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John 11:17-27 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 11:1-16. A CERTAIN MAN (LAZARUS) WAS SICK
These verses begin the story of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha—a brother and his two sisters. Lazarus was sick. The narrator tells us that Mary was the one who had “anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair” (v. 2), showing us the close relationship that this little family enjoyed with the Lord.
But when the sisters sent word to Jesus to come and heal their brother, Jesus delayed, explaining to his disciples, “This sickness is not to death, but for the glory of God, that God’s Son may be glorified by it” (v. 4). Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus had fallen asleep, “but I am going so that I may awake him out of sleep” (v. 11). As is so often true in this Gospel, the disciples misunderstand. Jesus meant that Lazarus was dead, but the disciples thought he was talking about ordinary sleep. Then Jesus said plainly, “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. 14-15).
Bethany, the home of Lazarus and his sisters, was a short distance from Jerusalem. When Jesus announced that he was going there, Thomas, anticipating trouble, said, “Let’s go also, that we may die with him” (v. 16).
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 11:28-45: POSTSCRIPT
There is considerably more to the Lazarus story. Mary accused Jesus of allowing her brother to die unnecessarily (v. 32)—and bystanders said, “Couldn’t this man, who opened the eyes of him who was blind, have also kept this man from dying?” (v. 37).
When Jesus, standing by Lazarus’ tomb, said, “Take away the stone” (v. 39), Martha said, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” But Jesus said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see God’s glory?” (v. 40). So they took away the stone. Jesus prayed, “Father, I thank you that you listened to me. 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.” (vv. 41-42). Jesus, with a loud voice, cried out, “Lazarus, come out!”—and Lazarus, wrapped in his grave clothes, came out. Jesus said, “Free him, and let him go” (v. 44).
The concluding verse of this story tells us that “many of the Jews, who came to Mary and saw what Jesus did, believed in him” (v. 45).
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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