During the climactic events of Jesus’ earthly ministry, many of His closest friends and followers were noticeably absent at the crucifixion. Most had fled; others had gone into hiding. However, the gospel writers all note the presence of several key individuals who had not fled and instead had chosen to follow Jesus all the way to the cross and beyond.
Who were they? The gospel tells us that it was the women who stood at the foot of the cross and greeted their Lord face-to-face at His resurrection.
Who Was at the Cross When Jesus Died?
Throughout His ministry, Jesus had many followers beyond the 12 disciples, women amongst them. In fact, the gospels tell us that many women traveled with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. They loved Him and ministered to Him. They witnessed His miracles, heard His teachings, and wept at His crucifixion.
Some were the mothers and sisters of those called disciples. Others were women who’d been healed or delivered from various forms of sickness, demonic influence, and forced professions. There were also those who’d simply chosen to follow and minister to Jesus along the way.
After Jesus had been arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to death, three of the four gospel accounts mention the names of several women who followed the procession and “watched from a distance” as the events of Christ’s execution unfolded (Matthew 27:55-56, Mark 15:40-41, Luke 23:49).
Only the Apostle John writes of these women being close enough to hear Jesus’ final words on the cross. This was something he could testify to as he was likely the only gospel writer who was a direct eyewitness to what actually happened (John 19:16-30).
But who were the women who had followed Jesus to the hill of Calvary and were the first to visit the tomb after His burial? The gospels list several names:
- Mary Magdalene, a woman whom Jesus had cast out seven demons (Matthew 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; John 19:25).
- Salome, the wife of Zebedee and mother of James and John, the “sons of thunder” and two of Jesus’ disciples (Mark 15:40-41).
- Mary, the mother of James the younger and of Joseph (John 19:25, Mark 15:40-41).
- Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her sister (John 19:25).
- Many other daughters of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27-31), unnamed women (Mark 15:41), and acquaintances of Jesus (Luke 23:49).
These women followed Jesus where others had not, watching and weeping during Christ’s agonizing moments on and leading up to the cross. But why were these women at the foot of the cross and not Jesus’ closest friends and disciples?
Where Were the Twelve?
In Matthew and Mark’s gospels, we read that Jesus had told His disciples at the Last Supper that, “you will all fall away because of Me this night” (Matthew 26:31, Mark 14:27). He would go on to quote the prophet Zechariah in saying, “Strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (Zechariah 13:7).
Though the 12 disciples scoffed at the notion that they would abandon their shepherd and lord, later that same night, when the chief priests, elders, and crowd came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Matthew writes that “all the disciples left Him and fled” (Matthew 26:56).
Peter, who had previously insisted that he would never deny Jesus and would follow Him to imprisonment and even death (Matthew 26:33-35; Mark 14:29-31; Luke 22:33), did stick around a little longer, following Jesus from a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest (Matthew 26:58).
However, when faced with the possibility of being outed as a friend and disciple of Jesus, Peter denied even knowing Jesus and ran, just as Jesus had said (Matthew 26:75). Peter then “went out and wept bitterly.”
The only other disciple who would stick around longer than Peter, most scholars agree, was John.
According to John’s own gospel, he and Peter traveled to the courtyard of the high priest together (John 18:15-18). Peter, however, would flee; John, we believe, remained to witness Jesus being beaten and later nailed to the cross.
In fact, on the cross, Jesus looked down to John, sometimes referred to as “the disciple whom he loved,” and charged him with the care of his mother. “Woman, behold your son!”
Jesus said, to John, “Behold your mother!” John then writes, “from that hour the disciple took her into his own household.” (John 19:26-27) It is believed that John did just that, remaining in Jerusalem to care for Mary until she died.
Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine the weight of grief that Jesus’ mother must have felt having to watch her firstborn son, beaten beyond recognition, be crucified and rejected by the very people He came to save.
We can only assume that Mary, like the rest of the women at the cross, possessed an indescribable strength to endure such horror and heartbreak.
But why did the rest of the disciples, apart from John, abandon their friend and master while the women remained? Were the women that much stronger than Christ’s chosen disciples?
The obvious answer has to do with fear.
When faced with the prospect of persecution, imprisonment, or even death, the disciples were afraid and knew that what happened to Jesus would likely happen to them if they remained. Jesus predicted as much at the Last Supper.
Peter, for example, had sworn to follow Jesus to imprisonment and even death. On the road to Calvary, however, it was a stranger named Simon of Cyrene, who’d been pulled from the crowd to help Jesus carry His cross (Mark 15:21).
James and John had once threatened to call down fire on those who had previously insulted Jesus. Where were they when the soldier spit on Jesus and the crowd mocked Him on the cross? Instead of dying with such loyal friends by His side, Jesus was crucified next to two thieves (Matthew 27:38).
However, lest we judge the disciples for their fear and doubt, it’s worth remembering that
1. Jesus loved, forgave, and redeemed His disciples after His resurrection.
2. Christ empowered them with the proliferation of the gospel and the formation of His church.
3. All of the disciples, with the exception of Judas (who committed suicide) and John (who died of old age), would go on to die a martyr’s death, never again denying or abandoning their lord and savior.
And what about the women?
What Role Did the Women Play in the Easter Story?
Some would suggest that the main reason the women remained at the crucifixion after the men had fled was because, unlike Jesus’ male companions, the women would not have been subject to the same kind of persecution or imprisonment. This is plausible, though uncertain.
Were the women simply more courageous than the Twelve?
There is no reason to doubt or diminish the courage and strength of these devoted followers of Christ. However, the significance of the women at the cross and subsequent resurrection says far more about the heart of Christ to include women in His ministry than we often realize.
Some have erroneously concluded that women didn’t play a prominent role in the gospel and were therefore not as important to Jesus as His male disciples. This is simply not true. And if anyone wants to argue that God somehow views women as insignificant, weak, or unimportant, let us not forget that:
- It was a woman who anointed Jesus’ head with oil in preparation for His burial (Mark 14:1-9).
- A woman urged her husband (Pontius Pilate) to stand against the power of the mob and spare an innocent man’s life (Matthew 27:19).
- The women were the ones to stand at the foot of the cross as Jesus breathed His last.
- The women were the first to arrive at the tomb to anoint the body of their lord with oils and spices (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-6; Luke 23:55-56).
- The women were the first to witness the resurrection; The women were the first individuals to be entrusted with taking the good news of Christ’s resurrection (the gospel) to the disciples (Matthew 28:6-7).
They came, they saw, they went, and they told others what they had seen, just as Christ had asked them to. The other disciples would go on to follow their example (Matthew 28:18-20).
These details, these stories, and these women are included in the gospels because God wanted them there.
Therefore, to entrust the most powerful and important news in human history first to these women speaks volumes of how much God loved, trusted, and rewarded the women of His ministry.
It also speaks to the many ways God is willing, eager, and able to use both men and women to advance His kingdom and grow His church even today.
Women have always had a role to play in the kingdom of God, and the importance of that role should never be diminished.