The sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, sent for Jesus urgently when their brother was ill. But by the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus was dead and buried. What was Jesus doing? In the heart of Martha, grief and faith were in turmoil. She was sorrowing and questioning and at the same time reaching for and clinging desperately to Jesus. As Jesus spoke to her, He interacted with her so very tenderly and led her on gently to see more and more of the comfort which God has so richly stored up in Him for His needy people. Jesus saying, “I am the resurrection and the life,” is both a foundational bedrock of support for all believers, and also something that applies personal, individual comfort in each believer’s unique circumstances. The resurrection is not a far-distant abstraction, when we realise that Christ Jesus is “the resurrection” and that He continually maintains His people in life. In the following updated extract, George Hutcheson points out the striking features of the dialogue between Jesus and Martha.
Grief is complex, even in believers
Martha was a good woman, and conscious of her loss as much as Mary was. She gets first word of Christ’s approach, and goes to meet Him, while Mary knew nothing of this, and stayed indoors.
Among those who are truly gracious, some are more tender and spiritual then others. Some are more affected with griefs, and more broken under them, than others. This may teach the godly, and especially weak and tender hearted ones, not to measure every one by themselves, for those who have real good, may have really different dispositions.
Whatever comfort or sympathy people meet with from friends in their trouble, yet comfort from Christ is also needed. Martha and Mary had comforters, yet Martha went and met Jesus, when she heard of His coming, to welcome Him as a needed guest.
However, when Martha meets Jesus, she challenges Him with her regrets that He had not come sooner and prevented her brother from dying. This weakness and infirmity broke out of her, and got a headstart of her better side. When we are in straits, we should treat with suspicion the emotions which burst out of us first of all (Psalm 116:11 & 31:22). So though we cannot justify the impassioned outbursts of the saints, yet we ought not to examine them too narrowly or censure them, because they are really only a violent temptation which tramples on grace only temporarily. After her first outburst, Martha settles a little, and corrects it with a profession of her faith that Christ, if He wished, could yet put everything right.
So, alongside her faith, Martha had her own dissatisfaction with how Christ had acted. Yet her faith prevails to the extent that she does not stay away from Him, but goes to Him. Unbelief is never deadly, as long as it does not keep you from coming to Christ. Whatever complaints you may have about Christ’s dealings, yet faith is still the conqueror, as long as you pour out all these complaints into Christ’s own bosom.
Jesus brings comfort gently
“Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again” (verse 23). He replies to her meekly. Passing over her infirmity, He comforts her with the promise that her brother would rise again.
Great are the consolations which God has laid up for His afflicted people, and He will do great things for them. It is a satisfactory and proper consolation against the death of these we love, to believe in a resurrection, in which they shall rise again. This is what Christ uses to comfort her.
Christ puts this promise only in general terms, “Thy brother shall rise again,” not mentioning the time when it would be. Even though He was going to raise her brother presently, yet simply the promise of a general resurrection is itself full of comfort (1 Thess. 4:13–14, etc.). We have no reason to stumble when we have no warrant to expect the same particular favour as Martha received, because Christ propounds this comfort in these general terms.
In Martha’s own case, Christ put it this way, partly to exercise her faith, and to let her and us see, in practice, how far short our expectations may be of what Christ will actually do for His people. She looked for the resurrection at the last day, but He was going to raise her brother almost the next minute. Partly also, He let her consolation come in bit by bit into her narrow-mouthed vessel. As the Lord’s people are allowed to believe and expect a mercy even when they cannot resolve every particular detail of how, or when, or by what means it will come to pass, so their hearts are often so shallow that they can take in mercies only in little instalments here and there.
Grief can puzzle faith
When Martha is given this promise and offer of comfort, she seems to take exception against it. Although she confesses that she believes in the resurrection and judgement of the last day, yet she seems to look on it as insufficient for her own encouragement, seeing it is something that refers to everyone, and it is a long way off (verse 24).
Because of our weakness, and our fondness for getting unique satisfaction for our own personal situations, we are ready to slight all the mercies and consolations of God, unless we get exactly what we ourselves regard as a mercy. The general resurrection is not a small comfort, and the resurrection of the just is a far better comfort than to be restored again to the toils of this life, yet Martha undervalues all that, in comparison of getting her brother back again now.
It is however not unusual to see people believing great things that are far off, yet their faith proving weak in the matter of their current trial, even though that is less difficult than what they profess to believe. Martha can believe in the resurrection of all, and of Lazarus among the rest, at the last day, yet at the same time she staggers at the possibility that he may be raised shortly. Yet the one is as difficult as the other, if not indeed more difficult.
What faith needs, faith finds in Jesus
“Jesus said unto her, 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” (verses 25–26).
Although Martha believes in the resurrection, yet Christ finds it needful to instruct her better in many things about it. Believers need daily instruction from Christ, so that they will know and understand better those things which they already believe in part. Also, it is not enough that we believe in great benefits and mercies, unless we believe that they are in Christ, and seek them in Him. It is not enough that Martha believes in the resurrection, unless she believes that Christ is the resurrection and the life.
Also, we are to think of Christ, not as merely the instrument of life and resurrection to any, but as the one who principally authors it by His own power. Although many prophets and apostles raised the dead, yet it can be said by none but Christ, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Those who unite with and enjoy Christ will find in Him, and to hand, all things which they would otherwise seek far off, and possibly not find. Martha looked afar off, to a better day, for the accomplishment of Christ’s promise, but He challenges her to see it in Him, at hand, that He is the resurrection and the life, who can raise up her brother even now.
Believers walk and grow in new life
By regeneration, the children of God are put in a state of life, and this they demonstrate by their subsequent walk – by exercising the functions of spiritual life, and being living in their way. Anyone to whom Christ is “the resurrection,” is someone who lives.
Seeing that spiritual life flows only from Christ embraced by faith, it must be maintained by the same means – faith in Christ. As the dead, by believing, live, so, “he that liveth,” must “believe in me,” Jesus says. Keeping our spiritual life going is a continual resurrection, and as the same power (God’s) is employed in both begetting and maintaining this life, so the same means (faith) must continually be exercised. Clearly, if someone slips up in their walk or becomes spiritually weak, they are taking an exceedingly wrong course of action if they cast away their confidence.
The power of Christ is continually forthcoming to preserve those who believe in Him from utter decay in their spiritual life. Although they may be overtaken with some degrees of death, yet on renewing their faith, they shall be recovered. He will also preserve them from eternal death, and bodily death itself shall not extinguish the life that is begotten and maintained by faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus encourages detailed faith
Jesus poses Martha the question, “Believest thou this?” (verse 26). We should daily pose the same thing to our own hearts.
In particular, it is necessary both that we are well grounded in the faith of getting life through Christ, and that we make special application to ourselves of the general promise He makes about this. Then we won’t have to scrabble around looking for our faith when Christ calls for it.
In Martha’s answer, she assents to what Christ requires her to believe, and adds a confession of her faith about His person and offices. “She saith unto him, Yea, Lord, I believe that thou art the Christ the Son of God, which should come into the world” (verse 27). Perhaps she felt her faith was too weak to expressly grasp all that He was saying, though she assents to it, and so she deals with all that in a word, and simply professes her faith in Him, acknowledging Him to be the promised Messiah, the Son of God, and consequently, professing that she believes whatever may flow from this fact.
When our faith is weak, it will grow up to more clarity and assurance by conversing with Christ, laying open our weaknesses to Him, and receiving instructions from Him.
Some things (such as the truths about Christ’s person and offices) are fundamentals, and the rest are only the particular application of these general truths to particular cases. So, here, Martha falls back on the fact that “thou art the Christ, etc,” as her chief and all-inclusive ground of comfort.
In fact, the consequences which flow from these fundamental encouragements and promises are so many, and so full, that someone who believes the fundamentals may not even see the consequences very clearly, nor very firmly believe all that flows from them. But we can see from Martha that if you believe the general encouragements, you have much more to be refreshed and comforted with than you have so far realised. In God’s rich love, accommodating to our weakness, He draws out these general promises into particular ones, relating to our particular necessities.
Therefore, when our faith staggers in any particular moment of need, or proves weak in believing a particular promise, we should fall back on these general grounds of faith and encouragement, and hold them tight till we get more, and study the fullness that is in them, so that we may be led on to more particular confidence. That is what Martha did.
Studying Christ’s person and offices is a notable means of confirming our faith in all the promises about all the benefits to be had in Him. Martha lays hold on this, “I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God which should come into the world,” for just that reason. Carefully examining who Christ is and what He does, will make us sure both of His good will, as Mediator, and His power, as God, to do what He promises.
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