Memories of Bethany

“And He led them out as jar as to Bethany, and blessed them, and it came to pass, while He blessed them, He was parted from them, and carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50).

It was our privilege only recently to retrace His path. I take it that so far as we are able to tell with the somewhat changed conditions as a result of nineteen hundred years of the varied experiences through which Palestine has passed, that when we left Jerusalem by the gate a little north of the temple area and crossed over the brook Kedron to the Mount of Olives, then went along its western slope and over to the southeastern side, and after following the road about two miles or more came to Bethany, we were following almost the same route that the Lord Jesus took when He made His last little journey here on earth.

He had died for our sins upon the cross; His precious body had lain for a little time in Joseph’s new tomb. Then He had risen in triumph. For forty days He appeared to His disciples, instructing them in the things concerning the Kingdom of God, gave them the great commission to “go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,” proclaiming repentance and remission of sins through His name, and then He led them out along the slope of the Mount of Olives as far as to Bethany, and there with His hands lifted up in blessing He was parted from them. Up and up He went until the glory-cloud enshrouded Him and He was received up into Heaven, some day to come again to call His own to be with Himself, and then to stand on that very Mount of Olives when He comes to take the Kingdom and rule in righteousness for a thousand years over a redeemed universe.

Our hearts were much solemnized as we took that road, and when we came at last to the little village I could not help but be grieved when I saw how ruined it is. With the exception of Hebron, the greatest lot of beggars that we saw anywhere in Palestine we found at Bethany. Wee little tots and older people, all had one word, “buk-sheesh.” If you did not give them a little bit, they screamed after you; they were so disappointed. But as usual we had made it a point to change some larger money into very small coins so as to be able to give them something.

We went up to the village of Bethany and a young Arab guide was prepared to identify every place for us. He could tell us just where the house of Simon the leper was, and where the house of Mary and Martha stood! He undertook to take us to the very place where Lazarus had been buried. It may indeed have been the actual tomb; though when he pointed it out I was a bit taken aback. It is a singular thing how we get misconceptions sometimes when we simply read about an event and have not been on the ground where it happened. All my life I have pictured Lazarus’ tomb as a cave in the side of a hill, something like the garden sepulchre where the body of our blessed Lord lay. I have thought of the Saviour coming and standing opposite that door and the stone being rolled away from it and Lazarus coming out from it. When he took me to the reputed tomb of Lazarus, underneath an old house where there were stairs leading down to an underground cave, and said, “This is where Lazarus was buried, and he came up those stairs when the Lord gave him life,” I thought, “That cannot be.” I had so definitely visualized his walking out of that door in the side of the hill. But as I stood there thinking it all over and wondering whether it could possibly be true, it suddenly came back to my mind that the place where he was buried “was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.” Not, “a stone lay against it.” And so I realized that this was just exactly the kind of a cave in which he probably was buried, and if I was not looking into the very sepulchre of Lazarus, it was one very similar to that in which his body had been laid away. There was an air-vent where you could look down into it, and I could see now the Lord standing there and calling down through that opening, if you will, “Lazarus, come forth.” And then Lazarus coming up that stairway bound hand and foot with grave-clothes. It was an altogether new conception to me, but I think I understand it better than ever before.

We walked about Bethany for a time, and our hearts were moved as we thought of the various events that had taken place there. Bethany was Jesus’ other home. He was brought up in Nazareth, spent thirty years there, but when He began His public ministry He chose Capernaum as His home city. That was up in the northern part of the land, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. But when He came down into Judea, as far as we have any record, He never slept in the city of Jerusalem at night. He always left the city at sunset and went out to the Mount of Olives, and that probably means that He went out to the Garden of Gethsemane, or to Bethany, because on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives was the home where He was always welcome. I looked at the ruins of the place which they said had been the home of Mary and Martha. I do not suppose it is possible to identify that home, but I love to think that there was a place which Jesus knew was always open to Him. You like to feel there is some place where you are always welcome, don’t you? It is a pathetic thing when one does not know of any home on earth where the people love to have him come. They were always glad to have Jesus visit at the home in Bethany.

You remember the different incidents recorded. One of the first was that time when He came with His disciples, and as He sat there in the outer court of the home, Mary drew a stool to His feet and sat listening to the gracious words that proceeded out of His mouth, while Martha in the kitchen and dining-room was preparing a meal. You recall how the Lord rebuked her. Some preachers are altogether too hard on her. I feel for Martha. She was very anxious to give of her best when Jesus, and possibly His disciples, were all to be her guests. For Jesus knew that He was so welcome there, and His disciples were welcome because they were His friends. So there were possibly thirteen itinerant preachers, every one with a good appetite; and Martha says, “I must do my best for them.”

And so she is cooking there in the heat and all the time thinks, “Of course Mary will be coming right out to help me.” But Mary seems utterly indifferent. The reason was that Mary was delighting in the message that Jesus brought. She was taken up with the words that fell from His lips. Her soul was so enthralled that she never thought of anything else, and the Lord loved that. At last Martha could stand it no longer; she was nervous and upset, and said, “Master, won’t you speak to my sister that she come and help me? I have a big dinner to get up.” And Jesus says, and I do not think He said it sternly for He did not mean really to blame her, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things.” In other words, “I know how you feel; you are all upset. You want to get a good dinner for us, but listen to Me, there is something that means more to Me than a good dinner and that is to find some one who loves to hear My message, and Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her.”

You get the same thought in John’s Gospel where you find the Lord Jesus Christ at Jacob’s well and the disciples come and say, “Master, eat;” but He has been ministering words of peace and life to that poor Samaritan woman and says, “I have meat to eat that ye know not of.” Our blessed Lord, though truly Man and though He hungered as Man and thirsted as Man, yet found more satisfaction in ministering to needy souls than He did in enjoying the good things provided for the nourishment of the body.

The next time that we read of His coming to Bethany was when the sisters had watched for days over their sick brother, Lazarus. At last the physicians shook their heads and said, “There is no hope; he cannot get well; he is going to die.” And the sisters said, “Oh, but there is hope,” and they called a messenger and said, “Go for the Master at Bethabara; we hear Jesus is over there.” It was about fifteen miles away, just down the Jericho road, beyond Jordan on the other side of what is today called Allenby’s Bridge. “Go and tell Him, He whom Thou lovest is sick. He will understand. You don’t need to use any name. He will surely come.” And I know they said in their hearts, “He will be right up the road j He won’t be long. He will be coming on a donkey and will be here as quickly as possible.” The messenger went and did as he was bidden, but Jesus “abode two days still in the same place where He was.” He did not come, and Lazarus got worse and worse until at last he died, and the sisters could not understand it. Jesus who loved them so tenderly, Jesus who was so much to them, and He did not seem to care! He let Lazarus die! Oh, how little they understood the purpose of God. And how little we often understand when God permits death and desolation to come to us!

Finally Jesus came, and a messenger came running and said, “Jesus is here,” and Martha ran to meet Him and said, “Lord, if Thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” I think there was a little censure there, as though she said, “I thought You loved him. You might have been here but You didn’t come.” But Jesus assured her, “Thy brother shall rise again.” “Oh,” she said, “I know, but that isn’t the same thing as having him now. I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day, but that is a long time to wait. We miss him so; our hearts are so sore; our home is so lonely without him.” He answered in those wonderful words, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in Me, though he were dead yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.” Then she sent for her sister and said, “The Master is come, and calleth for thee.” Mary at once went to meet Him and she fell at His feet—she always seemed to find her way to His feet—and she said just what Martha said, but I think with a different inflection. And Jesus replied, “Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?” And so they led Him to the house and He said, “Where have ye laid him?” They told Him and led Him out and up the hill, and then to the cave with the stone upon it, and the Jews followed to see what was going to happen. He stood there, and as He saw the grief that the sisters evidenced, and realized the pain that they were enduring, the hot, scalding tears began to fall from His own eyes, and we read, “Jesus wept.” We say sometimes that that is the shortest verse in the Bible, and contains only two words. It might be translated in this way, “Jesus shed tears,” tears of loving sympathy. The Lord Jesus Christ was no cool looker-on. He was no mere stoic in a world of suffering and sin, but His heart was moved by all the sorrows of His people. He has told us to weep with those that weep as well as rejoice with those that rejoice.

The Jews when they saw His tears exclaimed, “Behold, how He loved him!” And some of them said, “Couldn’t He have arranged it that this man had not died?” Then came the startling command, “Take ye away the stone.” He might have done that Himself, but it was something for them to do. There are dead souls all about us. Men and women who, though alive as to the things of this world, are dead to the things of God, and to us the Lord is still saying, “Roll ye away the stone.” There are hindrances that you and I can put away in order that the dead may be brought to life. Do you think of anything in your life that is hindering others from coming to Christ? “Roll ye away the stone.” I have had people come to me and say, “I wish you would pray for my son, for my daughter, for my father, my mother, my husband, my wife,” and I have said to them, “Are you really living for God before them?” Often they have dropped the head in shame and have had to confess that their own testimony was a hindrance instead of a help. “Roll ye away the stone.” He could give life without lifting a hand, but He does not chose to do it that way. That is one reason why it pleases God “by the foolishness of preaching”—not by foolish preaching—“to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). That is our part in the salvation of men. We are to live for God before them, to carry the message to them, and then to count on Him to do the work in the soul that gives life.

But the sisters attempted to interfere and Martha objected, “Master, he has been dead four days already, and in this climate the body will have begun to corrupt and be offensive.” “No,” He says, “roll it away,” and they obeyed Him. There He stood and looked down, perhaps through that very opening that I saw, and cried with a voice of command, “Lazarus, come forth,” and the next moment he that had been dead came up those stairs still bound hand and foot with grave-clothes. He had life but not liberty. That is often the way when people are first saved. They receive divine life when they believe, but they are still in bondage to old ideas and misconceptions of His will. “Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your heart as in the provocation” (Heb. 3:7, 8). “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24).

The moment a poor sinner believes the Word of the Son of God, hears the Word in faith, that moment he gets divine life. But he is not immediately set at liberty. New life has stirred within him; he who had been utterly indifferent to the things of God now loves the Lord and His Word. But there may be much he does not understand and he may be in great legal bondage until he is set free by the truth. So that day Jesus turned to His disciples and said, “Loose him and let him go.” So Lazarus was freed, and off he went to the house to get into his ordinary garments. Brought forth alive from the tomb! “Marvel not at this,” says Jesus, “for the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28, 29).

There was a great difference between the resurrection of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus was raised, He came out of the grave-clothes, leaving them in the tomb, because His was the resurrection to glory. But Lazarus’ resurrection was simply to natural life, and so he came out of the tomb with the grave-clothes still upon him.

The next time the Lord Jesus came to Bethany they made Him a supper in the house of Simon the leper. He could not have been a leper then, but I take it that he had been one for years, until one day he met with Jesus, and when Jesus touched him or spoke the word of power, his leprosy was healed. Now Simon the leper is back in the home again and is evidently a well-to-do man. He makes a feast for Jesus, and the blessed Lord comes to enjoy this time of fellowship. Martha is not cumbered now; but she is still serving, for we read that “Martha served.” Lazarus was one of those that sat at the table with Him. And Mary took a pound of ointment and anointed His head and feet in view of the burial. What a lovely scene! There you have a threefold picture of what every Christian should be. Martha served—and every Christian should be one who serves. Lazarus sat at the table—that is fellowship and communion, and we should all live in communion with the Lord Jesus Christ. Mary brought the ointment and brake it—that is worship, and we should all be worshipers.

The house was filled with the odor of the ointment. Everywhere through that home was the fragrance diffused which spoke of the worship and adoration of Mary’s heart. But there was one man there who could not enter into this, and that was Judas, of whom the Lord said, “Have not I chosen you twelve?—and one of you is a devil” (John 6:70). Judas looked on and asked indignantly, “Why was this waste of the ointment made?” (Mark 14:4). While Mary is pouring out her treasure of love upon the Lord— nothing is too good for Jesus—Judas is doing some calculating, “Why, that would sell for three hundred denarii. That is all that a man could earn in a whole year, and she is wasting it on Jesus.” The natural man cannot understand the Christian’s devotedness.

The fact of the matter was, Judas did not care anything about the poor; he was using that as a pretence, for he was the treasurer of the little company. He carried the bag, and, we are told, “He bare away what was put therein,” getting his own out of the contributions that were made for the work of carrying the gospel of the kingdom through Israel in that day. But Jesus says of Mary, “Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her” (Mark 14:9). As she sat at His feet I have no doubt one of the things He told her was that He was going to die, to give His life for poor sinners, and then come back from the grave in triumph. Much as she loved Him, Mary was not one of the women at the cross, neither was she one of those at the tomb, because she could wait quietly at the little home in Bethany. She knew He would be back; she knew the grave could never hold Him; she knew that some wonderful day He would appear at the door just as of old, and Mary and Martha and Lazarus would run to greet Him and He would sit with them again in happy, holy fellowship. They loved Him there in Bethany, and so, when it came to the end, after His death and after His resurrection and after the forty days’ instruction to His disciples, when He is going back to Glory, it is as though He says, “There is one spot I must see again before I go Home to Heaven.” And so He led His disciples over the Mount of Olives as far as to Bethany. All that took place there we are not told, but from there He ascended to Heaven. And now, exalted at God’s right hand, He is a Prince and a Saviour, but just as truly the Man Christ Jesus with the same tender heart as when on earth. “There is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).

He wants you to come into the circle of His acquaintance. He has such a wonderful circle now. Of old there were so few with whom He could enjoy fellowship, but think now of the millions of those who have been saved, think of the millions gathered on each Lord’s Day in this and other lands to sing His praises, to preach His gospel, and you—are you outside the company of those redeemed to God by His precious blood? Would you not like to know Him? He wants you to be one of His own. “Acquaint now thyself with Him, and be at peace” (Job 22:21). Like Lazarus, you are dead if you are still unsaved, but He wants to give you life, to speak the word that will make you live eternally. If now you will believe the gospel message, that life will be yours. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). Jesus, the Christ of Bethany, speaks to you now, offers you life. Will you believe Him? Will you trust Him? Will you hear His voice? Will you come to Him?