John 11:1-45 – Jesus the resurrection and the life

These notes were prepared for a series of studies on John’s gospel given in Pretoria in 2008 and 2009.

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”4 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.” 5 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days. 7 Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” 8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. 10 It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.” 11 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.”12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” 28 And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. 32 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.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “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.” 40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 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.” 43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” 45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. 
(John 11:1-45)

We remember how Jesus responded to the question concerning the blind man, ‘Did he sin or did his parents sin that he should be born blind?’ The cause for his blindness, Jesus explained, was in order that the work of God might be displayed in his life. Here, a similar reason is given for Lazarus’ illness: ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory – so that God’s son may be glorified through it.’

Jesus waited two days before leaving for Bethany. This allowed time for Lazarus to die and be burried in the tomb for four days. It had to be this way, so that the people might know concerning Jesus, that the Father always hears him, that the Father sent him, and ultimately that he is ‘the resurrection and the life’.

As early as chapter five we find Jesus teaching: ‘just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it … I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life’ (verses 21 and 24). Again in chapter ten, he said, ‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand’ (verse 28).

Jesus would now provide evidence for these claims by raising Lazarus from the dead – to God’s glory. God is glorified by acting according to His Word and, in this case, by showing Jesus to be a true spokesman of that Word. As God told Jeremiah, ‘I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled’ (Jer. 1:12).

Jesus risked his life by going back to Judea, as the apostles remind him in verse 8. But Jesus is altogether at peace with this prospect (verse 9) knowing that he had authority not only to raise Lazarus, but also to lay down his own life and take it up again (John 10:18). Thomas’ response – ‘let us also go and die with him’ – is probably a protest against Jesus’ decision, not just fatalistic (see Grayston, The Gospel of John, p.90). From this we see that the resurrection of Lazarus was needed as much for the disciples’ benefit as it was for any of the others. The disciples, too, needed their resurrection hope affirmed – to know, as Paul said later, ‘that neither death nor life … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8:38-39). What Jesus was about to do for Lazarus, he would surely do for them also – at the last day.

These events also teach a spiritual lesson. Mary and Martha and those with them expected Jesus to arrive on time to prevent ‘death’. But, in God’s economy, death must often take place first, in order for ‘resurrection life’ to follow. While ‘unspiritual man’ will always pray to preserve the flesh, God’s way is for the flesh to die, so that He may then give life by the Spirit. We die with Christ through baptism, and then, ‘if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you’ (Rom. 8:11). Our life of faith is a continuing process of dying and living: dying to the flesh and to the world so that the life of Christ may be revealed in us. The spiritual man should rather pray as Jesus did in Gethsemane: ‘What shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!’ (John 12: 27-28).

Our resurrection life starts now. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life’ (John 5:24). Physical death is simply a ‘falling asleep’ for the faithful, as Jesus speaks of it to his disciples in verse eleven, and as Paul also spoke of it, e.g. in 1 Cor. 15:6 and 1 Thes. 4:13.

On reaching Bethany, Martha says to Jesus: ‘I know [Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ But Jesus responds: ‘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. Do you believe this?’

We understand from this answer, that the promise of life, is ‘not the promise of a substitute life when we depart from this one, but the promise that the life of faith [which we now live] will continue when we die. Nor is life in the world above promised as a reward for faith in Jesus; for the life of faith already is that other life’ (Grayston, op cit., p.91). Or as Alfred Edersheim explains: ‘The resurrection and the life are not special gifts either to the church or to humanity, but are connected to the Messiah – the outcome of Himself’ (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p.697).

When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping who came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled; And said, Where have ye laid him? They say to him, Lord, come and see (verses 33 & 34).

These words are usually mistranslated to suggest that Jesus is here moved by sympathy and compassion, while he was apparently grieved in his spirit by their unbelief. The cause for his anger and disappointment was probably the assurance that he sent back with the messenger who had come to him with the news of Lazarus’ illness, namely ‘This sickness will not end in death’ (verse 4).

Martha had already demonstrated her faith in those words. ‘Lord … even now God will give you whatever you ask’ (verse 22). By contrast Mary and the others are shown up for their lack of faith. At this, Jesus proceeds to the tomb.

Edersheim describes the mourning rituals that would have taken place before Jesus’ arrival:

As Bethany was only about fifteen furlongs – or about two miles – from Jerusalem, many from the City, who were on terms of friendship with what was evidently a distinguished family, had come in obedience to one of the most binding Rabbinic directions – that of comforting the mourners. In the funeral procession the sexes had been separated, and the practice probably prevailed even at that time for the women to return alone from the grave. This may explain why afterwards the women went and returned alone to the Tomb of our Lord. The mourning, which began before the burial, had been shared by the friends who sat silent on the ground, or were busy preparing the mourning meal. As the company left the dead, each had taken leave of the deceased with a ‘Depart in peace!’ Then they had formed into lines, through which the mourners passed amidst expressions of sympathy, repeated (at least seven times) as the procession halted on the return to the house of mourning. Then began the mourning in the house, which really lasted thirty days, of which the first three were those of greatest, the others, during the seven days, or the special week of sorrow, of less intense mourning. But on the Sabbath as God’s holy day, all mourning was intermitted – and so ‘they rested on the Sabbath, according to the commandment.’(Edersheim, op cit., p. 696)

The Rabbis also taught that the ‘holy dead’ should be called ‘living’ and that they are still with us, even though unseen (tractate Berachot 18b; 19a). It is thus to Lazarus himself that Jesus addresses his words in a loud shout: ‘Lazarus, come out.’

The obvious consequence of this incredible sign of Jesus authority and power, is that many of the Jews believed. The less obvious consequence was that others reported this to the Pharisees and now resolved finally to put him to death.