The raising of Lazarus takes place during the last winter of Jesus’ life, prior to the last Passover. It marked the high point of His ministry in the neighborhood of Jerusalem, making a final plea to the Jews on the basis of miraculous signs. It is appropriate for Jesus to use this event, a confrontation with death, as the last display of His power in His public ministry. This last and greatest public miracle in the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ is recorded by John, in the 11th chapter of his gospel. Christ performed this great miracle a little before his death—the raising of Lazarus to life. It is one of those events which requires us to make a decision.
As J. Vernon McGee observed:
“The subject of death is skirted by people today. The undertakers try in every way to make death seem like a pleasant episode. But let us face it very frankly, we can’t cover up death by embalming and painting up the face, dressing the body in a good suit of clothes, and then placing it in a pretty coffin surrounded by flowers. Although this is done to help soften the shock, death is an awful thing. Martha said that he had been buried for four days already and his body would stink; it would be decaying. Someone may think that sounds crude. So is death crude. It is awful. This case is certainly going to require a miracle.”
The event itself is nothing unusual in human life. Death is, after all, the destiny of us all. It is known the day we are born that we will some day die. Though Jesus will confront death and triumph, His initial response is not what the friends of Lazarus were expecting. Jesus delayed His response, which can be difficult to explain, but also told the disciples specifically that Lazarus’ sickness was “not unto death” (11:4) but “to the intent that ye may believe” (11:15).
The story begins with the introduction of a “certain man,” Lazarus, who was sick. Lazarus’ connection to Jesus in the Gospel of John is not necessarily because he was well known, but more because his sister Mary was well known as the woman who had anointed Jesus’ feet. We know that Jesus had a personal connection with him, however, because it is His love for Lazarus that reinforces their plea for His intervention (John 11:3). They hope that through the strength and intimacy of their relationship with Him, Jesus will grant them a special intervention.
The family and friends of Lazarus have no way of knowing what the plan of God is for the sickness and impending death of their brother. But Jesus knows. It was not to socialize or patronize. The purpose of this event is the glory of God and glorification of the Son of God (11:4). What those in Bethany saw as catastrophe, God used as an opportunity for good.
Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and it would seem cruel perhaps to let Lazarus die, while allowing His dear friends and co-laborers, Martha and Mary, suffer the anguish, especially when Jesus could have done something. There is a message here for us. Jesus is not motivated by sentiment, but subject to the Father’s will. We need to recognize that He had a reason, however little we may understand it, and His ways are perfect. Jesus never moves by sentiment. He is motivated by love, and that love is for the good of the individual and for the glory of God.
Jesus waited two days to respond to their plea for His intervention. To Mary and Martha, this wait proved disastrous. Lazarus died. It was too late for Jesus to help, they believed. To Jesus, though, it was another opportunity to demonstrate His divine power. If Jesus had been human, He may have raced to Lazarus’ bedside and given what He could of aid and comfort, missing the opportunity to show the power of God. Lazarus’ death was merely a parenthetical chapter in his life, a chapter that would have a profound effect on those who witnessed it and would later read about it.
In truth, Lazarus was probably already dead when Jesus received the message that he was sick. Imagine the confusion of the disciples then, after perceiving that Jesus’ reference to Lazarus being asleep was a good thing, a sign that he would get well, when Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” Perhaps furthering the confusion, Jesus states He was glad that they were not there.
How could He be glad they were not there? Does Jesus’ statement of his sickness not being “unto death” have some other meaning? Perhaps only that death would not be the final result of his sickness? We, having read the explanation of John two millennia later, have the benefit of hindsight. While the disciples dealt with the confusion of the moment, we have seen the purpose.
Of course Jesus was not glad that Lazarus had died. John tells us He wept. But He was glad He was not at Bethany at the time. If He had been there, Lazarus might not have died. It is perhaps ironic that nowhere is it recorded in the New Testament that a person died in the presence of Jesus. The disciples would see a greater miracle than Jesus preventing death. They would see a man who was dead restored to life. In this way, their faith would be strengthened. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus said that He “was glad” for their sake He had not been at Bethany.
The fear of physical harm to Him notwithstanding, there was a real a doubt that Jesus would accomplish anything once He had decided to return to Bethany. No better expression is given than by the famous doubter, Thomas. He was convinced that only “doom and disappointment,” perhaps even death, awaited Jesus’ entourage (11:16). When Jesus and the apostles arrived in Bethany, they were greeted with despair and the certainty that He was too late to help, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died” (11:21).
Martha, who exhibited at least a morsel of faith by allowing for the possibility that Jesus could ask of God and receive whatever He wanted (11:22), doubted Jesus in the here and now. Even when Jesus said directly, “Thy brother shall rise again,” Martha only understood it to be applicable in the future, even though Jesus meant it as a personal promise of immediate action.
When Jesus met Mary, she too expressed her own doubts about the power of Jesus in the immediate moment (11:32). Even the Jews asked dejectedly how Jesus could heal the blind but not keep Lazarus from dying. Though Jesus had raised the dead before, they only saw Jesus’ ability to prevent death, not restore life. Even Martha seemed to only understood the resurrection as a future concept.
While Martha had expressed her faith in the resurrection as a principle, Jesus revealed the resurrection as a person with the fifth great “I AM” statement: “I am the resurrection and the life…” (11:25). Martha believed that at His prayer God would give Him any thing, but He would have her know that by His word He could work anything. Martha believed in a resurrection at the last day; but Christ tells her that He had that power within His own hand, that the dead were to hear his voice (John 5:25).
If Jesus could raise a world of men that had been dead many ages, most assuredly He could raise one man that had been dead four days. He is the embodiment of all life, including the resurrection. This is the sovereign power of Christ, the fountain of life, and the head and author of the resurrection. There is no mistaking His claim of deity.
This is what separates Jesus from the rest of history’s religious sages. To the bewilderment of the disciples and the mourning sisters, Jesus presented Himself as the resurrection and the life and challenged them to believe in Him against the present situation, “…Believest thou this (vs. 26)?” Could He now prove His power?
Let there first be no dispute that Lazarus was dead. This is not a man who simply “swooned” or became “catatonic.” The explanation of Lazarus being in the grave “for four days” was added as proof of his death. Every precaution is taken in the recording of the event to show that the resurrection of Lazarus was really a miracle. With Lazarus probably dying shortly after the messengers left to find Jesus, it was a day’s journey from Bethany to Bethabara, where Jesus was.
After hearing of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus stayed two more days. Then it was another day’s journey to Bethany. This explains the four days Lazarus was in the grave. A tradition at the time–a modern urban legend–which some Jews believed was that the soul of the dead hovered around a body for three days after death, departing finally on the fourth day as the body began to decompose. Lazarus, from that understanding, was beyond even a miraculous intervention.
Jesus shared in their grief and loss of His friend, weeping with them. Perhaps not for the death of Lazarus, since He knew the joy that would follow, but perhaps more for indignation, indignation at the sorrow that death had wrought on the human race. Perhaps He was angered at man’s great enemy.
Jesus issues orders to remove the stone (v. 39) He would have this stone removed so that all who were watching might see the body as it lay dead in the grave, and that a way was made for its coming out so it would seen to be a true body, not a ghost or specter. He would have some of the servants to remove it, that they might also be witnesses and, by the smell of the putrefaction of the body, attest that he was truly, beyond the shadow of a doubt, dead.
In my mind, this makes this miracle more significant. Physical decay is present. His body is rotting. This is not the son of the widow of Nain, who was raised enroute to the grave, or Jairus daughter who even Jesus said appeared outwardly to be asleep. These are significant miracles, yes, but Lazarus is many steps beyond this.
Here, Jesus is requiring a greater faith, because everyone agrees Lazarus is beyond help. He repeats this requirement when Martha objects to His order to remove the stone: “Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?” (11:40). Then when all eyes are on Him, Jesus prays. According to J. Vernon McGee:
“Remember that this whole incident is for the glory of God. Jesus prays audibly to let the people know that what He is going to do is the will of the Father so that the Father will get the glory. He voices His prayer for the benefit of those who are present.”
When Jesus had completed His prayer, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, Come forth!” The voice of command was the last stage of action. Jesus word had calmed the sea; now it called the dead back to life in fulfillment of His own word (John 5:25). The response was electric, “And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave clothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, “Loose him, and let him go.”
One must choose sides over an event such as this. The miracle is beyond dispute and the demonstrative power of Jesus Christ is irrefutable, He is the great I AM. Belief was solidified in the eyes of many. So, too, was unbelief. The culmination of this event is the final setting in motion the plan to crucify Christ. It is the classic ad hominem attack: I do not believe the message but I cannot refute it, thus I will attack/kill the messenger.
The plan was politically expedient and the perfect solution to the Roman problem, or so it seemed. Jesus would die for the nation and life would go on as usual. This trendy menace known as Jesus would be gone. But Jesus was no trendy menace, nor was He an ordinary man. Life did not return to normal and the story of Jesus Christ did not end.
However, the division of belief and unbelief which had become apparent in the crowd in the latter stages of Jesus’ ministry (John 7:12, 40-44; 8:30, 59; 9:16; and 10:19-21) became fixed after this miracle. There was no middle ground. The rulers energized long held plans to destroy Him and the disciples became more firmly grounded in their faith. What does it do for you? The story of Christ lives on and our response to it remains largely the same. Embrace the story or stamp out its very existence.
What do YOU believe?