And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night. Matthew 21:17
Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. John 11:5
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Mark 14:3
Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. John 12:2
A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. Mark 14:51-52
(see Luke 10:38-42; John 11:18-41; John 12:1-12)
The following striking passage occurs in the prophecies of Ezekiel– "Then the cherubim lifted their wings and rose into the air with their wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel hovered above them. Then the glory of the Lord went up from the city and stopped above the mountain to the east (the Mount of Olives)." (Ezek. 11:22, 23.)
Upon these words, we may venture here to repeat the remarkable commentary of the Rabbi Janna, "The Divine Majesty (Shekinah) stood three years and a half on Mount Olivet, saying, 'Return to me, O you my sons, and I will return to you' 'Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near'--and then, when all was vain, returned to its own place."
Such is a befitting link, connecting the Old Testament "memories of the Mount" with the New--an relevant prelude and introduction to the chapters which are now to follow, and to the themes we are now to ponder. CHRIST was that true SHEKINAH PRESENCE. For three years and a half He dwelt in our world--ever and anon, during that time, making Olivet His place of resort. From its grassy knolls and green slopes, as from a throne of emerald confronting His own Zion, He pleaded in words of stern majesty and tearful tenderness--"Turn, turn, why will you die, O house of Israel." And when His divine mission was terminated, from that same cherished place He ascended in the Shekinah-cloud (the emblem of Divinity)--"A cloud received Him out of their sight."
It is, while trodden by His footsteps and sanctified by His presence, we are now to linger among the remembrances of Olivet.
We appropriately begin with what may well be called, the Home on the Mount. Our adorable Redeemer had more than one resort there. We have good reason to surmise, that in the olive grove or olive garden of Gethsemane especially, (of which we shall speak hereafter,) He had some stated place or locality--some "private place" for meditation and prayer--and where His otherwise unsheltered head would be protected from the drenching dews of a Palestine night.
While this, however, is conjectural, there can be no conjecture regarding one beloved place on that Mount which He claimed as a sacred retirement--a calm and blissful retreat from coldness and ingratitude, ridicule and scorn--the malignity of avowed enemies--the treachery of trusted friends--that home was BETHANY. In His lonely, solitary nights among the hills and mountains of Galilee, we think of Him chiefly as the Son of God holding fellowship with His Father--here; we think of Him chiefly as the Son of man--the Brother of our nature--enjoying sympathetic fellowship with loving and congenial human spirits. Indeed, but for Bethany, the Mount would be deprived of its most sacred associations. It was coming and going from that hallowed home, which gave occasion for some of the most gracious, as well as some of the most solemn words which proceeded out of His mouth.
The Village of Bethany itself, is the solitary memorable spot in the eastern side of Olivet. It lies a mile from the summit, nestling in its own little hollow, embosomed in almonds, oaks, carobs, olives, and pomegranates, screened by the higher ridges of the Mount west and north, and thus removed from the noise and tumult of the city. Almost immediately on reaching it, the rapid depression to the Jordan valley commences by the steep road to Jericho, that same path down which Martha and Mary must, hour after hour, during these long days of unrelieved sorrow, have wistfully looked for the coming of the absent Savior. The wall of the Moab and Perean mountains rise erratic and precipitous to the far east--that same mountainous region in which Jesus and His disciples were sojourning, when the messenger from the bereft sisters carried to Him the tidings, "Lord, he whom you love is sick."
The name "House of Dates" would seem to indicate, that, at one period, the palm, now vainly sought for, was numbered amid Bethany's sylvan beauties. This tree is a native of lower and more congenial latitudes than the uplands of Judea. But perhaps it may have been the very strangeness of a group, or a grove of these, being found at this "mountain hamlet," which led to the distinctive epithet. Be this as it may, there, though "little among the thousands of Judah," the Divine Savior "ofttimes resorted," the Great and Good Shepherd ofttimes took shelter in this peaceful fold, from "the lions' dens and the mountains of the leopards;" the true Dove of peace, escaping "the windy storm and tempest," folded its weary wing in this "cleft of the rock."
O thrice-blissful Home! thrice-honored household! If even "the cup of cold water, given to a disciple, shall not lose its reward"--what shall be the reward of that loving and beloved family, whose sympathy and kindness served to ease the burdens of "the Man of sorrows"--to brighten the woe-worn path of the Lord of glory?
We are always struck with the extreme vividness of John's description of the events connected with Bethany. It gives the idea of the photograph of an eye-witness. No one but a personal and interested spectator could have narrated so graphically and circumstantially as he does, the marvelous story at the grave-yard, and afterwards the no less instructive and beautiful one of the Supper and the anointing with the spikenard. None but he, who 'stooped down at another sepulcher and looked in,' could have so tenderly sketched that Divine-human picture. The Inspired artist transferred it to his canvas, when he was residing, probably in his old age, at Ephesus--but the long intervening years had not effaced from his soul the freshness of that wondrous scene.
When he wrote, all his compeers in the apostolic band had been taken to their rest and their crowns. Martha and Mary and Lazarus had, we believe, "fallen asleep:" he is the solitary survivor of the 'Feast in Simon's House'. He had manifested a wise and delicate reticence in withdrawing the veil from that home-scene during the lifetime of the family. Now, however, that they had paid the great debt of nature, he scruples not to become their divine biographer. He unlocks these long and faithfully-kept secrets for behalf of the Church to its last day. Like one of the group in his sacred drawing, he breaks the alabaster box, that the world may be filled with the odor of the ointment; and that "wherever the Gospel is preached" these hallowed memorials may be carried.
But let us, in thought, cross the mountain foot-road with our blessed Lord, and enter the household at Bethany.
From one or two incidental allusions in the combined narratives, we seem warranted to infer, that this Family occupied a position, if not of wealth and influence, yet certainly one above the humbler ranks of Judean life. They were (what the ordinary villagers around them would not be) the owners of a rock-hewn sepulcher. The nard used by Mary to anoint her Lord is described as "a pound of spikenard, very costly." On the death of Lazarus, Jews of distinction came out to offer their condolence to the bereaved. Probably from the expression used, these Jewish visitors were composed of the Scribes and Pharisees, in general the representatives of the knowledgeable "upper classes" in Jerusalem. Moreover, from Martha's avowal in the course of her conversation with Jesus, we gather that she was not only conversant with the leading article in the Pharisees' creed, "touching the Resurrection," but had herself espoused it, as if personally at one time identified with the sect. These facts are indicative that the family were, at all events, raised above mediocrity in circumstances.
The very name given to the village, "the town of Mary and her sister Martha," would seem to imply that Bethany was chiefly known in connection with that one home; and as if theirs were a dwelling, conspicuous or distinguished amid the lowlier ones that surrounded it. Not that we can draw any special lesson from this in its connection with Him, whose presence encircles the village with its halo of heavenly interest, and who is "no respecter of persons." This much it teaches--that He was guest and associate alike of rich and poor, lowly and honorable. While He was pre-eminently the poor man's friend, and chose His apostles from the humblest homes in Galilee--it is interesting to think that the household which more specially gladdened and solaced Him in the closing days of His life, was one, whose inhabitants added the culture and refinement of a higher social position to those deeper religious feelings, which imparted to the sacred communion its peerless worth.
And it is beautiful to see in their case, (and this is the point which we would wish alone here more specially to illustrate,) as in the case of every human family where Christ is loved, and where He is in the highest spiritual sense a daily Visitor--it is beautiful to note, a gradual education and training--a progressive development in the Christian graces and spiritual character of the inhabitants. Martha, who attracts us first in the description of an earlier passing visit, (Luke 10:38)--though then a true disciple of her great Lord--is yet busy, bustling, impetuous, careworn, harassed with her household duties, troubling herself very needlessly and fastidiously about dispensing the customs of every-day hospitality. Even when trial has banished, for the time, the thought of these poor earthly cares--still in the very hour of her crushing sorrow, we can discern the native faults of her character--bold, impatient, outspoken--unable to restrain the unworthy surmise and reflection on her Lord's mysterious tarrying beyond Jordan, (11:27.) And at the very grave's brink, when Omnipotence is about to work--proud outspoken Reason will discredit the possibility of ransoming from corruption.
But, our last glimpse of her when the long training is complete--is that of one calmed, subdued, softened. She is at the feast in Simon's house, serving indeed still; but she is a silent member. There was once a day, when she would have discussed with keen eagerness the question of 'waste' which then engrossed the disciples; when she would have perhaps taken Judas's view of the case, and condemned the unwarranted expenditure of her loving and generous, but improvident sister.
But she has graduated since then in a new school. She has had instilled into "her loyal heart," a nobler and truer life. The old Pharisee creed she held in common with her educated Jewish friends, as to a common resurrection at the Last day, had been supplanted by a grander and more elevating verity--that believing in Christ, a present life was imparted that could never die, (John 11:25, 26.) Let others indulge, as they may, in questions of casuistry, as to the claims of the poor, and the excess of such waste--she was now a subdued, unreasoning disciple--listening with trustful reverence, in common with her sister, to ONE she loved more than all the world beside; and if she, also, had had gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, she would have surrendered them willingly, to swell her sister's lowly offering.
In Mary's case, we note the same education and progress towards higher spiritual development. From the first, indeed, we mark her quiet, gentle, contemplative character. No fretting worldly cares absorb her nobler nature. Her place from the first, was what she retained to the last--at her Lord's feet. She moved in a little world of devotedness to this Great Redeemer. When we first see her in the Inspired Biography, it is seated thus, "hearing His word"--receiving from unflattering lips the noble praise--"Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her," (Luke 10:42.)
When we see her next--it is when, roused from absorbing grief, she rushes to her Lord's feet with her wail of love and agony. All the Jerusalem comforters and sympathizers could not wake her from her trance of sorrow. But when Martha's brief word reaches her ear--"The Master is come!"--she rushes with fleet step "quickly"--carrying her griefs and fears, and tears and prayers, to the feet of the Great Restorer. Still she is silent. With the exception of the one utterance--'the pang of wounded affection,'--which had been often on the lips of the bereft sisters during these long days of sorrow in the lonesome midnight hour--"Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died"--still, I repeat, she is silent--her plaint is ended with a flood of tears, (John 11:33.)
Martha, even at the grave, (as we have already indicated,) where the crowd have gathered, attempts to doubt and reason and remonstrate--Mary preserves her characteristic silence--the mute eloquence of unsyllabled grief.
But, we pass from the scene of sorrow to the subsequent scene of joy, when the lost star is rekindled in their skies and death has surrendered his prey--mark the beautiful development of that hitherto silent, meditative devotion. The contemplative is merged into the active. Martha, is for the time passive--she "serves," but it is in silence. While Mary, (the heroine of the divine scene) brings forth her alabaster vase of precious nard--breaks it with her own hands, and pours its contents as an oblation of love and gratitude on the Head of her gracious Lord. Like some mountain-stream rising unnoted from its green mossy bed, only visible by the tinge of contrasted verdure--but on reaching the lower valley, on it flows, at first gently and softly but with ever-increasing volume of mountain-music--gathering strength and song as it speeds to its ocean home.
Beautiful type of true Christianity. Mary has been hitherto the recipient, now she is the giver. The question at the moment is– "What can I render unto my Redeeming God and Savior for all His benefits towards me?" Conscious of the reality of her love, she would like to give some visible proof of it. What has she to offer? Her poor services are worthless. Her more demonstrative sister might plead with obdurate sinners--reason with them, convince them. But she can manifest her devotion only by some lowly outward act. She has one valued casket in her possession--some souvenir of affection, long-treasured; or, it may be, purchased in Jerusalem, with the premeditated intention of using it as she does now. She brings it out with joyful heart--it is her all--the best she has to offer. Behold her now, the active one in the sacred group, busy in her office of lowly love, anointing the feet of Jesus, wiping His feet with her hair, and "the house filled with the fragrance of the perfume!"
Let us now transfer our thoughts to another dweller in Bethany, of whom we know little--indeed nothing--whose history at best must be subject of conjecture--him in whose house the Sabbath Feast took place, and who is called by two other Evangelists Simon the Leper. "While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper" (Matthew 26:6.)
The likeliest conjecture presumed regarding him is, that he was himself the father of the family. For years, it may be, he had been disjoined from all domestic ties by having become the victim of the most fearful of plagues. But the Divine Restorer who had plucked his son from the regions of Hades, had rescued him also from a worse than living death--cured him of a malady which was deemed, by human means, incurable. If this be so, we have also, in his case, surely a beautiful manifestation of pious gratitude and love. He makes a feast for his Divine Physician. That dwelling, which, a few weeks before, echoed with the wail of sadness--the desolate sisters, orphaned and friendless--father, mother, brother forsaken them--a future of blank despair!--now, behold, the house of mourning changed into a house of feasting--their adorable Savior is seated between the two trophies and monuments of His power and grace--"the living, the living" together praising Him who had "turned the shadow of death into the morning."
The Lord, their Redeemer "had spoken once, yes, twice had they heard this--that power belongs unto God." In the case of both, He had "taken off their sackcloth and girded them with gladness." Sickness in the one, and death in the other, had been (as was designed) "for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby."
For this brings us to the one other member of that rejoicing household--but the one around whom the main interest of the narrative gathers. We are allowed in the case of Lazarus, conjecturally at least, to trace the same evidence of grateful love. Oh how could his tongue be dumb, who had been delivered from so great a death? It is remarkable that in the narratives of John no light whatever is cast upon his character. We seem to know his sisters intimately, by their marked individuality--but Lazarus is shadowy--undefined--we are acquainted with him only as their brother, probably the youngest of the household.
We are unable to assent to the theory advanced by some commentators, who endeavor to recognize in him the young ruler "with great possessions," whom Jesus, on beholding, "loved." A kindred conjecture, however, seems to have more plausible support; and although it can at best be but conjectural, it casts an interesting ray of light on one of the strangest episodes recorded in connection with our Lord's last sufferings--an incident preserved by Mark, and by Mark alone.
At that dreadful crisis-hour, (which we shall dwell upon in subsequent pages)--when the struggle of Gethsemane was over--when the band of soldiers, with lanterns and torches, came, in company with the traitor, to meet Jesus, the panic-stricken disciples were scattered on the mountain sides--the Shepherd was about to be smitten, and the faithless sheep were scattered. At that moment the passover moon, and the light of the lanterns and torches, fell on a mysterious figure lurking close by. He was a youth. He had nothing round his naked body but "a white linen cloth." He followed, first tremblingly, then boldly, the assassin band. Who can this be? Who this noble young adherent, who, when the old and tried companions of the Sufferer have ignominiously fled, follows His blood-stained path undeterred by the murderous crew? Peter, with his brave soul--John, with his loving heart, have both shared in the general panic--but this youth dares to brave these flashing swords and threatening staves. We know only this of him, that he was immediately seized, as if recognized at once as a friend and ally of Christ's. Ruffian hands are laid upon him. They grasp the linen cloth which covered him; but, with fleet foot, he bounded off from his captors--"He left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked," (Mark 14:52.)
Who then, we again ask, could this (or might this) youth be, who was recognized by the mob? We read in the immediate sequel to the narrative of the raising of Lazarus and the feast of Bethany, "But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death, because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away and believed on Jesus." In the preceding context of Luke's Gospel, it is expressly said, that it was the chief priests, in conjunction with the scribes and elders, who sent out the assassin band and multitude for the apprehension of Christ. Is the surmise an unlikely one, that, hovering amid the rocks of the mountain, or olive groves skirting the well-known path leading from Gethsemane to Bethany, was one who had good reason to love his Lord with a love, which prison and death would never extinguish? What more likely, though unmentioned in connection with Gethsemane, than that Bethany had sent across the intervening ridge, a more faithful watcher than the unfaithful slumbering apostles?
Roused from his couch by the report, carried to him by his sisters, of the attempted seizure, would it not be the likeliest of occurrences, that their young brother would instantly rush, not perhaps with any vain hope of attempting a rescue, but to follow with loving and wistful sympathy the Adorable Sufferer, to whom he owed his restored life and being? We dare not give rein to imagination, and push such an hypothesis too far. But whence, we are led to ask, this strange clothing of this mysterious follower--the linen cloth cast round his body in the haste and hurry of that midnight arousing?
It is worthy of careful note, first of all, that the word, "linen cloth," as rendered by Mark, is not the same word at all, as is used in other places, with reference to linen garments employed as clothing for the living. For example, the "fine linen" in which the rich man is clothed in the parable, is altogether a different word from the one employed by Mark in his description of this young man, or "the linen cloth" in which was wrapped the body of our Lord. Moreover, while this latter is several times employed by the Evangelists, it is, with one exception, (Matt. 11:8,) always so in connection with the cloth or garment which shrouded the DEAD. We know the Jews were specially careful and fastidious regarding all arrangements for burial. Their grave-clothes were reckoned among their sacred things. They yielded to no oriental nation in their attention to funeral rites--the embalming spices, and ointments, and linen shroud, were all providently laid up in store. We have just found even the Savior Himself recognizing, in Mary's alabaster box with its pound of spikenard, a 'mournfully foreseeing love' in reference to His death--"Against the day of my burying has she done this."
Even if all this had not been the case, we know, too surely, that Lazarus was in the possession of grave-clothes. But the linen shroud, which, in the case of others, would be a gloomy and forbidding thing, reminding them of death, would, in his case, be the trophy of the most wondrous victory ever achieved. We could imagine other Jews--notwithstanding all these devout feelings regarding preparations for the tomb--shrinking, just as we would, with sensitive aversion, from the grim and sad symbols and remembrancers of corruption and the grave--keeping them scrupulously locked up, away from sight. But with Lazarus it was different. Oh, never could hero look with such wondrous emotion on the spoils of victory, as would this young villager of Bethany regard these mementoes of his astounding resurrection! May we not imagine him, hanging up his linen shroud and the napkin which bound him, as sacred memorials of that never-to-be-forgotten moment, when "the dead came forth bound hand and foot with grave-clothes," and he heard, once more, the living tones of a living voice, "Loose him, and let him go"?
Can we dare venture, then, the hypothesis--still further to strengthen the previous conjecture--that, when roused, at dead of night, by the tidings of the assault in Gethsemane, he seized in his haste the suspended robe of which the King of Terrors had been despoiled? May he not, perhaps, have seized it, as being that by which his Lord would best recognize him in, the gloom? May he not have taken it as the best, though a silent, memorial of his gratitude, to suggest to the Great Sufferer, in His own hour of impending death, that He too would not be held by death, that His grave-clothes would be made vestures of triumph, the resurrection at Bethany being the shadow and pledge and precursor of a far greater?
Yes, and when he fled naked from those who had seized him, may it not have been the accomplishment of all he had desired, to leave in their hands the linen cloth? Observe, it is not said that the captors wrested from him the shroud; but it is expressly worded, "He left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked"--more as if this had been his object and wish, to deposit with them, and through them, to leave with his Lord, the sacramental pledge and type of His own glorious conquest over death. If so, again would Jesus, in silent gratitude, echo the words He had a few weeks before uttered to that young man's sister, "For the day of my burying has he done this."
Thus then have we seen--dimly shadowed, it may be, in the case of some of them, but still more or less visible in all the members of the family of Bethany, as the result of their communion and fellowship with their beloved Lord--what we have ventured to call their 'divine education'--the illustration of that faith which works by love, which purifies the heart and overcomes the world--in the case of Martha, making the life of bustle, and unrest, and fretting care--merge into calm thoughtfulness and unreasoning faith. In the case of Mary, making the life of simple, childlike devotion--develop itself into the activities of holiness. In the case of Simon and of Lazarus, leading each, in his own way, to give proof, by the most expressive outward symbol, of their gratitude and joy and devoted attachment to the Person of their Divine Restorer.
Let us, in closing, inquire, as a practical question, Do we know anything of that spiritual Resurrection, which is the key-note to the sublime discourse of the Bethany graveyard? I do not ask if we assent to the article of Martha's pharisee-creed--belief in a future physical resurrection. But do we believe in a nobler present spiritual one?--a higher life, in the Resurrection from the death of sin, of which, if a man once partake, he shall never cease to live?
Death (what we call death) is the mere suspension, or temporary "breaking to pieces," of the bodily organism--not the extinction of the true and nobler being. It is the breaking of the casket, but the gem is safe. It is the walls of the tottering building overturned, but the living, deathless tenant is safe. "Whoever lives and believes on me shall never die. Do you believe this?" Do you believe in "life" despite of death--life, even while the King of terrors has stamped his mockery on the outward clay--living the imperishable life, which death only exalts, elevates, sublimates?
Jesus, we read, "wept;" but these were not tears over the loss of a buried friend, for He, at least, knew well, that in a few brief moments, that friend would be restored at His side. Among the varied causes of these tears of Jesus, doubtless not the least, was the world's persistent unbelief of these grand truths He had been then unfolding--the groaning of His spirit, was His bitter, piteous lament over the impenitence and obduracy of a race of dying sinners; some of whom were then standing close by, ready (despite of the gigantic miracle just transacted before them) to go immediately and plot His murder.
Unbeliever of the present day! scorning, also, these transcendent utterances regarding what alone can meet and answer the deep needs of your spiritual being, there may at that moment have been, in these weeping eyes, a tear for you!
Reader, you who, perhaps, know experimentally the reality of this present and deathless Resurrection, let me ask– if thus believing in Christ--if thus made partaker of this spiritual, the prelude to everlasting life--what have you done--what are you doing for the Lord who died for you--who has raised you from the death of sin, and who has enabled you to appropriate that noblest of truths, "Whoever lives, and believes on me, shall never die"? Has your heart become a Bethany-home, gladdened by His presence? He was but the passing visitor at the Jewish village; but to each one of us, He is daily, and in manifold voices of His Word and Providence saying, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock, and if any man hears my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me."
Let us bring him our pound of spikenard--our linen covering (whatever we have) as a fit offering and pledge of grateful love. But for Him, tears more bitter far than those of the bereft sisters, must have been ours forever--but for Him, ours must have been spiritual nakedness in the dark midnight of despair. But, blessed be His name--through His atoning death and great propitiation, "we, being clothed, shall not be found naked."
Follow that crowd from Gethsemane to Calvary; see the buffeted One and crucified One laid in the silent tomb! But, lo, it is left tenantless! The shroud and grave-clothes are "laid by themselves" on the rocky floor; the overlaying stone is scattered in fragments at the grave's mouth, and the voice of victory is heard, 'You shall not be unclothed, but clothed upon, for mortality is swallowed up of life!'