In many ways this text is the climax of the Books of Signs, John 2-12. C. H. Dodd calls it the longest continuous narrative in John other than the Passion Narrative. It is often titled, "The Raising of Lazarus," but that raising does not take place until verse 44, the final verse of this section. For those of us who know the end of the story there are plenty of hints, and the raising does not come as a surprise. However, there is a great deal of suspense for the first readers of this passage who did not know the ending.
Though the goal of the passage is the raising of Lazarus, John is busy instructing us in the identity and meaning of Jesus through these verses. Verses 7-16 and 21-27 contain significant discourses in the form of dialogs that are full of theological instruction. John has often put together a sign - a miracle - and a theological discourse explaining the meaning of that sign. The Feeding of the 5000 along with the Discourse on the Bread of Life in chapter 6 is one clear example. Here the discourse and the unfolding narrative of the sign are intertwined through John 11:1-44. The key theological phrase lies almost at the very center of the passage in verse 25 when Jesus states, "I am the resurrection and the life." The rest of the passage is commentary, proof, and illustration.
The transition from chapter 10 to chapter 11 is not as abrupt or difficult as some of the other transitions in John's gospel. However, it is an abrupt transition. Verse 42 concludes John 10 by stating, "And many believed in him there." The following words which open chapter 11 are, "and there was a certain sick fellow, Lazarus . . . "
However, in the larger flow of John's thought through the Book of Signs (chapters 2-12) the Lazarus narrative pulls together a number of strands that John has already put in place. The themes of light and life have been very important since chapter 5. The giving of life or making alive was an important ingredient in the discourse of John 5:19-47. Twice (John 5:25 and 27-28) John states that those who are dead (or in the tombs) who hear Jesus' voice shall come forth from the tomb.
John 6:54 expresses the climax of the Discourse on Jesus as the Bread of Life by stating, "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day." The focus shifted to Light in John 7-9. However, the emphasis on Life returns in chapter 10. John 10:10 states, "I have come that they might have life and have it in abundance." Verses 27-28 declare, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, . . . and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish." The issues of eternal life and of hearing Jesus' voice are present in both chapter 5 and chapter 10. It is interesting that Lazarus comes forth from the tomb when he hears Jesus' voice.
The story unfolds in an almost seamless manner. The narrative story and the discourses and dialogs are so interwoven that it is difficult to outline the passage. The structure flows smoothly along so that logical breaks or sections are difficult to identify. Verses 1-16 deal with the setting and background. Verses 17-33 focus on Jesus' dialogs with Martha and Mary. Verses 34-44 describe the trip to the tomb and the raising of Lazarus. In some ways verse 33 belongs with both the central section of dialog and the concluding section on Lazarus' raising. (Some scholars also place all the dialog with Mary (verses 28-33) with the final section.)
John 11:1-16 - The Setting and Background
The first 16 verses introduce Lazarus' illness, the question of whether Jesus should go to see him, the revelation of Lazarus' death, and the decision to go. As an excellent storyteller John arranges and narrates these basic components to heighten our curiosity and anxiety. The previous threats against Jesus' life are brought back to our memory and Thomas' concluding words, "let us go that we may die with him," are hardly encouraging.
Verse 1 introduces Lazarus as the brother of Mary and Martha for the first time in the New Testament. Neither he nor his sisters have been mentioned previously in John's gospel. Mary and Martha appeared in Luke 10:38-42, but no mention of Lazarus is made in those verses. Lazarus is the name applied to the poor beggar in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. However, there appears to be no connection between the literary figure in that parable and the brother of Mary and Martha.
The name Lazarus is known from archaeology and Josephus as a common name in first century Palestine. It is the Greek form of Eleazar which means, "God helps," though John makes nothing of that original meaning. His hometown of Bethany is described as the village of Mary and Martha. This is to distinguish it from "Bethany beyond Jordan," mentioned in John 1:28. The Bethany of Mary and Martha was about two miles east of Jerusalem on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. According to the Synoptic Gospels Jesus spent the evenings of Passion Week in this Bethany, presumably at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
Verse 2 is a parenthetic mention of Mary as the person who anointed Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The fascinating thing is that John does not present that story until chapter 12:1-8. Yet he seems to assume that the reader will know about it. Some scholars have seen this strange order as evidence of an earlier edition of John with a different order.
According to verse 3 the sisters notified Jesus of Lazarus' illness. They describe their brother as the one whom Jesus loves. The Greek word for "love" here is phileo not agape. For this reason some translations describe Lazarus as Jesus' friend. On the basis of this verse some scholars believe that Lazarus was the "beloved disciple" (John 13:23, 19:26, etc).
Verse 4 is one of the key verses in this chapter. On the surface it appears that Jesus lied. "This sickness is not to death," he declares when the story makes it clear that Jesus had divine knowledge of Lazarus' death. However, the Greek construction suggests a translation something like, "this sickness is not to end in death" (cf. NRSV: "This illness does not lead to death."). John seems to be playing on words. Though Lazarus was soon to die his sickness did not end up in death because Jesus was going to bring him back to life. The restoration of Lazarus' physical life would function as a sign of the eternal life promised and about to be provided by Jesus.
The second significant aspect to verse 4 is the way it understands Lazarus' sickness as an opportunity for the glory of God. The language is very reminiscent of John 9:3-4 where Jesus replied to the question of who sinned to cause the man to be born blind. However, John may be playing with words here also. On the surface we naturally think of God receiving glory from Lazarus' illness by the miracle of Lazarus' raising. But, as Raymond Brown states, "This miracle will glorify Jesus, not so much in the sense that people will admire it and praise him, but in the sense that it will lead to his death, which is a stage in his glorification."
For John the ultimate glorification of Jesus comes through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. There are several clues throughout this passage that suggest that John is already thinking very much about Jesus' death as he tells about Lazarus' death, because Jesus' whole life and ministry, death and resurrection arise from the will of the Father. Thus the glorification of Jesus leads to the glory of God.
John's ordering of the material in verses 5 and 6 is very effective. By mentioning Jesus' love for the family before describing his delay, greater attention is drawn to the delay. If he really loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, why would he wait several more days before going to see them? Thus the reader is drawn more emotionally into the story. But Jesus is not moved by emotion; it is the will and timing of the Father that propels him through life. The hour has not yet come; he will not go to Bethany just because of Lazarus' need. Jesus goes when the Father sends him.
This is an important insight for those who think that compassion was the chief motivation of Jesus. There was so much disease and tragedy in Jesus' time that compassion alone would have required him to have healed so constantly that he never would have had time to preach and teach. Jesus healed according to the Father's will. There are more needs in our world than any or all of us can ever meet. If compassion or meeting needs is the ultimate strategy of our lives we will be frustrated because around the clock meeting of needs would only be a drop in the bucket of need. But God has specific needs for us to meet. Our strategy must be to do the will of God. He will direct us to enough needs; we can be busy serving people and not be consumed by guilt over the needs we can't meet.
Verse 7 begins the dialog dealing with the return of Jesus and his disciples to Bethany in Judea. There are several significant aspects to this paragraph.
First, Jesus' saying in verses 9-10 is important. The Jewish (and Roman) day was divided into twelve equal hours. This meant that a winter "hour" was shorter than a summer "hour". Because lighting was difficult and expensive most activity ended at sundown. The daylight opportunity was limited; when night came opportunity ended.
Jesus' observation that there are twelve hours in the day is more than a statement about Jewish time. It also means that Jesus' ministry was a (day) window of opportunity. What was to be done had to be done before the opportunity disappeared. The threat of death was real, but it could not paralyze Jesus from doing what God had sent him to do. In that sense as long as Jesus walked in the day (doing the will of God) he would not stumble (would not be killed).
At that point in the saying Jesus shifted his illustration. Verse 10 assumes that Jesus is the light. Thus when Jesus is present, there is no darkness and one will not stumble. This means that the disciples can safely follow Jesus to Judea. It means that any of us can safely follow Jesus. Conversely, if we walk in darkness (without Jesus) we will stumble because the Light (Jesus) is not in us.
Second, Lazarus' death is revealed in this paragraph. Jesus uses the metaphor of sleep to describe Lazarus' death. He also uses the metaphor of awakening in verse 11 to describe the impending raising of Lazarus. Though it is perfectly understandable, the misunderstanding of the disciples fits in with John's pattern of writing. Ironically, in verse 12 the disciples state what is about to happen without knowing it. If he is sleeping he will recover. The Greek word usually translated "recover" literally means "to be saved" or "to be rescued, delivered." It was often used in New Testament times (and in the New Testament) to mean "healed."
There is a play on words here. If Lazarus is sleeping that will mean healing or recovery for him. Yet the Christian reader knows that the rescue is not just from sickness but also from death. One of the early copies of the New Testament contains the word "raised" instead of "recovered." That scribe knew the rest of the story.
Because of the misunderstanding Jesus must bluntly tell the disciples that Lazarus is dead. Verse 15 must be understood both in terms of verse 4 and in terms of the rest of this story. Jesus states that I am glad I was not there at Lazarus' final illness and death for your [the disciples'] sake. The purpose of Jesus' joy is that the disciples believe.
Once again John returns us to the basic focus of this gospel. But verse 15 must be understood in light of verse 4. This event has the glory of God has its goal. Here, Jesus revealing the glory of God is connecting with the disciples believing. This is the same theme and connection that was made in the first sign, the water turned to wine sign in John 2:1-11.
Verse 15 must also be qualified by verses 33-36. The rejoicing of Jesus is not over Lazarus' death nor the sorrow of the family and friends. Verses 33-36 reveal genuine sorrow and sympathy on Jesus' part. It is important that the disciples have their faith established as they approach the critical moment of Jesus' death. The death of Lazarus provides an opportunity for the faith of the disciples to be built up in preparation for the difficult days ahead. For that reason Jesus rejoices. The Bible does not indicate that God causes or rejoices over the tragedies and difficulties of our lives. However, it does indicate that He knows, rejoices over, and actively works to bring about good in and for us in the midst of the difficulty.
John 11:17-33 - Dialogs with Martha and Mary
These verses unfold two separate dialogs between Jesus and Martha and then Jesus and Mary. The two sisters addressed Jesus with identical words in verse 21 and verse 32. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Some scholars see this as evidence that one of the dialogs was inserted into the gospel at a later date. It is much more likely that the event happened in the two stages as John describes it and that he includes the identical remarks for emphasis. If Jesus had been there Lazarus would not have died.
But the sisters were going to discover that God had a gracious gift for them even though Jesus had not been there when they wanted him. It is interesting that the picture given of the two sisters here matches that of Luke 10:38-42. In both passages Martha is the active one; she gets up and goes out to meet Jesus. Mary sits in both passages and worships at Jesus' feet.
John 11:17-27 - Martha's Dialog with Jesus
This paragraph begins by noting that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days when Jesus and the disciples arrived at Bethany. This is an important detail in the Jewish context because it expresses the finality of Lazarus' death. Many Jews thought that the soul of a dead person stayed around the body for three days in hopes of a resuscitation. Lazarus is dead; there is no hope of the kind of rescue from death that was experienced by widow of Nain's son or Jairus daughter or the lad raised by Elijah according to I Kings17: 17-23. Mary and Martha are surrounded by their friends trying to comfort them. It is a rare positive picture of the Jews from Jerusalem that John presents in verse 19.
The heart of this section appears in verses 21-27 in the dialog between Jesus and Martha. In a real sense the meaning of their discussion is faith. Martha believes in Jesus. She is confident that if he had been present before Lazarus had died Jesus would have healed him. She was aware of other healing miracles and believed that Jesus could have done the same for her brother. Jesus pushes her toward a deeper faith that is not dependent on the word "if" and a faith that focuses on him alone.
In verse 22 she expresses confidence that God would grant Jesus whatever he would pray for. She sees Jesus as a holy person who can get his prayers answered. She does not yet understand that Jesus is the agent through whom God is making resurrection possible for human beings.
Jesus comment in verse 23 can be interpreted in several ways. Your brother will rise again could mean a resuscitation in which Lazarus is returned to life. In the context that is the most natural meaning and it is, in fact, what happened. It is also possible to take Jesus' words as a reference to the general resurrection at the end of time. Not all Jews (the Sadducees for example) believed in the resurrection. However, the Pharisees had widely taught this doctrine and verse 24 shows that Martha understood Jesus in this second sense: I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.
A third possibility is that Jesus was describing a new kind of existence beyond death that was available before the general resurrection. The context suggests that Jesus has this third meaning in mind without denying the reality or possibility of the first two. It is not surprising that Martha did not understand this. It is the new teaching that Jesus was in the very process of revealing. But it is also what John wants his readers to understand.
Jesus unfolds this meaning in verses 25-26. He is the resurrection and the life. The person who believes in Christ will live even if (or when) he or she dies. Everyone who believes in Christ will really never die.
The tenses of the verbs are important. "I AM (another ego eimi expression) the resurrection and the life. Jesus is presently and always resurrection and life. C. K. Barrett comments, "Jesus is the resurrection and the life; apart from him there is no resurrection and no life, and where he is, resurrection and life must be." The resurrection is not to be understood simply as a future event at the end of time. Where Jesus is, the resurrection is present and active. The person who is presently believing in Jesus is assured of life. In fact, the continual, present believing in Christ reverses the very meaning of death. Obviously Jesus is not promising that no believer will ever go through the pain of death; millions have. But the essence of death - its capacity for ultimate separation, its terminal character, its role as punishment for sin - has ended for the one who totally trusts in Christ.
When Jesus then asked Martha, Do you believe this?, she responded with a Christological confession of faith in verse 27. At a superficial level it seems that she did not answer Jesus' question at all. However, in the mind of John she has come to understand the real meaning of Jesus. She has finally come to full Christian faith. Her words are almost identical to those of John 20:30-31 that state the purpose of the Fourth gospel. As Lindars puts it, "To make confession of faith in the person of Jesus is to entrust oneself to the whole of his teaching. . . Her confession is thus confirmation of her acceptance of his teaching on the Resurrection."
John 11:28-33 - Mary's Encounter with Jesus
This paragraph consists mostly of a narrative description of how Mary came to Jesus' feet. Her words are identical to those of Martha in verse 21. However, this paragraph is the transition to the raising of Lazarus and no dialog like that of Martha and Jesus is reported. That does not mean that no dialog took place or that Mary did not come to the same confession of faith that Martha did. Rather, John repeats the opening line of the dialog in verse 32. That should be sufficient to remind us of the issue of faith. Instead of repeating all the words, Jesus now moves toward acting out the meaning of being resurrection and life by the miracle of raising Lazarus.
Verse 33 is a transition verse that belongs to both this and the next paragraph. It expresses Jesus' awareness of and response to Mary's grief. In expressing awareness it belongs with verses 28-32. In responding it belongs with verses 34-44 for Jesus' response culminating in the raising of Lazarus.
John 11:33-44 - The Raising of Lazarus
Verses 33-38 focus on the reaction of Jesus to the grief of the bereaved. Verse 33 states that Jesus "was deeply moved in spirit and troubled." Verse 38 repeats the phrase, "deeply moved." These phrases represent the NIV translation. The Greek word for "deeply moved" is a powerful word. It speaks both of great emotion and of the physical expression of that emotion. The same word in used in Mark 1:43 where it is sometimes translated "groaned." The Greek Old Testament and secular Greek used the word with the meaning of being angry or indignant. In fact, it frequently described horses "snorting." For this reason there is a long German tradition (going back to Martin Luther) for translating, "he became angry in spirit and troubled." For some reason, English translators have been afraid to describe Jesus as angry in this context. However, it is almost certainly the correct translation.
But why would Jesus become angry? Beasley-Murray uses verse 33 to suggest that Jesus was angry at the Jews and Mary for weeping. He had taught them so much about eternal life begun below that they shouldn't have wept. I do not agree with Beasley-Murray. The fact that Jesus himself wept according to verse 35 shows that weeping, grieving is not something that God rejects. It is far more likely that Jesus is angry because death hurts people. Death is the result of sin and it may be that Jesus' anger arose from the profound awareness of all the hurt and tragedy that comes from sin.
Whatever the reason it is clear that the death of Lazarus and the grief of his family and friends stirred Jesus deeply. This is a very important aspect of this story. The God whom Jesus reveals cares deeply about us. He is not apathetic; He is sympathetic. He shares our pain. In a real sense God through Christ grieves more deeply than we do. That is part of the meaning of love. Verse 5 said that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters. First Corinthians 13:6 says that love does not rejoice in what is wrong. Rather love bears all things, hopes all things and endures all things together with the loved ones. If God loves us beyond human love, then He grieves and shares our pain more powerfully than any human grief or sympathy.
Jewish bluntness appears in verse 39. When Jesus ordered the stone removed from the tomb entrance Martha protested that he would stink since he has been dead four days already. Jesus is equally blunt in pointing out that her questioning his command contradicted her statement of faith in verse 27. Verse 40 also brings believing and seeing the glory of God together.
Jesus' prayer reveals an important insight. It is not that Jesus stages a public prayer to impress the bystanders. Jesus has been in communication (communion) with the Father about Lazarus all along. It is just at this point that he shifts into vocal prayer. R. H. Fuller beautifully interprets this for us:
There is much we can learn for our own prayer life from Fuller's description of Jesus' prayer.
After all the build up the actual raising of Lazarus seems almost anticlimactic. Jesus calls for Lazarus to come out. Lazarus comes out. Jesus orders the bystanders to unwrap him and let him go. There is no roll of drums, no flourish of trumpets or dramatic affects. There is no proclamation of power or invoking the name of God. There is just the simple word of Jesus bringing life to the dead. John writes with the calm assurance that all that Jesus had said about the resurrection and the life are true. And very matter-of-factly he narrates the most powerful illustration of it up to that time.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to speak to you through His Word and for the Holy Spirit to make the Scripture alive and meaningful to you that day.
First Day: Read the notes on John 11:1-44. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed significant to you.
2. Select a truth for which you see a specific and personal application for your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.
3. How you come to believe in Jesus as the resurrection and the life? Ask him to help you to come to fuller trust of him.
Second Day: Read John 11:45-57. Make these verses your focus today.
1. List two or more results of the raising of Lazarus.
2. What are the reasons the Jews decided to kill Jesus?
3. What are the reasons people reject Jesus today? At a spiritual level how are the reasons today related to the reasons the Jews killed Jesus?
Third Day: Read John 12:1-36. Now focus in on John 12:1-11.
1. What actions of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are described that appear to show their gratitude to Jesus for the raising of Lazarus?
2. A parallel story is told in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9. Note especially the final verse in both those stories. In what way(s) does the anointing by Mary proclaim the gospel?
3. Should Jesus' comments in verses 7 and 8 mean that we should not be concerned for the poor? What do his comments mean?
Fourth Day: Read John 12:1-36. Also find the parallel passages in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, and Luke 19:28-40. Focus in on John 12:12-19.
1. Which gospel provides the reason the commemoration of the Triumphal Entry is called Palm Sunday by Christians? Jot down any differences of emphasis by each gospel that you may notice.
2. Matthew and John both quote from Zechariah 9:9. Read Zechariah 9:9-10. What seems to "fit" with Jesus? What seems to be different from Jesus?
3. What results does John describe as arising from the Triumphal Entry? What effects does John's description in these verses have on you and your experience with Christ now?
Fifth Day: Read John 12:1-36. Now focus in on John 12:20-27.
1. What was the request of the Greeks? What do you think they really wanted?
2. Jesus tells a little parable of seeds in verse 24. What do you think he meant by this parable?
3. Describe Jesus' feelings in verse 27. What will be the basis of his reactions to "this hour?" What does Jesus' response suggest for us?
Sixth Day: Read John 12:1-36. Focus in on John 12:27-36.
1. What did Jesus mean when he spoke of being "lifted up?" Note John 3:14 and Numbers 21:9. Are there ways Jesus can be "lifted up?"
2. Verse 28 speaks of the Father glorifying His name. What are the some of the ways God glorified His name? What are the some of the ways we can glorify the Father's name?
3. Explain verses 35 and 36 in light of John 8:12. What application is there to our own lives?