Yesterday, I preached on Mark 3:20-35, paying close attention to the response by Mary and Jesus’ brothers to the growing popularity, and controversy, of Jesus’ ministry. After the service, someone asked a good question: “How could Mary doubt—considering all the events surrounding Jesus’ miraculous birth?” Did she forget the virginal conception, the annunciation by Gabriel, the testimony by Elizabeth, and the words of the shepherds that she treasured in her heart?
Are we tempted to imagine that if only we had had such a profound spiritual experience, faith would come easier to us?
Well, I am… Even though it flies in the face of the testimony of scripture. Even in yesterday’s scripture, after all, please notice that the legal experts from Jerusalem don’t deny that Jesus is performing his miraculous signs. They’re only denying the power by which he’s able to do it. At the end of John 2, we’re told that “many believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs that he did” (John 2:23), Nicodemus among them (3:2). As Jesus makes clear to this earnest Pharisee, however, it’s possible to see without really seeing. Miracles alone are insufficient basis for saving faith.
Consider “doubting” Thomas. It’s true that he didn’t witness Jesus’ resurrection on that first Easter Sunday, but how many other miracles did he see (including the raising of Lazarus not long before Easter)? How many profound spiritual experiences does one person need?
Why should the mother of our Lord be any different?
In his commentary on the text, Donald English, a British Methodist scholar, writes the following:
A more difficult problem is how Mary who, according to the stories in early chapters of Luke and Matthew, had gone through such unforgettable experiences, should now be with those trying to take him home. Such difficulties, however, arise only if one is determined not to let her be what she probably was, a simple Hebrew maid ‘engraced’ by God. How could she understand all that was involved? Why should she not have shared the view of those around her about who Jesus was, and be equally upset at the unexpected turn of events, with such crowds and teaching and healings and exorcisms, and the pretentious claims implied—and occasionally blurted out at the height of excitement or controversy—about who he was? How could she have known that he would be in opposition, as it seemed clear he now was, to the religious leaders of the day whom she regarded with deep respect and awe? … Many mothers can no doubt identify with her, if at a lesser level, in the anxiety and disappointment when a son’s life does not go as expected.[†]
One interpretation that English rejects out of hand, which you’ll occasionally run into in academic circles, is that Mary’s doubt implies that the virgin birth never happened. I hope you can see from the preceding discussion that such a conclusion is unwarranted.
† The Message of Mark (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992), 90.