Pulling a Martha (Scene 2 & 3)
In the last article we explored Luke 10 where Martha was full of busy service, but without love. I want to bust a potential misunderstanding and misapplication of Luke 10 here by considering a few more scenes in the narrative of Martha and her sister Mary.
The misunderstanding - "we should sit at the feet of Jesus instead of serving". After all, didn't Jesus say that Mary had chosen the better?
Scene 2 – Served and Loved (John 11)
Christ is back in the village of Bethany. Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus had died and Christ had been sent for and has come. Martha hears that Christ is coming and went out to meet and speak with Him (John 11v20-27). Consider this intimate conversation.
"Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.""But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
Martha knows a little about Jesus now. She knows that if He had been there earlier He could have healed Lazarus before he died (v21). She knows that Jesus has favour with God and that God answers His prayers (v22). She knows, much like Nicodemus in Chapter 3, that Jesus is a great miracle worker who has favour with God. She hasn't yet learned His full identity and power.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
She knows that Lazarus will be raised again on the last day (v23-24). She trusts God, she believes the Old Testament, she understands that Jesus is sent from God. However, there is still so much missing in her knowledge of who Jesus is. Jesus has more to teach her. He tells her that He is the Resurrection and the Life and that believing in Him leads to eternal life (v25-26). He asks her if she believes this and she responds “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God” [v27].
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
She still doesn’t fully understand it all. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Yes, He is sent from God. Yes, the future resurrection is true. Yet, as Jesus has the stone blocking the tomb moved, she shows, again, how little she has understood (v39-40). All of this is blown away as Christ comes to the tomb of Lazarus, weeps with a troubled and grieving spirit and brings him back to life again.
Martha has now seen both the power and compassion of Christ. She understands He is the Son of God, the Resurrection and the Life. She sees His power to bring the dead back to life again. She sees His compassion as He weeps for her brother. He is gracious! He is powerful! He does care! He loves me! He loves my brother! These beautiful truths are being realised deep down in Martha’s heart.
Scene 3 – Serving and Loving while Served and Loved (John 12v1-8)
Christ is back in the village of Bethany. He is enjoying a meal with His disciples and the risen Lazarus. I love how Matthew and Mark describe the house Jesus visits this time; the house of Simon the Leper (Matt 26v6, Mark 14v3). Simon was healed, yet he still carried that name around. Imagine introducing himself to a stranger; "I'm Simon the Leper". "You're a leper!?". "Oh, well I was, but then I met Jesus". Did they all have these nicknames? Simon the Leper, Bartimeaus the Blind, Lazarus the Dead, Malchus the One-Ear? Anyway, I'm getting off topic.
Notice who is serving; “Martha served” (v2). She is back to preparing a meal. She is back to serving Christ and serving Christ’s disciples. This time, however, would be completely different. She is serving, now, out of a response to the glory and grace of Christ. She is serving, now, out of a heart that has been served. She is preparing a meal after having feasted upon the truths of who Christ is and what He has done. This isn’t a “same old Martha, never learning her lesson” verse. This is a victory moment for her as she serves with a heart that is full.
In both cases, Martha is doing the same thing. Yet the attitude and motivation must have been entirely different. Martha would have caught the difference in herself as she served without bitterness. Mary would have noticed it as she didn't catch that judgmental, flustered eye of her sister (you know the one I mean). The disciples would have noticed it as that awkward tension in the room wasn't there (again you know exactly what I'm talking about). The house of Simon the Leper had become a little haven of joy, love, peace and glad service, with Christ's compassion and power at the very heart.
In scene 1 Mary had sat at the feet of Jesus listening to His teachings. Is that all she did? Is it the lot of some to serve and the lot of others to sit? No. Mary, here in John 12, full of joy and gratitude in the person and work of Christ, takes her expensive oil and anoints His feet with it. This cost her deeply. She is responding to His love and grace. She loved Him because she knew He loved her. She had so feasted on the teachings of Christ that her heart was full and overflowing with gratitude, praise and love. She expresses that through her offering to Him.
These two sisters had learned what it meant to serve and to sacrifice.
It is essential to understand that our sacrifices and services for Christ must come out of a heart that is responding to His sacrifice and service for us. All that we do in our Christian life must be a response to God’s glory and grace. Only when our hearts are full of the realities of the gospel will that overflow and outwardly express true love and service.
So the misunderstanding of Luke 10; "we should sit at the feet of Jesus instead of serving", is countered by John 11-12; "It is vital to sit at the feet of Jesus, and fill our hearts with Him before serving".
Alan Campbell is from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He came to Christ as a young adult and trained for ministry at Bethesda Free Church, Sunderland. Alan ministered in Bethesda as the Associate Pastor until 2019 and now ministers at Union Chapel, Bath. From time to time he teaches at North Cotes (NTM/Ethnos 360) College and The Theological College of North Staffordshire. Alan travels across the UK, Ireland, Europe and the States speaking at universities and equipping churches and campus ministries to share the gospel in a post-modern context. He is passionate about helping the believer to root their identity more and more into the person and work of Jesus Christ. Alan is married to Victoria.