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John 11:1-45 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 1-12. THE BOOK OF SIGNS
Chapters 1-12 of the Gospel of John are often called “The Book of Signs.” They include a series of seven signs, so named because the signs point to God and can be properly understood only when seen through the eyes of faith.
• Changing water into wine at Cana (2:1-11).
• The healing of the royal official’s son (4:46-54).
• The healing of a paralytic (5:1-9).
• The feeding of the five thousand (6:1-14).
• Walking on water (6:15-25).
• Giving sight to a man born blind (9:1-12).
• The resurrection of Lazarus (11:1-45), the greatest of the signs.
The account of this last and greatest sign is much longer than any of the previous accounts of signs—a mark of its significance. Also, the other signs are paired geographically. The first and second signs took place in Cana. The third and sixth signs took place in Jerusalem. The fourth and fifth signs took place in Galilee. This last sign, the resurrection of Lazarus, is the only sign to take place in Bethany—again, a testimony to its importance (Lincoln 315-316).
In these chapters, Jesus uses a series of miracles as a backdrop to introduce metaphors that reveal who he is:
• He encounters the woman at the well, and reveals himself to her as living water (4:10).
• He feeds the five thousand, and reveals himself to the disciples as the bread of life (6:35).
• He heals a man born blind, and reveals himself as the light of the world (9:5).
• And now he raises Lazarus from the dead, and reveals himself as the resurrection and the life (11:25).
JOHN 11:1-45. PARALLELS & CONTRASTS
The story of Lazarus precipitates the plot to kill Jesus (vv. 45-53). There are a number of parallels and contrasts between this story and that of Jesus’ death and resurrection:
• Verse 2 mentions the anointing of Jesus by Mary, which Jesus will describe as an anointing for his burial (12:1-8).
• Thomas is pessimistic and outspoken here (v. 16), just as he will be before seeing Jesus after the resurrection (20:25).
• Both Lazarus and Jesus are buried in a tomb sealed by a stone, which is moved so that the resurrected person can emerge.
• Jesus asks, “Where have you laid him?” (11:34)—the same question that Mary will ask the gardener at Jesus’ tomb (20:15).
• Both accounts mention grave clothes. However, there is a significant contrast here. Lazarus emerges from his tomb bound in his grave clothes (v. 44). Peter and the other disciple will find an empty tomb with the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head rolled up in a place by itself (20:5-7)—a testimony to the fact that Jesus will not require these grave clothes again.
JOHN 11:1-6. NOW A CERTAIN MAN WAS SICK, LAZARUS FROM BETHANY
1Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus from Bethany, of the village of Mary and her sister, Martha. 2It was that Mary who had anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother, Lazarus, was sick. 3The sisters therefore sent to him, saying, “Lord, behold, he for whom you have great affection is sick.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This sickness is not to death, but for the glory of God, that God’s Son may be glorified by it.” 5Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. 6When therefore he heard that he was sick, he stayed two days in the place where he was.
“Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus from Bethany” (v. 1a). Lazarus is a form of the name Eleazar, which means “God is my help.” We should not confuse this Lazarus with the one mentioned in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
“Bethany, of the village of Mary and her sister, Martha” (v. 1b). Mary and Martha are found also in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus was in their home on that occasion, and will return to their home again in John 12:1-8, when Mary will anoint him with expensive perfume and wipe his feet with her hair—an anointing that Jesus will interpret as preparation for his burial (12:8).
More than one Bethany is mentioned in the Gospels. This is Bethany of Judea, located two miles (three km) from Jerusalem. Jesus will die in Jerusalem, and the shadow of Jerusalem hangs over this account of the resurrection of Lazarus.
“It was that Mary who had anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother. Lazarus, was sick” (v. 2). The account of this anointing is found in the next chapter (12:1-8). In that account, Judas will criticize Mary for wasting costly perfume that could have been sold so that the money could given to the poor—but Jesus will say, “Leave her alone. She has kept this for the day of my burial” (12:8).
“The sisters therefore sent a message to him (Jesus), ‘Lord, behold, he for whom you have great affection is sick'” (v. 3). Mary and Martha send word to Jesus of Lazarus’ illness, but do not explicitly request that he come to Bethany. Perhaps that request is implicit in their notification. Perhaps they believe that Jesus can heal Lazarus from afar. In any event, they know that he cares and hope that he will heal Lazarus, whom he loves.
“This sickness is not to death; but for the glory of God, that God’s son may be glorified by it” (v. 4). The word “glory” is used in the Bible to speak of various things, but especially God’s glory—the aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans. Biblical writers, attempting to describe God’s glory using human words, portrayed it as “devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17).
When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God replied, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20)—but God continued, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:21-23).
The point is that God’s glory is so overwhelming that humans aren’t engineered to experience it. An analogy might be coming into contact with a live high-voltage electrical line. It would be too much for us. We couldn’t survive it.
Christ shares God’s glory and makes it visible:
• The glory of the Lord was revealed at his birth (Luke 2:9).
• His disciples, Peter, James and John, were privileged to see Christ’s glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (9:28-36).
• Christ’s cross was necessary so that he might “enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26; see also Philippians 2:5-11).
• The Gospel of John in particular speaks of the cross as Christ’s glorification (John 12:23; 13:31-32).
• Jesus spoke of returning “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).
There are two senses in which Lazarus’ illness is for God’s glory:
• First, when Jesus brings Lazarus back to life, people will give God glory for the miracle.
• Second, in this Gospel, Jesus’ glorification involves the cross. Verses 45-53 make it clear that Lazarus’ resurrection will lead to Jesus’ death, which is another way of saying that it will lead to his glorification.
Jesus says that Lazarus’ illness will not lead to his death. Lazarus will die, but Jesus will bring him back to life. The irony is that Lazarus’ healing/ resurrection will lead to Jesus’ death (vv. 46-53).
“Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When therefore he heard that he was sick, he stayed two days in the place where he was” (vv. 5-6). We last saw Jesus “beyond the Jordan into the place where John was baptizing at first” (10:40), which would be “Bethany beyond the Jordan” (1:28) or Bethany of Perea. That Bethany was located near the Jordan River just north of the Dead Sea—about 15 miles (24 km.) due east of the Bethany where Lazarus died.
In ordinary terrain, 15 miles would be an easy one-day journey on foot. However, the Dead Sea is 1300 feet (400 meters) below sea level and Jerusalem is 2500 feet (760 meters) above sea level, so a traveler from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem would climb 3800 feet (1160 meters) in 15 miles—a 5 percent slope—which would make it an especially arduous one-day journey.
Jesus loves not only Lazarus, but Martha and Mary as well. We are surprised, then, that he delays his departure two days. Even if he has power to raise Lazarus from the dead, Mary and Martha will grieve if Lazarus dies. If Jesus can spare them that, why does he not do so? There are two reasons:
• First, Jesus could not arrive in time to prevent Lazarus’ death. He delays only two days before going to Bethany (v. 6), but by the time he arrives in Bethany Lazarus has been dead four days (v. 39). Had Jesus departed immediately—two days earlier—Lazarus would have been dead two days before Jesus’ arrival in Bethany.
It is likely that Lazarus died even before the messenger reached Jesus. As noted above, Jesus was probably in Bethany of Perea, about a day’s journey from Bethany. Assuming that the messenger took one day to locate Jesus—and Jesus delayed two days—and Jesus took one day to travel to Bethany—it would appear that Lazarus died shortly after the messenger began his journey to Jesus.
• Second, as much as Jesus loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, this illness has a Godly purpose. It is “for the glory of God, that God’s son may be glorified by it” (v. 4). Jesus’ delay serves to heighten that glorification by removing any possibility that Lazarus is merely in a coma. When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, Lazarus will have been dead four days (see comments on v. 17 below). There will be no ambiguity about Lazarus’ death, Jesus’ miracle, or God’s involvement in the process.
JOHN 11:7-16. LAZARUS IS DEAD
7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let’s go into Judea again.” 8The disciples told him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
9Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours of daylight? If a man walks in the day, he doesn’t stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10But if a man walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light isn’t in him.” 11He said these things, and after that, he said to them, “Our friend, Lazarus, has fallen asleep, (Greek: kekoimetai) but I am going so that I may awake (Greek: exupniso) him out of sleep.” 12The disciples therefore said, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover (Greek: sothesetai).” 13Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he spoke of taking rest in sleep. 14So Jesus said to them plainly then, “Lazarus is dead. 15I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe. Nevertheless, let’s go to him.” 16Thomas therefore, who is called Didymus, (Greek: Didumos) said to his fellow disciples, “Let’s go also, that we may die with him.”
“Let’s go into Judea again” (v. 7). Bethany is located in Judea, just a short distance from Jerusalem, but is a friendly place due to the presence of Jesus’ friends—and the many Jews who came to believe in Jesus after he raised Lazarus from the dead (v. 45). But Bethany is a placid island in a sea of opposition. As Jesus knows, his push further into the heart of Judea will lead to his cross.
“Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (v. 8). The disciples protest Jesus’ decision. The Jewish leaders tried recently to stone Jesus in Jerusalem, but he escaped (10:31-39). The disciples do not want him exposed to danger again. Not only do they love him, but they also understand that their fate is linked to his. If the Jewish leaders kill Jesus, his fledgling movement will die—and there is a good possibility that the Jewish leaders might come after the disciples next.
“Aren’t there twelve hours of daylight?” (v. 9a). Both Jews and Romans divide the daylight period into twelve hours—an hour being shorter in winter than in summer. While it is possible to carry on some activity by lamplight, night is for rest rather than work or travel. People go to bed early and arise early to take full advantage of daylight. Jesus has work to do, and must do it while daylight makes work possible. Our colloquial phrase is “making hay while the sun shines.”
The point for us is that we have finite time to establish a relationship with Christ, who is the light of the world (8:12; 9:5). If we insist on walking in darkness throughout our lives, we will be condemned a dark eternity. So Jesus warns that the window of opportunity will not remain open forever.
“If a man walks in the day, he doesn’t stumble, because he sees the light of this world” (v. 9b). As is so often true in this Gospel, Jesus’ comment about light has a deeper meaning. Light and darkness symbolize good and evil—spiritual enlightenment vs. spiritual darkness—faithfulness v. unfaithfulness.
Jesus is the light. The person who follows Jesus does not stumble, because “he sees the light of this world.” The picture, then, is not of the light of the world illuminating their path so that they can follow it more easily. Their eyes are on the light of the world—not on the path. They are like a sailor guiding a ship by the North Star. As long as they keep their eyes fixed on the light of the world, they know where they are and which direction to take. The light of the world is a faithful guide.
“But if a man walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light isn’t in him” (v. 10). This is the corollary to verse 9b. We are likely to envision people who stumble because they lack a lamp to illumine the pathway. But Jesus instead speaks of the lack of an interior light—”the light isn’t in him” Their souls are dark, and so they stumble.
“Our friend, Lazarus, has fallen asleep, (kekoimetai) but I am going so that I may awake (exupniso) him out of sleep” (v. 11). This is the third instance in this Gospel where Jesus makes a statement, is misunderstood, and then clarifies the statement to point to a spiritual truth (see 3:1-21; 4:1-42).
Here Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus is asleep (kekoimetai) and that Jesus is going to awaken (exupniso) him. Both kekoimetai and exupniso can be understood in two ways. The former means asleep, but is also a euphemism for death. The latter means awaken, but can mean save (O’Day, 687).
“Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover” (sothesetai—from sozo) (v. 12). This is a touch of Johannine irony. The disciples believe that Lazarus will be all right (sothesetai) if he has only fallen asleep. Having heard this story before, we know that Lazarus will be all right even though he is dead. The word sothesetai can mean healed, but it can also mean saved. Lazarus can be healed, but he can also be saved.
“Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he spoke of taking rest in sleep” (v. 13). The author clarifies the disciples’ confusion. They thought Jesus was talking about Lazarus being asleep, but Jesus was instead using sleep as a metaphor for death.
“Lazarus is dead. I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe. Nevertheless, let’s go to him” (vv. 14b-15). We are surprised to hear Jesus say that he is glad. But Jesus is glad, not that his friend is dead, but that Lazarus’ death will lead the disciples to believe. He calls the disciples to go to Lazarus. Their destination is personal—not Bethany, but Lazarus.
“Thomas therefore, who is called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let’s go also, that we may die with him'” (v. 16). This is the first mention of Thomas in this Gospel. The Synoptic Gospels mention Thomas only in lists of apostles (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15), but this Gospel helps us to know him as a flesh-and-blood character (14:5; 20:24-28; 21:2).
While we know Thomas as a doubter because of his response to the disciples’ report of the risen Christ (20:25), he exhibits great loyalty to Jesus here—albeit, a dark loyalty. Jewish leaders tried to kill Jesus in Jerusalem (10:31-39), and the disciples tried to dissuade Jesus from returning (v. 8). Since Jesus insists on going to Bethany, Thomas is afraid that Jesus will be killed—and possibly the disciples as well. Thomas gets a low mark for faith, but a high mark for courage.
JOHN 11:17-27. I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE
17So when Jesus came, he found that he had been in the tomb four days already. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about fifteen stadia away. 19Many of the Jews had joined the women around Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother. 20Then when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary stayed in the house. 21Therefore Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22Even now I know that, whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am (Greek: ego eimi) the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will still live, even if he dies. 26Whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, he who comes into the world.”
“So when Jesus came, he found that he (Lazarus) had been in the tomb four days already” (v. 17). Jewish people believe that the soul remains in the vicinity of the body for three days, hoping to rejoin the body. On the fourth day, the soul finally faces reality and departs. The fact that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days means that there can be no possibility of his soul rejoining his body. Four days is shorthand for “hopeless.”
But the period of mourning is seven days, so the official mourning and showing of condolences are still in effect.
“Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about fifteen stadia) away” (v. 18). A stadion is 607 feet, so fifteen stadia are 1.7 miles (2.8 km). The Holy City looms ominously over the scene.
“many of the Jews had joined the women around Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother” (v. 19). This Gospel uses “the Jews” to refer to Jewish leaders. The presence of these men constitutes another ominous note. Jesus will die in Jerusalem at the hands of Jewish leaders shortly, a fact very much in the Evangelist’s mind as he pens this story.
“Then when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary stayed at in the house” (v. 20). One member of the family must stay with the mourners. The fact that Martha is the one to meet Jesus is in keeping with her more active role and Mary’s more passive role in Luke 10.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died” (v. 21). Is Martha reproaching Jesus for failing to set out for Bethany immediately upon hearing of Lazarus’ illness—or is she simply expressing regret that Jesus didn’t happen to be present when Lazarus fell ill? Almost certainly the latter:
• Martha does not say, “If you had come” (as if referring to his two day delay), but “if you had been here” (expressing regret that he didn’t happen to be present when Lazarus fell ill).
• Also (as noted above in the comments on verses 5-6), Lazarus died soon after the messenger departed to inform Jesus of his illness. Martha knows that Jesus could not have arrived in time to prevent Lazarus’ death, even if he had departed immediately upon receiving word of his friend’s illness.
“Even now I know that, whatever you ask of God, God will give you” (v. 22). Martha expresses faith that God will give Jesus whatever he asks, but in v. 39 she will protest the removal of the stone because of the stench of death. Like most of us, she believes and fails to believe.
“Your brother will rise again” (v. 23). Jesus tells Martha that Lazarus will rise again, but Martha hears this as a platitude (v. 24). Yes, he will rise again in the resurrection, but that is small comfort today. Lazarus is dead now, and that is the grim reality.
“I am (ego eimi) the resurrection and the life” (v. 25). This is the heart of this Gospel lesson. While we call this story the resurrection of Lazarus, it is more importantly the revelation that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Earlier, Jesus said, “Most certainly, I tell you, the hour comes, and now is, when the dead will hear the Son of God’s voice; and those who hear will live” (5:25). Now Jesus is assuring Martha that the promise has been realized—in his person.
This is one of several “I am” (ego eimi) statements by Jesus in this Gospel—statements that reveal Jesus’ true identity. Jesus is the bread of life (6:35) and the light of the world (9:5). His statement that he is the resurrection and the life is the high point of these “I am” statements. “I AM,” of course, is God’s name—the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). With these “I am” statements, Jesus uses God’s name for himself.
“He who believes in me will still live, even if he dies. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (vv. 25-26). This is not a promise that believers will not die physically. Lazarus died, and the death rate since has held steady at 100 percent. This is Jesus’ promise that spiritual life is possible after physical death—that physical death can be a prelude to resurrection.
“Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, he who comes into the world” (v. 27). When Jesus asks Martha if she believes, she replies with a threefold statement of faith. Jesus is (1) the Messiah (2) the Son of God and (3) the one coming into the world.
There have been a number of confessions of faith already in this Gospel (1:41, 49; 4:25, 29, 42; 6:69; 9:35-38), but this is the most complete confession of faith in this Gospel.
JOHN 11:28-37. IF YOU WOULD HAVE BEEN HERE
28When she had said this, she went away, and called Mary, her sister, secretly, saying, “The Teacher is here, and is calling you.” 29When she heard this, she arose quickly, and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was in the place where Martha met him. 31Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and were consoling her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up quickly and went out, followed her, saying, “She is going to the tomb to weep there.” 32Therefore when Mary came to where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” 33When Jesus therefore saw her weeping (Greek: klaiousan—from klaio), and the Jews weeping (Greek: klaiontas—from klaio) who came with her, he groaned in the spirit (Greek: enebrimesato), and was troubled (Greek: etaraxen), 34and said, “Where have you laid him?” They told him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus wept. 36The Jews therefore said, “See how much affection he had for him!” 37Some of them said, “Couldn’t this man, who opened the eyes of him who was blind, have also kept this man from dying?”
“The teacher is here and is calling for you” (v. 28). Martha announces Jesus’ presence privately to Mary.
“When she heard this, she arose quickly, and went to him” (v. 29). Having sent a messenger to Jesus, Mary would have waited expectantly to see Jesus coming down the road. But now it is too late. Lazarus is not only dead, but has been in his grave four days (v. 17). Nevertheless, Mary moves quickly to meet Jesus. She will have sharp words for him because he delayed (v. 32).
“Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still at the place where Martha met him” (v. 30). Our first inclination when hearing this story is to imagine Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary, but that isn’t the case. Martha has gone outside the village to greet Jesus, and Jesus is still outside the village.
“Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and were consoling her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up quickly and went out, followed her, saying ‘She is going to the tomb to weep there.'” (v. 31). Mary’s fellow mourners misunderstand her reason for leaving the house. She calls Jesus “The Teacher”—the definite article distinguishing Jesus as the master teacher.
“Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died” (v. 32). Mary’s greeting to Jesus is much like Martha’s (v. 21). Her sentiments are similar to that expressed by some of “the Jews,” who thought that Jesus could have kept Lazarus from dying (v. 37).
“When Jesus therefore saw her weeping (klaiousan—from klaio), and the Jews weeping who came with her” (klaiontas—from klaio) (etaraxen) (v. 33a). The Greek word klaio denotes a loud, demonstrative kind of weeping that would be characteristic of mourning in that time and place.
“he groaned in the spirit (enebrimesato) and was troubled” (etaraxen) (v. 33b). This is a difficult passage. The first verb, enebrimesato, suggests anger (a fact not reflected in some English translations). Why would Jesus be angry?
• Perhaps he is angry at encountering this lack of faith (Keener, 846). In spite of his having given several signs, the people closest to him still do not understand.
• Perhaps he is angry that the Jewish leaders—outsiders—possibly even those who will soon crucify him—are intruding on this private moment.
• Perhaps he is angry “because he found himself face to face with the realm of Satan which, in this instance, was represented by death” (Brown, 435).
• Perhaps he is angry because Lazarus’ death and resurrection are a foretaste of the death and resurrection that he will soon experience himself. Perhaps this dialogue stirs in Jesus a dread of that which he knows is coming.
This Gospel has said little about Jesus’ emotions until now. In this lesson, however, he loves Lazarus, Martha and Mary. He is disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He weeps.
Emotions are not neat and tidy. Here Jesus is dealing with a dear friend, Mary, in the throes of her grief. Her weeping would not be gentle and controlled, but “would be unrestrained wailing and shrieking almost hysterically, for it was the Jewish point of view that the more unrestrained the weeping was the more honour it paid to the dead” (Barclay, 112). The natural human response in the face of such terrible grief is a welling up of emotions—grief, fear, anger, and frustration. Mary’s grief clearly hooks something deep and vulnerable in Jesus.
“Where have you laid him?” (v. 34a). Jesus asks where Lazarus’ tomb is located.
“Lord, come and see” (v. 34b). Elsewhere in this Gospel, “Come and see” is an invitation to discipleship (1:39; 1:46; 4:29). “Here the word is turned upon Jesus himself” (Craddock, 178).
“Jesus wept” (edakrusen—from dakruo) (v. 35). This is often cited as the shortest verse in the Bible. In the KJV, it is two words (“Jesus wept”). In the original Greek, it is three words (edakrusen ho Iesous). In the NRSV it is four words (“Jesus began to weep”).
The word used for Mary’s weeping in verse 33 was klaio, which denotes a loud, demonstrative kind of weeping. The word dakruo, which is used in verse 35 for Jesus’ weeping, is a quiet kind of weeping. This is the only instance in the Bible where dakruo is used.
“The Jews therefore said, ‘See how much affection he had for him!'” (v. 36). “The Jews” (Jewish leaders—Jesus’ opponents) interpret Jesus’ tears as grief for his friend, but we should not hear that as authoritative. While this pericope treats “the Jews” more favorably than the rest of this Gospel, they are nevertheless outsiders who see only what happens on the surface. In this Gospel, most important things take place just beneath the surface.
“Some of them said, ‘Couldn’t this man, who opened the eyes of him who was blind, have also kept this man from dying?'” (v. 37). Some of the Jews wonder why Jesus opened the eyes of a total stranger, but failed to help his dear friend. Good question! Jesus told us the answer in verse 4, but Martha, Mary, and their friends are not aware of that.
JOHN 11:38-44. LAZARUS, COME OUT!
38Jesus therefore, again groaning in himself (Greek: embrimomenos), came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see God’s glory?” 41So they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, “Father, I thank you that you listened to me. 42I know that you always listen to me, but because of the multitude that stands around I said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44He who was dead came out, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Free him, and let him go.”
“Jesus therefore, again groaning in himself, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone lay against it” (v. 38). As in v. 33, Jesus is greatly disturbed—angry (embrimomenos). The grave is a cave with a stone lying against it, one of the many parallels between this story and that of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
“Take away the stone” (v. 39a). When Jesus arrives at the tomb (very much like the tomb in which he himself will lie shortly), he doesn’t do any of the things that mourners usually do at the graveside of a loved one. He doesn’t weep or pray, but instead issues a command to take away the stone. The modern equivalent would be to tell the family of the deceased to get a shovel and dig up the grave. We need to regain our sense of surprise at Jesus’ command—our sense of shock, even outrage. This is not something that a sensitive person would do in the presence of the family of the deceased. It sounds more like desecration than ministry.
“Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days” (v. 39b). Martha protests Jesus’ order to take away the stone, because Lazarus’ body will have begun serious decomposition after four days. The terrible smell and visual evidence of decomposition would constitute an unnecessary horror. She and Mary have suffered enough—will Jesus make it even worse? Martha’s reluctance is a counterpoint to the faith that she demonstrated in verse 27. She believes but does not believe.
“Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the God’s glory?” (v. 40). Jesus refers again (see v. 4) to the glory of God—the purpose being served by this incident.
“So they took away the stone” (v. 41a). This is a great act of faith on the part of Martha and Mary. It is doubtful that they personally move the stone, because stones of this sort are quite heavy. Perhaps the Jews who accompanied Martha and Mary to the tomb (vv. 31-32) move the stone. Whoever moves it, we can be sure that they looked to Martha and Mary for authority before doing so.
“Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you listened to me'” (v. 41b). Jesus’ prayer does not include a request for Lazarus’ resurrection, but is a prayer of thanksgiving that the Father has heard the prayer of his heart. Jesus is confident because his will is “to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (4:34)—and he and the Father are one (17:11, 21). We are encouraged to have this same boldness, because “whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight” (1 John 3:22).
“I know that you always listen to me, but because of the multitude that stands around I said this, that they may believe that you sent me” (v. 42b). Jesus’ prayer is a public witness to the crowd, so that they too might believe.
“Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43). Jesus issues a second command, this time to Lazarus, who has been in the tomb four days. He calls in a loud voice, probably for the sake of the crowd that surrounds the tomb. He calls Lazarus by name (see 10:3).
“He who was dead came out, bound hand and foot bound with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth” (v. 44a). At Jesus command, Lazarus emerges from the tomb still bound by his grave wrappings. The image teeters between horror and wonder, depending on whether the observer sees this event through the eyes of faith.
It would be easy to misunderstand this miracle as a simple favor by Jesus to his dear friends—to see Jesus as a mere wonder-worker—but this sign serves greater purposes:
• It is “for the glory of God, that God’s Son may be glorified by it” (v. 4).
• It authenticates Jesus as “the resurrection and the life” (v. 25).
• It confirms the promise that “He who believes in me will still live, even if he dies. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (vv. 25-26).
“Free him, and let him go” (v. 44b). Although Lazarus’ grave clothes did not prevent him from exiting the tomb, they would restrict his movement. Furthermore, grave clothes are no longer appropriate garb for Lazarus, who is no longer dead.
Lazarus’ death turned out to be temporary, but so will his life. The Jews will plot to kill Lazarus (12:10), but we have no reason to believe that they did so. Nevertheless, Martha and Mary will someday find it necessary to prepare Lazarus’ body for burial again. The physical life that Jesus gives Lazarus is only a reprieve, but the eternal life that Jesus offers is just that—eternal.
JOHN 11:45. MANY OF THE JEWS BELIEVED IN HIM
45Therefore many of the Jews, who came to Mary and saw what Jesus did, believed in him.
We expect this Gospel to report Martha and Mary’s overwhelming gratitude—perhaps dancing in the streets. Nothing! No report of joy! That does not mean that there is no rejoicing. This Gospel is concerned with the glory of God and the faith of believers. Dancing in the streets is not its concern.
“Therefore many of the Jews…believed in him.” Most references to “the Jews” in this Gospel are unfavorable, but the healing/resurrection of Lazarus results in this favorable reference.
JOHN 11:46 – 12:19: EPILOGUE
John 11:45 is the end of the lectionary reading, but it is hardly the end of the Lazarus story. The resurrection of Lazarus will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion:
• Some of the people who observed Lazarus’ resurrection will tell the Pharisees what happened (v. 46), and the Pharisees will convene a council that will resolve to put Jesus to death (vv. 47-53).
• Mary will anoint Jesus, and Jesus will interpret her action as a burial anointing (12:1-8).
• The chief priests will resolve to kill Lazarus, because his resurrection is causing people to believe in Jesus (12:9-11).
• Jesus will enter Jerusalem triumphantly (12:12-19). “The multitude therefore that was with (Jesus) when he called Lazarus out of the tomb, and raised him from the dead was testifying about it” (12:17). The Pharisees will respond by saying, “See how you accomplish nothing. Behold, the world has gone after him!” (12:19).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan