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Contents Preface xx Introduction xx 1 Eve: Mother of All Living XX 2 Sarah: Hoping Against Hope XX 3 Rahab: A Horrible Life Redeemed XX 4 Ruth: Loyalty and Love XX 5 Hannah: A Portrait of Feminine Grace XX 6 Mary: Blessed Among Women XX 7 Anna: The Faithful Witness XX 8 The Samaritan Woman: Finding the Water of Life XX 9 Martha and Mary: Working and Worshiping XX 10 Mary Magdalene: Delivered from Darkness XX 11 Lydia: A Hospitable Heart Opened XX Epilogue xx Preface I never anticipated that my book on the apostles (Twelve Ordinary Men) would be as well received by readers as it was. People seemed to appreciate and enjoy the character-study format, even though it is a slight departure from my normal expository style. The book?s method and arrangement seemed particularly well suited to small-group studies, and that might have helped fuel a still wider interest. Perhaps even more significant was the intensely practical and personal relevance of such character studies. It helps, I think, to see the apostles as they were: ordinary men. That was, after all, the whole point of the book. These were men anyone can relate to. Most of us can easily see aspects of our own character in their personalities, their shortcomings, their struggles, their frequent blunders, and their longing to be everything Christ wanted them to be. It gives us great hope to see how wonderfully God used people such as these. After Twelve Ordinary Men had been on the bestseller lists for more than a year, my friends at Thomas Nelson suggested a sequel. Why not deal in a similar format with the lives of twelve of the principal women of Scripture? Everyone who heard the idea was immediately enthusiastic about it. Thus the volume you hold in your hands was born. Of course, there were no decisions to be made about whom to feature in the first book. Jesus chose His twelve disciples; all I had to do was research their lives and write about them. This new book would be a different matter. Faced with a plethora of extraordinary women in the Bible, I made a long list of possibilities. The task of narrowing the roll to twelve was by no means easy. I admit that I chose the twelve women featured here by a completely unscientific process: I weighed their relative importance in biblical history alongside the amount of material I had already developed on each of them as I have taught through various passages of Scripture. Then I chose the twelve women who were most familiar to me. I hope you?ll agree that my final short-list includes a good variety of personality types and an interesting assortment of truly extraordinary women. My hope is that, as with the first book, readers will see aspects of themselves in these studies and be encouraged by the reminder that our personal struggles and temptations are the very same kinds of trials that all believers in all ages have confronted. Thus we are reminded that even in the midst of our trouble, God remains eternally faithful (1 Cor. 10:13). The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, too. He is also the God of every believer in our generation?men and women alike. We, like all of them, have our shortcomings. But we are His people and the sheep of His pasture (Ps. 100:3). And His faithfulness still reaches to the clouds (Ps. 36:5). Some have already asked me the significance of the delicate shift in titles. If the disciples were ?ordinary,? how is it that these twelve women are extraordinary? The answer, of course, is that while the disciples were ordinary in one sense, they were also extraordinary in another sense. As far as their innate talents and their human backgrounds are concerned, they were genuinely ordinary, and deliberately so. ?God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence? (1 Cor. 1:27?29 NKJV). It was only Christ?s work in the disciples? lives that gave them such remarkable power and influence, so that what they became was something quite uncommon?and what they accomplished (Acts 17:6) was something truly extraordinary. The same thing is true with the women featured in this book. Most of them were unremarkable in and of themselves. They were ordinary, common, and in some cases shockingly low-caste women?in exactly the same way the disciples were common men. Take the Samaritan woman of John 4, for instance. We don?t even know her name. Likewise, Anna was an obscure, elderly widow who appears in only one brief vignette in the opening of Luke (2:36?38). Rahab was a common harlot. Even Mary, the mother of Christ, was a young girl of no particular distinction, living in an obscure town in a barren and despised district of Galilee. In each instance, what made them extraordinary was a memorable, life-changing encounter with the God of the universe. The only real exception is Eve, who began life as someone quite extraordinary in every way. She was created by God to be the pure and pristine ideal of womanhood. But she soon spoiled it by sinning. Still, she too became a living depiction of the truth that God can recover and redeem those who fall?and make them truly extraordinary trophies of His grace in spite of their failures. In fact, I?m convinced that by God?s redeeming grace, the person Eve will be through all eternity is far more glorious than she was in her original earthly innocence. In other words, all these women ultimately became extraordinary not because of any natural qualities of their own, but because the one true God whom they worshiped is great, mighty, glorious, and awesome, and He refined them like silver. He redeemed them through the work of an extraordinary Savior?His own divine Son?and conformed them to His image (Rom. 8:29). In other words, the gracious work of God in their lives made each one of these women truly extraordinary. They therefore stand as reminders of both our fallenness and our potential. Speaking together as one, they all point us to Christ. In every case, He was the One to whom they looked for salvation. We?ll see, for example, how Eve, Sarah, Rahab, and Ruth all clung to the precious promise that their line of descent would produce the Promised One who would crush the serpent?s head. Hannah likewise longed for a Savior and rejoiced in the promise of salvation. In fact, Hannah?s words of praise about the Savior (1 Sam. 2:1?10) are echoed in Mary?s Magnificat. That, of course, was Mary?s outpouring of praise when she first learned that she would finally be the one?blessed by God above all other women?to give birth to the Savior. Anna, who had hoped for the Savior all her life, was blessed in her old age to be one of the very first to recognize Him in His infancy (Luke 2:36?38). All the other women featured in this book became some of His earliest disciples. Every one of them therefore testifies to us about Christ. My prayer for you is that as you read this book you will share their faith, imitate their faithfulness, and learn to love the Savior whose work in their lives made them truly extraordinary. Your life can be extraordinary, too, by His wonderful grace. Introduction One of the unique features of the Bible is the way it exalts women. Far from ever demeaning or belittling women, Scripture often seems to go out of the way to pay homage to them, to ennoble their roles in society and family, to acknowledge the importance of their influence, and to exalt the virtues of women who were particularly godly examples. From the very first chapter of the Bible, we are taught that women, like men, bear the stamp of God?s own image (Gen. 1:27; 5:1?2). Women play prominent roles in many key biblical narratives. Wives are seen as venerated partners and cherished companions to their husbands, not merely slaves or pieces of household furniture (Gen. 2:20?24; Prov. 19:14; Eccl. 9:9). At Sinai, God commanded children to honor both father and mother (Ex. 20:12). That was a revolutionary concept in an era when most pagan cultures were dominated by men who ruled their households with an iron fist while women were usually regarded as lesser creatures?mere servants to men. Of course, the Bible recognizes divinely ordained role distinctions between men and women?many of which are perfectly evident from the circumstances of creation alone. For example, women have a unique and vital role in childbearing and the nurture of little ones. Women themselves also have a particular need for support and protection, because physically, they are ?weaker vessels? (1 Peter 3:7 NKJV). Scripture establishes the proper order in the family and in the church accordingly, assigning the duties of headship and protection in the home to husbands (Eph. 5:23) and appointing men in the church to the teaching and leadership roles (1 Tim. 2:11?15). Yet women are by no means marginalized or relegated to any second-class status (Gal. 3:28). On the contrary, Scripture seems to set women apart for special honor (1 Peter 3:7). Husbands are commanded to love their wives sacrificially, as Christ loves the church?even, if necessary, at the cost of their own lives (Eph. 5:25?31). The Bible acknowledges and celebrates the priceless value of a virtuous woman (Prov. 12:4; 31:10; 1 Cor. 11:7). In other words, from cover to cover, the Bible portrays women as extraordinary. The biblical accounts of the patriarchs always give due distinction to their wives. Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel all loom large in the Genesis account of God?s dealings with their husbands. Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, was both a prophetess and a songwriter?and in Micah 6:4, God himself honors her alongside her brothers as one of the nation?s leaders during the Exodus. Deborah, also a prophetess, was a judge in Israel prior to the monarchy (Judg. 4:4). Scriptural accounts of family life often put wives in the position of wise counselors to their husbands (Judg. 13:23; 2 Kings 4:8?10). When Solomon became king, he publicly paid homage to his mother, standing when she entered his presence, then bowing to her before he sat on his throne (1 Kings 2:19). Sarah and Rahab are expressly named among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. Moses? mother (Jochebed) is included as well by implication (v. 23). In Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a woman. The New Testament church is likewise represented as a woman, the bride of Christ. In the social and religious life of Israel and the New Testament church, women were never relegated to the background. They partook with men in all the feasts and public worship of Israel (Deut. 16:14; Neh. 8:2?3). Women were not required to be veiled or silent in the public square, as they are in some Middle-Eastern cultures even today (Gen. 12:14; 24:16; 1 Sam. 1:12). Mothers (not merely fathers) shared teaching responsibilities and authority over their children (Prov. 1:8; 6:20). Women could even be landowners in Israel (Num. 27:8; Prov. 31:16). In fact, wives were expected to administer many of the affairs of their own households (Prov. 14:1; 1 Tim. 5:9?10, 14). All of that stands in sharp contrast to the way other ancient cultures routinely degraded and debased women. Women in pagan societies during biblical times were often treated with little more dignity than animals. Some of the best-known Greek philosophers?considered the brightest minds of their era?taught that women are inferior creatures by nature. Even in the Roman Empire (perhaps the very pinnacle of pre-Christian civilization) women were usually regarded as mere chattel?personal possessions of their husbands or fathers, with hardly any better standing than household slaves. That, once again, was vastly different from the Hebrew (and biblical) concepts of marriage as a joint inheritance, and parenthood as a partnership where both father and mother are to be revered and obeyed by the children (Lev. 19:3). Pagan religion tended to fuel and encourage the devaluation of women even more. Of course, Greek and Roman mythology had its goddesses (such as Diana and Aphrodite). But don?t imagine for a moment that goddess-worship in any way raised the status of women in society. The opposite was true. Most temples devoted to goddesses were served by sacred prostitutes?priestesses who sold themselves for money, supposing they were performing a religious sacrament. Both the mythology and the practice of pagan religion has usually been overtly demeaning to women. Male pagan deities were capricious and sometimes wantonly misogynistic. Religious ceremonies were often blatantly obscene?including such things as erotic fertility rites, drunken temple orgies, perverted homosexual practices, and in the very worst cases, even human sacrifices. Christianity, born in a world where Roman and Hebrew cultures intersected, elevated the status of women to an unprecedented height. Jesus? disciples included several women (Luke 8:1?3), a practice almost unheard of among the rabbis of His day. Not only that, He encouraged their discipleship by portraying it as something more needful than domestic service (Luke 10:38?42). In fact, Christ?s first recorded explicit disclosure of His own identity as the true Messiah was made to a Samaritan woman (John 4:25?26). He always treated women with the utmost dignity?even women who might otherwise be regarded as outcasts (Matt. 9:20?22; Luke 7:37?50; John 4:7?27). He blessed their children (Luke 18:15?16), raised their dead (Luke 7:12?15), forgave their sin (Luke 7:44?48), and restored their virtue and honor (John 8:4?11). Thus he exalted the position of womanhood itself. It is no surprise therefore that women became prominent in the ministry of the early church (Acts 12:12?15; 1 Cor. 11:11?15). On the day of Pentecost, when the New Testament church was born, women were there with the chief disciples, praying (Acts 1:12?14). Some were renowned for their good deeds (Acts 9:36); others for their hospitality (Acts 12:12; 16:14?15); still others for their understanding of sound doctrine and their spiritual giftedness (Acts 18:26; 21:8?9). John?s second epistle was addressed to a prominent woman in one of the churches under his oversight. Even the apostle Paul, sometimes falsely caricatured by critics of Scripture as a male chauvinist, regularly ministered alongside women (Phil. 4:3). He recognized and applauded their faithfulness and their giftedness (Rom. 16:1?6; 2 Tim. 1:5). Naturally, as Christianity began to influence Western society, the status of women was dramatically improved. One of the early church fathers, Tertullian, wrote a work titled On the Apparel of Women sometime near the end of the second century. He said pagan women who wore elaborate hair ornaments, immodest clothing, and body decorations had actually been forced by society and fashion to abandon the superior splendor of true femininity. He noted by way of contrast that as the church had grown and the gospel had borne fruit, one of the visible results was the rise of a trend toward modesty in women?s dress and a corresponding elevation of the status of women. He acknowledged that pagan men commonly complained, ?Ever since she became a Christian, she walks in poorer garb!?1 Christian women even became known as ?modesty?s priestesses.?2 But, Tertullian said, as believers who lived under the lordship of Christ, women were spiritually wealthier, more pure, and thus more glorious than the most extravagant women in pagan society. Clothed ?with the silk of uprightness, the fine linen of holiness, the purple of modesty,?3 they elevated feminine virtue to an unprecedented height. Even the pagans recognized that. Chrysostom, perhaps the most eloquent preacher of the fourth century, recorded that one of his teachers, a pagan philosopher named Libanius, once said: ?Heavens! what women you Christians have!?4 What prompted Libanius?s outburst was hearing how Chrysostom?s mother had remained chaste for more than two decades since becoming a widow at age twenty. As the influence of Christianity was felt more and more, women were less and less vilified or mistreated as objects for the amusement of men. Instead, women began to be honored for their virtue and faith. In fact, Christian women converted out of pagan society were automatically freed from a host of demeaning practices. Emancipated from the public debauchery of temples and theaters (where women were systematically dishonored and devalued), they rose to prominence in home and church, where they were honored and admired for feminine virtues like hospitality, ministry to the sick, the care and nurture of their own families, and the loving labor of their hands (Acts 9:39). After the Roman emperor Constantine was converted in 312, Christianity was granted legal status in Rome and soon became the dominant religion throughout the Empire. One of the measurable early results of this change was a whole new legal status for women. Rome passed laws recognizing the property rights of women. Legislation governing marriage was revised, so that marriage was legally seen as a partnership, rather than a virtual state of servitude for the wife. In the pre-Christian era, Roman men had power to divorce their wives for virtually any cause, or even for no cause at all. New laws made divorce more difficult, while giving women legal rights against husbands who were guilty of infidelity. Philandering husbands, once an accepted part of Roman society, could no longer sin against their wives with impunity. This has always been the trend. Wherever the gospel has spread, the social, legal, and spiritual status of women has, as a rule, been elevated. When the gospel has been eclipsed (whether by repression, false religion, secularism, humanistic philosophy, or spiritual decay within the church), the status of women has declined accordingly. Even when secular movements have arisen claiming to be concerned with women?s rights, their efforts have generally been detrimental to the status of women. The feminist movement of our generation, for example, is a case in point. Feminism has devalued and defamed femininity. Natural gender distinctions are usually downplayed, dismissed, despised, or denied. As a result, women are now being sent into combat situations, subjected to grueling physical labor once reserved for men, exposed to all kinds of indignities in the workplace, and otherwise encouraged to act and talk like men. Meanwhile, modern feminists heap scorn on women who want family and household to be their first priorities?disparaging the role of motherhood, the one calling that is most uniquely and exclusively feminine. The whole message of feminist egalitarianism is that there is really nothing extraordinary about women. That is certainly not the message of Scripture. As we have seen, Scripture honors women as women, and it encourages them to seek honor in a uniquely feminine way (Prov. 31:10?30). Scripture never discounts the female intellect, downplays the talents and abilities of women, or discourages the right use of women?s spiritual gifts. But whenever the Bible expressly talks about the marks of an excellent woman, the stress is always on feminine virtue. The most significant women in Scripture were influential not because of their careers, but because of their character. The message these women collectively give is not about ?gender equality?; it?s about true feminine excellence. And this is always exemplified in moral and spiritual qualities rather than by social standing, wealth, or physical appearance. According to the apostle Peter, for instance, true feminine beauty is not about external adornment, ?arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel?; real beauty is seen instead in ?the hidden person of the heart .ÿ.ÿ. the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God? (1 Peter 3:3?4 NKJV). Paul, likewise, said godliness and good works are the real essence of feminine beauty; not artificial embellishments applied to the outside (1 Tim. 2:9?10). That truth is exemplified to one degree or another by every woman featured in this book. The faithfulness of these women is their true, lasting legacy. I hope as you meet them in Scripture and get to know more about their lives and characters, they will challenge you, motivate you, encourage you, and inspire you with love for the God whom they trusted and served. May your heart be set ablaze with the very same faith, may your life be characterized by a similar faithfulness, and may your soul be overwhelmed with love for the extraordinary God they worshiped.
Library of Congress Subject Headings for this publication:
Women in the Bible -- Biography.
Women in the Bible -- Meditations.
Christian women -- Religious life.