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Studies on the Women of the Bible
by Davis W. Huckabee
THE TWO SISTERS—MARTHA AND MARY
“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. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. 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 are 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,” (Luke 10:38-42).
Here is introduced to our view for the first time the family of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and while they become quite prominent in later notices, it is possible that this was their first contact with Jesus. How did Jesus come to enter into this house? If we consider the context, there is the strong possibility that this house was one that the ones that were “worthy” because they received the missionaries, (vv. 5ff), and that subsequently an invitation is given to Jesus and His disciples to eat with them. In any case, Martha “received” Him into her home. Most commentators assume that Martha, Mary and Lazarus were already Jesus’ disciples at this time, but if so, it is probable that they had only been so since the tour of the Seventy, (Luke 10:1).
From all that is said here, it seems likely that Martha was the mistress of the home. This could be because she was the eldest. But it has been conjectured by several with seeming good reason, that she was a widow. And comparison of John 12:1-3, where Martha, Mary and Lazarus are all with Jesus, with Matthew 26:6-7, where the same event is said to have taken place in the house of Simon the Leper, an interesting possibility is suggested. Martha probably was the wife of Simon, who would have been separated from their company because of the defilement of the disease, (Num. 5:1-4), or, more likely, she was his widow. There are several men named Simon in the Gospels, and while there are two references to “the house of Simon the Leper,” yet the man himself never appears, so that it seems most likely that he was dead by now.
Martha’s house was in the town of Bethany. Bethany was a small village within walking distance of Jerusalem, about one and five-eighths of a mile east, lying on the east slope of Mount of Olives. Due to its excellent location to Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives, which Jesus and his disciples frequented, and the friendship between Jesus and the sisters and their brother, this home became a “home away from home” for the itinerant preacher Jesus while attending various festivals in Jerusalem. This was no doubt a tremendous blessing to Jesus and to his disciples as well.—Robert M. Terhune, Perspectives On Biblical Women, Vol. 2, p.
Here is first introduced to us two sisters that though they had both experienced the saving grace of God, were of radically different temperaments, the older, Martha was an out-going, serving, extrovert type that found it hard to just sit down and meditate on the things of God. She gloried in her doing for others and was probably quite proud of her serving. Mary, on the other hand, was a quiet, meditative, introvert type that delighted to simply sit and listen to Jesus’ teachings. For centuries it has been recognized that people fall into four general categories of temperament: sanguine, choleric, melancholy and phlegmatic, each of which has its own distinct characteristics. Often a person will have a combination of two of these temperaments, but generally with one or the other being more dominate. This is simply part of God’s marvelous distinctiveness of creative diversity.
The sheep in the Lord’s flock have each their own peculiarities. The trees in the Lord’s garden are not all precisely alike. All true servants of God agree in the principle things of religion. All are led by one Spirit. All feel their sins, and all trust in Christ. All repent, all believe, and all are holy. But in minor matters they often differ widely. Let not one despise another on this account. There will be Marthas and there will be Marys in the Church until the Lord comes again.—J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts On The Gospels, Vol 2, p. 384-385.
These two had a brother, Lazarus, that was also saved, and he will come into the narrative in due time. It is curious how these are all mentioned by name almost exactly the same number of times, Martha being mentioned ten times by name, Mary eleven times and Lazarus eleven times. It is curious that archeologists have found a cemetery at the site of Bethany in which are the names of Martha, Eleazar (Lazarus is a form of this name) and Simon. These were all three very, very common names and most villages would have had several people of these names in every generation.
Like most women, especially in past generations, Martha wanted her home to reflect well on her, and so, she was fussy about her hospitality. “Cumbered” is the imperfect passive of a verb that literally means to draw around. She had allowed herself to become so wrapped up in her housework that she was actually working to cross-purposes to Jesus’ purpose. He had said in Matthew 20:28, “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.” He even used the same Greek word that described Martha’s “serving.” She was trying to make Jesus welcome to her table, while Mary was concerned to welcome Him to her heart. And Jesus was always more concerned about this latter kind of reception than the former. Kitchen pride often hinders women from serving the Lord to the best of their ability. God sees and takes accounting of the state of the heart of worshippers.
As is often the case, her over-fussiness soon tamed into resentment at her sister for her seeming unconcern and this resulted in an explosion of anger. The Greek verb rendered “came to Him” literally means that she “burst in upon Him,” and is suggestive of the explosive anger that resentment had kindled in her. Such an outburst is usually the result of bottled up resentment, and sooner or later it will burst out.
Some people with a very low view of this matter have thought that Jesus simply meant, “There’s no need for several dishes of different foods. Just one is all that is needed.” But that is to miss the whole point. The many things she was troubled about were indeed the material food and service, none of which was that important, while the one thing needful, which she was neglecting, was spiritual worship which was what Mary rendered to her Lord.
It is common for churches to have Ladies Sunday School classes that they call “the Mary-Martha class” in which it is assumed that both are serving the Lord, but in different ways, but that Mary’s is the better of the two forms of service. But Scripture does not so speak! Notice that Jesus said that only “one thing was needful,” not two, and Mary had chosen “that good part,” not the better part. This relates to worship of the Lord primarily, and nothing can be an adequate substitute for the outflow of the heart in love to the Lord. This was “that good part,” which Mary had chosen, which would not be taken from her. Martha was too bent upon impressing the Lord with the doing of her hands, and that cannot please the Lord as much as the worshipful heart. Martha’s service was taken up with the body and its food, both of which are to be destroyed in due time, (1 Cor. 6:12-13), but “he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever,” (1 John 2:17f). And this involves in large part the learning of what God’s will for us is. What an important spiritual lesson this portion of Scripture teaches us.
Our next meeting of these two sisters and their brother is found in John 11:1ff when Lazarus becomes sick and dies. There was a special affection of Jesus for this family as shown by the sister’s appeal to Jesus in verse 3. It is instructive to note that the Greek word used in verse 3 (phileo) has to do with a mere friendship type of love. But in verse 5 the Greek word (agapao) used for Jesus’ love is a much higher, more spiritual love, and indicates that none of us realize the greatness of Jesus’ love for His own people.
Often when some great calamity befalls people they will immediately blame God and frequently question why He allowed it to happen if He is the God of love. Often the ones that are most outspoken in this are those that have lived in contempt of God all their lives until He got their attention by the calamity. God no doubt has many reasons for allowing sickness and death and other evils but perhaps some of the most common are: (1) To chastise for sin, so that one will not be destroyed with the world. (2) Because some people will never look up until they are laid on their backs. (3) Such things keep us mindful of our mortality. We are but creatures of a moment and then our tenure on earth is over. (4) We all need to be kept mindful that we are always dependent upon God’s grace and goodness for our welfare. (5) God is often more glorified in our adversities than in our advantages, and His glory is, after all, our purpose for existence. (6) We all have a set time to die and to stand before the Lord, and sickness and death may be God’s means of calling us to stand before Him.
Jesus and his disciples were across the Dead Sea in Perea at this time—about a day’s journey from Bethany, so that He could have been at Bethany in just a matter of a day or two at most. But He does not rush back across the sea, but lingers two days before even starting His return journey, (v. 6), so that when He finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days, (v. 39). Evidently Lazarus died shortly after his sisters sent messengers to find Jesus and to apprize Him of Lazarus’ sickness and this takes one day. Then He tarried two more days before leaving for Bethany, and the trip takes a day. As the Lord Himself said, this sad event was to be for the glory of the Lord, (v. 4), and so it tested the faith of the sisters, but when He that is the resurrection and the life stands before Lazarus’ grave, he cannot remain in the chains of death.
When Jesus proposes that they leave for the home of the sisters and Lazarus, the disciples remind Him that there continued to be a bitter persecuting spirit against Him by the religious leaders in Judaea—the whole region surrounding Jerusalem, (vv. 7-8). Jesus does not directly answer this objection by His disciples, but rather uses a proverbial saying to illustrate that nothing could happen to Him until He had fulfilled His Divine purpose. How needful it is for every true saint to realize that if he is in the will of God, he cannot perish until he has finished his Divinely appointed work.
How clearly this passage teaches that a man cannot die until his work is done, nor malice strike the beloved of God until he permits! It is a statement of the doctrine of predestination, and surely the men of this spirit have been the world conquerors.—B. H. Carroll, An Interpretation Of The English Bible, Vol XI, p. 164.
And it is comforting to realize that this does not just apply to the Son of God, but is true of every child of God because, “As He is, so are we in this world,” (1 John 4:17). The doctrine of the providence of God, which includes in it almost every other doctrine of the Word of God, is a glorious and comforting truth. It is no excuse for carelessness or presumption, but it should promote a holy boldness in believers.
After this Jesus makes a statement to the disciples regarding Lazarus, and this is misunderstood as meaning that he is in the sleep of recovery from his illness until Jesus plainly says to them, “Lazarus is dead,” (vv. 11-15). Poor, pitiful, pessimistic Thomas responds in his usual dark and doubting way in verse 16 by telling the others, we might as well go with Him and die with Him. How dishonoring to God is doubt!
Upon their arrival at Bethany, probably late in the day, Jesus does not go to the sisters’ home, but rather stops at the outskirts of the village and probably sends a messenger to the sisters. Because of the hotness of the climate in Judaea dead bodies began to break down very quickly if not embalmed, and for this reason the dead were often buried the same day they died, as in Acts 5:6-10. And so it was found that Lazarus had now been dead and buried for four days.
As soon as the sisters hear that their Lord is near Martha—the usually more active one—goes out to meet Him. But Mary is so paralyzed with grief that she remained in the house, both of them, as will be revealed, feel a resentment toward Jesus that He was not here to have prevented their brother’s death.
It is impossible not to see the characteristic temperament of each sister coming out here, and doubtless it is written for our learning Martha—active, stirring, busy, demonstrative—cannot wait, but runs impulsively to meet Jesus. Mary—quiet, gentle, pensive, meditative, contemplative, meek—sits passively at home... Let us never forget that there are differences of temperament among believers, and let us make due allowance for others if they are not quite like ourselves. There are believers who are quiet, passive, silent, and meditative; and believers who are active, stirring, and demonstrative. The well-ordered Church must find room, place, and work for all.—J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts On The Gospels, Vol 4, p. 50
Martha’s first words are a reproach, (v. 21), as will be Mary’s when she repeats these same words. Doubtless they had often said these very words to one another the last four days. “If our Lord had been here, our brother would not have died.” In both cases there was a mixture of doubt and faith, but their thinking had a flaw in it—they assumed that Jesus had to be on the site in order to prevent the death of their brother and this was not the case at all. Theirs were inferior faiths for He had earlier taught that it is a superior faith—one not found in Israel—that believes that He has but to say the word for a person to be healed, regardless of the distance between Himself and the person to be healed, (Luke 7:1-10). Humans are limited by time and space, and it is easy to try to put the same limitations on the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Lord, but such is not the case at all. He has created all things and controls all things so that there is nothing that is beyond His control at any time.
Martha expresses her faith that even now, Jesus could raise Lazarus to life again, but misunderstands when Jesus replies, that “Thy brother shall rise again,” (vv. 2223). She was knowledgeable about the promises of the Old Testament that the saints would rise again in due time, (Job 14:12-15; 19:25-27; Ps. 16:8-11; Isa. 26:19). For not only did the generality of Israelites that knew the Scriptures believe this, but even the unsaved religious leaders generally believed it as well, (Acts 23:6-8; 24:14-15), the exception being the Sadducees, the theological liberals and skeptics of the day.
The Lord makes the astounding declaration that all life and hope is to be found in Him alone and challenges her as to whether she believes this, (vv. 25-26), to which Martha gives a similar declaration of faith to that which Peter had made in Matthew 16:16. The English version here and elsewhere does not bring out the depth of meaning of the Greek tenses. “Believe” in verse 27; John 6:69, and “saved” in Ephesians 2:8, are all perfect tenses which are generally treated as present tenses, but actually refer to a past action that has ongoing results right up to the present time. Hence these places all refer to one being in a standing state of salvation as a result of their trust in the Lord. “Perfect active indicative of pisteuo. It is my settled and firm faith,” (A. T. Robertson). Notice that her faith was in regard to three things about Jesus: (1) As the Messiah, as Christ (the Anointed One) means. (2) As the Son of God, which relates to His deity. (3) As the One prophesied from ancient times. The Inspired Greek text reads “the into the world Coming One.” Many texts in the Greek refer to Jesus as “The Coming One” as regards His first coming
Yet for all the correctness of Martha’s faith, it was weak practically when she stood by the tomb as we will shortly see. A genuine saving faith in Christ does not guarantee that one’s daily faith will always be as strong as it should be. With this confession Martha returns to her home and tells her sister that Jesus is expecting her. The account here does not record Jesus calling for Mary, but it is not unexpected that He might do so, for He desires to comfort both of them. If He did not actually do so, it was the correct assumption of Martha that He desired to comfort Mary.
The Greek verbs are significant in verse 29, for “heard” is aorist, which signifies a single transient act in past time, but the other two verbs are present tenses, the first being in the middle voice (reflexive). “She raises herself up and comes to him.” The middle voice suggesting that she was sitting or perhaps lying prone on the floor in her great grief. The presence of her beloved Savior instantly motivates Mary to leave off her lethargy of grief. She finds Jesus in the same place where Martha had met Him, and there may be several reasons for Him not coming to the sisters’ home. (1) To prevent having to confront the antagonistic Jews that had come down to comfort the sisters. (2) To have a brief time with the sisters before meeting the other mourners. (3) He may have stopped close by the burial plot so as to shortly raise Lazarus to life again.
Jesus does not converse with Mary as He had formerly done with Martha for their radically different temperaments required a different approach, but she falls at His feet, and He observes her evident sorrow. Jesus observes the very loud, clamorous mourning that the Greek word (klaio) indicates which would also have made it hard for Him to have conversed with Mary. He groaned in Himself and was troubled, and in seeing this Mary would have realized the deep feeling that Jesus had for them and for Lazarus. Both these words in the Greek text are in the middle voice, which makes them reflexive—He directed them to Himself, but this is somewhat of a mystery and there is a lot of disagreement among commentators over what is meant by this. In any case, in His emotions here we have a clear evidence of His sympathy for the sufferings of His friends and a manifestation that as the Son of Man (in His human nature) He sympathized with them in their sorrows. Thus, this would be in complete accord with Hebrews 2:17-18 and 4:15. In order to be one with us in our human feelings, our Lord must be capable of the same feelings that we are.
His question in verse 34 does not imply ignorance on Jesus’ part, but was simply the logical way to move the group to Lazarus’ tomb, which was probably close by, so that He lets men set up the scenario by which He will perform this great miracle. The reply is “Come and see.” This was Philip’s answer in John 1:46. Demonstration is always better than theory, for it is the way to prove a point if one has the truth. Thereby the unbelieving Jews proved in advance that Lazarus was really dead, so that none could later deny this. Now Jesus weeps, but a different word is used than that in verse 33, for here daktu which is taken from dakruon, a tear, (Acts 20:19), refers to a silent weeping. Jesus burst into tears? This is the shortest verse in the Bible.
The shortest verse in the Bible (v. 35) expresses the humanity, tenderness and sympathy of our Lord. He was touched with a sense of all our infirmities. It has been, by some, regarded as unmanly to weep. But this standard of manliness is false. The sufferings, the sorrows, and sins of the world call for tears. Earth’s greatest men have manifested their sympathy, or penitence, or earnestness with tears.—B. H. Carroll, An Interpretation of the English Bible, Vol XI, pp. 169-170.
Several reasons have been suggested for Jesus weeping. (1) Because of sin, which is the cause of all death. (2) Because of the unbelief of the unsaved. (3) Because of the weakness of the sisters’ faith. (4) At the thought of Lazarus having to return to this life with all its sorrows. (5) Out of sympathy for His friends. (6) To show that sorrow is not inconsistent with faith. (7) To reveal that sorrow over the death of loved ones is not improper.
Even the unbelieving Jews see an evidence here of Jesus’ friendship for this family, (v. 36), but they see only a shallow love, for they use the Greek word phileo, the same word that the sisters had used when they sent word to Jesus of Lazarus’ sickness, (v. 3). As is so often the case these mourners judged only by outward appearances, which among men is often counterfeit and hypocritical. Now human reasoning and speculation come into play, (v. 37), and some of them recall the healing of the man born blind a short time before, (John 9:1ff) and wonder why Jesus could not have healed Lazarus’ sickness before it took his life. But these hold the same defective theory that the sisters held, that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death if He had been here, (vv. 21-22), but none of them believe that He can now restore to life a man four days dead.
When seeming tragedy strikes, Satan often moves a lot of people to question “Why?” “Could not God...” “If God really loved...” and other such reflections on God instead of humbly submitting to the providence of God.
Jesus again groans within Himself, (v. 38), which refers back to verse 33, where the same word is used. Greek scholars tell us that this word always has the sense of “indignation and rebuke, not of sorrow,” (Afford). Why was the Lord angered on these two occasions?
In the margin we find probably a better translation (vv. 33, 38) of the words rendered “groaned,” “groaning.” That rendering is, “He was moved with indignation to himself.” To justify preference for the marginal rendering we must find in each connection something to call forth indignation on such a solemn occasion. The cause for his first indignation was his seeing in sharp contrast, Mary’s sincere weeping, and the shallow, perfunctory, hired, hypocritical weeping of the Jews. The cause of the second indignation was the skeptical insinuation of some of the Jews who said, “Could not this man who opened the eyes of him that was blind, have caused that this man also should not die!” He felt the antagonism and malice of their presence.—B. H. Carroll, An Interpretation of the English Bible, Vol. XI, p. 169.
Jesus now commands that they take away the stone that seals the tomb and this causes Martha to object in unbelief that “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” Jesus could as well have caused the stone to roll away of itself, or, He could have had an angel roll it away, as was done at His own resurrection, (Matt. 28:2), but He did neither. Perhaps He commanded men to remove the stone so that there would be witnesses of Lazarus’ condition an instant before he was called back to life. Or it may be that our Lord would teach men thereby that though the power of life is in His hands alone, yet He often uses human instrumentality in preparing for giving life to the dead. Often in preaching we roll away the stones of tradition, false doctrine, unbelief and other things that would be a hindrance to the coming forth into practical living of the newly converted soul.
Martha’s horrified expression is clear evidence that there was no expectation of Lazarus being raised to life at this time, and so, that there was no collusion on the parts of any of the principles involved. Among the Jews it was held that the spirit of the dead hovered around the tomb for three days, so that there was the possibility of the dead reviving and returning to life until after the third day, when corruption set in. Perhaps this was why Jesus waited until the fourth day when all human hopes would be gone.
In verse 40 Jesus reminds Martha of His promise back in verse 4, which had apparently been conveyed to the sisters when they first notified Him of Lazarus’ illness, for there is no reference to God’s glory anywhere intervening between these two verses. It is clear that she was weak in her faith, but she should not have been, for before her stood the Creator of all things, Who had first flung a whole world into existence by simply willing it to be and calling it into existence. Such a one would have no trouble reversing the already operating corruption and revitalizing the body with life. It would involve no more than the original animation of the dust of the earth into life, (Gen. 2:7), but it would be a creative act, which would be an impossibility to any creature, but no problem to Him that is the Creator of all things
It is to be noted here that the Divine order is to first believe, and then one may expect to see the glory of God. Martha is called upon to set an example of faith before fulfillment. But this is the reverse of human thinking which is generally characterized by doubt and disbelief until overwhelming proof is given. But God does not respond to such. Such a faith as He calls upon Martha to have is declared to be blessed, (John 20:24-29).
The stone is rolled away, (v. 41), and there is silence from within the tomb for a few seconds, and Jesus uses this time to thank the Father for always hearing Him. He declares His purpose in this prayer—that people might believe that His was a mission from the Father, (v. 42). He had laid aside His own heavenly glory when He humbled Himself to become man, (John 17:5; Phil. 2:6-8). And throughout His earthly ministry He had frequently declared that neither the words that He spoke, nor the works that He did were His own, but that He was doing the will of His Father. Now His praise to the Father gives evidence of this, for He calls upon the Father to ratify His mission with heavenly power. There is a practical lesson for believers in this prayer that He offered.
He always did those things which pleased Him (Ps. 16:8); therefore did the Father always hear Him. What light this throws on our un-answered prayers! There is an intimate relation between our conduct and the response which we receive to our supplications: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Ps. 66:18). Equally clear is the New Testament. “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (1 John 3:22). Very searching is this. It is not what men term “legalism” but the Father maintaining the demands of holiness.—A. W Pink, Exposition Of The Gospel Of John, Vol. 2, p. 204.
After His praise to the Father is finished Jesus calls forth Lazarus with a loud voice. Normally Jesus did not speak loudly, (Matt. 12:19), in fulfillment of Isaiah 42:1ff. Only on one other occasion did He speak with a loud voice, and that was when He dismissed His own spirit, (Matt. 27:50). It was doubtless for the benefit of the gathered mourners that He now spoke loudly. It has been speculated that had not Jesus called for Lazarus by name that all the sleeping saints would have now arisen, but that is not true. It is not the mere pronunciation of a name that calls forth the saint that is sleeping in the dust, but it is the will of the Lord Jesus would have had to have willed it for anyone else to have risen at this time.
Lazarus is still wrapped and bound in all of the grave clothes in which he was buried when he comes forth, and Jesus commands that they loose him and let him go, and he returns to normal life. Who can imagine the impact this must have had on the crowd of people standing there? What thoughts it must have caused in everyone who saw the swathed body step out into the sunlight? What a challenge this would have been to the unbelief of the Lord’s detractors, for there was now no room left to deny the power that Jesus clearly had at His disposal.
It has been debated as to why Jesus commanded them to “loose him and let him go,” but this was a practical need, for the living have need to be freed from grave clothes. But perhaps we are to see a symbolism here as well. God alone can give eternal life, but once He has done so, He gives responsibility to other saved people to teach the new convert those doctrines that pertain to living the Christian life. The newly born again is yet bound with the grave clothes of tradition, false religion, spiritual ignorance and many other such things that will hinder his spiritual walk as a child of God. It is the duty of those that are older in the faith to teach him the truth so as to loose him from these, (Matt. 28:20).
As a result of this great miracle, many of the onlookers believe in Jesus, (v. 45). It would be wonderful if these were all genuinely saved, and yet this phrase sometimes refers to people having faith in Jesus as the Messiah, but without them trusting in Him for salvation. The same four words, identical letter for letter, appear in John 8:30, yet later Jesus addresses these same “believers” and declares them to be children of the devil, (v. 44), not saved people at all. The results of this miracle otherwise is that some of the observers go to the Pharisees and tell them of what Jesus did, further inflaming their hatred of Him, so that the religious leaders determine upon His murder, (vv. 46-50).
Our final view of Martha and Mary is in John 12:1-8, just six days before the crucifixion when this family entertains Jesus at a supper. It seems that He may have made this home His headquarters during the events recorded in Matthew 21:1-25:46, Mark 11:1-13:37 and Luke 19:29-21:38. He stayed in this home at night but during the day He went out to teach in the temple and other places. There is some confusion here, some thinking there were three such anointings instead of two, and some thinking that the anointing in Luke 7:37ff is the same as the one here. Thereby they assume that Mary had formerly been “a sinner”—a prostitute—but there is no evidence that they are the same and much to indicate otherwise. Granted both anointings took place in a Simon’s home, but this was a most common name, and both involved a precious ointment in an alabaster bottle, another common thing for women to collect, and in both the woman anointed the Savior’s feet and dried them with her hair.
There are more contrasts than comparisons in the two events, for the first was in Galilee early in Jesus’ ministry when John the Baptist was still living, while the latter was in Bethany just a few days before the crucifixion. And there are numerous other contrasts as A. T. Robertson brings out in his Harmony of the Gospels. “In view of all these differences it is absurd to represent the two anointings as the same, and outrageous on such slender ground to cast reproach on Mary of Bethany,” (A. T. Robertson). One of the problems regarding these two anointings lies in the commonness of this act in the Mid East in Bible times as compared with the rarity of it in modem days.
Most people make the great mistake of trying to interpret the Bible in the light of modern beliefs and practices, which is the very opposite of what should be done. The Bible is the standard, but only as interpreted by its Author, the Holy Spirit, and all modern beliefs and practices must be conformed to it else all sorts of confusion and error will be brought into the churches. Because of the extremely hot climate and the principle travel being by foot, the feet would quickly become dry and scorched in Bible times, so that such anointing was almost necessary for the welfare of people. In our modern Western world that is naturally more temperate in climate, and is also filled with air conditioned cars, businesses and homes, many people are total strangers to the practice of foot washing and anointing of the feet as an act of hospitality. Most people would be suspicious of anyone that offered to wash and anoint their feet.
This event opens in a strange way. It is not stated who the “they” were that made this supper, but only the plural pronoun is used. We know that Martha, Mary and Lazarus were all here, and that Martha served, while Mary acted the good hostess in anointing the feet of the Savior. The fact that Lazarus sat at meat with Jesus in no way implies that he was a guest here, only that he rejoiced to fellowship with Jesus, which would be most normal in the light of Jesus having raised him from the dead. In Lazarus’ position we have a typical picture of every believer raised from a state of spiritual death in salvation, (Eph. 2:1), he is now made to sit down in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus as he fellowships with Him, (Eph. 2:5-6). This is the present position of all saints.
Neither Matthew nor Mark identify the woman that does the anointing, but John does, for he wrote his Gospel very near to the end of the first century when most people would be familiar with this event. Mark 14:9 records that Mary would be immortalized wherever the Gospel is preached for her anointing of Jesus. John makes it clear that it was Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus that did this.
Scholars are uncertain as just how much of this there was in the container, but it was sufficient to cover Jesus from head to feet. Skeptics think to find a contradiction between the accounts of Matthew, Mark and John in that the first two mention only that the ointment was poured on the head, while John mentions only that the feet were anointed. There is no contradiction, for Psalm 133:2 shows the full effects of pouring ointment upon the head in copious amounts. And “ointment” may mislead, for this was normally a liquid, not a salve, made from the root of a plant grown in the Indies, and especially prized for the making of perfumes. It was a “pure nard” which accounted for it being so costly, as well as the fact that its alabaster container was made in Egypt especially to hold such perfumes.
In any case, Mary anoints Jesus from head to toe and dries his feet with the hairs of her head, (v. 3), which immediately draws forth criticism from some of the disciples, (Matthew, Mark) Judas Iscariot, the covetous treasurer of the group taking the lead in it all, (vv. 4-5). But Jesus, who knows the heart, discerned the real motivation in Judas’ criticism, (v. 6). One wonders how much of the funds of the First Baptist Church Judas misappropriated during his three years as treasurer. Jesus defends Mary, saying that she has anointed His body in preparation for the crucifixion that is to shortly come to pass. Remember that at this time, though Jesus had repeatedly foretold His suffering and death, all of the disciples had continued to discount the reality of this dread prophecy. In both Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts the disciples designate Mary’s devout use of the Ointment as a “waste,” and consider what she did as extreme and impractical.
There is never wanting a generation of people who descry what they call “extremes” in religion, and are incessantly recommending what they term “moderation” in the service of Christ. If a man devotes his time, money, and affections to the pursuit of worldly things, they do not blame him. If he gives himself up to the service of money, pleasure, or politics, they find no fault. But if the same man devotes himself, and all he has, to Christ, they can scarcely find words to express their sense of his folly. “He is beside himself.” “He is out of his mind.” “He is a fanatic.” He is an enthusiast.” “He is righteous over-much.” “He is an extreme man.” In short, they regard it as “waste.”—J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts On The Gospels, on Mark, Vol 1, p. 299.
Just as Judas’ criticism of Mary’s action stands as a monument to his worldliness and greed, so Mary’s self-denying devotion is a monument to her. Thus, one chooses one’s own monument by acting selfishly or selflessly.
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