In John 11, we find the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. It begins with the grim news that Lazarus is sick, and we’re told he is the brother of Mary and Martha. All three of these siblings are loyal followers of Jesus and Lazarus’ sisters send an urgent message to Jesus, asking Him to come.
“Lord, the one You love is sick.” (John 11:3)
The sisters are obviously close to their brother and extremely distressed over the thought of him dying. Jesus is with His disciples miles away in another city when He receives the message.
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.” (John 11:4)
We’re then told that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. These souls are very special to Him. So special that He stayed right where He was and stalled around for two more days, knowing that Lazarus’ health was rapidly declining. Hm. This is not very reassuring.
Have you ever pleaded with God to help you in an urgent situation only to have Him not respond until your worst fears came true? Such behavior does not say “I love you” to human beings. If someone really cares about us, we expect them to prove it by coming to our aid. How hard is it for Jesus to heal sick people? He’s been healing nonbelievers and rebels all over the place. He’s healed people who never bothered to say “thank You.” He’s healed people who He later cursed for their lack of faith. Now three of His closest friends are asking Him to do for them what He’s done for those who don’t even care about Him and He turns them down. He doesn’t rush out and rent a horse so He can go galloping to the rescue. Instead He refuses to do anything for 48 hours. Wow. This is pretty tough to take. Mary and Martha are left to wonder if maybe their message didn’t get through or, if it did, why Jesus isn’t coming. Is He mad at them for some reason? Did they offend Him with their request? Does He have some kind of rule about not doing miracles for His closest friends?
After two days, Jesus finally says to His disciples:
“Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone You, and yet You are going back?” (John 11:7-8)
It’s a bummer that Lazarus is dying, but the disciples don’t feel he’s worth risking their own necks over. Jesus hadn’t seemed too excited when the message first arrived, so why is He changing His mind? Is He feeling guilty for abandoning His friends? The disciples figure they can talk sense into Him.
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.” (John 11:9-10)
This is one of those random Jesus comments that is so typical of Him to insert into normal conversation. As usual, no one knows what He’s talking about. What do day and night have to do with returning to Judea? Who said anything about traveling at night? It sounds like Jesus is off on another mental planet again.
After He had said this, He went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” (John 11:11-12)
Sometimes Jesus really comes across like a dingdong. Now He’s saying He wants to go to Judea to wake Lazarus up from sleeping. Hello, if a man is sick, sleeping is how he gets better. The disciples carefully point out this super obvious fact without trying to sound like they’re calling Jesus a moron. Meanwhile, they’re making mental notes that Jesus isn’t going to win any awards as a local physician.
Jesus had been speaking of his death, but His disciples thought He meant natural sleep. (John 11:13)
You have to laugh at these little explanatory notes that get slipped in by the Gospel writers. It’s only in hindsight that they finally understand what the heck Jesus was talking about, so now and then they help us out so we don’t have to go through quite as much confusion as they did. Jesus was impossible to track with much of the time, and the writers figure we could use some help at times to try and follow the strange exchanges they have with our loving Lord.
Then He told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (John 11:14)
Jesus might be speaking plainly, but what He’s saying doesn’t make any sense. Lazarus is dead and He’s glad about it? That’s a pretty tacky thing to say. And He’s glad He wasn’t there so that the disciples would believe that Lazarus was dead? Since when do they need help in recognizing a corpse? Jesus isn’t making any sense at all, but He’s obviously determined to go to Judea and by now the disciples know how stubborn He is. When Jesus gets to Judea, He will very likely be killed by His enemies—possibly long before He even reaches Mary and Martha. If the disciples go with Him, they could end up dead as well. This is one of those tense moments where every man has to reach inside and ask himself just how committed he is to following this supposed Messiah. Many of the disciples are hesitating but then Doubting Thomas has a shining moment.
Then Thomas said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (John 11:16)
This is admirable loyalty. Why is it that we always pick on Thomas for doubting instead of remembering his willingness to lay his life on the line for Jesus? Thomas is being heroic here, and an inspiration to the rest of the group. We’re left with the impression that it’s thanks to Thomas that the rest of the disciples decided to stick with Jesus and head to Judea. The story then skips ahead to when Jesus arrives at the village of Bethany where Lazarus lives. The dead man’s house that is packed with friends who have come from Jerusalem to comfort his grieving sisters. When news reaches them that Jesus is just outside the village, Martha rushes out to meet Him.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now Yahweh will give You whatever You ask.” (John 11:21-22)
Martha is still holding out for a miracle. The fact that Mary stays in the house suggests that she is too devastated to cling to such hopes. Outside on the path with Martha, Jesus immediately encourages her line of thinking.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” (John 11:23-24)
Jesus’ reply gets Martha’s pulse racing, but she’s trying to be cautious. Jesus is an odd duck, after all, with a major focus on the next life. Which resurrection is He referring to?
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of Yahweh, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:25-27)
The way that Martha rephrases Jesus’ statement in her answer suggests that she doesn’t totally grasp what He is saying. She believes He is the Messiah, the Son of God. The part about His followers living even though they die was rather confusing, but it sounds rather hopeful. Is Jesus saying that Lazarus’ death isn’t permanent? Martha rushes back to the house and pulls Mary aside. She tells her “Jesus is here and is asking for you.” Mary rushes outside to find Him. Jesus is intentionally stalling outside of the village where He was just talking to Martha. When the Jews in the house see Mary rush out the door, they quickly follow, assuming she’s going to go visit her brother’s tomb again.
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!” (John 11:32)
Mary’s tone has a bitter edge to it. She’s devastated over the loss of her brother. She doesn’t understand why Jesus has delayed in coming. She bursts into tears and all her friends start mourning out loud with her, as was the custom of the day. True friends share each other’s sorrows. If your Jewish, you share those sorrows at the top of your lungs.
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. (John 11:34)
Jesus is doing the classy thing here by weeping out loud. After all, He’s using the earthsuit of an ethnic Jew, and in Jewish culture, it was totally rude to not visibly share the grief of your friends. Was Jesus really troubled by what was going on? No, that’s just the Gospel writer John jumping to conclusions. John doesn’t see Jesus as an Almighty God who never gets distressed because He always has things under control. John is projecting His own human limitations onto Jesus and assuming Jesus finds this situation stressful.
Now Jesus knows that He’s going to raise Lazarus from the dead and Mary will have nothing more to cry about. But instead of racing to the tomb and fixing the problem, He stops to weep with her. He takes the time to share her grief because He wants her to know how deeply He cares about her pain. He is God Almighty, and Mary is just one of a zillion souls that He has made. Yet He stops just for her. He stays close. He joins her in the moment. He weeps with her.
Now Jesus knew that He had done some serious damage to His relationship with Mary by refusing to come to her earlier. He knew that He had hurt her deeply and given her reason to doubt His feelings towards her. He also knows that He is doing what is truly best for her, but He doesn’t expect her to believe that right now. Right now her heart is in so much pain, she can’t think about anything else. So He meets her where she is at and just cries with her. What an awesome God.
Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:36-37)
The crowd around Mary and Jesus is having a mixed reaction. Some of them think He’s mourning for Lazarus, while others grumble about Him refusing to come sooner. Everyone knows about the message the sisters sent and how Jesus responded with a cold shoulder. Now He shows up and acts all concerned? They’re not buying it.
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” He said.
“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.” (John 11:38-39)
There are some practical realities about a rotting corpse. It stinks. Martha really isn’t thrilled about the memory of her brother becoming associated with a foul stench. Notice the reference to four days—this is a very significant period of time. It was a popular belief in Judaism that body and soul were two separate entities that became very emotionally bonded to each other by working so closely throughout the living years. Once a person died, the soul had great trouble saying goodbye to its physical host. Reluctant to leave the earthly realm, it hung around for several days, watching anxiously over the body and wishing it could find some way to reenter it. Out of respect for the hovering soul’s feelings, it was important to treat the body with great respect. Disrespecting the corpse by leaving it exposed or giving it a crummy burial would badly traumatize the soul, who would then have great difficulty adjusting to its new life in the spiritual realm. After three days, the natural process of decay would start to win over the standard efforts to preserve the body by wrapping it in essential oils and special spices. When it saw its host body starting to decay, the grieving soul would finally give up on trying to reenter it. The soul would then depart from the physical realm for the last time, leaving the person in a totally dead state.
Jesus is quite familiar with this superstitious view of death, which is why He has intentionally waited for the fourth day to come. He wants there to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that soul and body have completely separated and all hope is lost. If He resurrects Lazarus within the three day window, some might think that the soul has found its own way back into its host body. But on the fourth day, all hope of resurrection is totally gone. The window of opportunity has been lost because Jesus failed to come sooner. Now it isn’t a matter of simply helping the soul reenter its host—to bring Lazarus back to life would require bringing the soul back from the eternal realm. In the minds of the Jews, only a true God had the power and authority necessary to do such a miracle. This is what makes the fourth day the ideal moment. Jesus has actually come as quickly as possible without compromising the point He wants to make. Now, as Martha protests about a foul stench, He looks at her and says:
“Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40)
This is a reference to the conversation He had with her earlier when He first arrived at the village. While Martha tries to remember what was said, some people roll the stone away. Everyone’s bracing for a bad smell as Jesus looks up at Heaven and prays in a loud voice:
“Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that You sent Me.” (John 11:41)
This is one of those educational prayers that is said for the benefit of a human audience. Jesus wants to focus everyone around Him onto the issue of His identity because He wants to use Lazarus to boost His own credentials in the eyes of the Jews. He now looks at the open tomb and shouts:
“Lazarus, come out!”
The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. (John 11:44)
It’s not the simplest thing to stand and walk when you’re wrapped up like a mummy. Lazarus probably did a lot of hopping and hobbling as he tried to figure out what on earth was happening.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:44)
The fact that Jesus has to prompt people to come to Lazarus’ aid suggests that everyone is too stunned to move. What a shocking moment. We’re told that many of the Jews who had come from Jerusalem to comfort the mourning sisters believed in Jesus after witnessing this miracle. But others ran back to report Him to the Pharisees, who became quite upset and called an emergency meeting of the Sanhedrin (a Jewish high council that ruled on religious matters).
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this Man performing many 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 Temple and our nation.” (John 11:47-48)
It seems obvious that the Romans aren’t going to sit back while some life restoring Messiah stirs up the Jews against them. Of course all this concern over the Roman reaction is just a cover. The truth is that these religious leaders feel very threatened by Jesus encroaching on their territory.
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.” (John 11:49-50)
Caiaphas’ words are taken as a license to kill. With the high priest saying Jesus was as good as dead, we’re told that from that day on, Jewish leaders plotted ways to murder Him.
With so many people now working together to plan how to kill Him, and Jewish spies all throughout the city waiting to sound the alarm the moment Jesus shows up at the Temple, Jesus withdraws with his disciples to a village on the edge of the wilderness named Ephraim.
Soon it’s time for Passover again, and Jesus returns to Bethany where Mary and Martha live. Bethany is less than two miles away from Jerusalem. Jesus know that this is will be His last Passover before He dies. Soon it will be time for the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper and a lot of intense sorrow. But not yet. It’s still a few days before the Passover.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, a man named Simon the Leper hosts a dinner in His honor with Martha serving the food. Everyone is reclining at the table when something very special happens…
Remember the story about the mysterious woman who came up to Jesus while He was eating at another man’s house, poured expensive perfume all over His feet and wiped them with her hair? In Mark 14, this woman remains unnamed, but in John 12, she is identified as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. (There is a third account in Luke 7 in which a different woman cries on Jesus’ feet and also uses an alabaster perfume jar, but that is at the home of Pharisees and earlier on in Jesus’ ministry.)
The last time she saw Jesus, Mary was feeling despaired and rejected. Now she’s had time to think and she understands things differently. She knows now that Jesus wasn’t snubbing her when He refused to rush to her aid. Instead, she has a new appreciation for how much He really loves her and she desperately wants to do something to please Him. Something public—just as He had blessed her publicly by coming to her and sharing her grief and raising her brother back to life. Walking boldly over to Jesus, holding an alabaster vial, she breaks it and rubs the oil all over His feet using her hair. The whole house fills with the fragrance and everyone starts to grumble. In Mark’s account we’re told that people scolded her. In John’s account we’re told that it was Judas Iscariot who spoke up and said:
“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:6)
Have you ever tried to give someone a really heartfelt gift just to have others misunderstand and criticize? One of the many wonderful things about God is that He never misunderstands us. Jesus knows exactly what Mary is trying to do for Him and He speaks up in her defense.
“Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me. She has done what she could; she has anointed My body beforehand for the burial. Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6-9)
Notice how Jesus says honoring Him is more important than doing good deeds for others. God comes first. No one would have understood Jesus’ burial comment, but the fact that Mary has chosen to use a perfume related to burial could be her way of specifically thanking Jesus for bringing her brother back to life. Whatever she was thinking, Jesus perfectly understood what she was trying to tell Him and He let her know that He was receiving her gift. What an awesome moment.
An Indifferent Savior: Lessons Learned from a Canaanite Woman
Analogies of Jesus: The Good Shepherd (John 10)
Impressing the Devil: Jesus’ Self-Exalting Temptation Story
Jesus: The Volatile Guest
Jesus: The Mean Messiah
The Resurrection Myth: Why the Dead in Christ Won’t Really Rise
Who raised Jesus from the dead?