Mary is one of the most admired biblical figures. Her willingness to be a vessel for God's Messiah is inspirational, especially when you consider the confusion associated with a young, unmarried woman showing up pregnant—and the pain of watching your grown child be tried and crucified.
Here are three lessons we can learn from Mary's life.
1. Devotion is about obedience
Too often, we mistake religious feelings with devotion. But real devotion is about obedience. It's about being faithful to God and our conscience. We see this clearly in Mary's story:
"In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, 'Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.'
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.'
'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?'
The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.'
'I am the Lord's servant,' Mary answered. 'May your word to me be fulfilled.' Then the angel left her" (Luke 1:26–38).
Despite being greatly troubled at the words of this angel, Mary's response shows great faithfulness. She's not afraid to voice her questions, but in the end, she chooses obedience.
Like Mary, we don’t need to have all the answers to say, "I am the Lord’s servant." In fact, faith is all about stepping out in obedience even when we don't.
2. Sometimes obedience requires sacrifice
Mary was betrothed to Joseph when the angel, Gabriel, visited her. Her pregnancy caused some static with her fiancé. Joseph was considering sending her away when God intervened with a vision (Matthew 1:18–25). But this was only the beginning of the difficulties Mary would face.
When Joseph and Mary take the infant, Jesus, to be presented at the temple, they meet a man named Simeon. God had promised this righteous man that he'd live to see the Messiah, and because the Spirit prompts him, Simeon appears in time to hold Jesus.
Simeon prays a prayer of thanksgiving, and then he addresses Joseph and Mary:
"Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: 'This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too'" (Luke 2:34–35).
As Simeon prophesied, Jesus's ministry turns Jerusalem (and eventually the world) on its head. But his last comment hits close to home. For Jesus to fulfill his destiny, Mary would have to suffer.
Mary may have understood the role Jesus was meant to play, but she didn't understand the script. She probably heard the angel's words about all that Jesus would be and would accomplish, and presumed she knew what that looked like.
She probably didn't understand that Jerusalem's religious elite would turn against Him. She couldn't have guessed that what awaited Him was a cross and a borrowed grave. To her credit, Mary was there for her child's crucifixion—but, as Simeon told her, her soul was pierced through.
Sometimes walking with Jesus means walking down some scary paths. And it almost always requires some form of sacrifice—even when that sacrifice is simply giving up on the expectations you’ve been carrying.
3. Have faith that Jesus will come through
Before Jesus officially kicked off His ministry, Mary, Jesus, and some of His disciples went to a wedding in a town called Cana. The wedding ran out of wine early (a massive faux pas for a wedding reception), and Mary turned to Jesus.
Jesus' response was a noncommittal, "Why do you involve me? My time has not yet come" (John 2:4). But that didn't seem to trouble Mary. She just went to the servants and told them, "do whatever He tells you."
John explains what happened next:
“Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
"Jesus said to the servants, 'Fill the jars with water'; so they filled them to the brim.
"Then he told them, 'Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.'
"They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, 'Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now'" (John 2:6–10).
Sometimes you hear Jesus' response to Mary interpreted with a little bit of annoyance, but that doesn't seem to be the case. It reads more like he's testing her. But there isn't a moment when her faith that he's going to save the day falters.
This wine situation is important to the bride and groom, and it means a lot to Mary that they not be humiliated. She trusts that it’s important to Jesus, too.
We should demonstrate the same trust that what's important to us is important to Jesus, and have the faith to ask Him to intervene.
Simple obedience and faith
Mary demonstrates the power of pure faith. When you look at her accomplishments, it might not seem like she did very much. But her obedience changed the course of history. Sometimes the most profound thing we can do with our lives is to wholeheartedly say, "I am the Lord’s servant."
There are so many lessons we can learn from the lives of biblical characters. If you're interested in learning more, read 3 Lessons from John the Baptist.
All scripture references quote the New International Version unless otherwise noted.