The matter being determined, that Christ will go to Judea, and his disciples with him, they address themselves to their journey; in this journey some circumstances happened which the other evangelists record, as the healing of the blind man at Jericho, and the conversion of Zaccheus. We must not reckon ourselves out of our way, while we are in the way of doing good; nor be so intent upon one good office as to neglect another.
At length, he comes near to Bethany, which is said to be about fifteen furlongs from Jerusalem, about two measured miles, John 11:18. Notice is taken of this, that this miracle was in effect wrought in Jerusalem, and so was put to her score. Christ’s miracles in Galilee were more numerous, but those in or near Jerusalem were more illustrious; there he healed one that had been diseased thirty-eight years, another that had been blind from his birth, and raised one that had been dead four days. To Bethany Christ came, and observe,
I. What posture he found his friends there in. When he had been last with them it is probable that he left them well, in health and joy; but when we part from our friends (though Christ knew) we know not what changes may affect us or them before we meet again.
1. He found his friend Lazarus in the grave, John 11:17. When he came near the town, probably by the burying-place belonging to the town, he was told by the neighbours, or some persons whom he met, that Lazarus had been four days buried. Some think that Lazarus died the same day that the messenger came to Jesus with the tidings of his sickness, and so reckon two days for his abode in the same place and two days for his journey. I rather think that Lazarus died at the very instant that Jesus, “Our friend sleepeth, he is now newly fallen asleep;” and that the time between his death and burial (which among the Jews was but short), with the four days of his lying in the grave, was taken up in this journey; for Christ travelled publicly, as appears by his passing through Jericho, and his abode at Zaccheus’s house took up some time. Promised salvations, though they always come surely, yet often come slowly.
2. He found his friends that survived in grief. Martha and Mary were almost swallowed up with sorrow for the death of their brother, which is intimated where it is said that many of the Jews came to Martha and Mary to comfort them. Note, (1.) Ordinarily, where death is there are mourners, especially when those that were agreeable and amiable to their relations, and serviceable to their generation, are taken away. The house where death is called the house of mourning, Eccl. 7:2. When man goes to his long home the mourners go about the streets (Eccl. 12:5), or rather sit alone, and keep silence. Here was Martha’s house, a house where the fear of God was, and on which his blessing rested, yet made a house of mourning. Grace will keep sorrow from the heart (John 14:1), not from the house. (2.) Where there are mourners there ought to be comforters. It is a duty we owe to those that are in sorrow to mourn with them, and to comfort them; and our mourning with them will be some comfort to them. When we are under the present impressions of grief, we are apt to forget those things which would minister comfort to us, and therefore have need of remembrancers. It is a mercy to have remembrancers when we are in sorrow, and our duty to be remembrancers to those who are in sorrow. The Jewish doctors laid great stress upon this, obliging their disciples to make conscience of comforting the mourners after the burial of the dead. They comforted them concerning their brother, that is, by speaking to them of him, not only of the good name he left behind, but of the happy state he was gone to. When godly relations and friends are taken from us, whatever occasion we have to be afflicted concerning ourselves, who are left behind and miss them, we have reason to be comforted concerning those who are gone before us to a happiness where they have no need of us. This visit which the Jews made to Martha and Mary is an evidence that they were persons of distinction, and made a figure; as also that they behaved obligingly to all; so that though they were followers of Christ, yet those who had no respect for him were civil to them. There was also a providence in it, that so many Jews, Jewish ladies it is probable, should come together, just at this time, to comfort the mourners, that they might be unexceptionable witnesses of the miracle, and see what miserable comforters they were, in comparison with Christ. Christ did not usually send for witnesses to his miracles, and yet had none been by but relations this would have been excepted against; therefore God’s counsel so ordered it that these should come together accidentally, to bear their testimony to it, that infidelity might stop her mouth.
II. What passed between him and his surviving friends at this interview. When Christ defers his visits for a time they are thereby made the more acceptable, much the more welcome; so it was here. His departures endear his returns, and his absence teaches us how to value his presence. We have here,
1. The interview between Christ and Martha.
(1.) We are told that she went and met him, John 11:20. [1.] It should seem that Martha was earnestly expecting Christ’s arrival, and enquiring for it. Either she had sent out messengers, to bring her tidings of his first approach, or she had often asked, Saw you him whom my soul loveth? so that the first who discovered him ran to her with the welcome news. However it was, she heard of his coming before he arrived. She had waited long, and often asked, Isa. he come? and could hear no tidings of him; but long-looked-for came at last. At the end the vision will speak, and not lie. [2.] Martha, when the good news was brought that Jesus was coming, threw all aside, and went and met him, in token of a most affectionate welcome. She waived all ceremony and compliment to the Jews who came to visit her, and hastened to go and meet Jesus. Note, When God by his grace or providence is coming towards us in ways of mercy and comfort, we should go forth by faith, hope, and prayer to meet him. Some suggest that Martha went out of the town to meet Jesus, to let him know that there were several Jews in the house, who were no friends to him, that if he pleased he might keep out of the way of them. [3.] When Martha went to meet Jesus, Mary sat still in the house. Some think she did not hear the tidings, being in her drawing-room, receiving visits of condolence, while Martha who was busied in the household-affairs had early notice of it. Perhaps Martha would not tell her sister that Christ was coming, being ambitious of the honour of receiving him first. Sancta est prudentia clam fratribus clam parentibus ad Christum esse conferre—Holy prudence conducts us to Christ, while brethren and parents know not what we are doing.—Maldonat. in locum. Others think she did hear that Christ was come, but was so overwhelmed with sorrow that she did not care to stir, choosing rather to indulge her sorrow, and to sit poring upon her affliction, and saying, I do well to mourn. Comparing this story with that in Luke 10:38; we may observe the different tempers of these two sisters, and the temptations and advantages of each. Martha’s natural temper was active and busy; she loved to be here and there, and at the end of every thing; and this had been a snare to her when by it she was not only careful and cumbered about many things, but hindered from the exercises of devotion: but now in a day of affliction this active temper did her a kindness, kept the grief from her heart, and made her forward to meet Christ, and so she received comfort from him the sooner. On the other hand, Mary’s natural temper was contemplative and reserved. This had been formerly an advantage to her, when it placed her Christ’s feet, to hear his word, and enabled her there to attend upon him without those distractions with which Martha was cumbered; but now in the day of affliction that same temper proved a snare to her, made her less able to grapple with her grief, and disposed her to melancholy: But Mary sat still in the house. See here how much it will be our wisdom carefully to watch against the temptations, and improve the advantages, of our natural temper.
(2.) Here is fully related the discourse between Christ and Martha.
[1.] Martha’s address to Christ, John 11:21, 22.
First, She complains of Christ’s long absence and delay. She said it, not only with grief for the death of her brother, but with some resentment of the seeming unkindness of the Master: Lord if you hadst been here, my brother had not died. Here is, 1. Some evidence of faith. She believed Christ’s power, that, though her brother’s sickness was very grievous, yet he could have cured it, and so have prevented his death. She believed his pity, that if he had but seen Lazarus in his extreme illness, and his dear relations all in tears about him, he would have had compassion, and have prevented so sad a breach, for his compassions fail not. But, 2. Here are sad instances of unbelief. Her faith was true, but weak as a bruised reed, for she limits the power of Christ, in saying, If thou hadst been here; whereas she ought to have known that Christ could cure at a distance, and that his gracious operations were not limited to his bodily presence. She reflects likewise upon the wisdom and kindness of Christ, that he did not hasten to them when they sent for him, as if he had not timed his business well, and now might as well have staid away, and not have come at all, as to come too late; and, as for any help now, she can scarcely entertain the thought of it.
Secondly, Yet she corrects and comforts herself with the thoughts of the prevailing interest Christ had in heaven; at least, she blames herself for blaming her Master, and for suggesting that he comes too late: for I know that even now, desperate as the case is, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it to thee. Observe, 1. How willing her hope was. Though she had not courage to ask of Jesus that he should raise him to life again, there having been no precedent as yet of any one raised to life that had been so long dead, yet, like a modest petitioner, she humbly recommends the case to the wise and compassionate consideration of the Lord Jesus. When we know not what in particular to ask or expect, let us in general refer ourselves to God, let him do as seemeth him good. Judicii tui est, non praesumptionis meae—I leave it to thy judgment, not to my presumption.—Aug. in locum. When we know not what to pray for, it is our comfort that the great Intercessor knows what to ask for us, and is always heard. 2. How weak her faith was. She should have said, “Lord, thou canst do whatsoever thou wilt;” but she only says, “Thou canst obtain whatsoever thou prayest for.” She had forgotten that the Son had life in himself, that he wrought miracles by his own power. Yet both these considerations must be taken in for the encouragement of our faith and hope, and neither excluded: the dominion Christ has on earth and his interest and intercession in heaven. He has in the one hand the golden sceptre, and in the other the golden censer; his power is always predominant, his intercession always prevalent.
[2.] The comfortable word which Christ gave to Martha, in an answer to her pathetic address (John 11:23): Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha, in her complaint, looked back, reflecting with regret that Christ was not there, for then, thinks she, my brother had been now alive. We are apt, in such cases, to add to our own trouble, by fancying what might have been. “If such a method had been taken, such a physician employed, my friend had not died;” which is more than we know: but what good does this do? When God’s will is done, our business is to submit to him. Christ directs Martha, and us in her, to look forward, and to think what shall be, for that is a certainty, and yields sure comfort: Thy brother shall rise again. First, This was true of Lazarus in a sense peculiar to him: he was now presently to be raised; but Christ speaks of it in general as a thing to be done, not which he himself would do, so humbly did our Lord Jesus speak of what he did. He also expresses it ambiguously, leaving her uncertain at first whether he would raise him presently or not till the last day, that he might try her faith and patience. Secondly, It is applicable to all the saints, and their resurrection at the last day. Note, It is a matter of comfort to us, when we have buried our godly friends and relations, to think that they shall rise again. As the soul at death is not lost, but gone before, so the body is not lost, but laid up. Think you hear Christ saying, “Thy parent, thy child, thy yoke-fellow, shall rise again; these dry bones shall live.”
[3.] The faith which Martha mixed with this word, and the unbelief mixed with this faith, John 11:24.
First, She accounts it a faithful saying that he shall rise again at the last day. Though the doctrine of the resurrection was to have its full proof from Christ’s resurrection, yet, as it was already revealed, she firmly believed it, Acts 24:15. 1. That there shall be a last day, with which all the days of time shall be numbered and finished. 2. That there shall be a general resurrection at that day, when the earth and sea shall give up their dead. 3. That there shall be a particular resurrection of each one: “I know that I shall rise again, and this and the other relation that was dear to me.” As bone shall return to his bone in that day, so friend to his friend.
Secondly, Yet she seems to think this saying not so well worthy of all acceptation as really it was: “I know he shall rise again at the last day; but what are we the better for that now?” As if the comforts of the resurrection to eternal life were not worth speaking of, or yielded not satisfaction sufficient to balance her affliction. See our weakness and folly, that we suffer present sensible things to make a deeper impression upon us, both of grief and joy, than those things which are the objects of faith. I know that he shall rise again at the last day; and is not this enough? She seems to think it is not. Thus, by our discontent under present crosses, we greatly undervalue our future hopes, and put a slight upon them, as if not worth regarding.
[4.] The further instruction and encouragement which Jesus Christ gave her; for he will not quench the smoking flax nor break the bruised reed. He said to her, I am the resurrection and the life, John 11:25, 26. Two things Christ possesses her with the belief of, in reference to the present distress; and they are the things which our faith should fasten upon in the like cases.
First, The power of Christ, his sovereign power: I am the resurrection and the life, the fountain of life, and the head and author of the resurrection. Martha believed that at his prayer God would give any thing, but he would have her know that by his word he could work anything. Martha believed a resurrection at the last day; Christ tells her that he had that power lodged in his own hand, that the dead were to hear his voice (John 5:25), whence it was easy to infer, He that could raise a world of men that had been dead many ages could doubtless raise one man that had been dead but four days. Note, It is an unspeakable comfort to all good Christians that Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life, and will be so to them. Resurrection is a return to life; Christ is the author of that return, and of that life to which it is a return. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, and Christ is both; the author and principle of both, and the ground of our hope of both.
Secondly, The promises of the new covenant, which give us further ground of hope that we shall live. Observe,
a. To whom these promises are made—to those that believe in Jesus Christ, to those that consent to, and confide in, Jesus Christ as the only Mediator of reconciliation and communion between God and man, that receive the record God has given in his word concerning his Son, sincerely comply with it, and answer all the great intentions of it. The condition of the latter promise is thus expressed: Whosoever liveth and believeth in me, which may be understood, either, (a.) Of natural life: Whosoever lives in this world, whether he be Jew or Gentile, wherever he lives, if he believe in Christ, he shall live by him. Yet it limits the time: Whoever during life, while he is here in this state of probation, believes in me, shall be happy in me, but after death it will be too late. Whoever lives and believes, that is, lives by faith (Gal. 2:20), has a faith that influences his conversation. Or, (b.) Of spiritual life: He that lives and believes is he that by faith is born again to a heavenly and divine life, to whom to live is Christ—that makes Christ the life of his soul.
(a.) For the body; here is the promise of a blessed resurrection. Though the body be dead because of sin (there is no remedy but it will die), yet it shall live again. All the difficulties that attend the state of the dead are here overlooked, and made nothing of. Though the sentence of death was just, though the effects of death be dismal, though the bands of death be strong, though he be dead and buried, dead and putrefied, though the scattered dust be so mixed with common dust that no art of man can distinguish, much less separate them, put the case as strongly as you will on that side, yet we are sure that he shall live again: the body shall be raised a glorious body.
(b.) For the soul; here is the promise of a blessed immortality. He that liveth and believeth, who, being united to Christ by faith, lives spiritually by virtue of that union, he shall never die. That spiritual life shall never be extinguished, but perfected in eternal life. As the soul, being in its nature spiritual, is therefore immortal; so if by faith it live a spiritual life, consonant to its nature, its felicity shall be immortal too. It shall never die, shall never be otherwise than easy and happy, and there is not any intermission or interruption of its life, as there is of the life of the body. The mortality of the body shall at length be swallowed up of life; but the life of the soul, the believing soul, shall be immediately at death swallowed up of immortality. He shall not die, eis ton aiona, for ever—Non morietur in aeternum; so Cyprian quotes it. The body shall not be for ever dead in the grave; it dies (like the two witnesses) but for a time, times, and the dividing of time; and when time shall be no more, and all the divisions of it shall be numbered and finished, a spirit of life from God shall enter into it. But this is not all; the souls shall not die that death which is for ever, shall not die eternally, Blessed and holy, that is, blessed and happy, is he that by faith has part in the first resurrection, has part in Christ, who is that resurrection; for on such the second death, which is a death for ever, shall have no power; see John 6:40. Christ asks her, “Believest thou this? Canst thou assent to it with application? Canst thou take my word for it?” Note, When we have read or heard the word of Christ, concerning the great things of the other world, we should seriously put it to ourselves, “Do we believe this, this truth in particular, this which is attended with so many difficulties, this which is suited to my case? Does my belief of it realize it to me, and give my soul an assurance of it, so that I can say not only this I believe, but thus I believe it?” Martha was doting upon her brother’s being raised in this world; before Christ gave her hopes of this, he directed her thoughts to another life, another world: “No matter for that, but believest thou this that I tell thee concerning the future state?” The crosses and comforts of this present time would not make such an impression upon us as they do if we did but believe the things of eternity as we ought.
[5.] Martha’s unfeigned assent yielded to what Christ said, John 11:27. We have here Martha’s creed, the good confession she witnessed, the same with that for which Peter was commended (Matt. 16:16, 17), and it is the conclusion of the whole matter.
First, Here is the guide of her faith, and that is the word of Christ; without any alteration, exception, or proviso, she takes it entire as Christ had said it: Yea, Lord, whereby she subscribes to the truth of all and every part of that which Christ had promised, in his own sense: Even so. Faith is an echo to divine revelation, returns the same words, and resolves to abide by them: Yea, Lord, As the word did make it so I believe and take it, said queen Elizabeth.
Secondly, The ground of her faith, and that is the authority of Christ; she believes this because she believes that he who saith it is Christ. She has recourse to the foundation for the support of the superstructure. I believe, pepisteuka, “I have believed that thou art Christ, and therefore I do believe this.” Observe here,
a. What she believed and confessed concerning Jesus; three things, all to the same effect:—(a.) That he was the Christ, or Messiah, promised and expected under this name and notion, the anointed one. (b.) That he was the Son of God; so the Messiah was called (Ps. 2:7), not by office only, but by nature. (c.) That it was he who should come into the world, the ho erchomenos. That blessing of blessings which the church had for so many ages waited for as future, she embraced as present.
b. What she inferred hence, and what she alleged this for. If she admits this, that Jesus is the Christ, there is no difficulty in believing that he is the resurrection and the life; for if he be the Christ, then, (a.) He is the fountain of light and truth, and we may take all his sayings for faithful and divine, upon his own word. If he be the Christ, he is that prophet whom we are to hear in all things. (b.) He is the fountain of life and blessedness, and we may therefore depend upon his ability as well as upon his veracity. How shall bodies, turned to dust, live again? How shall souls, clogged and clouded as ours are, live for ever? We could not believe this, but that we believe him that undertakes it to be the Son of God, who has life in himself, and has it for us.
2. The interview between Christ and Mary the other sister. And here observe,
(1.) The notice which Martha gave her of Christ’s coming (John 11:28): When she had so said, as one that needed to say no more, she went her way, easy in her mind, and called Mary her sister. [1.] Martha, having received instruction and comfort from Christ herself, called her sister to share with her. Time was when Martha would have drawn Mary from Christ, to come and help her in much serving (Luke 10:40); but, to make her amends for this, here she is industrious to draw her to Christ. [2.] She called her secretly, and whispered it in her ear, because there was company by, Jews, who were no friends to Christ. The saints are called into the fellowship of Jesus Christ by an invitation that is secret and distinguishing, given to them and not to others; they have meat to eat that the world knows not of, joy that a stranger does not intermeddle with. [3.] She called her by order from Christ; he bade her go call her sister. This call that is effectual, whoever brings it, is sent by Christ. The Master is come, and calleth for thee. First, She calls Christ the Master, didaskalos, a teaching master; by that title he was commonly called and known among them. Mr. George Herbert took pleasure in calling Christ, my Master. Secondly, She triumphs in his arrival: The Master is come. He whom we have long wished and waited for, he is come, he is come; this was the best cordial in the present distress. “Lazarus is gone, and our comfort in him is gone; but the Master is come, who is better than the dearest friend, and has that in him which will abundantly make up all our losses. He is come who is our teacher, who will teach us how to get good by our sorrow (Ps. 94:12), who will teach, and so comfort.” Thirdly, She invites her sister to go and meet him: “He calls for thee, enquires what is become of thee, and would have thee sent for.” Note, When Christ our Master comes, he calls for us. He comes in his word and ordinances, calls us to them, calls us by them, calls us to himself. He calls for thee in particular, for thee by name (Ps. 27:8); and, if he call thee, he will cure thee, he will comfort thee.
(2.) The haste which Mary made to Christ upon this notice given her (John 11:29): As soon as she heard this good news, that the Master was come, she arose quickly, and came to him. She little thought how near he was to her, for he is often nearer to them that mourn in Zion than they are aware of; but, when she knew how near he was, she started up, and in a transport of joy ran to meet him. The least intimation of Christ’s gracious approaches is enough to a lively faith, which stands ready to take the hint, and answer the first call. When Christ was come, [1.] She did not consult the decorum of her mourning, but, forgetting ceremony, and the common usage in such cases, she ran through the town, to meet Christ. Let no nice punctilios of decency and honour deprive us at any time of opportunities of conversing with Christ. [2.] She did not consult her neighbours, the Jews that were with her, comforting her; she left them all, to come to him, and did not only not ask their advice, but not so much as ask their leave, or beg their pardon for her rudeness.
(3.) We are told (John 11:30) where she found the Master; he was not yet come into Bethany, but was at the town’s end, in that place where Martha met him. See here, [1.] Christ’s love to his work. He staid near the place where the grave was, that he might be ready to go to it. He would not go into the town, to refresh himself after the fatigue of his journey, till he had done the work he came to do; nor would he go into the town, lest it should look like ostentation, and a design to levy a crowd to be spectators of the miracle. [2.] Mary’s love to Christ; still she loved much. Though Christ had seemed unkind in his delays, yet she could take nothing amiss from him. Let us go thus to Christ without the camp, Heb. 13:13.
(4.) The misconstruction which the Jews that were with Mary made of her going away so hastily (John 11:31): They said, She goes to the grave, to weep there. Martha bore up better under this affliction than Mary did, who was a woman of a tender and sorrowful spirit; such was her natural temper. Those that are so have need to watch against melancholy, and ought to be pitied and helped. These comforters found that their formalities did her no service, but that she hardened herself in sorrow: and therefore concluded when she went out, and turned that way, it was to go to the grave and weep there. See, [1.] What often is the folly and fault of mourners; they contrive how to aggravate their own grief, and to make bad worse. We are apt in such cases to take a strange pleasure in our own pain, and to say, We do well to be passionate in our grief, even unto death; we are apt to fasten upon those things that aggravate the affliction, and what good does this do us, when it is our duty to reconcile ourselves to the will of God in it? Why should mourners go to the grave to weep there, when they sorrow not as those that have no hope? Affliction of itself is grievous; why should we make it more so? [2.] What is the wisdom and duty of comforters; and that is, to prevent as much as may be, in those who grieve inordinately, the revival of the sorrow, and to divert it. Those Jews that followed Mary were thereby led to Christ, and became the witnesses of one of his most glorious miracles. It is good cleaving to Christ’s friends in their sorrows, for thereby we may come to know him better.
(5.) Mary’s address to our Lord Jesus (John 11:32): She came, attended with her train of comforters, and fell down at his feet, as one overwhelmed with a passionate sorrow, and said with many tears (as appears John 11:33), Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died, as Martha said before, for they had often said it to one another. Now here, [1.] Her posture is very humble and submissive: She fell down at his feet, which was more than Martha did, who had a greater command of her passions. She fell down not as a sinking mourner, but fell down at his feet as a humble petitioner. This Mary had sat at Christ’s feet to hear his word (Luke 10:39), and here we find her there on another errand. Note, Those that in a day of peace place themselves at Christ’s feet, to receive instructions from him, may with comfort and confidence in a day of trouble cast themselves at his feet with hope to find favour with him. She fell at his feet, as one submitting to his will in what was done, and referring herself to his good-will in what was now to be done. When we are in affliction we must cast ourselves at Christ’s feet in a penitent sorrow and self-abasement for sin, and a patient resignation of ourselves to the divine disposal. Mary’s casting herself at Christ’s feet was in token of the profound respect and veneration she had for him. Thus subjects were wont to give honour to their kings and princes; but, our Lord Jesus not appearing in secular glory as an earthly prince, those who by this posture of adoration gave honour to him certainly looked upon him as more than man, and intended hereby to give him divine honour. Mary hereby made profession of the Christian faith as truly as Martha did, and in effect said, I believe that thou art the Christ; bowing the knee to Christ, and confessing him with the tongue, are put together as equivalent, Rom. 14:11; Phil. 2:10, 11. This she did in presence of the Jews that attended her, who, though friends to her and her family, yet were bitter enemies to Christ; yet in their sight she fell at Christ’s feet, as one that was neither ashamed to own the veneration she had for Christ nor afraid of disobliging her friends and neighbours by it. Let them resent it as they pleased, she falls at his feet; and, if this be to be vile, she will be yet more vile; see Song 8:1. We serve a Master of whom we have no reason to be ashamed, and whose acceptance of our services is sufficient to balance the reproach of men and all their revilings. [2.] Her address is very pathetic: Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. Christ’s delay was designed for the best, and proved so; yet both the sisters very indecently cast the same in his teeth, and in effect charge him with the death of their brother. This repeated challenge he might justly have resented, might have told them he had something else to do than to be at their beck and to attend them; he must come when his business would permit him: but not a word of this; he considered the circumstances of their affliction, and that losers think they may have leave to speak, and therefore overlooked the rudeness of this welcome, and gave us an example of mildness and meekness in such cases. Mary added no more, as Martha did; but it appears, by what follows, that what she fell short in words she made up in tears; she said less than Martha, but wept more; and tears of devout affection have a voice, a loud prevailing voice, in the ears of Christ; no rhetoric like this.