Chapter 11 begins a new section in John's gospel. Until now Jesus has been preaching and teaching to the people. He has been having ongoing debates with the Jewish leaders. He has, by His declarations and miracles, put forth the idea that He is the divine Son of God.
John has demonstrated that as a result of all these activities, a growing number have come to believe in Him and a far greater number have rejected Him in disbelief. This cycle has repeated itself enough times to become the major pattern in John's gospel.
In chapter 11 the time for Jesus' passion (a short-form way of referring to the final days of suffering and resurrection) is drawing near so John's book begins to compress time.
In the first 10 chapters John describes events that took place over a 30 to 33 month period. The last 11 chapters describe the words and events that take place in the last 2 or 3 months of Jesus' ministry on earth.
The first and very spectacular event John describes in detail is the death and resurrection of Lazarus, His friend and the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany.
Except for His crucifixion, this will be the last public action that Jesus will do; from now on He will be exclusively in the company of His disciples. With this miracle, Jesus will end His public ministry, prove beyond a doubt His divine power and provide a preview of His own death and resurrection that is to come in the near future.
The death and resurrection of Lazarus
Vs. 1-6 – Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, "Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick." But when Jesus heard this, He said, "This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it." Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.
We have to understand that everything Jesus said and did had as its purpose the creation of faith in the hearts of the people. Soon He Himself would be killed. He knew this and His disciples had to be prepared to face His death without losing their faith. He was not worried about death. He already said that the Father gave Him the authority to both lay down His life and pick it up again (John 10:18). His disciples, however, needed help in experiencing the death of their leader without being totally crushed.
This miracle, therefore, was not only to create faith in new disciples; it was also to strengthen the faith of existing disciples in the face of death. As a matter of fact, this section has more to do with how the disciples react to Lazarus' death than to Lazarus himself.
John divides the story into four parts showing how four people reacted to Lazarus' death.
1. The Apostles
Vs. 7-8 – Then after this He said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again." The disciples said to Him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?"
The Apostles noticed not so much the death of Lazarus but the threat of death to Jesus (and consequently to themselves) if they returned to the troubled area they just left. Their reaction in the face of all of this is fear.
Vs. 9-10 – Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him."
Jesus reassures them by explaining that their safety is not measured by the power of their enemy but rather by whose side they are on.
- Jesus is the light, He guarantees the way, He creates day wherever He is. To be with Him is to be safe and not to stumble no matter how difficult the road.
- The enemies of Jesus are the night, the darkness. Their plan will fail (in this case the Jews who want to kill Him before it is time) because they are on the wrong side and not because they are weak or without a plan.
Vs. 11-12 – This He said, and after that He said to them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep." The disciples then said to Him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover."
Jesus had said in the beginning "let us go," and seeing their fear He says, "I go to awaken him from sleep." The Apostles now think Lazarus is just asleep and try to discourage Jesus by saying "if he is sleeping he will be alright by himself, you do not have to go." They do not want His going to make them look bad (fearful). It is always easier to discourage someone who wants to go forward than swallowing our fear or pride and going with them.
Vs. 13-15 – Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. So Jesus then said to them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him."
Jesus explains plainly that Lazarus is dead. He also expresses His joy at the fact that God has worked out the circumstances in such a way that Jesus will perform a great miracle before their eyes and thus encourage them to believe. Once more He encourages them to faith and courage by saying "let us go to him."
Vs. 16 – Therefore Thomas, who is called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, so that we may die with Him."
Thomas, after Jesus invites them all once more to come, finds his courage and encourages all to follow Jesus. In this exchange the Apostles went from fear to courage, but Jesus' miracle would bring them to the ultimate goal, faith.
Vs. 17 – So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days.
The body was in the tomb for four days. The Jews did not embalm, they merely perfumed and cleaned the body and wrapped it in cloth. The body begins to decompose after four days in an airless, hot, stone tomb.
Vs. 18-22 – Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off; and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother. Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. Martha then said to Jesus, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died."
Martha respects Jesus, sees Him as a great prophet and healer and knows that He could have saved Him. She even expresses this idea.
Vs. 23 – Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
Jesus tells her what He is about to do.
Vs. 24 – Martha said to Him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."
She repeats what she has learned as a good Jew, that at the end of the world the good and faithful Jews will all be raised from the dead. She does not want to bother God… she is so reasonable and controlled. Martha's response to death is resignation. She is resigned to the fact that death is there and somewhere in the future according to the religion she has learned, there will be a resurrection. At the moment, however, death is greater than resurrection. For her, death is real and resurrection is a doctrine. A true doctrine she believes, but something less real than the death she faces.
Vs. 25-26 – Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?"
Jesus reveals to her the reality behind the doctrine. If there is a resurrection from the dead, the one who produces that resurrection is standing right in front of her! And He is real, not just a doctrine. If, by faith, you are united to the one who produces the resurrection, the resurrection will become a greater reality in your life than death.
Jesus says that union with Him through faith gives the believer two things:
- Vs. 25: He will have life, true life, the kind of life that is not enslaved to the fear of death. The kind of life that has hope even in the face of death.
- Vs. 26: The person united to Jesus will never die, be extinguished or separated from God. Death will only be a momentary shadow.
Jesus challenges Martha's inadequate view of the resurrection that produces resignation in her.
Vs. 27 – She said to Him, "Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world."
Martha goes from intelligent faith (resignation) to living faith. Note that she does not talk about the resurrection but rather it is her view of Jesus that changes. Note her response:
- Yes – she says yes, not maybe or later.
- Lord – she acknowledges His sovereignty.
- Believe – she accepts as true what He says, who He is.
- Christ – the anointed One of God (title).
- Son of God – she accepts His divinity.
- Comes into the world – the Messiah, the savior, my savior.
For Martha, Lazarus' death was the greatest of realities. Resurrection was a far away doctrine of her religion, bringing little comfort at the moment. Jesus redirects her attention so that it focuses not on the death, before her or the resurrection in the distant future, but on Himself. He was the only one who could give her true life now in spite of the daily terror of death and also give her absolute assurance now of everlasting life not just some vague promise in the future.
Vs. 28-31 – When she had said this, she went away and called Mary her sister, saying secretly, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you." And when she heard it, she got up quickly and was coming to Him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha met Him. Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and consoling her, when they saw that Mary got up quickly and went out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
Martha goes and gets Mary and sends her to Jesus. Others follow.
Vs. 32-33a – Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping,
Mary's reaction to Jesus is similar to Martha's but her reaction to Lazarus' death was sorrow. She is not reasonable, she is crushed.
Vs. 33b-37 – He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to Him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus wept. So the Jews were saying, "See how He loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?"
Notice Jesus' initial reaction to Mary was His own human emotion: moved, troubled (disturbed, uncomfortable emotionally), He wept. It was not the first time, He wept for Jerusalem because it rejected Him (Luke 13:34) and it would not be the last time (He wept in the garden before His death, Hebrews 5:7).
I think Jesus reacted in this way because this is a legitimate reaction a human person should have when facing death. 1) Moved with emotion at the trouble and sorrow of someone else. 2) Emotional and spiritual discomfort at facing the horrible results of sin and Satan. 3) Physical expression of sorrow.
I said that this was a legitimate human reaction shared by both Mary and Jesus, but Jesus was also God and so in the next few verses Jesus demonstrates how God reacts to death.
Vs. 38-40 – So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Remove the stone." Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, "Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?"
Martha's faith weakens because once again she is faced with the reality (smell) of death being stronger than the reality of the resurrection. This is true of our everyday lives as well. Death always seems stronger and more real than resurrection.
Jesus reaffirms her faith, continues to encourage her to believe despite the doubt she experiences when facing the awful reality of death. This is also true of our lives. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, the Word, the church, is always encouraging us to believe in the resurrection despite the great argument for the finality of death we see in our everyday lives.
Vs. 41-42 – So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, "Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me."
Jesus prays aloud to show the people around Him that the miracle He is about to perform is from God and confirm in their eyes that He also is from God. He also wants to show how God reacts to death: not with fear like the Apostles; not with resignation like Martha; not with sorrow like Mary, but with power like One who has authority over death.
Vs. 43-44 – When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth." The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."
With one command Jesus demonstrates His power over death by calling Lazarus back to life. At this point the people were no longer reacting to death, they were reacting to Jesus Christ.
- The Apostles now knew why they were on the right side and had no reason to fear: Jesus Christ had the power over death and the most fearful enemy was defeated.
- Martha now saw how valid her faith was. Jesus was not just a promise or a doctrine: He was the power that guaranteed the promise and He demonstrated that power before her very eyes.
- Mary could now go beyond sorrow to hope: she saw that death, although sad, was not final. This is what Jesus meant when He said "…he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies." (Shall live now and forever.)
Vs. 45-46 – Therefore many of the Jews who came to Mary, and saw what He had done, believed in Him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them the things which Jesus had done.
Note once again that the result of this miracle follows the pattern of those that preceded it: some believe and some disbelieve. Even with the powerful proof before them, some still choose to reject the evidence and remain unbelieving of Jesus and His claims.
John does add some further commentary, however, on the final impact that this miracle had on the unbelievers, especially those in the leadership roles of the Jews.
Vs. 47-48 – Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, "What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation."
They acknowledge the miracle privately but completely miss its significance. To them it does not point to God being among them but rather someone who brings a threat to their position of leadership. In this dialogue John confirms about these men what Jesus had previously said about them in His accusatory parable about the good and bad shepherds.
Vs. 49-53 – But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish." Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they planned together to kill Him.
Despite their evil intent, God still uses them for the purpose of Christ's work. Caiaphas argues that it is better that one man die than the entire nation be disrupted or even worse, destroyed. His argument is that if Jesus is left alive He may cause trouble to the extent that the nation would suffer at the hands of the Romans. Better Jesus die than the nation. This argument he makes to win over the council to plot with him a way of destroying Jesus. John adds that even though the High Priest was saying this from an evil motive, God was actually making a prophet out of him, despite himself.
According to God's purpose Jesus was sent to die in order to save not only the nation of Israel, but all others "scattered abroad" including Jews living outside Israel and Gentiles.
John shows that even with all his power and cunning, the High Priest was not able to outmaneuver God and His final plan with Jesus.
Vs. 54-57 – Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up to Jerusalem out of the country before the Passover to purify themselves. So they were seeking for Jesus, and were saying to one another as they stood in the temple, "What do you think; that He will not come to the feast at all?" Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where He was, he was to report it, so that they might seize Him.
Because the Lord knew of their plans and because He wanted to go to His death on His terms and not theirs, He leaves the city for a safer region (probably in the northern part of the Judean hills).
Jesus was usually found at the temple teaching during the important feasts when there were many people in Jerusalem. As the most important and well attended feast of Passover approached, the people began to wonder if He would show up as was His custom for the last several years.
With the last few verses, the stage is set for the final meeting between Jesus and His Apostles and His subsequent arrest by the Jewish leaders who have already decided to kill Him. All they lack is the opportunity and some charge.