The Story of Scripture in Four Moms
A lesson in theology from Eve, Sarah, Mary, and the mother of Rufus
This Sunday is Mother’s Day. Biologically speaking, none of us would be here without our moms. So make sure to honor your mom this weekend — if not every day — for the gift of life!
We have moms to thank for the gift of spiritual life, too. Many come to faith because of the prayers of their moms. Others grow in faith because of the examples of their moms. Those aren’t the mothers I’m talking about in this article, however.
I’m talking about biblical moms whose lives are turning points in the history of salvation. Many could be mentioned, but I will focus on four: Eve, Sarah, Mary, and Rufus’ unnamed mother. You can tell the story of Scripture through these four women.
The Mother of All the Living
Let’s begin with Eve.
Genesis 3:20 reads, “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.” In Hebrew, Eve’s name (Chava) and the adjective living (chai) are etymologically related to the noun life (chayah). Eve’s name signifies her life-giving role. All humans are her daughters and sons.
Eve is not just a life-giver, however. She is also the first in history to be tempted and to sin. When Satan slithered into God’s garden, he cast doubt on the divine commandment (Genesis 3:1), and Eve chose to disobey it (3:6), bringing down God’s judgment on herself and all her children.
No Eve, no life. No Eve, no sin.
And yet, Eve’s life cannot be reduced to baby-making and disobedience. She’s more than a womb or an apple. According to Scripture, her life is entwined with the gospel. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers,” says God to the serpent (Genesis 3:15); “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Theologians refer to this divine pronouncement as the protoevangelium, “the first gospel,” because it prophesies the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. He is the offspring (literally, “seed”) who crushes Satan’s head. The apostle John alludes to this passage throughout 1 John 3:7–10, but especially in verse 8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” In Christ, we get to participate in the snake-stomping: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet,” Paul writes (Romans 16:20).
So, no Eve, no life; no Eve, no sin. But also, no Eve, no gospel. She is the mother of all living, of all sinners, and of all who would be saved.
The Mother of Nations
God first announces the gospel in Genesis 3:15. The devil’s work will be destroyed. To accomplish that end, God blesses Abraham and promises him — you guessed it — “offspring” and “descendants” (again, literally, “seed”). You can read about this blessing and promise in Genesis 12:1–3,7; 15:1–6; and 17:1–21.
According to Scripture, Abraham was married to Sarah, but they were childless. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but it’s hard to have children when you can’t have children. So Abraham and Sarah concocted a bizarre scheme for him to impregnate her slave Hagar, then adopt Hagar’s child as their own (Genesis 16). As with all sinful, human schemes, it wasn’t what God intended and didn’t work out well, even though God, being good and merciful, blessed Hagar and Ishmael in the end (17:20).
The lives and examples of Eve, Sarah, Mary, and Rufus’ mom tell the story of Scripture. Through them, we see what God has done in Christ for us and for others. In them, we see the biblical story of life, mission, faith, and love.
No, God had a specific child in mind and a specific way of bringing that child into the world. His name would be Isaac, and Sarah — who was past childbearing years — would bear him nonetheless. “I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her” (Genesis 17:16).
And so, miraculously, Sarah became the mother of Isaac, who was the father of Israel, whose offspring’s faith (often wavering) and works (often disobedient) constitute the main storyline of the Old Testament.
God didn’t just promise Sarah “a son,” however, as if Isaac and/or his descendants exhausted God’s promise. No, God promised Sarah that she would be “the mother of nations.” How could Sarah be the mother of nations (plural) when she bore only one son, and through him, only one nation?
The answer to that question again lies in seeing that the “seed” promised to Abraham and Sarah refers initially to Isaac (and his descendants) but ultimately to Jesus Christ (and His disciples).
According to Galatians 3:16, quoting Genesis 17:19, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed, meaning one person, who is Christ.” As the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection, justified sinners before God — whatever their ethnic or national background.
That’s why Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile ... for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28–29). In mothering Isaac, Sarah mothered the nations.
As mother of nations, Sarah reminds us that the promises God makes to us, whether in the old covenant or the new, are never for us alone. They are for us, to be sure, but they always have an outward focus as well. Not just for us, but also for the nations, for those who have not yet received the gospel.
In a sense, then, Sarah is the mother of missions, for she reminds us that our labor brings blessing to others.
The Mother of My Lord
Saint Augustine famously quipped that the New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New.
We’ve seen the truth of that saying in Eve and Sarah. The proximate fulfillment of God’s promise to Eve were her children, but the ultimate fulfillment was Christ. The proximate fulfillment of God’s promise to Sarah was Isaac (and his descendants), but the ultimate fulfillment was Jesus (and His disciples).
The story of Scripture, then, leads both to and from Jesus Christ. The Old Testament leads to Him, He being the fulfillment of all God’s promises. The New Testament leads from Him, working out the implications of His devil-crushing, nation-blessing work.
But for Jesus to do His work, He needs to be born, and to be born, He needs a mother. Which brings us to Mary.
If the Catholics pay too much attention to Mary, I worry that we Protestants pay too little. To be sure, Mary was not immaculately conceived, nor perpetually virginal (she married Joseph, after all), nor the world’s co-redemptrix. By the same token, however, she was not just a womb for lease on a nine-month basis.
She is, instead, the mother of God whose faith made ours possible.
Let me explain.
According to Christian theology, Jesus is not just some guy from Nazareth but the Son of God from all eternity. “The Word was God,” John 1:1 says. Thirteen verses later, John goes on to say, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Mary was the means by which God incarnated His Word. The Incarnation makes sense of Elizabeth’s remarks in Luke 1:42–43. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear,” Elizabeth loudly exclaimed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Mary is blessed because of who she bears in her womb. He is both “child” and “Lord.”
Once you understand who Jesus is — the Word made flesh, God Incarnate — you understand why great patristic theologians such as Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, and Augustine all referred to Mary as theotokos, “God-bearer.” Her title pointed to His divine and human natures simultaneously.
What kind of human would God trust with bearing His own Son? One would think that the High King of Heaven would send His Son to some not-quite-as-high king on Earth. Royalty deserves the royal treatment, after all. Right?
That’s not what God did, however. Instead of sending His Son to a royal city (Jerusalem), God sent Him to a rural village (Nazareth). Instead of to a royal household, He sent Him to a peasant one. Instead of entrusting Him with a high-status male (like the priest Zechariah, for example), God entrusted Jesus to a teenage virgin betrothed to be married.
Mary may not have had much by way of worldly status, power, or means, but she was rich in faith. When the archangel Gabriel announced her pregnancy, Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38).
The mother of the Lord trusted the Lord and bore the Lord for our salvation. Because of her, Christ lived, died, rose again, ascended on high, and poured out the Holy Spirit upon all flesh, including us today.
In a very real sense, then, Mary’s faith made ours possible.
A Mother to Me
Eve, Sarah, and Mary bring us to Christ. Christ brings us to the last mother I want to talk about. Paul mentions her in Romans 16:13, when he writes, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.”
Rufus is likely the same man mentioned in Mark 15:21, which says, “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.”
New Testament scholars generally believe Mark wrote his gospel for Christians in Rome. That would explain why he mentions Rufus and his brother in his account of Jesus’ passion. They could provide a direct account of their father’s interaction with Jesus on the very day of his crucifixion.
If so, that also explains why Paul greets him in his letter to the same Christians. The Romans knew Rufus. Paul knew Rufus. Rufus is thus the relational bridge between Paul and the Roman Christians, whom Paul has not yet met.
Rufus’ mother is far more important to Paul personally, however. At some point in the past, he testifies, she “has been a mother to me, too.” Paul uses a variety of terms in Romans 16 to describe fellow Christians: “deacon,” “benefactor,” “co-worker,” “dear friend,” “apostles,” “brothers and sisters,” “the Lord’s people.” Only here does he use the term “mother” to describe another believer. For that matter, he only refers to his own mother once, and then only to talk about his own calling (Galatians 1:15).
Rufus’ mother became Paul’s mother because she loved him as only a mother can. We don’t know whether Paul’s own family shared his faith in Jesus Christ. What we do know is that faith in Jesus Christ makes a new family, one that transcends natural and national bonds.
In that family, we relate to each other as mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. We do this, like Rufus’ unnamed mother, even if we don’t receive attention, accolades, or awards for our efforts.
A child needs a mother. A sibling needs another. In Christ, that’s all we need to know.
Paul’s familial language reminds us of the importance of congregational life. Christianity is not just about an individual person’s relationship to God because of Christ. It’s about that, to be sure, but at the same time about a person’s relationship to others as well.
In sum, through Rufus’ mother, we see the importance of the Church, which is the family of God.
With these things in mind, this Sunday, as you honor your own mother, make sure to remember these biblical mothers in the faith. The lives and examples of Eve, Sarah, Mary, and Rufus’ mom tell the story of Scripture. Through them, we see what God has done in Christ for us and for others. In them, we see the biblical story of life, mission, faith, and love.