The Supper at Bethany
Harry Lacey, Cardiff
It is well known that John leaves unmentioned in his Gospel several events which receive special attention by his fellow evangelists in the earlier three. No mention of the Temptation, the Transfiguration, the Agony and several other important events is made. Similarly, no reference to the institution of the Lord’s Supper is found in his pages. That he devotes more space to the “upper room” ministry than the Synoptists, and writes at greater length than all of them together about the supper at which the Lord’s Supper was instituted makes the omission significant.
It cannot be that he wishes to detract from the importance of the Lord’s Supper. When he wrote, the ordinance was well established in the churches. It was normal for it to be observed in each on the first day of the week. Record of its institution had already been made in corroboration of the verbal teaching of the Apostles. There is no doubt that John was in fullest concord with what the Lord instituted on that memorable night, and that which had been made the subject of special direct revelation to the “Apostle of the Gentiles,” to whom truth for the whole of the present age was committed in its fullest form.
The fact is, that all true ministry is timely. That of the prophets was firstly for a present local need. The teaching of Christ was firstly for needs which were presenting themselves when He spoke. Likewise, each book and Epistle of the New Testament was inspired to meet a particular existing need. It was not otherwise with the Gospel by John.
There is no real doubt that his first readers belonged to Ephesus and the district around it. For them John wrote about the time that the letters to ‘‘ the seven churches in Asia” were written. The words of the Lord in the first of these “letters” indicate that the elements of a legal ecclesiasticalism were manifesting themselves. They had left their first love, though they still retained correctness of form in church matters. No teaching on the form or the details of the ordinance was therefore required, but emphasis upon the moral and spiritual elements involved in a true observance of it had become necessary. Without these, accuracy of form remains unacceptable to God. Consequently, John by dwelling on two suppers, reveals the features which ennoble the regular ordinance, and when expressed in it enhances its spiritual value.
He, characteristically, connects morally related matters with little literary links. In this way, he connects the supper of the twelfth chapter with the one of the thirteenth by a reference in each to the last Passover. He says that one was at Bethany six days before it, and that the other was at Jerusalem on its eve. The brooding spirit of a true student of John will hover over every detail from the pen of so contemplative an author.
The Supper at Bethany.
John tells us that because Jesus was at Bethany, they made Him a supper, The place is significant and the time has special meaning. Of the. eleven times Bethany is mentioned (the name is withheld in Luke 10}, two refer to the resurrection of Lazarus, which John shews, precipitated the Crucifixion, eight to the Passion week, and one to the Ascension. From Bethany the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of the Messiah was made on the long-foretold date, and in the predicted manner. To this place He resorted that evening from the inhospitable capital. Thence He went forth to cleanse the Temple for the second time. Thither He returned, the rejected King; and there was He honoured by the few who accepted His Messiahship, believed in His Deity and appreciated His personal worth. Of the little fellowship the Heavenly Stranger knew on earth, most seems to have been found with the loving hearts in that unostentatious place. The impressive events of the week of frequent resort thither borrow awe, mellowness, and love from the shadow of the Cross which was cast over them all.
The narrative of this supper at Bethany is full of what the disciples did. Martha was there and for her the supper was an opportunity to serve the Lord Jesus and His own. Not as formerly, distracted with much serving-, but restrainedly on account of spiritual maturity attained in the school of experience of Christ. All who observe the Supper need also to learn the same lesson. Present-day activity makes for superficiality, and life is too fast to be as deep as is necessary if any real worship is to be found when we “make Him a supper.” If we could learn what John teaches here, the spirit that must do something to keep things going at the Supper would be restrained, and would give place to that ministry of deep devotion which avoid-, protracted barren silences by means of helpful expression. The Spirit-led brother would serve Him by leading us to make a start on the right note, and equally Spirit-led brethren would also serve us by expressing for us the feelings of our hearts in sustainment of the theme.
Lazarus was there too, enjoying the life that the Lord had given to him, and the liberty into which he had been liberated by the disciples at the command of the Lord. His enjoyment of resurrection life and his freedom from all the grave-clothes of this dead world fitly illustrates a desirable condition for us when we “sit at meat with Him.” Activity did not mark him. Passive enjoyment and fellowship is the lesson.
By the wording he uses, John seems to make a point of the fact that the man Lazarus was silent, and that the women Martha and Mary were active. In Scripture thought, masculine characters as well as masculine sacrifices and books usually suggest what students call, the objective, that is, the work of Christ for us; whereas feminine characters, sacrifices and books (like Ruth, The Song, Esther) suggest what is called, the subjective, that is, the work of the Spirit in us. The Supper is the place for the prominence of the feminine features of the work of God rather than the masculine ones. There, what the Spirit has done in us will find expression with greater propriety than a reiteration of the facts of what Christ has done for us.
How many worship meetings have been spoiled by undue exposition of doctrinal facts with which all are familiar. It is better surely, that fuller teaching be given elsewhere so that general enjoyment of the life and liberty which is ours in Christ might result beforehand. Then such a state will contribute much more to a spiritual worship by the whole company at the Supper than the oral contribution of doctrinal fact at the time. What a worth there would be if we combined in our state this Lazarus-like profound enjoyment too deep for words 1 and what a depth of worship would result!
Mary, who had hitherto been sitting at His feet, found this occasion an opportunity to express her admiration of the One whose worth she had been learning. The intuition of love guided her, so that, without special preparation for the supper itself, her affectionate heart had treasured up ointment which is described as both genuine and costly. The supper naturally became the opportunity to bestow it upon the living Lord. And, as she poured out the fragrant ointment, in truest sense, she worshipped; though the word does not appear. Maybe, lest its hackneyed use detract from the natural beauty of the picture.
If those spiritual elements were present when we remember Him the spiritual house in which we offer would also be filled with the incense of worship. Order and harmony would be evident, and all formality gone. Our celebrations of the Supper would then make a Bethany for Him to.-day in a world as inhospitable to Him as was Jerusalem of old.
Though these noble elements were present, an unworthy one existed at the same time. Yet even in this there is instruction for us. There was one who would have turned to the service of man that which had been lavished upon the Lord. The suggestion was as soundly condemned as the outpouring was commended Not always was the expression of devotion, enjoyment, and worship possible, for not always was Jesus with them in this way. But every waking hour bristled for them, as for us, with opportunities of doing good, physical and spiritual, to men who crowd around us. Whensoever we will we may do them good. But this unique occasion if missed may not be recalled. Let us learn from this to render to men the things that are men’s in every normal hour, and the things that are the Father’s in the hour of remembrance. The service of man is a poor exchange for the worship of Christ, and events proved that it was by no means as humanitarian as it professed to be. if we put men first we are not likely to give the Lord His place at all, and not likely to give man his either. Whereas, if we put Him first in all sincerity it will help us to be to our fellows what He desires us to be, and thus serve them best.
To be followed in the next issue by an article on “The Supper at Jerusalem.”