Bethany: Part 7

John 12  •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 7
The opening paragraph of John 12 brings before us a scene of deepest interest, and full of most precious instruction. We feel we cannot do better than quote at full length the lovely record, for the spiritual benefit of the reader. There is nothing, after all, like the veritable language of holy scripture.
" Then Jesus, six days before the passover, came to Bethany, where Lazarus was which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper, and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment."
Here we have illustrated, in the most striking and forcible manner, the three grand features which ought to characterize every Christian and every christian assembly, namely, calm, intelligent communion, as seen in Lazarus seated at the table: holy worship, as seen in Mary at the feet of her Lord; and loving service, as seen in Martha, in her activities about the house. All three go to make up the christian character, and all three should be exhibited in every christian assembly. We consider it a very great moral mistake to set any one of these features in opposition to the others, inasmuch as each, in its proper place, is lovely; and, we may add, each should find its place in all. We should all of us know what it is to sit at the table with our blessed Lord, in sweet communion. This will most assuredly lead to profound homage and adoration; and we may rest assured that, where there is the communion and the worship, there will not be lacking the loving activities of true service.
The reader will observe that, in the above beautiful scene, there is no record of any collision between Martha and Mary. Each had her place to fill. There was room for both. "Jesus loved Martha and her sister." Here Martha is put first. In verse 1, we read of " Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha." Looked at from a divine standpoint, there is no need why any one should in the smallest degree collide with another. And, further, we may add, there is no necessity whatever for comparing the sphere of one with that of another. If Christ be our one absorbing object, there will be lovely harmony in action, though our line of things may vary.
Thus it was at Bethany. Lazarus was at the table, Mary at the Master's feet, and Martha was about the house. All was in beautiful order, because Christ was the object of each. Lazarus would have been entirely out of his place had he set about preparing the supper; and if Martha had sat at the table, there would have been no supper prepared. But both were in their right places, and we may rest assured that both would rejoice in the odor of Mary's ointment as she poured it on the feet of their ever-loving and beloved Lord.
Is not all this conveyed to us in that one sentence, " There they made him a supper?" It was not one more than another. All had part in the precious privilege of making a supper for the one peerless object of their heart's affections; and, having Him in their midst, each fell naturally, simply, and effectively, into his and her proper place. Provided the beloved Master's heart was refreshed, it mattered not who did this, or who did that. Christ was the center, and each moved round Him.
Thus it should be always in the assembly of Christians, and thus it would be, if odious self were judged and set aside, and each heart simply occupied with Christ Himself. But, alas! here is just where we so sadly fail. We are occupied with ourselves, and our little doings, and sayings, and thinkings. We attach importance to work, not in proportion to its bearing upon the glory of Christ, but its bearing upon our own reputation. If Christ were our one object—as He surely will be throughout eternity, and ought to be now—we should not care the least who did the work, or who rendered the service, provided His name was glorified, and His heart refreshed. Hearken to the utterance of a truly devoted heart in reference to the very subject before us: " Do all things without murmurings and disputings; that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain, neither labored in vain. Yea, and if I be offered [or poured out] upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy and rejoice with you all. For the same cause also do ye joy and rejoice with me." Phil. 2:14-1814Do all things without murmurings and disputings: 15That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; 16Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither labored in vain. 17Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all. 18For the same cause also do ye joy, and rejoice with me. (Philippians 2:14‑18).
This is uncommonly fine. The blessed apostle presents in this exquisite passage a true sample of self-forgetting devotedness. He expresses Himself as ready to be poured out as a drink-offering upon the sacrifice and service of his beloved Philippians, utterly regardless of himself. It mattered not to him who contributed the component parts of the sacrifice, provided only that the sacrifice was presented as a sweet odor to Christ. There was none of that contemptible littleness and self-occupation about that beloved servant of Christ which so often, alas! appear in us, and prevent our appreciation of another's service. We are all alive when any little service of our own happens to be on the tapis. We listen with intense interest to any one speaking or writing about our usefulness, or the result of our preachings or writings; but we hear with cold apathy and marked indifference the record of a brother's success. We are by no means ready to be poured out as a drink-offering upon the sacrifice and service of another's faith. We like to provide both meat-offering and drink offering ourselves. In a word, we are deplorably selfish, and assuredly never is self more thoroughly contemptible than when it dares to mix itself up with the service of God. Bustling self-importance in the work of Christ, or in the church of God, is about the most hideously ugly thing in all this world. Self-Occupation is the death-blow to fellowship and to all true service. Nor this only; it is also the fruitful source of strife and division in the church of God. Hence the deep need of those faithful and most wholesome words of the blessed apostle, " If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfill ye my joy, that ye be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vain-glory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Here lies the grand remedy for the terrible malady of self-occupation in all its phases. It is having Christ before our hearts, and His lowly mind formed in us by the Holy Ghost. It is utterly impossible to drink into the spirit of Jesus, to breathe the atmosphere of His presence, and be occupied with self in any shape or form. The two things are in direct opposition. In proportion as Christ fills the heart, self and its belongings must be excluded; and if Christ occupies the heart, we shall rejoice to see His name magnified, His cause prospering, His people blessed, His gospel spread abroad, no matter who may be used as His instrument.
We may rest assured that wherever there is envy, or jealousy, or strife, there self is uppermost in the heart. The blessed apostle could rejoice if Christ was preached, even though it was of contention.
But to return to the family of Bethany. We wish the reader to notice particularly the three distinct phases of christian life exemplified in Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, namely, communion, worship, and service-Should we not, each one of us, seek to realize and exemplify all the three? Is it not interesting and important to observe that in John 12 there is no question raised between Martha and Mary? Is not this accounted for by the fact that in this beautiful passage we have the divine and heavenly side on the subject?
In Luke 10 we have the human side. Here, alas Ϊ there is collision. Let us read the passage. " Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman, named Martha, received him into her house''—it was Martha's house, and of course she had to manage it. " And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word"—blessed, privileged place!—"But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her."
Here we find that Martha's self-occupation marred her service, and drew forth words of reproof from the lips of her loving, yet faithful, Lord—words, we may safely say, which would never have fallen upon her ear had she not interfered with her sister Mary. Her service had its place and its value, and her Lord knew well how to appreciate it; but, blessed be His name, He will not allow any one to interfere with another. Each had her own place, her own line of things. Jesus loved Martha and her sister, but if Martha will complain of her sister, she must learn that there is something more to be thought of than preparing a supper. Had Martha gone quietly on with her work, having Christ as her object in all that she was doing, she would not have had a rebuff; but she was evidently in a wrong spirit. She was not in communion with the mind of Christ; had she been so, she never could have used such words to her Lord as, " Dost thou not care? Surely He does care about us, and He is interested in all our little works and ways. The smallest service done to Him is precious to His loving heart, and will never be forgotten.
But we must not interfere with another's service, or intrude in any way upon his domain. Our blessed Lord will not suffer it. Whatever He gives us to do, let it be done simply to Him. This is the grand point. There is not the slightest necessity for jostling one another. There is ample space for all, and the very highest sphere is open to all. We may all enjoy intimate communion; we may all worship; we may all serve; we may all be acceptable. But the moment we set about making invidious comparisons, we are clearly out of the current of the Master's mind. Martha, no doubt, thought her sister rather deficient in action. She was mistaken. The best preparation for action is sitting at the Master's feet to hear His word. Had Martha understood this, she would not have complained of her sister; but, inasmuch as she herself raised the question, and gave occasion for any comparison, she had to learn that a hearing ear, and a worshipping heart, are more precious by far than busy hands. Alas! our hands may be very busy, while the ear is heavy, and the heart far away! but if the heart be right, then the ear, the hands, the feet, yea, all will be right. " My son, give me thine heart."
We do not mean to imply that Martha's heart was not right in the main. Far from it. We feel assured it was. But there was an element which needed correction, as there is in all of us. She was a little occupied with her service. " Carest thou not that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she come and help me" This was all wrong. She ought to have known that service was not confined to cooking—that there was something higher than meat and drink. Ten thousand might be got to prepare a supper for one that would break an alabaster box. Not that our Lord undervalued the supper; but what would that supper have been to Him without the ointment, the tears, the hair? What is any act of service without the deep and true devotion of the heart? Nothing. But, on the other hand, where the heart is really engaged with Christ, the smallest act is precious to Him. " If there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath."
Here lies the root of the whole matter. It is an easy thing to bustle about in so-called service, to run from house to house, and place to place, visiting and talking, and after all there may not be a single spark of genuine affection for Christ, but the mere worthless activity of a self-occupied mind, an unbroken will, the workings of a heart that has never known the constraining power of the love of Christ. The grand point is to find our place at the feet of our gracious Lord, in worship and adoration, and then we shall be ready for any sphere of action which He may see fit to open for us. If we make service our object, our service will become a snare and a hindrance. If Christ be our object, we shall be sure to do the right thing, without thinking about ourselves or our work.
Thus it was with Mary. She was occupied with her Lord, and not with herself or her alabaster box. She sought not to interfere with any one else. She complained not of Lazarus at the table, nor of Martha with her household cares. She was absorbed with Christ and His position at the moment. The true instincts of love led her to see what was fitting for the occasion, and grateful to His heart, and she did that—did it with all her heart.
Yes, and her Lord appreciated her act. And not only so, but when Martha complained of her, He very soon taught her her mistake; and when Judas, with ill-concealed covetousness, talked of her et as being a waste, he too got his answer. Heartless man! hiding his covetousness under the cloak of caring for the poor. No one can have a true heart for the poor who does not love Christ. Judas—professor, and apostle and all, as he was—loved money: alas! no uncommon love. He had no heart for Christ, although he may have preached and cast out devils in His blessed name. He could talk of selling the ointment for three hundred pence, and giving it to the poor; but, oh! the Holy Ghost, who measures everything by the one standard of the glory of Christ, lets us see the roots of things, and He it is who tells the full truth as to Judas. " This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein."
How truly awful! To be outwardly so near the Lord; to profess His name; to be an apostle; to talk about giving to the poor; and all the while to be a thief, and the betrayer of the Son of God!
Dear christian reader, let us ponder these things. Let us seek to live very near to Christ, not in mere profession, but in reality. May we find our place ever in the moral shelter of His holy presence, there to find our delight in Him, and thus be fitted to serve Him, and witness for His name!