The Death of Lazarus

11:1 Now a certain man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village where Mary and her sister Martha lived. 11:2 (Now it was Mary who anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and wiped his feet dry with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) 11:3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, look, the one you love is sick.” 11:4 When Jesus heard this, he said, “This sickness will not lead to death, but to God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 11:5 (Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.)

The view of Chennattu, that ‘the narrative seems to go back to some experience in the life of Jesus and Lazarus, which early Christians believed to be real’ (DJG, 2nd ed., art. ‘Lazarus’) strikes us as extraordinarily weak, coming as it does in a publication that aspires to being ‘evangelical and critical at the same time’.

A recently-discovered ‘secret’ gospel of Mark tells a similar story, but without naming Lazarus.

Mary…who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair – See Jn 12:3.

‘The sister’s reference to their brother as the one Jesus loves is touching. It hints at friendships and relationships that are barely explored in the Gospels, and it suggests that some at least felt peculiarly loved by him.’ (Carson)

The familiar triad of faith, hope and love is apparent in this chapter:-

  • love – Jn 11:3, 5, 36
  • faith – Jn 11:26, 40
  • hope – Jn 11:4,11, 25f

Not all sickness is a punishment for sin. Lazarus’ illness was not related to sin in his life. Jesus said that his sickness was “for the glory of God.” Lazarus was allowed to suffer and die that Christ might have the opportunity to call him forth from the tomb. In this way Jesus’ deity was exhibited to all. F. B. Meyer wrote, “The child of God is often called to suffer because there is nothing that will convince onlookers of the reality and power of true religion as suffering will do, when it is borne with Christian fortitude.” Notice that the important thing is how we respond to suffering.

“The one you love is sick” – ‘The sickness of those we love is our affliction. The more friends we have the more frequently we are thus afflicted by sympathy; and the dearer they are the more grievous it is. The multiplying of our comforts is but the multiplying of our cares and crosses.’ (MHC)

“This sickness will not lead to death” – Lazarus would die (Jn 11:14), but his death would not be final.

11:6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he remained in the place where he was for two more days. 11:7 Then after this, he said to his disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 11:8 The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish leaders were just now trying to stone you to death! Are you going there again?” 11:9 Jesus replied, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If anyone walks around in the daytime, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 11:10 But if anyone walks around at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

‘It is…probable that John means us to see Jesus as moved by no external forces, but solely by his determination to do the will of God. As on the occasion of the Feast of Tabernacles (Jn 7:3-10) Jesus went up to Jerusalem as and when he himself determined, not at the dictates of others. At the marriage in Cana (Jn 2:1ff) Jesus had been urged by his mother to take action. In all three cases the urge to action came from those near or dear, in all three their request was refused, in all three Jesus in the end did what was suggested, but in all three only after it had been made clear that what he did he did in God’s time, and according to God’s will.’ (Leon Morris)

11:11 After he said this, he added, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. But I am going there to awaken him.” 11:12 Then the disciples replied, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 11:13 (Now Jesus had been talking about his death, but they thought he had been talking about real sleep.)
11:14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 11:15 and I am glad for your sake that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 11:16 So Thomas (called Didymus) said to his fellow disciples, “Let us go too, so that we may die with him.”

Speaking with Martha and Mary

11:17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had been in the tomb four days already. 11:18 (Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 11:19 so many of the Jewish people of the region had come to Martha and Mary to console them over the loss of their brother.) 11:20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary was sitting in the house. 11:21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 11:22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will grant you.”

Four days – Apparently Lazarus died shortly after the messengers left, for it was a day’s journey to Jesus beyond the Jordan (10:40). He stayed there two days and spent a day journeying back to Bethany (on the E side of the Mount of Olives).

Ryle remarks: ‘The various forms of death which our Lord is recorded to have triumphed over should not be forgotten. Jairus’ daughter was just dead; the son of the widow of Nain was being carried to the grave; Lazarus, the most extraordinary case of all, had been four days in the tomb.’

This detail indicates John’s intimate knowledge of Palestine, and also suggests that he had non-Palestinian readers in mind.

This accounts for the presence of ‘many Jews’ who, as the next verse tells us, had come to comfort the two sisters.

Lazarus and his two sisters were evidently well known.  This may help to account for the silence of the Synoptics on this remarkable miracle: Lazarus was ‘protected’ from the curiosity and animosity which his raising would have provoked, until after he had finally departed this life.

The activity of Martha, and the less active, more reflective, attitude of Mary, is consistent with what we know about them from Luke’s Gospel.

11:23 Jesus replied, “Your brother will come back to life again.” 11:24 Martha said, “I know that he will come back to life again in the resurrection at the last day.” 11:25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, 11:26 and the one who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 11:27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who comes into the world.”

“I am the resurrection and the Life” – ‘’The resurrection of Jesus provides solid, visible, tangible, public evidence of God’s purpose to…give us new bodies in a new world.’ (John Stott, The Contemporary Christian)

‘What should be the Christian’s attitude to death?  It is still an enemy, unnatural, unpleasant and undignified – in fact “the last enemy to be destroyed”.  Yet it is a defeated enemy.  Because Christ has taken away our sins, death has lost its power to harm and therefore to terrify.  Jesus summed it up in one of his greatest affirmations: “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”.  That is, Jesus is the resurrection of believers who die, and the life of believers who live.  His promise to the former is “you will live”, meaning not just that you will survive, but that you will be resurrected.  His promise to the latter is “you will never die”, meaning not that you will escape death, but that death will prove to be a trivial episode, a transition to fullness of life.’ (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 244)

As a young man, D.L. Moody was called upon suddenly to preach a funeral sermon. He hunted all throughout the four Gospels trying to find one of Christ’s funeral sermons, but searched in vain. He found that Christ broke up every funeral he ever attended. Death could not exist where he was. When the dead heard his voice they sprang to life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection, and the life.”

Christ’s divinity – acknowledged and challenged

Christ’s divinity was acknowledged by:-

  • Peter Mt 16:16
  • Demons Mk 5:7
  • the Centurion Mk 15:39
  • Nathanael Jn 1:49
  • The Samaritans Jn 4:42
  • Martha Jn 11:27
  • Thomas Jn 20:28

It was challenged by:-

  • Satan Mt 4:3,6
  • Scribes and Pharisees Lk 5:21
  • The Jewish People Jn 5:18 8:53 10:33
  • The Scribes and Elders Lk 20:1,2
  • On the Cross-By the Rabble Mt 27:39,40
  • The Rulers Lk 23:35
  • The Soldiers Lk 23:36,37
  • One of the Thieves Lk 23:39
  • The Chief Priests Mk 15:31,32

(Source unknown)

11:28 And when she had said this, Martha went and called her sister Mary, saying privately, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.” 11:29 So when Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 11:30 (Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still in the place where Martha had come out to meet him.) 11:31 Then the people who were with Mary in the house consoling her saw her get up quickly and go out. They followed her, because they thought she was going to the tomb to weep there.

Kruse explains that Martha went and called Mary ‘privately’ was probably so that she could slip away unnoticed.  However, this proved not to be possible, v31.  ‘The people’ assuming that she was going to the tomb, thought it necessary to go with her.

11:32 Now when Mary came to the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the people who had come with her weeping, he was intensely moved in spirit and greatly distressed. 11:34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” 11:35 Jesus wept. 11:36 Thus the people who had come to mourn said, “Look how much he loved him!” 11:37 But some of them said, “This is the man who caused the blind man to see! Couldn’t he have done something to keep Lazarus from dying?”

He was deeply moved in spirit – rather, ‘he was “outraged in spirit.” (Jn 11:33,38) (The translation is lexically certain, though English versions have softened it to “he groaned,” “he sighed,” “he was deeply touched,” or, as in NIV, “he was deeply moved,” thus cutting out the element of anger that is central to the meaning of the Greek word.) Jesus was angry, as the context shows, both at the devastation that sin and death work in human lives and at the unbelief that mourns bereavement despairingly, without any hope of resurrection. And the reason for his anger was not simply his distress at the distresses of others, but basically his awareness that unbelieving responses to death cannot but displease his Heavenly Father.’ (J.I. Packer, commenting on Neh 13 in A Passion for Faithfulness)

v35 ‘The fact that God the Son took a human psychology means that He experienced the whole range of human emotions. He knew, for example, the emotions of joy and contentment. Although we are never told that Jesus laughed it would be quite wrong to regard Him as living a life of gloom and despondency. His delight was to do the will of God (Psalm 40:8). The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy and peace (Galatians 5:22). Contentment is commanded by God (Philippians 4:6). We have every reason to believe that Christ was at peace with Himself, with His environment and with God. Nevertheless, He was no stranger to the darker side of our human emotions. He felt the sorrow of bereavement at the tomb of Lazarus (and probably earlier, on the death of his father, Joseph). In Gethsemane he was ‘sore amazed’. He was afraid. He did not simply peripherally experience those emotions. He experienced them in horrendous depth. He was very heavy. He was sorrowful, ‘even unto death’. In Gethsemane he was literally so terrified of the imminent encounter between Himself as the Sin-bearer and God in His holiness that He shrank from ‘this cup’ (even though He knew it was the will of God) with a horror that exceeds any horror that we have ever known. Emotionally, He went to the outer limits of human endurance, so close to the absolute limit that He was almost overwhelmed. Christ was no stoic or robot. The lesson for ourselves is priceless. We are not called upon to be ashamed of emotion, or of its expression in tears. The Son of God understands and legitimises our emotional pain.’ (McLeod, A Faith To Live By)

Lazarus Raised from the Dead

11:38 Jesus, intensely moved again, came to the tomb. (Now it was a cave, and a stone was placed across it.) 11:39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, replied, “Lord, by this time the body will have a bad smell, because he has been buried four days.” 11:40 Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you would see the glory of God?” 11:41 So they took away the stone. Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you that you have listened to me. 11:42 I knew that you always listen to me, but I said this for the sake of the crowd standing around here, that they may believe that you sent me.” 11:43 When he had said this, he shouted in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 11:44 The one who had died came out, his feet and hands tied up with strips of cloth, and a cloth wrapped around his face. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go.”

“Lazarus, come out!”

‘As ours is a holistic salvation our Lord’s miracles included healing of the body.  But being a sign, not a programme, it was selective, specific, individual.  This was a point precociously made by nine-year-old Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  His minister catechising the Sunday-School class asked, “Why did Jesus say, ‘Lazarus, come forth’?”.  Martyn’s reply was “In case they all came forth.”‘  (Gardner, Healing Miracles, p44, citing Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: the first forty years, p5).

The Response of the Jewish Leaders

11:45 Then many of the people, who had come with Mary and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in him. 11:46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and reported to them what Jesus had done. 11:47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 11:48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation.”
11:49 Then one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said, “You know nothing at all! 11:50 You do not realize that it is more to your advantage to have one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.” 11:51 (Now he did not say this on his own, but because he was high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the Jewish nation, 11:52 and not for the Jewish nation only, but to gather together into one the children of God who are scattered.) 11:53 So from that day they planned together to kill him.

Caiaphas – See Mt 26:57n.

11:54 Thus Jesus no longer went around publicly among the Judeans, but went away from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and stayed there with his disciples. 11:55 Now the Jewish feast of Passover was near, and many people went up to Jerusalem from the rural areas before the Passover to cleanse themselves ritually. 11:56 Thus they were looking for Jesus, and saying to one another as they stood in the temple courts, “What do you think? That he won’t come to the feast?” 11:57 (Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should report it, so that they could arrest him.)

The Jewish feast of Passover was near – This is the third Passover mentioned in this Gospel.