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John 11:32-44 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 11:1-36. THE DEATH OF LAZARUS
The reading for All Saints B begins with verse 32. Verses 1-31 tell of the death of Lazarus of Bethany (not the same man as the Lazarus of Jesus’ parable in Luke 16). Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were brother and sisters. They were all three friends of Jesus.
When Lazarus got sick, Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus, hoping that he would come quickly and heal Lazarus. Jesus delayed, however, so that Lazarus died before Jesus arrived in Bethany. Jesus explained to his disciples, “This sickness is not to death, but for the glory of God, that God’s Son may be glorified by it” (11:4).
Upon arriving in Bethany, Martha went out to see him while Mary stayed at home. She said (in a tone that must have been both accusatory and hopeful), “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that, whatever you ask of God, God will give you” (11:21-22). Jesus responded by promising, “Your brother will rise again” (11:23).
Martha said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day”—to which Jesus responded, “I am the resurrection and the life. 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?” (11:24-26). Martha said, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, he who comes into the world” (11:27).
Then Martha sent for Mary, who joined them.
JOHN 11:32-37. JESUS WEPT
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?”
“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 instead be loud shrieking to honor the dead (Barclay, 112). The natural human response when faced with 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 story 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 11:46 – 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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Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R. and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
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Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Gossip, Arthur John and Howard, Wilbert F., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
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Kingsbury, Jack Dean and Pennington, Chester, Proclamation 2: Lent, Series A (Philadelphia: Fortress Press)
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O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Padzan, Mary Margaret, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Ridderbos, Herman (translated by John Vriend), The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Sloyan, Gerald, “John,” Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
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