicity of the Resurrection. No Jewish author in the ancient world would use a woman as a first witness to this critical event.19 Jesus’ choice to appear to the women underscores the value and worth of women to be worthy of the privilege of bearing witness to the Resurrected Christ and restores women in the community of faith as having equal status with men. The women, compared to the men, were more prominent in care, courage and love after the crucifixion.20 They never deserted Jesus and remained faithful. God chose to bestow this special honor on women for being exemplary disciples.21
We learn from Mary Magdalene that Jesus welcomed the participation of women and received monetary gifts, and He honors those who follow Him wholeheartedly.
Implications and Applications
Through these examples of the woman at the well, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene, we see how Jesus included women in discipleship and ministry, and in doing so broke down gender, social, economic, and spiritual barriers. Jesus saw in the Samaritan woman at the well the positive potential to influence for good. Education and discipleship for Mary of Bethany shaped her understanding of God’s purposes and she ministered to Jesus at a critical time as He set out to give His life a ransom for many. By welcoming Mary Magdalene to participate in kingdom work, as Jesus did, we see how changed lives can change the world. Jesus restored dignity to women during a time when women often were overlooked, and treated poorly.
So where do we go from here? One practical application we can implement from these examples is doing all we can to help educate women around the world. Study after study has shown educating girls fights poverty.22 We can begin with helping support and advocate for girls in developing nations to stay in school. Having an education and learning to read will open up opportunities for better jobs and improved living situations. With literacy comes the ability to read God’s Word and to learn of God’s character and will.
For those of us in North America my strong encouragement is to invest in a robust study of God’s Word on an individual level and in community. If you have never read through the entire bible, I want to challenge you to make it a goal. You don’t have to read it all in a year’s time. Just keep reading until you are done. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of knowing the entire arc of the Bible. We live in an increasingly biblically illiterate generation. And I want to encourage you to use an actual physical bible and flip the pages so you can learn how the books of the bible fit together and be able to find references without reliance on google searches.
As you read, be asking, “What does this passage teach me about God? What do I learn about His will, His heart, His ways, what He loves, what He hates.” Notice the different names of God. We are also live in an increasingly narcissistic generation of selfies and often we approach the bible with, “What does this passage tell me about me? What does this mean for me?” Don’t approach the bible like reading a fortune cookie or horoscope. Turn your gaze off yourself and turn it to our God and King. Let the bible be your primary source of spiritual nourishment. No other book is described as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrew 4:12). God reveals Himself through creation and sometimes through other people, but things created only give a partial picture. It’s like studying a famous painting, we can appreciate and perceive certain nuances of the artist by looking at his or her work, but hearing directly from the artist with regard to the thoughts and motivations behind each masterpiece is the only way to truly understand the artist. God gifted us with the Bible in order for us to know who He is.
God gave us the bible not so we could know it, but that we could know and love God through it.
Too often women’s ministry “dumbs down” and Scripture is referenced only on mugs or stationary using out of context bible verses. Let’s be about changing our focus. Learn basic bible study methods, read widely and consistently. Let’s become a new generation of biblically grounded women ready to be unleashed to impact our neighborhoods, workplaces and communities for the kingdom.
I also want to address the women who are considering formal training and education. Women often feel intimidated thinking about attending seminary, especially because it is so male dominated. One suggestion would be to encourage small groups or cohorts of women to take a class together. The camaraderie of being together and learning together could help ease the transition back into the classroom. Often the option seems out of reach until women see other women participating. In my own life, due to time constraints and travel schedule, at times I have not been able to take seminary classes at the physical location and have taken online classes or even a hybrid of some in person and mostly online. The amount of resources we have available to us is staggering. Take advantage of the tools God provides and even the ability you possess to read. God has entrusted to you the gift of literacy. I highly recommend investing in classes to help you learn to study God’s word.
Seeing the untapped potential for women engaged in missions, discipleship and ministry is both motivating and discouraging. The possibilities are endless as women are educated and equipped. Culture and traditions can feel limiting for women and that is where discouragement lies. But I believe with every fiber in my body God invites women to participate in His Kingdom work.
Jesus’ example and high view of women turned the tide and opened up opportunities for women to learn and engage. May we follow His lead by including and welcoming the contributions of women.
What is something new you learned about first century culture?
Who do you relate to most from this chapter (the Samaritan woman at the well, Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene) and why?
1 J I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney, and William White, eds., The Bible Almanac, ed. J I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney, and William White (Nashville: T. Nelson, ©1980), 413.
2 Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, New York Times Best Sellers. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), xv-xvii.
3 Colin Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, ©1975-1978), 1055
4 Packer, Tenney, White, The Bible Almanac, 420.
5 Charles F. Pfeiffer, Howard Frederic Vos, and John Rea, The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), 1817.
6 Packer, Tenney, White, The Bible Almanac, 422.
7 Craig S. Keener, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©1993), 274.
8 Robert L. Saucy and Judy TenElshof, eds., Women and Men in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective (Chicago: Moody Press, ©2001), 99.
9 Packer, Tenney, White, The Bible Almanac, 509.
10 Craig S. Keener, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©1993), 272.
11 John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, ©1983-©19), 285.
12 Lynn Cohick, “Was the Samaritan Woman Really An Adultress,” Christianity Today, October 12, 2015. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/october/was-samaritan-woman-really-adulteress.html(accessed November 14, 2017).
13 Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, 218.
14 Saucy, TenElshof, Women and Men in Ministry, 108.
15 Packer, Tenney, White, The Bible Almanac, 652.
16 Saucy, TenElshof, Women and Men in Ministry, 102.
17 Ibid., 103.
18 Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1058.
19 Walvoord, Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 342.
20 Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1059.
21 Saucy, TenElshof, Women and Men in Ministry, 111.
22 Kristoff, WuDunn, Half the Sky, 169.