God entered the human race as a human being to begin a great reversal. He died to pay our penalty for our sins, but he also lived and walked the paths of Galilee and Judea to overturn the kinds of hierarchies that destroy lives and hinder God’s purposes. He was clear that “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matt. 19:30). Again and again throughout the Gospels, we hear him denounce human assumptions about power and dominance. He was consistently clear: Leadership is from the bottom, not from the top. We lead as we serve.

Among the hierarchies Jesus overturned was the gender-based hierarchy dominating life in Israel. He showed his followers a radically different way of relating to women.

Capable students, faithful witnesses

Watch Jesus, for example, in John 4 as he deliberately planned his journey in order to encounter a despised woman in Samaria. He shocked the woman at the town well by speaking to her and then by actually drinking water from her cup. When his followers returned from town with some food, they were astonished that he would talk to such a person (v. 27). But even though the woman was an outcast in her town, her testimony to town leaders was so powerful that they also came out to meet Jesus. Ultimately, at their invitation, Jesus stayed for two more days to teach the people, many of whom became his followers. Jesus empowered a despised woman to become a vehicle for evangelizing that community.

Or think of the shock to his followers when Jesus not only allowed Mary of Bethany to sit at his feet and learn (in the posture typical of rabbinic students), but even encouraged her to do so (Luke 10:38–42). Rabbi Eliezer had declared, “If any man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law, it is as though he taught her lechery” (m. Sotah 3:4). Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem had taught, “He who talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehenna” (m. Avot 1:5). In the eyes of many Jews, not only was teaching theology to a woman not necessary; it was downright wrong.

In New Testament Judaism as practiced by the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, women were held responsible for the evil in the world. For that reason, they were strictly segregated from the social and religious life of their communities. Religious men considered them inferior and unteachable. But Jesus overturned that false hierarchy.

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Jesus had come to fulfill the law, not to annul it. In Deuteronomy 31:12, the law stated, “Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law.” Women, children, and even foreigners had a right, even an obligation, to listen to and obey God’s law. Any hierarchy impeding this right was against God’s purposes. When Jesus encouraged Mary of Bethany to take the role of a disciple, he revealed a lot about his view of women: They are intelligent persons who can understand his teachings as well as men can.

In Luke 10, Mary’s sister, Martha, was in the kitchen preparing food, in contrast to Mary, who was sitting at Jesus’ feet. In John 11, however, we encounter Jesus talking with Martha when her brother had died. We watch Martha rise to the highest level of faith in all of John’s gospel when she said, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (v. 27). In this one statement, it’s clear she understood three fundamental things about Jesus: (1) he was “Lord”; (2) he was the “Christ” (Messiah); and (3) he was divine (the Son of God), with a divine purpose in the world. John stated that the entire Gospel had been written so others may believe “that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). It is the woman Martha who saw most clearly Jesus’ purpose and ministry.

Redeemed and welcome

Even more shocking in his day was Jesus’ willingness to redeem prostitutes. Luke narrates a dinner party held by Simon the Pharisee. While they were at the table eating, a woman of the streets came to Simon’s house, found where Jesus reclined at the dinner table, came up behind him, and began to pour perfume on his feet (Luke 7:37–38). Of course, Simon was shocked that Jesus would allow such unseemly behavior! In the ensuing conversation, Jesus told one of his little story gems about two debtors and their attitudes toward the moneylender when the debts were forgiven. From that, Jesus drew a parallel between the woman’s and Simon’s treatment of him as guest in the house. Then turning to the woman, he said, “Your sins are forgiven . . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (vv. 48, 50). The Pharisees watching the prostitute anoint Jesus saw only a fallen, unredeemable woman; Jesus saw only a repentant sinner whose sins he forgave.

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In another conversation with the chief priests and elders in the Jerusalem temple, Jesus shocked them by saying, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (Matt. 21:31–32). Jesus overturned their notions of who could or could not enter God’s kingdom.

Messenger of the Resurrection

Of all the women mentioned in the Gospels, Mary Magdalene is mentioned most often (14 times). From Luke 8:1–3, we know that Jesus delivered her from the power of seven demons and that she was part of the group of women who traveled with Jesus and the disciples itinerantly all over Galilee and back and forth to Jerusalem in the southern part of Palestine for the national feasts. We also know she was at the cross during Jesus’ execution; she was present when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus hastily placed Jesus’ body in the tomb; and she was one of the first at the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body when the Sabbath ended. We also know she was the first to be commissioned by Jesus as a messenger of his resurrection: “Go instead to my brothers and tell them …” (John 20:17). This function of “witness to the resurrection” later became a favorite way to designate the apostles (Acts 1:22; 2:32). It was the reward for a loyal female disciple that Jesus entrusted her with the most powerful message: Go and tell my disciples that I’m no longer dead. It’s not surprising that the church fathers called her “the apostle to the apostles.”

Jewish rabbinic law held that the testimony of 100 women is not equal to that of one man. Yet women were the ones who consistently stayed with Christ through his agony and death on the cross and later were first at the empty tomb. If a woman’s testimony was to be discounted, why did Jesus choose to appear first to a woman after his resurrection and send her as his messenger to the male disciples?

Paradigms of discipleship

Compared to other literary works from the first century, the Gospels have a relatively high number of references to women. What is even more remarkable is that in Jesus’ actions, there is not a single case in which a woman is put down, reproached, humiliated, or cast into one of the lewd stereotypes of that day.

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Unlike other men, Jesus spoke freely to women in public. He taught theology to women. He had women as disciples or followers. He was clear that women would be active participants in the work of his kingdom. As we watch Jesus move through the Gospels, we see him take a firmly countercultural stand on many issues because his mission was to oppose all that violated the will of God. Again and again, we see him base his definition of persons and his directives for male/female relationships in God’s creational purposes in Genesis 1 and 2.

As we look at these and other women in the Gospels, we note that they are presented positively. No woman is shown resisting his initiative, failing to believe, deserting him, or betraying him. This is in sharp contrast to the way John presented men in his gospel. Among even the Twelve there were evidences of hypocrisy (John 12:4–5), vanity (13:37), fickleness (13:38; 16:31–32), obtuseness (3:10; 16:18), deliberate unbelief (9:24–25), and thorough evil (13:2, 27–30).

Because of their faith, their understanding, and their fidelity, women were often paradigms of discipleship for the men who lacked these qualities. In contrast to first-century religious leaders, Jesus affirmed women as whole persons with both the privilege and responsibility to follow him. Jesus came “to proclaim good news to the poor … to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). That included women and the gender-based hierarchies dominating their lives. Jesus’ actions and teachings delivered a strong counterpunch to the patriarchal ideas rampant in that culture.

Alice Mathews (PhD, Iliff School of Theology/University of Denver) is the Lois W. Bennett Distinguished Professor Emerita and former academic dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She is the author of Gender Roles and the People of God: Rethinking What We Were Taught About Men and Women in the Church. Adapted from Gender Roles and the People of God by Alice Mathews. Copyright © 2017 by Alice P. Mathews. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.