Lazarus' tomb, from the inside

The Miracle at Bethany, John 11

The raising of Lazarus is the climactic miracle or sign in John’s Gospel.  In all, there are seven signs in John and each one serves to emphasize a particular aspect of Jesus’ authority.  This is the big one; it demonstrates His power over man’s most dreaded enemy:  death.

There is a three-fold significance to this miracle:

  • It points to Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  Earlier Jesus demonstrated that He was the “bread of life” when He fed the people.  He revealed Himself as the “light of the world” when He healed the man born blind.  With this miracle, Jesus shows that He is “the resurrection and the life.”
  • It revealed Jesus to be the Messiah, who would die for His people in fulfillment of prophecy.
  • It led to the formal decision to put Jesus to death.

There is another aspect to this incident, and it is one that we may apply to our lives.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  (verse  40)

There is no more difficult time to muster belief in Christ than during this kind of tragic situation.  But our belief in Christ is not to be dictated by circumstances that come in and out of our lives.  Our belief is supposed to be constant, and if it was, we would see God’s glory manifested continually.

1.  The death of Lazarus, 11:1—16

As the story begins, we are introduced to the main characters; the two sisters, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus.  They were residents of Bethany and personal friends of Jesus’, who visited them likely on many occasions in the past.

Lazarus, not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, is a passive but primary figure in this chapter.  His name is actually an abbreviation of Eleazar, which means “he whom God helped.”

Verse 3 suggests that Jesus was far more than just an acquaintance with this family.  When Lazarus fell ill, the first person the family sent for was Jesus.  That the illness was serious is evident since they were asking Jesus to return to the very part of the country where there was now a “price on His head.”  The way Mary and Martha broke the news to Jesus implied that if Jesus loved Lazarus, then He would return.

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”  (verse 4)

This verse sounds optimistic, depending on who’s hearing it.  To Mary and Martha, and probably to the disciples as well, Jesus surely meant to reassure them:  the sickness is not serious enough to kill your brother.  But to Jesus, the verses meant the death of Lazarus was a temporary death because He already knew what He would do.  Furthermore, the whole incident had but one purpose:  to glorify Christ.

Verses 4 and 5 cause problems to some readers because Jesus’ reaction seems not to match up to His feelings—

Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

If He loved this family so much, why they delay?  Westcott shed some light on Jesus’ reasons:

Because the Lord loved the family He went at the exact moment when His visit would be most fruitful and not just when He was invited.

What looked like a cold and cruel delay was really the most powerful, most effective, and most tender way to show concern for the spiritual well-being of Mary, Martha, and the disciples.  On previous occasions, Jesus acted quite differently; in the case of Jairus’ daughter, He acted immediately (Luke 8:41—42, 49—56), and in the case of the son of the widow of Nain whom Jesus raised, our Lord met the funeral procession on the way to the cemetery (Luke 7:11—16)!  But here, death was touching the very people He was closest to while on Earth, but they needed to learn a deep spiritual lesson, not a sentimental one.

Finally, after the two days were over, and Lazarus was dead, the time was right for Jesus and His disciples to go to Judea.  This prompted concern in the disciples, who, based on what Jesus had said two days ago, thought that by now surely Lazarus was well on the road to recovery and, they knew that Jesus would be walking into certain danger if He went.

Verses 9—14 really show why Jesus came into the world and serve to set the theme for the whole chapter.  The death of Lazarus illustrates the great cosmic struggle between light and dark, good and evil, life and death.  This struggle, which has been going on since time immemorial, is difficult for people to grasp, so our Lord helps us by showing us this cosmic struggle, which affects all humanity, within one particular family.

What’s more, these verses also show another dimension to Christ’s ministry on Earth and also shed some more light on the disciples—

  • Verse 9:  This verse may have been a quotation of a sort of proverb popular during Jesus’ time, reminiscent of John 9:4.  Jesus was simply telling His disciples that He had a limited amount time left to fulfill His obligation to do the work assigned Him by His Father.
  • Verses 10, 11:  Jesus was well aware that His friend Lazarus was now dead; His disciples were clueless.  What is significant is the way Jesus broke the news to His disciples.  He was very matter-of-fact with them; He did not embellish the news with sentimentality.
  • Verses 12—15:  The disciples completely misunderstood and misinterpreted what Jesus had said; a very common occurrence to this day.  Believers are always misunderstanding and misinterpreting the Word of God and basing their thoughts and actions on error.  But Jesus set them straight.

Verse 16, though, is a curiosity—

Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

This is the first appearance in this Gospel of Thomas.  Though some take Thomas’ meaning to be “let us die with Lazarus,” it is more likely, given the context and the danger, Thomas was speaking to the rest of the disciples, saying, “let us go and die with Christ.”  Always Mr. Negative, it seems Thomas expected the worst if they all went to Judea.  We may make fun of Thomas, but we can’t fault his loyalty to His Lord!   Thomas seemed to have an unwavering, unlimited supply of loyalty, but at the same time, not a great deal of faith.  Again, Westcott observed:

He [Thomas] will die for the love which he has, but he will not affect the faith which he has not.

2.  The arrival of Jesus, 11:17—37

The trip from Perea to Bethany took about two days, and when Jesus and the disciples finally arrived at the outskirts of Bethany in Judea, He “found” (probably inquired and found out) that His friend had been dead for days and was in the tomb by now.

The two sisters responded to the coming of Jesus at this instance in pretty much the same way they responded in the past.  Martha was the “mouthpiece,” the one who took the lead and hurried out to meet Jesus; Mary on the other hand remained at home.

Verse 21 shows the depth of faith Martha had in Jesus—

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Though surely disappointed, her faith was not shaken.  The exchange between Jesus and Martha and His dealings with the family in this matter are a lesson in what faith is all about.  Faith has many components, and for faith to be effective it must be complete.  L.H. Marshal has compared faith to gunpowder, which is made up of carbon, sulfur, and saltpeter, and each ingredient must be present in the mixture before there can be an explosion.  And so, real faith must have all of its components working at the same time:  trust, belief, emotion, and intellect.  If any one component of faith is missing, then that faith is incomplete and therefore ineffective.  This entire incident was designed by Jesus to teach Martha’s family this.

In the simplest possible terms, Jesus blurted out to Martha what was about to happen, but her response, like that of the disciples, showed that she did not grasp the simplicity of Jesus statement—

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”   Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”  (verses 23, 24)

And herein lay the great cosmic struggle:  knowing that Christ has mastery over everything, even life itself, yet when confronted with the reality of death, our emotions take over and an objective truth becomes a subjective one.  This was Martha’s conundrum; her faith was strong until it was put to the test; the death of her brother caused her emotions to take over and now all hope rested, not on the real possibility of a present intervention by God, but on a nebulous, far future promise of a general resurrection.   It took virtually no faith to believe this; the general resurrection was a key tenet in Judaism, a doctrine vehemently taught and defended by the Pharisees, of all people.  When push came to shove, Martha fell back into old, comfortable teachings.

Jesus seized on this and uttered one of the greatest truths of Scripture:

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”  (verses 25, 26)

If we analyze precisely what Jesus told Martha, the sheer simplicity of it knocks us over.  First, she references the “resurrection.”  Jesus informs her that HE is, in fact, the resurrection.  In other words, He is LIFE.  Then He says this:

He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.

Is Jesus talking about the dead saints in general?  No.  Who has just died?  Lazarus!  Lazarus was a believer, and therefore, Jesus said Lazarus will live.   Then Jesus said,

Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

Specifically, Jesus is referring to Martha, who also was a believer.  She will never die; that is, she will live on and on in the spirit because of her faith in Christ.   In effect, Jesus said, “I will raise your brother to physical life because of his faith in me and you will never die spiritually  because of your faith in me.”  In two verses, we see Jesus in total command of life; physical and spiritual; they are His give.

Now, apparently Martha understood what Jesus was trying to say.

So far, we see Jesus’ divine side in action:  the Son of God, operating above the circumstances; very calm and cool and He is seen in complete control of the situation.  However, this all changed when Mary showed up, in an emotional dither.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.

“Where have you laid him?” he asked.   “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept. (verses 32—35)

When Mary appeared, crushed and broken hearted, we see Jesus’ humanity coming to the surface; He too was moved with the deepest of emotions.   His feelings are described by three words or phrases:  “deeply moved,” “troubled,” and “wept.”  These three emotional responses tell us a lot about Jesus—

  • “Deeply moved.”  The Greek word is enebrimesato, meaning “to snort like a horse,” and usually suggests anger.  But with whom was Jesus angry?   Was he angry with the sisters?  This can’t be; there was a relationship that existed between them that ran deep.  In all likelihood Jesus was angered at death, and what death does to the human body and what it does to human relationships.  Jesus saw how the death of their brother broke Mary and Martha’s hearts and crushed their spirits, and because this was how they felt, this was how He felt.  And this made Jesus very angry.
  • “Troubled.”  In Greek, etaraxen denotes agitation, confusion or disorganization.  As the word is used here, it shows Jesus was agitated by the situation.  This agitation, brought on by the death of close friend, caused waves of emotion to well up within Jesus, and in that moment when Jesus reacted like any other man would react to the death of a loved one, He cried.  What a contrast to the Jesus we saw just a couple of verses back!  But this is Jesus we serve; all God and all man at the same time; touched by what touches us; moved by what moves us.

3.  The raising of Lazarus, 11:38—44

When everybody (Jesus, Mary, Martha, the disciples, other Jews) arrived at the tomb, it was a typical Palestinian tomb:

It had no door; in front of the opening there ran a groove and in the groove there was set a great stone like a great cartwheel, and the stone was rolled across the entrance so that the cave completely sealed.  (Strachan)

The repetition of the phrase “deeply moved” shows that He was still under great emotional strain and tension.  Jesus was now faced with a monumental task:  fulfill the prediction, raise Lazarus from the dead and give the glory to God.   He had just challenged Martha’s faith, and now Jesus was facing a challenge of His own!  But He wasn’t going to face it alone; note what He said—

“Take away the stone,” he said.  (verse 39)

Have you ever wondered why Jesus said that?  Why would the Creator of heaven and earth need somebody to move a boulder?   It was a challenge to Martha’s imperfect faith, for it was she who responded—

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”  (verse 39)

Of course, she was absolutely right!  Facing a truth of life, she forgot about the One who is Life!  This singular moment was the acid test of her faith.  This whole story, apart from the glorification of God, is all about this one exchange between a woman and her Savior.  Jesus didn’t need anybody to move that stone, but Martha needed to learn about faith.  What would she do?  She trusted Jesus; she believed in Jesus; she loved Jesus; would she be loyal to Jesus and obey Him when it seemed ridiculous to do so?

We all know the story, and naturally Martha obeyed.  Jesus addressed the dead man and told Lazarus to “Come out” of the tomb.  That phrase, “come out,” or “come forth” is really a directional command, as though Jesus is telling him, “Come this way.”

Here we have a demonstration of the authority of the Son of God, which harkens back to a John 5:28—

Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice.

The raising of this one man was sort of preview of the coming attraction!  Lazarus, raised from death to life, called out from gloom into joy, from the darkness of a tomb into the light of day.  You would think that everybody there would have been astonished and overcome with the presence of God.  Some, in fact, came to have faith in Jesus because of this miracle, although it’s hard to understand why everybody there didn’t come to have in Jesus after witnessing a resurrection!

Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.  (verse 45)

But the religious leaders acted predictably.  This miracle put Jesus on a collision course with His destiny.

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”   (verses 47—50)

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

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