Christ at Bethany
by Robert Candlish
"Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died!" John 11:21
"When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!" John 11:32
"It is better," says the wise man, "to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning — but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure!" Ecclesiastes 7:2-4
If this is true generally of the effect which should be produced by familiarizing the heart with the devout contemplation of death, and of the grief which death occasions — it must be especially true when we have Jesus as our companion. It was our Lord's custom, in his visits to Jerusalem, to retire in the evenings, after the toils and trials of his daily ministry in the temple, to the quiet village of Bethany, and the peaceful abode of Lazarus — that he might there repose amid the holy endearments of a congenial family circle. That house is now the house of mourning. Let us visit it in the company of Jesus, and observe how he is received there, and how his presence cheers the gloom.
The sisters, Martha and Mary, greet him with the same pathetic salutation, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!" and this might seem to indicate an entire similarity in their sorrow. But if we look a little closer, we see a striking difference of demeanor, corresponding to the marked difference of their characters generally. And this difference is marked in our Lord's different treatment of them.
In every view it is an interesting study, from which we may learn,
in the first place, How much sameness there is in grief;
secondly, How much variety there is in grief; and,
lastly, How much compass there is in the consolation of Christ, as capable of being adapted to all varieties of grief — to grief of every mold and of every mood.
We speak chiefly throughout of the grief of true Christians; for we think we are warranted in assuming that, notwithstanding their great contrast in respect of natural temperament — the two sisters were partakers of the same grace.
1. At present, we advert to the SIMILARITY of their common sorrow — the sameness of their grief.For it is remarkable, that two people so different in their turn of mind, as we shall afterwards see that these sisters were — so apt to view things in different lights, and to be affected by them with different feelings — should both utter the same words on first meeting the Lord Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." It shows how natural such a reflection is in such a season — how entirely the heart, when deeply moved, is the same in all — and how much all grief is alike.
The sisters, however otherwise dissimilar, were united in their fond affection for their departed brother, as well as in their grateful reliance on that divine friend "who loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus." They had sat and watched together beside their brother's bed of sickness. They joined together in sending unto Jesus, saying, "Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick." In their distress, they both thought of the same remedy, and applied to the same physician. It was a joint petition that they dispatched, and they did not doubt that it would prevail. Together they waited anxiously for his coming. They reckoned the very earliest moment when he could arrive; and as they looked on their brother's languid eye, and saw him sinking every hour and wasting away, Ah! they thought, how soon their benefactor might appear, and all might yet be well.
But moments and hours rolled on, and no Savior came. Wearisome days and nights were appointed to them. Often did they look out and listen; often did they imagine that they heard the expected sound, and the well-known accents of kindness seemed to fall upon their ears. But still he came not. Ah! what were their anxious thoughts, their earnest communings, their fond prayers, that life might be prolonged at least for a little longer, to give one other chance, one other opportunity, for the interposition of Him who was mighty to save even from the gates of death! And how were their own hearts sickened, as they whispered to the sick man a faint hope, to which they could scarcely themselves any longer cling. Still the time rolls slowly on. The last ray of expectation is extinguished; the dreaded hour is come; it is over — their brother has fallen asleep; Lazarus is dead!
And now four days are past and gone since he has been laid in the silent tomb. The first violence of grief is giving place to the more calm — but far more bitter pain of a desolate and dreary sadness — the prolonged sense of bereavement which recollection brings along with it, and which everything around serves to aggravate and embitter. The house of mourning, after the usual temporary excitement, is still — it is the melancholy stillness of the calm, darkly brooding over the wrecks of the recent storm — and amid the real kindness of sympathizing friends, and the formal attentions of meddlesome strangers — the sisters, as each familiar object recalls the past, are soothing, or suppressing, as best they may, those bitter feelings which their own hearts alone can know — when suddenly they are told that Jesus is at hand!
He has come at last — but he has come too late. His having come at all, however, is a comfort. He is welcome as their own and their brother's friend; he is welcome as their Lord. They never doubt his friendship; they question not his willingness, or his power, to do them good. But still, as they meet him, they cannot but look back on the few days that are gone; and as all their anxieties and alarms, their longing hopes and cruel disappointments, rush again upon their minds — they are constrained to give utterance to the crowded emotions of their hearts in the irrepressible exclamation, " Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!"
It is the voice of nature that speaks in these words — the voice of our common nature mingling its vain regrets with the resignation of sincere and simple faith.
There is here, first, the feeling that the event might have been otherwise, "If you had been here — then my brother would not have died." We know not what has detained you. Some call of duty may have prevented you from coming; or, perhaps, our message did not reach you in time; or it may have been some merely casual circumstance that hindered you. If this sickness had happened but a little sooner, when you were in Jerusalem at the feast — or if we had taken alarm early enough, so as to send for you before our brother was so ill — or if our messenger had been more expeditious, and had used more despatch — or if we had but been able to lengthen out, by our care, our brother's sickness for a single week — had we not been so unfortunate in the occurrence of this evil just when it did occur; or had we, when it occurred, used more diligence, and taken better precautions — then you might have been here, and "if you had been here — our brother would not have died!"
Is it not thus that the heart speaks under every trying dispensation? Is it not thus that an excited imagination whispers to the forlorn soul? Who has ever met with any affliction — who has ever lost any beloved brother or dear friend — without cherishing some such reflection as this? If such or such a measure had been adopted; if such or such an accident would not have happened; if it had not been for this unaccountable oversight, or that unforeseen and unavoidable mischance — then so grievous a calamity would not have befallen me — my brother "would not have died!"
Alas! and is not the reflection, however natural — a sinful and sad delusion — proceeding upon a very limited view of the power and the providence of God our Savior? How did these sisters know that, if Jesus had been there, their brother would not have died? How could they tell whether he might not have ends to serve, which would have required that, even though he had been there, he must have permitted him to die? And were they not aware that, though he was not there — yet, if he had so chosen and so ordered it — their brother would not have died? Had they not heard of his being able, at the distance of many a long mile, to effect an immediate and complete cure? Did they not believe that he had but to speak — and it would be done; he had but to say the word — and, however far off he was, his friend and their brother would be healed?
Ah! they had forgotten who it was to whom they made this most touching and pathetic appeal; that he was one who, though not actually present — could have restored their brother if it had been consistent with his wise and holy will; and who, even if he had been present, might have seen fit, for the best reasons, to allow him to die.
And are not these the very truths concerning him which you in your distress are tempted to forget, when you dwell so much on secondary circumstances and causes, instead of at once and immediately recognizing his will as supreme? You are overtaken by misfortune; you are overwhelmed in the depths of sorrow. You ascribe your suffering to what seems to be its direct occasion — whether it be your own neglect of some precaution which you might have taken, had you thought of it in time; or the fault of others, with whose skill or diligence your dearest hopes were inseparably connected; or something perhaps, in the course of events, over which neither you nor they could have any control. You fix upon the very date, the very scene, when and where your brother's doom seems to have been sealed; and you think that, if you had but suspected what was about to be the outcome, or if the help which you now see would have been available had then been within your reach; if you had been warned in time, or had taken the warning, or had been able to employ the right means of escape — you might not now have been left disconsolate; your beloved one might still have been spared to cheer you with his smiles, and share with you all your cares — your brother might not have died!
So you are apt to think and feel. But however natural the thought — is it not in reality the very folly of unbelief — the dream of a soul forgetting that the Lord reigns? What! is it come to this, that you conceive of Him as limited by events which he himself ordains — as the slave of his own laws? You think that if a certain obstacle had not come in to prevent relief — then the calamity you bewail might not have happened. But notwithstanding that obstacle — might he not, if God had seen fit, have found means to avert the calamity? And are you sure that, even if the obstacle had been removed, he might not have seen fit still to let the calamity come? "If you had been here," say the mourning sisters, "our brother would not have died!" Nay, he might have answered, "I could have been here — if it had seemed good to me. And, though I was not here — I might have easily kept your brother alive. And, though I had been here — I might have allowed him to die!"
Look, you afflicted ones, beyond second causes — to him who is the first cause of all things! Believe, and be sure that the circumstances which you regret as the occasion of your misfortune — are but the appointed means of bringing about what he determines! If evil comes upon you, if your brother dies — it is not because this or that accident prevented relief; it is not because God was not with you in sufficient time — but because it was his will. Be still, and know that he is God!
But farther, secondly, there may be in this address of the sisters, somewhat of the feeling, that the event not only might have been otherwise — but would have been otherwise! There is at least an intimation of their having expected that the event would have been otherwise: "If you had been here — our brother would not have died!" And why were you not here? We sent to you — we sent a special message — a special prayer — and surely you might have been persuaded to come. Ah! why did you linger for two whole days after tidings of our threatened loss reached you? Why did you not make haste to help us? We could not believe that you would have treated us thus. You were not unmindful of us before. You regarded us as friends. You blessed our house with your presence; making it your resting-place, your home. You choose us before your own kinsmen. You selected our brother as the object of your especial affection. And we thought it would have been enough to touch your heart, simply to send to you, saying, "He whom you love is sick!" — that you had but to hear of his illness to rush at once to his relief! True, we had no right to dictate to you, and now we have no right to complain. But we cannot help feeling that if you had been here — our brother would not have died — and that surely you might have been here. It was not so very great a favor that was asked of you; and was he not worthy for whom you should do this? He loved you — he trusted in you; and you might have come, if not to preserve his life, at least to soothe and satisfy his dying hours. He looked for you — and you did not appear. To the very last he waited for you — and you hid yourself. He missed you, and he was not comforted.
Such are the instinctive complaints of nature in a season of sore trial, of bitter bereavement. Thus does the wounded soul rise against the stroke that pierces it, and turn round upon the hand that smites it. It is very hard for flesh and blood to believe, in regard to any crushing load of woe — that it is God himself who directly and immediately ordains it! It is far harder to believe, that in ordaining it — that he does not do wrong. Simply to be still, and know that he is God — is no easy exercise of resignation. To be sure that he does right, that he does well — is even more difficult still. You imagine that, if he had really been here, that it would have happened otherwise — your brother would not have died. And you feel as if you had some right to expect that if he would have been here — that it would have happened otherwise — that your brother should not have died. And you can give, perhaps, many reasons. You can point out many ends which might have been served, had your brother been spared — how faithful and successful he might have been — how noble a course he might have run. He was just prepared for entering into active life; he was just newly fitted for the service of God in the world; and it does seem strange and unaccountable, that at the very time when his life seemed to have become most valuable — when his character was ripening for increased usefulness — and when the mere word of the great Physician would have brought him back from the gates of death — he would yet have been allowed to die.
Ah! but remember that the Lord may have many purposes in view with which you may be unacquainted, which indeed you could not as yet comprehend. Only wait patiently for a little, and you will see that "this sickness is not" really "unto death — but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified thereby" (verse 4).
Would that you had been here! — you surely could have been here! — is the natural language of the mourner to his Lord. "Nay," says the Lord himself to his own disciples, "I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent you may believe" (verse 15). A hard saying this — who can always hear it? But consider who it is that speaks. It is your friend, your Savior! He might have been here, and might have taken care that your brother would not die; and may you not be sure that, if it had been for his glory, and for your good — he would have been here, and would have taken care that your brother should not die?
"He might have ordered this matter otherwise!" you say; and you almost think that he ought to have ordered it otherwise. But may you not believe that, had it been right and good — he would have done so; and that, if he has not — it must be for the best of reasons? What these reasons may be — you cannot tell. He may have need of your brother's services elsewhere. He may intend to make his death the occasion of showing forth his glory, and blessing your soul. Only be patient, and hope unto the end.
What he does, you may not understand now — but you shall understand hereafter. Meantime, as you are tempted to imagine that he might have interfered — nay, that he should have interfered — to prevent the calamity under which you suffer — may not that very feeling, on second thoughts, suggest the conviction, that if he has not so interfered, it must be because he intends to make to you some gracious discovery of himself, and to confer upon you some special benefit? Be not hasty, then, to judge him — but rest in the assurance that all things shall work together for good, to those who love God. And though he may seem to stand aloof when you would most desire, and most need, his interposition — yet when he does come, be sure that you receive him gladly — as did the sorrowing sisters.
Happy will it be for you who mourn, if in like circumstances you are enabled to feel as these sisters felt, and to meet your Savior's gracious advances as they did. In the hour of blighted prospects and disappointed hopes, when the evil which you deprecated has befallen you — you may think that consolation comes too late. Like Rachel, you may weep, and refuse to be comforted; like Jonah, when your gourd withers, you may almost be tempted to say that you do well to be angry. You may turn away when your Savior draws near; you may sit disconsolate when he calls. If he had come for the purpose of averting your calamity — if he had been here sooner, and had interposed his power to help — it would have been well, for then my brother would not have died! But the calamity has overtaken me — and my brother is dead — so what does it avail, that He is here now?
Beware of all such impatience, such natural irritability of grief. Reject not the Savior's visit of sympathy now, because he did not come to you exactly as you in your ignorance would have had him to come, and do for you exactly what you would have had him to do.
It is enough that He is with you now, to speak comfortably to you — to bind up your broken heart — to fill the aching void in your affections, and be to you, instead of all that you have lost. True, if he had been here before, your brother might not have died, and your brother, alas! is dead. But He is here now — He who is better than a thousand brothers — He who has the words of eternal life; who can speak a word in season to the weary soul; and, when flesh and heart faint, will be the strength of your heart and your portion forever.
Such might be the feelings common to the two sisters — such are the feelings of nature mingled with grace, common to all sanctified grief — as indicated in the affecting address, "Lord, if you had been here — my brother would not have died!"
Thus far, we trace in their conduct the working of a common grief.
2. But the sisters DIFFERED in their sorrow, as they did generally in the leading features of their characters, and their manner of thinking and acting in the ordinary affairs of life. They were people of very different temperaments and dispositions; and this difference is uniformly and strikingly brought out in their treatment of the Lord Jesus. Both looked up to him with reverence; both regarded him with full confidence and tender affection; and both were equally earnest and eager in testifying their esteem and love. But each in doing so, followed the bent of her own peculiar turn of mind.
Martha was distinguished by a busy, if not bustling activity in the despatch of affairs. She seems to have possessed great quickness, alertness, and energy, together with a certain practical ability and good sense, qualifying her both for taking a lead herself, and for giving an impulse to others; so that she was well fitted for going through with any work to be done, and always awake to the common calls and the common cares of the ordinary domestic routine of life.
Mary was evidently characterized by more depth of thought, more devotedness and sensibility of feeling. She was more easily engrossed in any affecting scene, or any spiritual subject; more alive at any time to one single profound impression, and apt to be abstracted from other concerns.
And as their ways of testifying regard to the Lord Jesus in prosperity differed — so also did their demeanor towards him in adversity, (John 11.)
Martha was evidently the first to receive information of his approach (verse 20), either because to her, as the mistress of the house, the message was brought — or because, going about the house in her usual manner, she was in the way of hearing news. She went out in haste, impatient to meet the Lord, and to render to him the offices of courtesy and respect. She is ready to be up and doing; she can turn at once from the conversation in which her friends from Jerusalem have been seeking to interest her, and disengage her mind for active exertion.
Mary again is more absorbed in her grief; her sorrow is of a deeper and more desponding character; for while "Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming — went and met him; while Mary sat still in the house" (verse 20). This more absorbing intensity of Mary's grief, "the Jews who were with her in the house, and comforted her," seem to have remarked — when they said of her, as they saw her at last rise hastily and go out, "She goes unto the grave to weep there" (verse 31). They had not said this of Martha when she went forth. She might be bent on other errands. Mary could go — only to weep. And at first her feelings so overpower her, as to prevent her from going at all. The sudden arrival of her brother's friend is a shock too great for her; it tears the wound open afresh, and recalls bitter thoughts. She is plunged by the tidings into a fresh burst of sorrow, and can only "sit still in the house."
Thus, in different circumstances — the same natural temper may be either an advantage or a snare. Martha was never so much occupied in the emotion of one scene or subject, as not to be on the alert and ready for the call to another. This was a disadvantage to her when she was so hurried, that she could not withdraw herself from household cares to wait upon the Word of Life. It is an advantage to her now, that she can, with comparative ease, shake off her depression, and hasten of her own accord to meet her Lord.
The same profound feeling, again, which made Mary the most attentive listener before — makes her the most helpless sufferer now; and disposes her almost to nurse her grief, until Jesus, her best comforter, sends specially and emphatically to rouse her. Nor is it an insignificant circumstance, that it is the ever-active Martha who carries to her more downcast sister the awakening message — so ought sisters in Christ to minister to one another, and so may the very difference of their characters make them mutually the more helpful, "She went back and called her sister Mary aside. "The Teacher is here," she said, "and is asking for you." (verse 28).
When the two sisters meet Jesus, the difference between them is equally characteristic.
Martha's grief is not so overwhelming as to prevent her utterance. She is calm, and cool, and collected enough to enter into argument. She can give expression to her convictions and her hopes. She can tell that her faith is not shaken even by so severe a disappointment. Having hinted what might seem to imply a doubt (verse 21), she is in haste to explain her meaning, and to give assurance of her undiminished confidence, "But I know, that even now, whatever you ask of God — God will give it to you" (verse 22). And then, as the conversation goes on, she is sufficiently self-possessed to listen to a discourse on the resurrection, and reason with the Lord upon the subject — as well as to make a formal declaration of her faith in him as the author of eternal life, "the Christ, the Son of God, who should come into the world" (verse 23-27).
Not so her sister Mary. She indeed, when at last she is emboldened by her Master's kind message — goes forth to meet him, and her reverence, her devotion, her faith, are not less than those of Martha. But her heart is too full for many words. Her emotions, when she sees the Lord, she cannot utter. The passion of her soul she cannot command. She can but cast herself down, weeping, before him, and say, "Lord, if you had been here — my brother would not have died!" She adds not a word more. She lies prostrate and silent at his feet (verse 32).
Such are the different aspects which sorrow wears in minds of different stamps, and of different degrees of strength and of sensibility. But if it be the sorrow of a godly heart — it finds in Jesus, one who can with the most perfect tenderness and truth, adapt his sympathy and consolation to its peculiar character, whatever that may be. For it is most interesting and instructive, to observe how the Lord's demeanor towards the two sisters, in his first meeting with them on this occasion, was exactly suited to their respective tempers, and their different kinds of grief.
Martha's distress was of such a nature, that it admitted of discussion and discourse. She was disposed to converse, and to find relief in conversation. Jesus accordingly adapted his treatment to her case. He spoke to her, and led her to speak to him. He talked with her on the subject most interesting and most seasonable — on the resurrection of the body and the life of the soul. Martha had declared her unshaken trust in him as still having power to obtain from God all that he might ask (verse 22). And a wild idea, perhaps, crossed her mind that it might not even yet be too late — that the evil might, even now, be repaired. If so, it was but the imagination of a moment — the dreamy notion that sometimes haunts the desolate breast, when it strives in vain to realize the loss which it has sustained. A single sad thought brings the recollection, to which afterwards, as we have seen, in her characteristic spirit of attention to such details, she adverts, that her brother has been now four days in the tomb, and corruption must be doing its horrid work upon his body.
When, therefore, she hears her Lord's promise, "Your brother shall rise again," she applies it to his share in the general resurrection: "I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (verse 23, 24). Jesus is anxious to explain himself more fully. He speaks not of a resurrection merely — but of a resurrection in Himself — not of life only — but of life in Himself. "I am the resurrection, and the life: he who believes in me, though he were dead — yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Believe you this?" (verse 25, 26.)
For in fact, this is the only true comfort in reference to the future state. He is the only true comforter who can speak, not merely of the immortality of the soul, and of the resurrection of the body — but of Himself as the life of the immortal soul and the quickener of the risen body — the first-begotten from the dead — the first fruits of those who sleep. Ah, what consolation is it, that your brother lives and shall rise again — that he lives now in the spirit, and that he shall rise again in the body! The consolation I give is more effectual and complete by far. He lives in me. He shall rise with me.
And what is the life which I continue, even after death, to sustain? It is the very life which I impart now — life before God; life in God; the life of a soul pardoned, justified, reconciled to God, renewed after the image of God, sanctified and made meet for the fellowship of God forever. And what is the resurrection which I give? Is it not a resurrection to glory — when these vile bodies shall be changed and fashioned like unto my glorious body? It is my own life that I impart to the believer now, and continue to him without interruption beyond the grave! It is of my own resurrection that I am to make him a partaker when I come again.
These, or such as these, are the only words which, spoken by one who has authority, can shed light on the dark tomb of a lost and buried brother — or on the darker sorrow of a surviving sister's heart. So the apostle felt when he said, "I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep — that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again — even so, those also who sleep in Jesus, will God bring with him" (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14).
When Mary, on the other hand, draws near in the anguish of silent woe — Jesus is differently affected, and his sympathy is shown in a different way. He is much more profoundly moved. He does not reply to her in words, for her own words were few. Sorrow has choked her utterance, and overmastered her soul. But the sight of one so dear to him, lying in such helpless grief at his feet — is an appeal to him far stronger than any supplication. And his own responsive sigh, is an answer more comforting than any promise. "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping," for it was a melting scene, "He groaned in spirit and was troubled." And when he had asked of the bystanders, "Where have you laid him?" and received the reply, "Come and see" — like Joseph, he could not refrain himself, and "Jesus wept" (verse 33-35).
O most blessed mourner — with whose tears your Savior mingles his own! O sympathy most unparalleled! To each of the two stricken and afflicted ones, the Lord addressed the very consolation that was most congenial. To Martha — he gave exceeding great and precious assurances, in words such as never man spoke. To Mary — he communicated the groanings of his spirit, in language more expressive to the heart than any spoken words could be. With Martha — Jesus discoursed and reasoned. With Mary — Jesus wept.
What a friend is this! What a brother! Yes, and far more than a brother! And how confidently may you come to him, you Christian mourners, in every season of trial! For, surely, he will give you the very cordial, the very refreshment, of which you stand in need. He is a patient hearer — if you have anything to say to him; and he will speak to you as you are able to bear it. Your complaints, your regrets, your expostulations, your very remonstrances and upbraidings — may all be expressed to him. He will pity. He will comfort. His Holy Spirit will bring to your remembrance what Christ has said suitable to your case. He will recall to you the Savior's gracious words of eternal life, and suggest to you considerations fitted to dissipate your gloom, and put a new song in your mouth.
And even if you cannot collect your thoughts, and order your words aright — if you are speechless with silence when your sorrow is stirred, and as you muse your heart is hot within you — oh remember, that with these very groanings which cannot be uttered, the Spirit makes intercession for you! And they are not hidden from him who, when he saw Mary weeping, groaned, and was troubled, and wept.
There is indeed enough of all varied consolation in that blessed book, which all throughout testifies of Jesus! For the sorrow that seeks vent in words, and desires by words also to be soothed — there is the Savior's open ear — there are the Savior's lips into which grace was poured. For the grief that is speechless and silent — there are the Savior's tears!
"Jesus wept! Then the Jews said — See how he loved him!" John 11:35-36
"Christ's Words to the Sorrowing"
Broken-hearted, weep no more!
Hear what comfort He has spoken:
Smoking flax, He ne'er has quenched,
Bruised reed, He ne'er has broken.
"You who wander here below,
Heavy laden as you go,
Come with grief, with sin oppressed,
Come to me and be at rest!"
Lamb of Jesus' blood-bought flock,
Brought again from sin and straying.
Hear the Shepherd's gentle voice —
'Tis a true and faithful saying,
"Greater love how can there be,
Than to yield up life for Thee?
Bought with pang, and tear, and sigh,
Turn and live! — Why will you die?"
Broken-hearted, weep no more,
Far from consolation flying;
He who calls has felt your wound,
Seen your weeping, heard your sighing,
"Bring your broken heart to me.
Welcome offering it shall be;
Streaming tears and bursting sighs
My accepted sacrifice!"