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John 11:53, 54 says,
53 So from that day on they planned together to kill Him. 54 Therefore Jesus no longer continued to walk publicly among the Jews but went away from there to the country near the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim; and there He stayed with the disciples.
Jesus either knew intuitively or heard that the Council had convened to deal with the problem of Lazarus, so He took His disciples to the relative safety of the town of Ephraim, which was located about 16 miles northeast of Jerusalem.
Jesus did not go back to Galilee, because the feast of Passover was near, and He knew that He had to be in Jerusalem to be crucified and to be raised up the third day. He did not take Lazarus with him, because Lazarus was required to purify himself on the third and seventh days just outside of Jerusalem with the ashes of the red heifer for touching a dead body (his own).
The ashes were mixed with water and sprinkled upon the unclean. Num. 19:11-13 says,
11 The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days. 12 That one shall purify himself from the uncleanness with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and then he will be clean; but if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean. 13 Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself defiles the tabernacle of the Lord…
Meanwhile, people began traveling to Jerusalem early, especially those who needed to purify themselves for the feast. John 11:55 says,
55 Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up to Jerusalem out of the country before the Passover to purify themselves.
When the days of their purification were complete, they were required to go to the Bethpage community of priests which was located just outside the city of Jerusalem. These priests served on the Mount of Olives, where the ashes of the red heifer were stored near a cistern of water. Lazarus did not have far to walk, since Bethany was just a short distance from Jerusalem. But many others came from afar, so they arrived at least a week early in order to fulfill the requirement and be eligible to keep the Passover.
Neither Jesus nor His disciples needed such purification, so they were able to escape to the town of Ephraim for about a week. We do not know whether or not He ministered there, but if so, He certainly did it covertly, so as not to draw attention to Himself.
John 11:56, 57 concludes,
56 So they were seeking for Jesus and were saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think; that He will not come to the feast at all?” 57 Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where He was, he was to report it, so that they might seize Him.
It appears that the chief priests had issued a “public adjuration” (Lev. 5:1) requiring everyone to report and bear witness if they knew where Jesus was. This tells us that Jesus had hidden Himself in the town of Ephraim and that very few knew where He was.
For this reason, it was public knowledge that the chief priests wanted to arrest Jesus and to try Him in court. This seems to have been the main topic of conversation among those who came early to purify themselves, and they wondered if Jesus would attend the feast.
It appears that Jesus remained hidden in the town of Ephraim just north of Jerusalem just long enough to complete 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.
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 the barley was 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 and at the same time that Jesus was traveling to Bethany to raise his friend, Lazarus, from the dead. 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 paused long enough on the journey to witness the raising of Lazarus? 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 possibilities intrigue me.
A week later, Martha made the supper not only to celebrate Jesus’ return to Bethany (from the town of Ephraim) but specifically to celebrate Lazarus’ return from the dead. Lazarus could not have joined the celebration until the eighth day when he was pronounced “clean.”
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 day, which was a 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.
John 12:3 says,
3 Mary then took a pound [litra, about 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 (oil) 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 (Heb. 6:16).
As part of this particular court case, we read in Num. 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.