The Gospel of John, Jesus' seventh sign, part 6
Jan 03, 2020
John Lightfoot suggests that when the chief priests said in John 11:48, “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come,” they were afraid that the Romans themselves would believe in Him. As rulers, there was a distinct danger that the Romans would forcibly make Jesus the god of Judea and thus “take away both our place and our nation.”
Would Tiberius Caesar actually do this? In 200 A.D. a well-known Roman Christian lawyer named Tertullian wrote in his Apology, V,
“Tiberius accordingly, in whose days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ’s divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favour of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Caesar held to his opinions, threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians.”
As a lawyer, Tertullian had access to the legal and political records of the Roman Senate. He would have known about this in his own research. He tells us that Tiberius Caesar not only had heard of Jesus but was sufficiently impressed by the miraculous signs that He was performing to propose making Him one of the gods of the empire. Likewise, the emperor’s informants would have told him that Jesus was friendly toward Romans and was nothing like the ultranationalists of Nazareth, nor was He a Zealot.
It takes no stretch of imagination to see that Tiberius may have believed that Jesus could solve his political problems in Judea. The Judeans were the most rebellious of all his subjects, and their messianic expectations were at the core of this. By recognizing Jesus as a god and as a messiah, Tiberius could have appeased the Jews with a messiah without giving up Judea as a province.
As a living god officially recognized by the empire, Jesus would have been given a position of authority higher than the chief priests, who would have been required to obey Him. If the emperor’s spies and informants had told him about Jesus, there is little doubt that the chief priests’ spies would have informed them about this Senate bill.
The only reason that the bill failed to pass, says Tertullian, was because such bills were supposed to originate in the Senate and not with the emperor. Yet Tiberius himself “held to his opinions, threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians.”
We do not know the precise date of this bill, but it is very possible that it had been introduced early enough in Jesus’ ministry to alarm the chief priests. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, they felt that the Romans might hear of this and come flocking to Judea to see Jesus. It would then become impossible to stop Jesus from being recognized as the Messiah.
Jesus Returns to Bethany
It appears that Jesus remained hidden in the town of Ephraim just north of Jerusalem during the week of Lazarus’ purification. John 12:1, 2 then tells us,
1 Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him.
The fact that Lazarus was eating with them shows that his week of purification had been completed and that he had walked to Bethpage to be sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer.
Six Days Before the Passover
Jesus would have known how long it would take for Lazarus to be purified. It appears that He returned to Bethany on the day that he was cleansed. It was “six days before the Passover” (John 12:1), or Abib 8. Lazarus had been raised a week earlier on Abib 1, the day that the priests inspected the barley near Jericho to see if it was ripe.
If ripe, the priests declared that this was the start of the first month, and the people were to prepare themselves for the feast of Passover two weeks later. If barley was yet unripe, the new crescent moon in the evening was declared to mark the start of a thirteenth month (a leap month), postponing the Passover for another 30 days.
All of this was necessary because twelve lunar months took place in just 354 days, and so every two or three years they had to add a thirteenth month to keep the feast in the proper season. This was done by linking it to ripe barley, because they needed ripe barley to wave before the Lord on the wave-sheaf offering after Passover.
The possibility existed, then, that the priestly company charged with inspecting the barley at Jericho was returning to Jerusalem by the same road that Jesus was taking to go to Bethany. Did they see each other? Did they talk to each other? There is no doubt that the priests were carrying the first fruits of ripe barley, because they did indeed keep the Passover that month.
In fact, their sheaf of barley was symbolic of Christ’s resurrection and presentation to the Father as the living Son of God. What if these priests witnessed the raising of Lazarus from the dead? Would it not have been an appropriate testimony and prophecy of a greater resurrection soon to come? John says nothing of this, of course, but such things intrigue me.
Timing the Supper
We are told that Martha made an evening meal for Jesus and that Lazarus was there. Martha made the supper not only to celebrate Jesus’ return to Bethany but specifically to celebrate Lazarus’ return from the dead. Lazarus could not have joined the celebration until the eighth day when he was purified.
Later, John tells us (John 12:12, 13) that “the next day” after this supper, Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the day now called Palm Sunday. Hence, the supper was served after sundown at the close of the previous Sabbath. Further, Lazarus had been purified on that same Sabbath, and this means Jesus raised him from the dead on Abib 1, which was also a Sabbath.
The astounding nature of the miracle seems to have overwhelmed any opposition, unlike the earlier miracle when He healed the invalid at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:9, 10). Because of travel restrictions on the Sabbath, it appears that all day Friday Jesus and His disciples traveled from Bethany beyond the Jordan to Bethany near Jerusalem, and then Jesus raised Lazarus near sundown, which was the beginning of the Sabbath.
John 12:3 says,
3 Mary then took a pound [litra, or twelve ounces] of very costly perfume of pure nard [spikenard] and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
This “perfume” was an essential oil from the head or spike of a fragrant East Indian plant. John uses the term nardos pistikos. The word nardos is from the Sanscrit word, narda. And pistikos is from the Greek word, pistis, or “faith.” This oil thus represents “faith oil,” showing Mary’s faith in Christ, which was a fragrance throughout the house.
Perhaps we may relate this to the smell of frankincense that was offered daily on the altar of incense in the temple. Mary’s faith, then, was a sweet fragrance to God. Nonetheless, it was considered immodest for a woman in those days to loose her hair in public.
This custom was based largely on the law of jealousy, when a man suspected his wife of adultery but had no proof of her guilt. He was given the right to bring her to the high priest, where the case would be given to God, who knows all things. She was to take an oath of innocence, and this oath would end the dispute (Hebrews 6:16).
As part of this particular court case, we read in Numbers 5:18, “The priest shall then have the woman stand before the Lord and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose.” Thus, tradition linked a woman’s flowing hair with suspicion of adultery. When Mary did this in John 12:3, it suggests that Mary of Bethany was the same as Mary Magdalene, who had been living as a mistress at the family estate in nearby Magdala prior to her conversion.
Lightfoot quotes rabbinic sources, where the question was asked, “And why was Magdala destroyed? Because of their whoredoms” (Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. 3, page 375). Magdala was a town of ill repute, or, as Lightfoot put it, it was a place known “for the lascivious manners of the townfolks.”
Apparently, this reputation still haunted Mary of Bethany, and her act of anointing Jesus’ feet with “faith oil” and wiping His feet with her hair seemed to refer back to the law of jealousy, making Jesus the “priest” who was presenting her case to the divine court. Because of her faith, she was justified, and thus the fragrance of her act filled the house.
There is little doubt that Mary was motivated primarily by her gratitude and awe when Jesus raised her brother from the dead. Seeing this sign apparently sealed her faith in a new way. The irony is that the religious leaders, who enjoyed a reputation of righteousness, had led the nation into spiritual adultery by rejecting Christ; whereas Mary, the unrighteous one, had been justified by God Himself through faith in Jesus Christ.
Further, as we will see shortly, even Judas himself failed to achieve righteousness, for though he saw all of Jesus’ miraculous signs, yet his heart was not right.
This is part 6 of a series titled "Jesus' Seventh Sign" To view all parts, click the link below.