25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
In June of this year, NBC Chicago ran a story about a shooting that occurred in South Chicago.
A 21-year-old man died Saturday after throwing himself in front of open gunfire in an attempt to shield his mother from the bullets, according to family members.
James Jones and his mother, Alicia Jones, were on their front porch Saturday afternoon in South Chicago when a man walked out of a gangway and fired in their direction, police said.
That is when the 21-year-old made the ultimate sacrifice to protect his mother, throwing himself in front of her, saving her life by shielding her from the array of bullets headed in her direction. By saving her life, he lost his own.
“My sister just so happened to be coming out the front door,” said Dietra Luckett, Jones’ aunt. “He took his body and put it on top of her body. He covered her body.”
Alicia Jones, 46, was critically wounded but survived. She underwent surgery at Advocate Christ Medical Center. James was dead at the scene, according to Chicago Police and the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
She knows her son saved her life, Luckett said, but doesn’t know he’s gone. Her sister said she’s been asking for him, saying, “Where’s James?”
The mother was still struck by the bullet, but her son’s body kept it from killing her, though it killed him. They had not told her that her son was dead at the time of the writing of the article, because they did not want to upset her as she was recovering in the hospital.
It is an unsettling story. The young man who died had his own criminal background, the article went on to say, and the entire incident was gang related. Even so, there is a beauty to a son’s instinctive desire to protect his mother, to die in her place, to give her life through his death. And there is, simultaneously, a grueling heartbreak about a mother being hit with the staggering reality that her son has died.
There are radical dissimilarities between what happened in June of 2015 on the south side of Chicago and what happened in the first century just outside of Jerusalem, but there are similarities as well. The dissimilarity, of course, is that Jesus was sinless and perfectly righteous and that He knowingly embraced death from eternity past, intending to lay down His life and die as a substitute for lost humanity. The young man in Chicago was, like all of us, a sinner who did not know he would die. Even so, in both situations, a son died as a substitute and a mother had to come to terms with her loss.
Of course, there is yet another radical dissimilarity. Jesus was able to accomplish through His death what no other person could accomplish through his or her death, no matter how nobly a person might die or how selflessly to save the life of another. Jesus died to open the very door of Heaven to us, and only He, the God-man, could do so. For this reason, the last words of Christ on the cross are most powerful and most instructive, and, in this this word from the cross, Jesus acknowledges His mother who has come to watch her Son die.
The third word from the cross reveals the love of the Son for His mother.
At its most basic level, that is the point: the third word from the cross reveals the love of the Son for His mother. Mary and the women with her had come to be with Him as He died.
25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
The very first words of verse 25 are poignant with meaning: “but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother…” D.A. Carson suggests that the Greek wording of verse 25 “suggests a contrast between the soldiers…and the women here introduced” and translates the beginning of the verse as, “So the soldiers, on the one hand, did these things; on the other hand, there stood near the cross of Jesus…” It is a stark contrast indeed, and one filled with feeling and power. Jesus hangs on the cross, the soldiers gamble for His clothes, and His mother is there with Him. Richard John Neuhaus notes something interesting about most of the painted depictions of this scene.
[B]eginning in the Middle Ages, artists would depict a very tall cross, with Mary and the others far below at its foot. But historians believe that the cross was probably about seven feet tall. They were face to face. The sweat, the blood, the tearing tendons, the twitching, the wrenching, the bulging eyes – she would have seen it all quite clearly, as clearly as she saw him so long ago when she held him safely to her breast.
Mary and the women were there and being there brought a pain to Mary that was indescribable. Do you remember the strange words of Simeon when he held the baby Jesus in Jerusalem? They are recorded in Luke 2.
34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
Whatever else this prophesied piercing meant, it certainly must have included this moment of excruciating pain. Mary watches her son there on the cross. Perhaps the 13th century hymn, “Stabat Mater,” comes closest to honoring her pain in that moment.
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.
Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?
For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:
She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.
Mary beholds her son and, in this third word, Mary’s son beholds her. He sees her. She is standing there with “the disciple whom he loved.” Traditionally this is thought to be John, though the text does not actually say so. I will stay with that traditional interpretation here. Jesus sees Mary and John standing together and Jesus speaks.
26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
I agree with commentators who say that what is happening here goes beyond the mere temporal provision of a mother by her son. Indeed it does. Something much deeper than that is happening here. However, a son’s provision for His mother is happening. This word suggests more than mere earthly provision for Mary, but it does not suggest less. It seems to me that we miss something profoundly significant when we glide pass this first meaning and move on to the other meanings, for surely it is no small thing that the Son of God while dying for the sins of the world sees, addresses, and provides for His mother.
This third word is a word of a son’s love. Jesus loved His mother. Jesus took care of His mother. Whatever else is happening here, if it does not lead us to care for our parents, we have misunderstood something most obvious.
The third word from the cross reveals a people who continue the life of Jesus on the earth.
But it also says something about the nature of discipleship, does it not? In saying, “Woman, behold your son!” Jesus was saying that John would now care and provide for her. In saying, “Behold, your mother!” Jesus was telling John that he was now to provide the duties of a son to Mary. And John did precisely this. R. Kent Hughes points out the traditions that grew around John’s provisions of Mary.
One extra-Biblical account says John owned a home in Jerusalem at the foot of Zion, Mary stayed there eleven years, and only after her death did John go out to preach the Gospel to the Gentile world. Another report says that Mary died in the city of Ephesus while sharing in John’s missionary ministry.
Jesus is calling upon John to take care of His mother. And yet, in principle, Jesus’ command to John was saying something more as well, for in so saying Jesus was establishing not merely the particulars for His mother’s care but the principle that His followers from that point onward are to continue in their lives the life that Christ had lived in His incarnate state on the earth.
Craig Keener writes that Jesus’ actions show “how true disciples adopt the concerns of Jesus as their own and follow in his steps.” This is true. John was to care for Mary because John was now to live the life of the Son upon the earth after the Son would rise from the dead and ascend to heaven. The point is that John’s call to take upon himself the life and actions and responsibilities of Jesus extends beyond John to all of Jesus’ disciples throughout the ages.
John was to be a son to Mary. We, the Church, are to be the son to the world. Not, I should add, ontologically. Not essentially. We cannot literally be Christ. We remain the creation and He remains forever the sovereign Creator. Not essentially, but functionally, in our lives, we are to hear and heed and act upon the very same call that Jesus offered John. We too are to continue the life of Jesus in the world.
While we are not literally Christ, our continuation of His life and ministry upon the earth, in His name and through the enabling power of the Spirit, is so identified with Christ that Paul, in Ephesians 5:23, wrote, “Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior,” and in Colossians 1:24 wrote, “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,” and in 1 Corinthians 12:27 wrote, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
In other words, just as John would now in the particular situation of caring for Mary be the body of Christ to her, so too the Church will now, in our global situation, be the body of Christ to the world. The Dutch theologian and New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos put this dynamic nicely when he argued that “it is doubtful…that the meaning of this narrative is limited to this personal dimension…The Evangelist’s focus is elsewhere.” Ridderbos then explained:
For in the relationship that the dying Jesus establishes between these two persons, who of all of them were the closest to him, he paradigmatically contracts the image of the coming community that he is leaving behind on earth, but also bringing under the care that in his time on earth he has provided, and through which in the new dispensation after his death he himself will continue his work…Mary will from this moment on step back as his mother and uniquely reflect the image of the community that remains behind on earth. The disciple whom Jesus loves no less significantly represents those whom Jesus has bound to himself from the beginning to be his witnesses and to continue his work on earth.
Hear then, Church, the third word from the cross to you: “behold, the Son.” As John was to continue the duties, responsibilities, and life of the Son for Mary, we are to continue the very same for the world.
The third word from the cross reveals a new family on the earth.
There is something else. There is also a note about what the internal life of this Christ-continuing fellowship of disciples is to look like. Namely, it is to look like a family.
If you step back and look at this scene, you will notice something interesting. Jesus, understandably, makes provisions for His mother because Jesus was the eldest son of the family. However, Jesus was not the only son in the family. We see in the New Testament that after the virgin birth of Christ, Mary and Joseph commenced normal marital relations and Mary had other children. Thus, Jesus had half-brothers and sisters for they shared a common mother but not a common father.
Why, then, did the eldest son, Jesus, not entrust the care of His mother to the next eldest son, one of his half-brothers? The answer to that is found in John 7:5, a very short verse that reads, “For not even his brothers believed in him.” In other words, Jesus could have appealed to the more natural responsibility of the next oldest son to care for Mary, but in doing so He would have been entrusting His mother to the care of a non-believer. Put another way, Jesus chose to entrust the care of His mother to a follower of Jesus who was not her son instead of to a denier of Jesus who was her son. In time, His brothers would come to believe, but they did not yet, so Jesus calls upon John to fulfill the role of a son.
What is happening here? What is happening is that in calling upon believing John to care for His mother instead of upon one of His unbelieving half-brothers, Jesus was demonstrating that His cross and empty tomb now creates a new family dynamic that is grounded not in the biology of relational blood but in the new creation of the Lamb’s blood.
Church, this is a staggering development!
Craig Keener argues that “Jesus’ entrusting his mother to a disciple rather than to unbelieving siblings…suggests that the ties of the believing community must be stronger than natural familial bonds.” James Montgomery Boice puts it even more poignantly when he writes, “we sense that the Lord is here bringing into existence a new family based on his atonement.” Put most basically, this means that the gospel redefines and changes how we define the word “family.”
Stanley Hauerwas has provocatively said that “it must be admitted that none of the Gospels portray Jesus as family-friendly.” In a sense, Hauerwas has a point. For starters, Jesus said some rather astounding things about families that really are quite shocking, even when properly understood! For instance, in Luke 9, we read this:
59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Again, on the surface, this does not seem very sensitive to the relational dynamics, not to say the responsibilities, one naturally feels toward one’s biological family. Even more unsettling, in Luke 14, we find this:
25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
This is not the place for a detailed examination of these passages other than to say that Jesus was speaking in the vain of prophetic hyperbole in order to make a significant point about the priorities of our affections. Clearly He was not calling upon us to sin by literally hating our families and clearly He did not hate His own family. The third word from the cross clearly establishes that fact. But to offer these initial interpretations is not to attempt to lessen the shock of Jesus’ words, for even rightly understood they remain somewhat disquieting and require us to trust His wisdom more than our own understandings of “family.” They are revolutionary words, transformative words. They inform us that the coming of Christ forever alters what we think we know about the nature of families.
Jesus had already suggested this reality in an earlier episode in Mark 3:31-35 when His “biological” (so to speak) family came to launch something of an intervention with Him.
31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
I would propose that this particular text is key to our understanding the new family that Christ came to form. Here, Jesus defines family as “whoever does the will of God,” by which He means the will of His Father as He demonstrated, taught, modeled, and then fulfilled it. That is to say, our first family is now the gathered and redeemed people of God the world over.
The New Testament speaks more than once of the creation of a new people in and through Christ. The classic text for this is found in 1 Peter 2.
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Jesus Christ came to establish a new people. He came to establish a priestly people, a chosen people, a royal people, a people who used to be on the outside but are not on the inside. Alongside this, we know that the New Testament often speaks of the Church as a household. For instance, we see this in Ephesians 2.
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
God has called a people together. God has brought them under a common roof in a common household. Christ Jesus is the cornerstone and the foundation of the house. The house is intended to grow together. And, most amazing of all, God dwells among us through His Spirit.
This is what we mean when we say that much more is happening in this third word than simple provision by the Son for His mother. That is happening, but in this word Jesus also revealed that all He had hinted at before was now, through His work on the cross, coming to fruition: we are now a new people, a new family, under a common roof, living and doing life together. Who is? The people who are gathered at the foot of the cross: followers of Jesus, disciples, the Church.
This third word becomes therefore the word that reveals the reality of the gathered Church. “Woman, behold your son! Son, behold your mother! World, behold the Church! I am now present among you through my people, my bride, and my body: the Church!”
Church, may God have mercy upon us if we do not continue the life of Christ, for it is mercy we will need if we abandon this high privilege offered to us through Jesus.
 D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p.615.
 Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000), p.82.
 R. Kent Hughes, John. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), p.446.
 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John. Vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), p.1144.
 Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p.612-613.
 Craig S. Keener, p.1145.
 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John. Vol.5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), p.1518.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), p.50.