We all have seven mothers, according to Scripture. Besides our birth mothers, there are at least six individuals or entities the Bible describes as a “mother” to God’s people: Eve, the earth, the church, pastors, Christ, and God himself. Each example has theological implications.
Scripture describes Eve as “the mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20). In Hebrew, she is havah, the source of breath, the life-giver for humanity. Given that her main achievement at this point is eating the forbidden fruit and passing it to her husband, that is a fairly remarkable statement, but her name is given as a promise of hope. Adam is a dust-man, whose sin brings death. Eve is a life-woman, whose seed will make war on the Serpent and crush its head.
Later on, the Old Testament introduces another mother reference: Job’s statement that he will “return” naked to his mother’s womb (1:21, ESV). As Jonathan Edwards noted three centuries ago, this cannot be his biological mother; it must instead be “the bowels of his mother earth, out of which every man is made.” Today, the idea of Mother Earth sounds pagan to our ears. In many contexts it is. But it has deep biblical roots, and not just in Job. Paul later described creation as a mother in childbirth, laboring to bring forth the new world where our bodies are redeemed and the curse is lifted (Rom. 8:22).
Elsewhere, Paul makes the most explicit maternal connection in Scripture: “The Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother” (Gal. 4:26). This is a famously dense statement. It comes as Paul is exploring multiple layers of connection between Ishmael and Isaac, Hagar and Sarah, Sinai and Zion, flesh and promise, slavery and freedom. At its heart, however, is a simple contrast. If we long to be under the law, we are acting like slaves—like Hagar’s son Ishmael, conceived naturally through the flesh. But we are children of Sarah, like Isaac, conceived supernaturally through God’s promise. Our mother is a freeborn woman—the Jerusalem that is above, the church—which means we are free too. The North African bishop Cyprian of Carthage saw the implications: “He cannot have God for his father who has not the Church as mother.”
That is a corporate image, but there is an individual dimension as well. In the preceding verses, Paul presents himself as a mother to the Galatians: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” (Gal. 4:19). To the Thessalonians he wrote, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you” (1 Thess. 2:7–8). As much as Paul characterized himself and his fellow pastors as fathers, protecting and training their children, he also employed maternal imagery like labor, breastfeeding, and nurture. In that sense, our “mothers” are our pastors: those who bring us to birth in the gospel, care for us when we are sick, and feed us when we are hungry.
Viewed from yet another angle, our mother is the Lord Jesus Christ. He says so himself: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34). Anselm is beautiful on this: “Christ, my mother, you gather your chickens under your wings. … For by your gentleness the badly frightened are comforted, by your sweet smell the despairing are revived, your warmth gives life to the dead, your touch justifies sinners.”
Finally, and most powerfully, our “mother” is God the Father. Few passages in Scripture are more emotionally resonant than Isaiah 49:15–16: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.” As we know, God is addressed as “Father” throughout the New Testament (including by Jesus), and that is rightly how the church has always referred to him. But no image better expresses God’s compassion for his people than a nursing mother, cradling her newborn and promising lifelong devotion.
May we all honor our father and mothers.
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and the author of God of All Things. Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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