Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
“…Woman, behold they son! …Behold thy mother…”
Without a doubt the most difficult aspect of death is the severing of our earthly ties. When facing death God’s people often confess, “I’m not afraid to die; I’m ready to meet my Lord. But I like to remain for my wife or husband’s sake or for my children’s sake.” We know as the apostle Paul did that to depart and be with the Lord is far better, but those earthly relationships are so strong. Even Paul was in a strait betwixt two when he thought of these things. He wanted to be with the Lord, but he wanted to be with the Christians at Philippi too!
How true to our experience. When our loved ones are dying, we who remain behind are comforted by the gospel. We even pray with the dying that God will take them soon out of the suffering into His glory. And we are relieved when they are taken. We testify of our comfort and of God’s goodness.
But then! After the last viewing of the remains of our loved one, after the funeral service, and after the burial . . .then the finality of death hits us. It’s all over! My husband, my wife, my child, my parent, my friend is gone. The tie is forever broken!
Your whole life is changed! There is that terrible – always present – empty place! When you were married the minister said, “From now on you go down life’s pathway together.” But now, because of death, you go down life’s pathway alone! You never feel mother’s warm embrace again. You cannot seek your father’s wise counsel. You never hear the cheerful voice of your son or daughter!
That is the hardest part of death! Were it not for the hope of the gospel and the comforting mercies of God’s grace we simply could not endure that loss!
Also this aspect of death – the severing of earthly ties-Jesus bore. Jesus tasted death, our death, all of our death, all of its heartbreaking sorrows. Because He did, we have life and we have hope. Yes, we sorrow, but with a view to glory!
The text tells us that four women (among them Mary, Jesus’ mother) and John stood near to the cross. When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold thy son.” To John Jesus said, “Behold thy mother.” From that moment on John took Mary to his own home. Thus did Jesus sever the tie between Himself and His beloved mother!
Profound suffering this was for Jesus!
While the tie of mother and son may not be the most intimate, it is surely one of the strongest earthly relationships. A man’s wife may divorce him, but seldom does a mother lose her love for her son.
That is especially true of the relation between Jesus and Mary. From Mary’s viewpoint, this child was entirely her flesh and blood. According to His human nature, Jesus was her son and not Joseph’s. Not only so, Jesus had besides been a perfect child.
From Jesus’ viewpoint, He lived the life of a son in highest perfection of human love. Simply because He was the Son of God and therefore perfectly holy, Jesus was able to taste the love of motherhood and enter into the love of a son perfectly.
Now Jesus is on the cross. And from the cross He severs the tie with His mother and commits her to the care of John!
To death belongs the suffering of the severing of earthly ties. Husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, parents, children, friends, and loved ones – all these ties are broken forever by death. While all these relationships have significance, they are fleshly ties. And flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. In heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage. These earthly relationships end forever in death.
Thus it is with Jesus at this moment. The time for separation is at hand. His relationship with His mother must be severed. And it must be severed in order to be restored to the higher, heavenly relationship of the communion of the saints in glory.
Even so, this does not take away from the heart-rending and profound suffering involved for both Mary and Jesus.
Think of Mary, His mother! What a terrible grief must have flooded her soul. Her son, the one she loved so dearly, is hanging on a cross, bleeding, dying as the lowest and meanest of criminals. She does not understand why. To Mary the cross meant that her beloved Son, Jesus, is rejected and utterly defeated.
Jesus sees her suffering and grief. Jesus knows and is touched with the feeling of her infirmity. He is touched with the feeling of her agony at this apparently senseless and cruel death of her beloved son.
But, what is more, her suffering is His suffering!
More than it could possibly be hers!
Profound suffering this is for Jesus! Simply because He could taste the agonies of the suffering of death to the full as the perfect man. And to an eternal depth as the Person of the Son of God in our flesh.
Jesus suffers the wrath of God willingly. Consider what He might have done. He might have come down from that cross. His is all the power. Jesus’ human heart was filled with pain at the sight of His mother’s grief. He Himself felt the numbing pain of losing a loved one.
What a scene that would have been! Even if Jesus came down just for a moment, just for a brief embrace. Then He could return to the cross. That surely would have stopped the mouths of His enemies.
But no! Jesus could not leave that cross, not even for a moment. For then He would not have been about His Father’s business.
What Jesus does is speak! “Woman, behold thy son.” And to John, “Behold thy mother.”
This represents the willing surrender of his earthly sonship. Yes, He cared for His mother. And He commits her to the care of His beloved disciple. But, this Word from the cross reveals that also this aspect of death, the severing of Jesus’ earthly ties, is an act of His will. No one takes His life from Him. Jesus lays down His life for His sheep and bears the suffering of the severing of His earthly ties willingly. This too belongs to the atoning suffering of our Savior, the suffering that ends all the suffering of God’s children.
Note, Jesus addresses her as “woman.” He does this not out of disrespect or a lack of love for His mother. Yet, this Word is a firm denial that her motherhood may interfere with His suffering for the sins of God’s people. The earthly ties must serve the heavenly.
Woman, I am busy doing my Father’s will. For that reason I must now sacrifice my earthly ties, even that tie between us as mother and son. Behold thy son! It is fully determined of my Father that our relationship as mother and son must end. Look at John as thy son.
At the same time, this Word speaks of Jesus’ tender care for His mother.
His death leaves a terrible gap in her life. Jesus is not insensitive to her suffering and grief. To comfort her in her deep sorrow Jesus transfers His earthly sonship to the disciple whom He loved. He of all the disciples could best care for Mary. The Word of the cross in all of this? Marvelous comfort!
For Mary. For you!
For Mary? Mary too must sacrifice the earthly tie. Her beloved son dies and is gone. But Jesus dies and is gone exactly to arise from the dead as her Savior. Her Lord and her God!
For you? Jesus sacrificed all. He entered into every phase of your death, tasting death as He alone could taste it. Jesus did that in order to satisfy God’s justice and atone for your sins.
Jesus, this means, severed His earthly ties with His mother so that He could remove the sting of this aspect of death.
When we leave our loved ones in death, even that is not without hope. Death in this respect too is not the end. It’s only the way to that higher relationship of the communion of the saints in the glory of the Father’s house of many mansions.
You have lost your wife? Your husband? A father? Mother? Your son or daughter? You are lonely and you weep in the night? At times you can hardly bear the pain?
Jesus knows that! The footsteps of Jesus are in the valley of our deepest sorrows!
Those footsteps lead to glory! Fellowship with the Father and fellowship with all God’s saints!
In your sorrows pray to your merciful High Priest. Jesus will bring those prayers to God!
And God will wipe away all tears from your eyes.