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Bible Commentaries

John Lightfoot's Commentary on the Gospels

John 11



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Verse 1

1. Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha.

[Lazarus.] So in the Jerusalem Talmud, R. Lazar for R. Eleazar. For in the Jerusalem dialect, it is not unusual in some words that begin with Aleph, to cut off that letter.

[Martha.] This name of Martha is very frequent in the Talmudic authors. "Isaac Bar Samuel, Bar Martha." "Abba Bar Martha, the same with Abba Bar Minjomi." "Joshua Ben Gamla married Martha the daughter of Baithus." She was a very rich widow.

She is called also Mary the daughter of Baithus, with this story of her: "Mary the daughter of Baithus, whom Joshua Ben Gamla married, he being preferred by the king to the high priesthood. She had a mind, upon a certain day of Expiation, to see how her husband performed his office. So they laid tapestry all along from the door of her own house to the Temple, that her foot might not touch the ground. R. Eleazar Ben R. Zadok saith, 'So let me see the consolation [of Israel], as I saw her bound to the tails of Arabian horses by the hair of her head, and forced to run thus from Jerusalem to Lydda. I could not but repeat that versicle, The tender and delicate woman, in thee,'" &c. Deuteronomy 28:56.

Martha the daughter of Baisuth (whether Baisuth and Baithus were convertible, or whether it was a mistake of the transcriber, let him that thinks fit make the inquiry), whose son was a mighty strong man among the priests.

Verse 2

2. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.)

[It was that Mary which anointed, &c.] That is, which had anointed the Lord formerly. For,

I. It is fit the Aorist should have its full force. Whoever will not grant this, let him give a reason why Bethany, which was Lazarus' town, should not be called by his name; but by the name of Mary and her sister Martha. Was it not because those names had been already well known in the foregoing story, whereas till now there had not been one word mentioned of their brother Lazarus? So that anointed respects a noted story that was past, viz. that which is related Luke 7:37.

II. There can be no reason given why the evangelist should say this proleptically, as if he had respect to that passage in chapter 12:3, when he was to relate that story so soon after this. But there may be a sufficient one given why it should have relation to an anointing that had been formerly done: and that is, that it might appear how that familiarity arose betwixt Christ and the family of Lazarus, so far that they could so confidently send for Jesus when Lazarus was sick: for Mary, Lazarus' sister, had some time before anointed his feet.

Verse 11

11. These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.

[Sleepeth.] The apostles having heard the report that Lazarus was sick, and that Christ told them now that he was fallen asleep; they apprehend that the edge of the disease which had hitherto taken away all rest from him was now taken off; so that they say, "If he sleep, he shall do well": having not rightly understood the word our Saviour used. The fallacy of the word is not unpleasantly expressed in Bereshith Rabba; "Rachel said to Leah, 'He shall sleep with thee tonight,' Genesis 30:19: He shall sleep with thee, he shall not sleep with me; i.e. Thou and he shall lie together in one sepulchre, so shall not he and I."

Verse 18

18. Now Bethany was nigh unto Jerusalem, about fifteen furlongs off:

[About fifteen furlongs.] That is, two miles. For the Jewish miles did not hold out full eight furlongs, as other miles do, but seven and a half.

One of those seven and a half which make up a mile is a furlong.

"They do not lay the net for pigeons any less distance from the houses than thirty furlongs," i.e. four miles.

"What is furlong? It is a flight-shot. And why is furlong called a flight-shot? It is according to the numeral value of the letters, which is two hundred sixty-six: for two hundred sixty-six [cubits] make a flight shot. Now count, and you will thus find it: Seven times [Resh] two hundred make one thousand four hundred. Seven times [Samek] sixty make four hundred and twenty. Number them together, and they mount to one thousand eight hundred and twenty. Seven times [Vav] six make forty-two: half a furlong one hundred thirty-three: number them together, and the whole amounts to one thousand nine hundred ninety-five. Behold two thousand cubits excepting five."

Verse 19

19. And many of the Jews came to Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother.

[To comfort them.] "When they return from the burial they stand about weeping, and say [a little prayer] comforting the mourner, and accompanying him to his own house."

"When they return from the grave they stand in a circle about the mourner comforting him." Gloss: "The circle about him consists of ten at least." But usually it is very crowded and numerous. Hence that passage:

"As to those that stood about in that circle, those that were on the inside of it were not obliged to repeat the phylacteries; but those that were on the outside were bound."

"The Rabbins deliver: The seven standings and sittings for the dead must not be diminished." Where the Gloss is; "When they returned from the grave, they went forward a little, and then sat down; partly to comfort the mourners, partly to weep themselves, and partly to meditate upon the subject of mortality. Then they stood up again, and went on a little, and sat down again, and so for seven times. But I have seen it written, that they did this upon the account of the evil spirits who accompanied them from the grave. They ordained these standings and sittings, that within that time the evil spirits might depart."

So that we see they were wont to comfort the mourners in the way as they were returning from the grave, and they would bring them back to their own house the day that the party deceased was interred. They comforted them also all the remaining days of mourning, which we find done in this place.

Thirty days were allotted for the time of mourning: but, "We must not weep for the dead beyond the measure. The three first days are for weeping; seven days for lamentation: thirty days for the intermission from washing their clothes, and shaving themselves."

I. When those that were to comfort the mourners came, they found all the beds in the house taken down, and laid upon the ground. "From what time do they take their beds lower? R. Eleazar saith, 'From the time that the deceased party is carried out of the court gate.' R. Joshua saith, 'From the time that the cover of the coffin is shut down.' When Rabban Gamaliel died, and the corpse was carried out of the court gate, saith R. Eleazar to his disciples, 'Take down the beds.' But when the coffin was closed, R. Joshua said, 'Take down the beds.' On the evening of the sabbath they set up their beds; at the going out of the sabbath they take them down."

What is to be understood by taking down their beds we may conjecture by what follows. "Whence came the custom of taking down the beds? R. Crispa in the name of R. Jochanan saith, From what is written, And they sat with him near the ground. It is not said, upon the ground, but near the ground; that is, not far off from the earth. Hence is it that they sat upon beds taken lower."

But Rabbenu Asher saith thus; "Rabh saith, Those that comfort ought to sit nowhere but upon the floor."

II. The mourner himself sits chief. A custom taken from these words, Job 29:25, "I chose out their way and sat him who comforts the mourners."

III. It was not lawful for the comforters to speak a word till the mourner himself break silence first. The pattern taken from Job's friends, Job 2.

IV. "R. Jochanan saith, If the mourner nod his head, the comforters are to sit by him no longer." The Gloss is, "If, by nodding his head, he signify to them that he hath comforted himself." Hence that frequently said of some, They would not receive comfort; that is, they gave signs by nodding their head that they had sufficiently comforted themselves.

These and many other things about this matter do occur in Moed Katon; and Rabbenu Asher: as also in Massecheth Semacoth; where, by the way, take notice, that that treatise, which hath for its subject the mourners for the dead, is called A treatise of gladness. So the sepulchres of the dead are often called, The houses of the living.

Let us take a little taste of the way of consolation they used: "The Rabbins deliver. When the sons of R. Ishmael died, four of the elders went in to him to comfort him; viz. R. Tarphon, and R. Jose the Galilean, and R. Eliezer Ben Azariah, and R. Akibah. R. Tarphon saith unto them, 'Ye must know that this is a very wise man, well skilled in exposition. Let not any of you interrupt the words of his fellow.' Saith R. Akibah, 'I am the last.' R. Ishmael began and said" [the mourner here breaks silence], "'His iniquities are multiplied, his griefs have bound him, and he hath wearied his masters.' Thus he said once and again. Then answered R. Tarphon and said, 'It is said, And your brethren of the house of Israel shall bewail the burning, Leviticus 10:6. May we not argue from the less to the greater? If Nadab and Abihu, who never performed but one command, as it is written, And the sons of Aaron brought blood to him; then much more may the sons of R. Ishmael be bewailed.' R. Jose the Galilean answered, saying, 'All Israel shall mourn for him and bury him,' 1 Kings 14:13. And must we not argue from the greater to the less? If they wept so for Abijah the son of Jeroboam, who did but one good thing, as it is said, Because in him there is found some good thing; how much more for the sons of R. Ishmael!" Of the same nature are the words of R. Eliezer and R. Akibah: but this is enough, either to raise laughter, or make a man angry. In the same page we have several forms of speech used by the women, that either were the mourners or the comforters. As,

The grave is as the robe of circumcision to an ingenuous man, whose provisions are spent.

The death of this man is as the death of all, and diseases are like putting money to usury.

He ran, and he fell in his passage, and hath borrowed a loan. With other passages very difficult to be understood.

The first three days of weeping were severer than the other: because "on the first day it was not lawful for the mourner to wear his phylacteries, to eat of holy things, nor indeed to eat any thing of his own. All the three days he might do no servile work, no, not privately: and if any one saluted him, he was not to salute him again."

"The first seven days let all the beds in the house be laid low. Let not the man use his wife. Let him not put on his sandals. Let him do no servile work publicly. Let him not salute any man. Let him not wash himself in warm water, nor his whole body in cold. Let him not anoint himself. Let him not read in the Law, the Misna, or the Talmud. Let him cover his head."

"All the thirty days let him not be shaved. Let him not wear any clothing that is white, or whitened, or new. Neither let him sew up those rents which he made in his garments for the deceased party," &c.

Verse 25

25. Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:

[I am the resurrection.] Be it so, O Jew (if you will, or it can be), that the little bone luz, in the backbone, is the seed and principle of your resurrection: as to us, our blessed Jesus, who hath raised himself from the dead, is the spring and principle of ours.

"Hadrian (whose bones may they be ground, and his name blotted out!) asked R. Joshua Ben Hananiah, 'How doth a man revive again in the world to come?' He answered and said, 'From luz in the backbone.' Saith he to him, 'Demonstrate this to me.' Then he took luz, a little bone out of the backbone, and put it in water, and it was not steeped: he put it into the fire, and it was not burnt: he brought it to the mill, and that could not grind it: he laid it on the anvil, and knocked it with a hammer, but the anvil was cleft, and the hammer broken," &c. Why do ye not maul the Sadducees with this argument?

Verse 31

31. The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there.

[Followed her.] "It is a tradition. Let no man follow a woman upon the way, no, not his own wife." If this grain of salt may be allowed in the explication of this passage, then, either all that followed Mary were women: or if men, they followed her at a very great distance: or else they had a peculiar dispensation at such solemn times as these, which they had not in common conversation. But the observation indeed is hardly worth a grain of salt.

Verse 39

39. Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.

[For he hath been dead four days.] The three days of weeping were now past, and the four days of lamentation begun: so that all hope and expectation of his coming to himself was wholly gone.

"They go to the sepulchres, and visit the dead for three days. Neither are they solicitous lest they should incur the reproach of the Amorites." The story is, They visited a certain person, and he revived again, and lived five-and-twenty years, and then died. They tell of another that lived again, and begot children, and then died.

"It is a tradition of Ben Kaphra's: The very height of mourning is not till the third day. For three days the spirit wanders about the sepulchre, expecting if it may return into the body. But when it sees that the form or aspect of the face is changed, then it hovers no more, but leaves the body to itself."

"They do not certify of the dead" [that this is the very man, and not another] 'but within the three days after his decease': for after three days his countenance is changed."

Verse 44

44. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.

[With graveclothes, &c.] The evangelist seems so particular in mentioning the graveclothes, wherewith Lazarus was bound hand and foot, and also the napkin that had covered his face, on purpose to hint us a second miracle in this great miracle. The dead man came forth, though bound hand and foot with his graveclothes, and blinded with the napkin.

Verse 48

48. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.

[And the Romans shall come.] I could easily believe that the fathers of the Sanhedrim had either a knowledge or at least some suspicion that Jesus was the true Messiah.

I. This seems plainly intimated by the words of the vine-dressers in the parable, Mark 12:7: "This is the heir; come, let us kill him." They knew well enough he was the heir: and it was come to this in the struggle betwixt them, Either he will inherit with his doctrine, or we will with ours: come therefore, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours.

II. They could not but know that Daniel's weeks were now fully accomplished, and that the time of the Messiah's appearing was now come. This that conflux of Jews from all nations into Jerusalem, Acts 2, doth testify, being led by Daniel's prophecy, and the agreeableness of the time, to fix their residence there, in expectation of the Messiah now ready to be revealed. Compare also Luke 19:2.

III. When therefore they saw Jesus working miracles so very stupendous, and so worthy the character of the Messiah, and that in the very time wherein the manifestation of the Messiah had been foretold, they could not but have a strong suspicion that this was He. But then it is a wonderful thing that they should endeavour his death and destruction. What! destroy the Messiah, the expectation and desire of that nation!

Such mischiefs could religious zeal persuade.

But it was a most irreligious religion, made up of traditions and human inventions; a strange kind of bewitchery rather than religion; that they should choose rather that the Messiah should be cut off than that religion be changed. They had been taught, or rather seduced by their traditions to believe, 1. That the kingdom of the Messiah should be administered in all imaginable pomp and worldly glory. 2. That their Judaism, or the religion properly so called, should be wonderfully promoted by him, confirmed, and made very glorious. 3. The whole nation should be redeemed from the heathen yoke. But when he, who by the force of his miracles asserted himself so far to be the Messiah, that they could not but inwardly acknowledge it, appeared notwithstanding so poor and contemptible, that nothing could be less expected or hoped for of such a one than a deliverance from their present mean and slavish state; and so distant seemed he from it, that he advised to pay tribute to Caesar, taught things contrary to what the scribes and Pharisees had principled them in, shook and seemed to abrogate the religion itself, and they had no prospect at all of better things from him; let Jesus perish, though he were the true Messiah, for any thing that they cared, rather than Judaism and their religion should be abolished.

Obj. But it is said, that what they did was through ignorance, Luke 23:34; Acts 3:17, 13:17; 1 Corinthians 2:8.

Ans. True indeed, through ignorance of the person: for they did not know and believe the Messiah to be God as well as man; they apprehended him mere man. Though they suspected that Jesus might be the Messiah, yet did they not suspect that this Jesus was the true God.

Let it then be taken for granted, that the fathers of the Sanhedrim, under some strong conviction that this was the true Messiah, might express themselves in this manner, "All men will believe on him, and the Romans will come," &c. and so what Caiaphas said, "It is expedient that one man should die," &c. But where does the consequence lie in all this? "All men will believe on him"; ergo, "the Romans will come," &c.

I. It is not altogether wide of the mark, what is commonly returned upon this question: The Romans will come against our nation, taking us for rebels to the emperor, in that, without his consent, our people have entertained this Jesus for the King Messiah.

II. Nor is it impertinent to this purpose what was the ancient observation of the Jews from that of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 10:34, 11:1: "Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one--and there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse," viz. That the coming of the Messiah, and the destruction of the Temple, should be upon the heels one of another.

The story is of an Arabian telling a certain Jew, while he was at plough, that the Temple was destroyed, and the Messiah was born; which I have already told at large upon Matthew 2:1. But the conclusion of it is, "R. Bon saith; 'What need we learn from an Arabian? is it not plainly enough written, Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one? And what follows immediately? There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse.'"

If, therefore, the Sanhedrim suspected Jesus to be the Messiah, they might, by the same reason, from thence also gather that the destruction of the city and nation was not far off; especially when they see the people falling off from Judaism to the religion of Jesus.

III. The fathers of the Sanhedrim judge that the nation would contract hereby an unspeakable deal of guilt, such as would subject them to all those curses mentioned Deuteronomy 28; particularly that their turning off from Judaism would issue in the final overthrow of the whole nation; and if their religion should be deserted, neither the city nor the commonwealth could possibly survive it long. So rooted was the love and value they had for their wretched traditions.

Let us therefore frame their words into this paraphrase: "It does seem that this man can be no other than the true Messiah; the strange wonders he doth, speak no less. What must we do in this case? On the one hand, it were a base and unworthy part of us to kill the Messiah: but then, on the other hand, it is infinitely hazardous for us to admit him: for all men will believe on him; and then our religion is at an end; and when that is once gone, what can we look for less than that our whole nation should perish under the arms and fury of the Romans?"

"'I beg your pardon for that,' saith Caiaphas; 'you know nothing, neither consider; for, be he the Messiah or be he not, it is expedient, nay, it is necessary, he should die rather than the whole nation should perish,'" &c.

Verse 51

51. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;

[He prophesied.] Is Caiaphas among the prophets? There had not been a prophet among the chief priests, the priests, the people, for these four hundred years and more; and does Caiaphas now begin to prophesy? It is a very foreign fetch that some would make, when they would ascribe this gift to the office he then bore, as if by being made high priest he became a prophet. The opinion is not worth confuting. The evangelist himself renders the reason when he tells us being high priest that same year. Which words direct the reader's eye rather to the year than to the high priest.

I. That was the year of pouring out the Spirit of prophecy and revelation beyond whatever the world had yet seen, or would see again. And why may not some drops of this great effusion light upon a wicked man, as sometimes the children's crumbs fall from the table to the dog under it; that a witness might be given to the great work of redemption from the mouth of our Redeemer's greatest enemy. There lies the emphasis of the words that same year; for Caiaphas had been high priest some years before, and did continue so for some years after.

II. To say the truth, by all just calculation, the office of the high priest ceased this very year; and the high priest prophesies while his office expires.

What difference was there, as to the execution of the priestly office, between the high priest and the rest of the priesthood? None certainly, only in these two things: 1. Asking counsel by Urim and Thummim. 2. In performing the service upon the day of Expiation. As to the former, that had been useless many ages before, because the spirit of prophecy had so perfectly departed from them. So that there remained now no other distinction, only that on the day of Expiation the high priest was to perform the service which an ordinary priest was not warranted to do. The principal ceremony of that day was, that he should enter into the Holy of Holies with blood. When, therefore, our great High Priest should enter, with his own blood, into the Holiest of all, what could there be left for this high priest to do? When, at the death of our great High Priest, the veil that hung between the Holy and the Holy of Holies was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, there was clear demonstration that all those rites and services were abolished; and that the office of the high priest, which was distinguished from the other priests only by those usages, was now determined and brought to its full period. The pontificate therefore drawing its last breath prophesies concerning the redemption of mankind by the great High Priest and Bishop of souls, "that he should die for the people," &c.

That of the apostle, Acts 23:5, "I wist not that he was the high priest," may perhaps have some such meaning as this in it, "I knew not that there was any high priest at all"; because the office had become needless for some time. For grant indeed that St. Paul did not know the face of Ananias, nor that Ananias was the high priest, yet he must needs know him to have been a magistrate, because he had his seat amongst the fathers of the Sanhedrim. Now those words which he quoted out of the law, "Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people," forbade all indecent speeches towards any magistrate, as well as the high priest. The apostle, therefore, knowing Ananias well enough, both who he was, and that he sat there under a falsely assumed title of the high priest, does on purpose call him 'whited wall,' because he only bore the colour of the high priesthood, when as the thing and office itself was now abolished.

Caiaphas, in this passage before us, speaketh partly as Caiaphas and partly as a prophet. As Caiaphas, he does, by an impious and precipitate boldness, contrive and promote the death of Christ: and what he uttered as a prophet, the evangelist tells us, he did it not of himself; he spoke what himself understood not the depth of.

The greatest work of the Messiah, according to the expectation of the Jews, was the reduction or gathering together the captivities. The high priest despairs that ever Jesus, should he live, could do this. For all that he either did or taught seemed to have a contrary tendency, viz. to seduce the people from their religion, rather than recover them from their servile state of bondage. So that he apprehended this one only remedy left, that care might be taken, so as by the death of this man the hazard of that nation's ruin might blow over: "If he be the Messiah (which I almost think even Caiaphas himself did not much question), since he can have no hope of redeeming the nation, let him die for it himself, that it perish not upon his account."

Thus miserably are the great masters of wisdom deceived in almost all their surmises; they expect the gathering together of the children of God in one by the life of the Messiah, which was to be accomplished by his death. They believe their traditional religion was the establishment of that nation; whereas it became its overthrow. They think to secure themselves by the death of Christ, when by that very death of his their expected security was chiefly shaken. O blind and stupid madness!

Verse 55

55. And the Jews' passover was nigh at hand: and many went out of the country up to Jerusalem before the passover, to purify themselves.

[To purify themselves.] "R. Isaac saith, Every man is bound to purify himself for the feast." Now there were several measures of time for purifying. He that was unclean by the touch of a dead body required a whole week's time, that he might be sprinkled with the water of purification mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, burnt the third and the seventh days.

Other purifyings were speedilier performed: amongst others, shaving themselves and washing their garments were accounted necessary, and within the laws of purifying. "These shave themselves within the feast: he who cometh from a heathen country, or from captivity, or from prison. Also he who hath been excommunicated, but now absolved by the wise men. These same also wash their garments within the feast."

It is supposed that these were detained by some necessity of affairs, that they could not wash and be shaved before the feast; for these things were of right to be performed before, lest any should, by any means, approach polluted unto the celebration of this feast; but if, by some necessity, they were hindered from doing it before, then it was done on a common day of the feast, viz. after the first day of the feast.


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Bibliography Information
Lightfoot, John. "Commentary on John 11:4". "John Lightfoot Commentary on the Gospels". 1675.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, August 20th, 2017
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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