John 11:1-45

Foreshadowing Jesus' Hour

The text has finished its reflection on Jesus as the fulfilment and culmination of Israel's history as celebrated in its festivals.

The final revelation of the truth and glory of Jesus and, through Jesus, of the Father, would begin.  Issues of death and resurrection would move to centre-stage.

The section would begin with the anticipated revelation of Jesus as the resurrection and the life.

Raising Lazarus from Death

John 11:1-16     Deliberate Delay – For God’s Glory

1 A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany,
from the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
2 It was Mary, who had anointed the Lord with ointment
and wiped his feet with her hair,
whose brother Lazarus was ill.

The introduction presumed previous acquaintance with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, assuming them to be already familiar to the Gospel’s readers. (The focus of the Gospel was not to tell the story of Jesus, but to re-examine the story with a view to deepening readers’ insight into Jesus and calling them to deeper faith.)

Jesus had escaped [10:39] over the border, on the other side of the Jordan River, beyond the jurisdiction of the Jewish leadership and their Temple police. The village of Bethany, where the sisters lived, was not the Bethany beyond the Jordan where John had been baptising [1:28], but was situated quite close to Jerusalem – three kilometres away [verse 18].

3 The sisters sent to Jesus the message.
"Lord, the one you love is ill."

Their message highlights a whole other world of relationships with people that the Gospel had not alluded to previously – relationships of obviously close friends, both men and women, other than the few disciples associated with Jesus in his ministry. The sisters had no hesitation naming Jesus’ relationship to Lazarus as to the one you love. If their message implied an unstated expectation that Jesus come to heal him, it would have supposed a very deep friendship, indeed, given that a return to Judea would have meant the clear risk of arrest and subsequent execution.

4 When Jesus heard this, he said,
"This sickness is not fatal,
but is to glorify God
so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." 

Jesus’ answer to the sisters was similar to the one he gave to the disciples’ question regarding the man born blind: he was born blind so that God’s workings might be revealed in him [9:3].

Jesus’ comment about Lazarus’s sickness not being fatal was true at a number of levels:

  • Though Lazarus would, in fact, experience physical death, his death would not be final.
  • Even when he would definitively die, his final physical death would be simply a stage on the journey to a new way of living eternal life.
  • Though Lazarus’s illness would not lead to his definitive death, it would lead eventually to Jesus’ death – and glorification.

This death would provide the occasion for Jesus to confirm, with overwhelming clarity, his true identity and his unique closeness with his Father: he would be glorified through it, and, in the process, he would reveal the true nature of the Father’s loving commitment to eternal life (God’s glory). The text is not to be understood as stating that Lazarus’s illness and death would be orchestrated directly for the purpose of revealing the glory of Jesus (since God profoundly respects human dignity), but that, once having happened through normal natural processes, it would, fortuitously, be the occasion for the process of Jesus’ death to accelerate. Indeed, as would be stated later [verses 50-52], Jesus’ resuscitation of Lazarus would confirm the determination of the leadership to kill him. It would be through his death, along with his resurrection, that the Son of God would be glorified.

5 Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.
6 When he heard he was sick,
he stayed on in the place where he was for two days.

Not only did Jesus love Lazarus (as noted earlier); it was public knowledge that he also loved Martha and her sister. As he had done when his mother quietly sought his intervention in the episode at Cana, Jesus would decide when and how his hour would come: he stayed on …  for two days. His departure would set in motion the lead-up to his death – the coming of his hour.

7 After that, he said to the disciples,
"Let us go back to Judea again".
8 The disciples said to him,
"Rabbi, the Jews are looking for you to stone you,
and you are going back there?"

The sense of threatening danger was evident, and would provide the underlying context of all that would unfold.

9 Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours in a day?
When people walk in the daylight, they do not stumble –
because they see the light of this world.
10 But people stumble if they walk at night
since the light is not in them."

Jesus’ observations about natural day and night, light and darkness, related to the metaphorical light and darkness, sight and blindness, that were aired in the controversies that took place during the Festival of Booths, and to the discussions following the curing of the blind man. Jesus was sure of himself – not only did he walk in the light, but he had clearly stated on those occasions that he was the light: I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life [8:12]. True disciples had every reason, therefore, to participate, likewise, in the confidence of Jesus.

11 He said that, and then added afterwards,
"Lazarus our friend has fallen asleep.  
But I am going in order to awaken him."
12 His disciples answered, "Lord, if he is sleeping, he will get better."
13 But Jesus was talking about his death,
though they thought he was talking about waking him from sleep.
14 So Jesus said clearly, "Lazarus has died,
15 but for your sakes I am glad that I was not there,
so that you can believe.

The disciples’ faith in Jesus was still a work in progress. Earlier, they had addressed him as Rabbi, now they called him Lord. Jesus would be further glorified as he led the disciples to deeper faith.

So, let us go to him.” 

Jesus could face into likely death, because he was not frightened of death – he believed in resurrection. But he would confront danger non-violently – unlike his opponents who would kill. People use violence because, ultimately, they fear death.

16 Thomas, called the Twin, then said to his fellow disciples,
"Let us go too, to be killed with him."

This was the first mention of Thomas in the Gospel.

John 11:17-37     Leading the Sisters to Faith

17 When Jesus arrived,
he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
18 Now Bethany was quite close to Jerusalem, about three kilometers away. 
19 A number of Jews had come to Martha's and Mary's
to share together in grief over their brother.
20 When Martha heard that Jesus had come,
she went out to meet him.  
Mary remained back in the house.
21 Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you were here,
my brother would not have died.

Jesus entered a world dispirited by sadness, overwhelmed by death. They were all caught up in it: disciples, Martha, Mary, as well as the usual wailing women and general on-lookers. Death tends to bring people together emotionally, even if only superficially.

Was Martha’s comment to Jesus a simple wistful observation or a gentle rebuke?

Martha addressed Jesus as Lord. The story, obviously, was being recast from a post-resurrection vantage point.

22 And I now know that whatever you ask God, God will give you."  

Martha had a good sense of Jesus’ special relationship with God, though was yet to come to fulness of faith in Jesus as the human revelation of God..

The Resurrection and the Life

23 Jesus answered, "Your brother will rise again".
24 Martha said, "I know he will arise at the resurrection at the last day."

Martha’s response was desperate. Though resurrection of the dead was accepted by many Jews of the time, including Pharisees, it was not clearly understood, beyond being an expression of trust that somehow God would vindicate the good. On the last day simply referred to a totally undefined and vague future. When Jesus had spoken of resurrection during his discourse on the Bread of life, he had promised no more: the will of my Father who sent me is that all who have seen the son and believe in him have eternal life and that I raise them up at the last day [6:40] .Until that last day, death seemed so final, and resurrection so distant and indefinite that it held no emotional assurance. Perhaps, Martha’s sense of Jesus may have led her to hope that, somehow, he might offer more than that.

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection, and the life. 

Writing many years after Jesus’ dying and rising, the Beloved Disciple sensed resurrection and life as summing up the whole mystery of the Jesus he now knew. I am the resurrection, and the life is a magnificent statement of faith and of Christian experience.  Reflecting on his long experience as disciple, he had come to see Jesus’ resurrection as a wholly new thing – pure gift of God, and, for the disciples, a new sharing in the being and life of God, in and through the risen humanity of Jesus. He knew it to be a reality in which all could share. It revealed a wholly new potential of creation, present from the beginning in the Word, but unknown: Everything came into being through him, and nothing that came into being came into being without him. In him was life ...[1:3-4].  In the human and risen Jesus, not just as Word, but as Word-become-flesh and raised, creation had been raised.

All who believe in me, even if they die, will live,
26 and all who are alive and believe in me will not die eternally.

Jesus’ resurrection would re-interpret the common assumptions. With Jesus’ death and resurrection, the last day would begin. Believers would share his experience. Promise would become reality.

Jesus’ message confronted, full-on, the inescapable problem of death. His first claim about all who believe even in me, even if they die was a direct comment about death: for believers, death is simply a step into on-going life, the fruit of the action of the creating God. His claim about all who are alive and believe was a comment for the now: because disciples believe, their present life is already a beginning of eternal life, to which death brings no essential threat. The total surrender of the self that is involved in the act of believing already leads to a sharing in the life of the risen Jesus, which would endure beyond death.

Do you believe this?"
27 She said, "Yes, Lord, I have already believed that you are the Christ,
the Son of God,
the one to come into the world."

Martha's act of faith, uttered before Jesus had worked his sign, echoed the confessions of Nathanael [2:49], Peter [6:69-70] and the man born blind [9:38]. What specific content she attributed to those familiar titles is not clear.

Jesus Deeply Disturbed

28 After she had said this,
she went and called her sister privately, telling her,
"The teacher is here and he is calling you". 
29 When she heard this,
she got up quickly and came to him. 
30 Jesus had not yet entered the village,
but was still at the place where Martha had met him.
31 The Jews who were with her in the house sharing with her in her grief,
seeing her get up so quickly and go out,
followed her, thinking that she was going to tomb to wail there.
32 When Mary went to where Jesus was and saw him,
she fell at his feet and said to him,
"Lord, if you were here,
my brother would not have died."  

Mary repeated exactly what Martha had said. The sisters may have arrived at the same insight as they had discussed together, waiting anxiously for the delayed arrival of Jesus. Wailing aloud serves to unite people in their grief, even to intensify the emotion.

33 When Jesus saw her wailing
and all the Jews who had come with her wailing,
he felt angry in spirit,
and was deeply disturbed,

Jesus’ reaction was clearly strong, stemming from his love both for Lazarus and for the weeping Mary. Human emotions have an unpredictability and energy of their own. The word translated as angry in spirit is often translated, or interpreted, as compassion or sympathy - which may miss the point of Jesus' reaction. If the word is to be understood as anger, it may refer to Jesus’ attitude to the reality of death (the power and ravages of which he had come to remove), or, more likely, it may have expressed his impatience at a possible lack of hope shown by Mary and the accompanying wailing women. Jesus had come to release people from being mesmerised by death, and to free them from the often dangerous unanimity it can produce.

34 … and said, "Where have you laid him?"  
They said to him, "Lord, come and see."
35 Jesus wept. 

Jesus’ question was made to the Jews – the verb is plural. The narrative revealed a touching sense of Jesus’ human vulnerability.

36 So 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 done something to stop his dying?"

The second comment, made by a section of the mourners, may have reflected something of the initial attitudes of Martha and Mary, although, as voiced by the crowd, it seemed more critical.

John 11:38-45     Seeing the Glory of God

38 Still feeling deeply moved within himself,
Jesus came to the tomb.  
It was a cave, and a stone was placed across it.
39 Jesus said, "Remove the stone!" 

Burial of the dead in caves was regular practice in that area of Judea. The normal entrance to the cave would have been covered to protect the body from marauding animals, as well as to keep the area respectfully private. (When Jesus would rise, there would be no need for anyone to take away the stone [20:1]).

… Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him,
"Lord, it will be smelly by now – for it is the fourth day."
40 Jesus said to her,
"Did I not say to you that if you believe,
you will see the glory of God?"

Despite her earlier protestation of puzzled faith, Jesus read Martha’s comment as a not-surprising lack of faith in him as the one who is already the resurrection and the life. Unbelievers might witness the event of Lazarus’ resuscitation (just as others had seen the signs without reading their meaning); only those who believed would see it as revealing the glory of God.

41 So they removed the stone.

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life

Jesus raised up his eyes and said,
"Father, thank you for listening to me.
42 I know you always listen.  
But I have said this because of the surrounding crowd,
that they might believe that you sent me." 

Jesus’ prayer to the Father was an act of thanksgiving, not a petition

The formulation of the prayer reflected the author’s desire to make unmistakably obvious the point of the whole narrative. His concern was not the faith of the crowd of by-standers, but of the Christian community for whom he wrote. He wanted them to be utterly convinced that Jesus was the one sent by the Father, who did not simply rise from the dead for his own sake only, but had become the source of the resurrection and life for all who believe him.

Jesus knew himself to be the revelation of his Father. His desire was to give glory to God who, in turn, would give glory to Jesus [verse 4]. His act would demonstrate the truth of his oneness with the Father, repeatedly disputed by the Jews in earlier discourses [5:19-21; 10:38].

43 When he had said this, he called out in a loud voice,
"Lazarus, Come out of there!"

Jesus’ cry was an anticipation of the promise he had made earlier: the time is coming, indeed it is already here when the dead will hear the voice of the son of God, and those who listen to it will live [5:25].

44 The dead man came out,
feet and hands bound with cloth and his face covered with a facecloth.  
Jesus said to them,
"Untie him, and let him walk free."

Jesus’ command illustrated his further claim: all in their graves will hear his voice and those who have acted well will go into the resurrection of life [5:28-29].

The details of cloth still binding the hands and feet of the raised Lazarus, of the face still covered in a facecloth and of the need to untie him were deliberately mentioned to provide clear contrast to what would happen at the resurrection of Jesus. The risen body of Jesus would be in a quite different state from the resuscitated body of Lazarus; and Jesus would need no one to free him [20:6-7].

45 Many of the Jews who went to Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. 

For some unexplained reason, the spotlight, so far trained on Martha, moved to focus on Mary. Though the translation reads, went to Mary, the accurate translation would read, come to Mary, and would more likely refer to all of those who had come to console both the sisters.

Next >> John 11:46-57