The Bethany Altercation

Alessandro Magnasco's painting 'The Raising of Lazarus' (1715-1740) at the RijksmuseumReflection: John 11

Jesus possibly spent significant time with the family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus whenever he was in Bethany. A clue in verse one mentioned a future event (John 12: 1-8) when Mary poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair, giving us some context to this cherished relationship. Furthermore, this is one of those rare occasions where it is recorded that Jesus wept, over the death of Lazarus at his tomb.

Perea, where Jesus was ministering, is just across the Jordan River from Bethany, which is two miles east of Jerusalem. He nevertheless stayed an extra few days despite the sisters’ appeal for him to come quickly to heal Lazarus’ fatal illness. By the time he arrived at Bethany, Lazarus had been buried for four days. He must have seen what his Father was intending to do… for just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom he wishes (John 5:19-21). Despite the risk of further confrontation with the Judean authorities, and yet knowing that he was walking in God’s light and purpose (v9), he left with his disciples for Bethany.

Resurrection was obviously on the Lord’s mind in Perea and he spoke about it immediately to Martha when he arrived at the outskirts of Bethany (v 23), but she misunderstood him. The tension, and it was no ordinary tension, was building up. Martha went home and directed Mary’s attention to the Lord’s arrival. She rushed out to meet him. The scene of intense grieving moved him, and a deep inarticulate vocalization (denoting anger) welled up within him (v33). But what was the object of his fury? Was he gravely disappointed with his unbelieving followers who probably knew of his resurrection teaching at the commencement of his Galilean ministry? They too were cognizant of, if not personally witnessed, the resurrection of Jairus’ twelve years old daughter (Mark 5:21-24a, 35-43), and the earlier more public raising of the Nain widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17). Or could it be with the pervasive presence of the specter of death he had come to destroy?

As he advances to the tomb, Jesus’ focus was with the power of death. What is so special about this resurrection? Lazarus had been dead for four days: his body would be in an advanced process of decomposition with its deathly odour (v 39). Besides, it provided a public teaching moment for all who stayed behind after the funeral, and an objective open demonstration of the raw power of God (v 41-42). What John also does is to uncover for us the heart of Jesus, as he secures for us our salvation by an open representation of his conquest of death and hell; Lazarus’ resurrection verified the eternal reach of Jesus beyond the grave as he called him to arise. The dead can and do hear and recognize his voice. And they are able to obey and respond to his call notwithstanding their physical fleshly decay. This validation was like a seal on his Divine assertion and the immortality of the human spirit. Literally, he is the Lord of the living and the dead! Its accomplishment resulted in a God-forsaken Sanhedrin backlash that culminated at the cross, where He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor 5:21).

Only what God does accomplish through us in life will really matter. Our credit will be miniscule and it must be that way, just like the manner Jesus worked in and around Lazarus. Christ’s invitation remains relevant, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and greater works, because I am going to be with the Father… Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:12-14). We must not loose the awe and promise of those words as we walk in step with his Holy Spirit. Our fixation ought not to be with the charlatans, but what is our Father doing?

An appropriate postscript is needed. Perhaps the one person who truly understood Jesus’ mission, is also the one who anointed him with precious ointment just prior to his final week in Jerusalem – Mary, the younger sister of Lazarus!