There are 11 references to Bethany in the four Gospels and the first mention, in Matthew 21:17, is very significant, “He left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and He lodged there.” Out of the city … into Bethany. The great Jerusalem had neither room nor time for the Savior so He left them and went to the little village which made Him welcome. Of the one it would be said “there they crucified Him,” but of the other, “there they made Him a supper.”
Bethany is today known as Betania but there is not universal agreement as to the meaning of the name. Commentaries and Bible dictionaries offer different suggestions. Some say it means the House of Sorrow; some say it means the House of Singing. Others say the House of Sweetness, but the local people all agree that it means the House of the Poor. Perhaps there is a sense in which all of these have been true of Bethany. It did indeed become the House of Sorrow when bereavement came to the little family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. It was also a House of Sweetness when Mary broke her alabaster box of fragrant spikenard for the Savior. It was a House of Singing at its last mention in Luke 24 when the disciples watched the Risen Lord ascend through the heavens to become, as we love to call Him, the Man in the Glory. But the overall impression is that this little town had no material greatness or grandeur. It was indeed the House of the Poor.
Two chapters in particular have somehow made Bethany precious to the saints: John 11 and John 12. John 11 is a story of sorrow, sovereignty, sympathy, and supremacy. They seemed a happy little family until sorrow entered the home. Their brother Lazarus was ill. We learn that the choicest saints are not immune to sickness and sorrow. The sorrow of their brother being sick is compounded by the fact that Jesus was not with them. They knew, as they later declared, that if He had been there it would have been different. But sorrow was added to sorrow in that their Lord was at Bethabara beyond Jordan where John had at first baptized (John 10:40). This was some 25 miles away, a journey of about two days. And still there was more sorrow; they sent for Jesus but He did not come. Then the crowning sorrow when Lazarus died; then the burial, and still the Master had not come.
Why did He deliberately delay? Note the word “therefore” in verse 6. “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When He had heard, therefore, that he was sick, He abode two days still in the same place where He was.” He loved them, therefore He delayed, for in His sovereignty and love He had something greater in mind for them than the healing of their brother. It would be for the glory of God. How often it is said, and truly, that His delays are not denials. Eventually He came, and meeting Martha, then Mary, and the crowds of mourners who had come to comfort them, we have that amazing and touching spectacle of the Lord of glory weeping. It was true sympathy. He saw them weeping, and “Jesus wept.” Love weeps with those that weep (Rom 12:15).
But notice the different words for weeping. He saw Mary weeping and the Jews weeping. Here the word means sobbing aloud, or even wailing. Then Jesus wept, but this word is different. He shed silent tears. Someone has said, “The tears of God in the eyes of a Man.” And still we must remember that if He no longer sheds literal physical tears, yet His heart is just the same and He feels for His sorrowing people, touched with the feeling of their infirmities. Sympathy is therefore mingled with sovereignty as the Savior comes to Bethany, but His supremacy is now to be manifested.
“Where have ye laid Him?” He asks. Of course, in His omniscience He knew where they had laid him, but He will always involve His people in His work and so they take Him to the grave. It was sealed with a stone which He commands should be taken away. The practical Martha objects and to her objection the Savior replies that He had already told her that if only she would trust she would see the glory. What a message for each and all of us. In those times when we cannot understand His dealings with us His word to us is that if only we would trust, all would become clear.
They remove the stone and Jesus first of all lifts His eyes heavenward to speak briefly to His Father. “I thank Thee that thou hast heard Me.” But this was no surprise that the Father should hear Him for, He says, “I know that Thou hearest Me always.” His brief prayer was for the benefit of the crowds who stood around. It was to them evidence of His Sonship and of the intimacy between Him and His Father. What a sight they were now to see! “Lazarus, come forth,” He cries. “And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin.”
It was truly an amazing sight. It was not a man climbing or clambering out of a sepulchre in his own strength. It was a man bound hand and foot and his face covered too. Miraculously, at the word of the Savior, death and the grave yielded up their prey and Lazarus must have literally floated out of his grave to stand upon the ground. “Jesus saith unto them, ‘Loose him, and let him go.’” What a demonstration of His supremacy.
It is indeed a story of sorrow, sovereignty, sympathy, and supremacy, and is the grand prelude to the sweetness of the next chapter and the fragrance of Mary’s worship and Martha’s service. But that is another study.