John 11: The Death of Lazarus, I Am the Resurrection and the Life, Jesus Weeps, Jesus Raises Lazarus, The Plot to Kill Jesus
The first 16 verses verses in this passage would likely have confused Jesus’ disciples at the time.
- Verses 1–2: We’re introduced to Lazarus and his sisters (who live in Bethany), and informed how much Jesus loved the family.
- Verse 3: We’re informed that Lazarus is dying.
- Verse 4: Jesus says, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
- Verses 5–6: Because Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters, he decides not to go see them yet. He waits two more days.
- Verse 7: Jesus now tells the disciples that he wants to go back to Judea.
- Verse 8: The disciples are confused: the Jews want to stone Jesus for blasphemy, so is going back to Judea really such a good idea? (After waiting for two days, I guess they assumed he wasn’t going to see Lazarus at all. Since he’d said that, “This illness does not lead to death,” maybe they assumed that Lazarus simply wouldn’t die, so Jesus didn’t need to go.)
- Verses 9–11: “Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.’ After saying these things, he said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.’”
- Verses 12–15: The disciples respond that if Lazarus is asleep he’ll recover, so no sense putting Jesus’ life at risk! But he them tells them plainly: Lazarus is dead, and for the disciples’ sake Jesus is glad he wasn’t there to prevent it, so that they’ll see his power. So he says, “Let us go to him.”
- Verse 16: The disciples misunderstand again: Jesus says Lazarus is dead, and then said “Let us go to him,” so Thomas (probably speaking for all of them), assumes Jesus means he’s going to die, so the disciples decide to go and die with him.
By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has already been in his tomb for four days. There are many Jewish people there comforting Mary and Martha. When Martha hears that Jesus has arrived, she rushes out to meet him:
Martha said to Jesus, “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.” 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.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (verses 21–27)
Martha then goes to find Mary, and privately tells her that Jesus has arrived. (My guess is that Martha is telling Mary in private because they know the religious leaders want to stone Jesus for blasphemy, so she’s probably trying to keep it quiet.) Jesus is still outside the village, at the place where he’d met Martha, so Mary gets up to go and meet him there. The people around her see her leaving and assume she’s going to the tomb.
When Mary sees Jesus, she falls at his feet, and says exactly the same thing Martha had said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (verse 32). Jesus asks them to bring him to the tomb, and is so moved by the sight of Mary and all of the others weeping that he begins to weep himself. (Leading to what is famously the shortest verse in the Bible, verse 35: “Jesus wept.”) Some of the people there are touched by how much Jesus loved Lazarus, while others are doubting Jesus:
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (verse 37)
When they reach the tomb Jesus instructs them to remove the stone, but Martha balks. Lazarus has been dead for four days; there will definitely be an odour! But Jesus responds, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (verse 40).
And then he raises Lazarus:
So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (verses 41–44)
When they see this obvious sign of Jesus’ power, many of the people there believe in Jesus. Some, however, go to the Pharisees and tell them what has happened. The Pharisees, however, don’t seem to be as struck by the power of what Jesus has done; their concerns are more prosaic:
So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (verses 47–48)
This leads to an entirely unwitting prophecy by the High Priest:
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (verses 49–52)
So, we are told, from this day on the Pharisees are making plans to put Jesus to death. Therefore Jesus and his disciples go off to a place off the beaten path called Ephraim, no longer walking openly among the Jews (for a while).
Shortly after this it’s going to be Passover, and around Jerusalem Jesus is the talk of the town: Everyone is wondering if he’ll show up for the feast, and the chief priests and the Pharisees have given orders that anyone who knows Jesus’ location should turn him in so that they can arrest him.
This is a significant event in the Gospels—so significant that it signals the beginning of the end of Jesus’ life. Raising a man from the dead simply can’t be ignored (much as the Pharisees would have liked to). If you don’t believe that it happened—if you think this is just a story from a book written thousands of years ago—that’s one thing, but if you believe that Jesus actually did raise someone from the dead, you have to decide what that means about who Jesus is, and who he claims to be.
In fact, given the things Jesus did, and the things he claimed about himself, there are only so many options you have:
|Jesus didn’t really do the things written about him in the Gospels, and I don’t need to listen to him||Logically, this is a valid position.|
|Jesus actually did the things written about him in the Gospels, but I don’t need to listen to him||If you believe that Jesus actually did the things that are written about him, why would you feel that you don’t need to listen to him? He himself said that the reason he did those things was to show that he had authority to say the things he said.|
|Jesus didn’t really do the things written about him in the Gospels, but he was a great teacher, and one of the ways one can get to God||I don’t think this is logically tenable; the claims Jesus made were, on the face of it, ridiculous. You can’t claim to be God and not do things that are very special.|
|Jesus actually did the things written about him in the Gospels, but he wasn’t God, he was just a good teacher||This is definitely not tenable. If you believe Jesus was a good teacher than you have to listen to what he said, and what he said was that he was God. People would like to believe He is “one of the ways you can get to God,” but Jesus himself said he was the only way to get to God, so he flat-out disagrees with every other religion and system of thought that exists—hard to reconcile that with saying that he’s “one of many ways,” when there is such strong disagreement.|
|Jesus did what was written about him in the Gospels, was a good teacher, and is God||This is what I believe|
In other words, speaking purely from a logical standpoint, when you actually look into the things Jesus said, I think the two extreme positions are the only tenable ones: He didn’t do the things written in the Scriptures and we don’t need to listen to Him, or He did and we do.
“So … he stayed two days longer”
Verses 5–6 are confusing, at first glance:
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (verses 5–6, emphasis added)
That word “so” doesn’t seem to make any sense! And it doesn’t seem to make any sense to Mary or Martha, either: when he finally does arrive they both have exactly the same response: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Almost any other phrasing for verses 5–6 would seem to make more sense, on the face of it:
- Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. However, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
- Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. But, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
- Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. But unfortunately, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he had to stay two days longer in the place where he was.
- Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Though when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
The word “so” essentially means “therefore;” because Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, he stayed two days longer. Even if we know that Jesus already planned to raise Lazarus from the dead, and that therefore his death was temporary, the word “so” still doesn’t make sense there, on the face of it.
What that tells me is that Jesus had multiple purposes in going to Bethany, and displaying his power by raising Lazarus from the dead was only one of them. Growing Mary’s and Martha’s level of faith, and teaching them something about the power of God, was just as important. As mentioned in verse 15, this will also help the disciples’ faith, and teach them something about the power of Jesus, and obviously a number of others are impressed with this feat, but even aside from all of that, out of his love for Martha, Mary and Lazarus he delays going to see Lazarus, for their sake.
“Whatever you ask from God, God will give you”
A lot of modern-day Christians in the West tend to read the Scriptures under the core assumption that the people they’re reading about are unlearned idiots. “They didn’t know about medicine,” we think, “so they didn’t understand death the way we do!” This is just plain stupid of us, because death has always been a fact of life for humans. Everyone knows—and has always known—that once a person dies, they don’t come back. Period. In all of Israelite history, as all-powerful as their God was, there were only ever three example of people who came back from the dead, all by the hands of Elijah and Elisha:
My guess is that there would have been people in Jesus’ day who didn’t even believe in those resurrections; there were probably people who thought those were just stories, not real history, just as a lot of people believe today.
This idea that people in the Bible were so gullible and stupid that they didn’t even understand how death works—that Lazarus probably wasn’t dead in the first place, they just thought he was dead—is undercut by Martha’s response to Jesus. The conversation goes like this:
- She starts by pointing out that Lazarus wouldn’t have died in the first place if Jesus had been there; it’s like she almost can’t help herself but to call this out, in her pain and grief.
- However, she has so much faith in Jesus and in God’s power that she knows the Father will do whatever Jesus asks of Him.
- Jesus tells her Lazarus will rise again.
- Martha says yes, sure, Lazarus will rise again—at the resurrection on the last day.
Even with all the faith she has in Jesus, which is never called into question, it doesn’t even occur to her that raising Lazarus from the dead might be an option. Death is the end. She knew that as well as we do.
Oh, and let’s not forget Mary’s contribution either: When Jesus tells them to roll the stone away, Mary points out that Lazarus has been dead for days. When she says that “there will be an odor,” she’s understating it: a human body that’s been dead for four days would smell terrible. Mary knows that.
The Beginning of the End
Shortly before writing this post I came across a preacher who mentioned that when Jesus came to raise Lazarus from the dead, he was essentially starting on the road to his own death. My wife and I then heard a sermon not to long after in which another preacher said the same thing. We both remarked to each other that, previously, we hadn’t really considered the raising of Lazarus from the dead as being such a turning point for Jesus. Yet, that’s clearly what we are told here: from this point on the religious leaders are actively looking to arrest Jesus and have him put to death. And although we’re only about halfway through the book of John, we’re actually close to the end of Jesus’ life! Much of the rest of the book is focused heavily on what Jesus taught his disciples during the last week or so of his life.
Jesus has performed a number of miracles, but raising a man from the dead is such a clear sign of his power that the religious authorities simply can’t ignore it. Unfortunately, instead of examining the event to figure out what it means that Jesus has this kind of power at his disposal, they skip right past that and start trying to figure out how they can get rid of him.
I’m not sure what my point is here, other than that it’s always good to hear solid preaching which reminds and/or teaches us, and not just rely on our own reading of the Scriptures.
Two Sisters, Two Approaches
Since I’m mentioning unoriginal thoughts, that I simply got from sermon podcasts, here’s another…
As has been mentioned a couple of times, both Martha and Mary had the exact same response to Jesus’ arrival: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But note that Jesus’ response to each sister is very different: with Martha he has a religious discussion about the resurrection and his power, whereas with Mary he simply weeps with her.
Jesus was wise enough to know what each woman needed in that moment. They might have been using the same words, but that doesn’t mean each felt the same way, or responded the same way in their hearts. Martha needed a conversation in that moment, to help her process what she was feeling; Mary didn’t need words, she just needed someone to be there with her.
We should strive for the same kind of wisdom: when someone is suffering, and we’re with them, when should we speak, and when should we shut up? Even if the person says something, in their grief, that isn’t theologically correct, it probably isn’t the right time to correct them. (Notice that Jesus didn’t tell either woman, “Well, the reason I didn’t come earlier is that it would be better to raise him from the dead than to prevent him from dying.” Neither of them needed to be corrected—not even Martha, who got a more fulsome theological conversation.)