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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- I & II CHRONICLES --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH---ESTHER---PSALMS 1-73--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
This chapter may be seen either as culminating what has gone before, as the seventh of the major signs which reveal Who Jesus is, or as beginning the Passion narrative into which it leads. Indeed it is probably intended to be both. Certainly one purpose of it from John’s point of view was to illustrate the earlier statements made by Jesus to the effect that He is the One Who gives spiritual life to men and on the last day will physically raise the dead (see 5.24-29). That far off event of the general resurrection is brought home emphatically by what happened here in the raising of Lazarus from the tomb (see especially 5.28-29). It is a fitting cap on the ministry of Jesus.
So we may see what is to happen to Lazarus as both the climax of Jesus’ ministry before His final days, and as a contribution to the finality of those days. In a sense we may see the first part of the Gospel as reaching a conclusion in the resurrection of a believer which is a clear picture of the coming resurrection which will take place at Jesus Christ’s behest, illustrating the success of His ministry. While in the second part, which will close with the resurrection of Jesus Christ Himself as the firstfruits of that coming resurrection, all is concentrated on the preparation for His death and its carrying through, culminating in death’s defeat as Jesus is revealed as the Lord of Glory. Alternately we could concentrates on seeing the Passion narrative as sandwiched between two depictions of the resurrection to life. Both emphases are true.
So in the first place we have in this chapter the seventh of the signs specifically brought out by John, closing off the seven signs and culminating the whole, and suggesting that now Jesus has been fully and perfectly revealed. (In contrast the seven ‘I am’ sayings cover almost the whole Gospel, so we must not make too great a distinction between he two parts).
The previous signs have been -
Furthermore, as we have seen, each has pointed to Jesus either as Messiah or true Son of God, or indeed as both. And now in this chapter we are to see a culminating sign which is directly related to His Messiahship and Sonship, and which emphasises the fact that He gives eternal life to all who believe in Him, revealing at the same time that He will be the One Who raises the dead in the last day. It is a fitting climax to the whole.
In this passage we also have the next ‘I am’ saying. These ‘I am’ passages are self-revelatory, and are spread between 8.12 and 15.1, thus coming late in His ministry. Their spread should prevent us from too sharply differentiating two sections in the Gospel. John saw his Gospel as one whole. In them Jesus declares :
In all this He reveals His uniqueness as the Lord of glory. Note the emphasis in the sayings on life and salvation. He has come as the life-giver and the Saviour. Truly ‘no man ever spoke like this man’.
News Comes About Lazarus (John 11.1-16).
With this story John leads the way into the Passion narrative. We are given a foretaste of the resurrection. and in consequence of what happens the Sanhedrin semi-officially determine on His death (11.47-52), a verdict linked with the raising of Lazarus (11.46), while it is followed immediately by a description of Mary’s anointing of Jesus in preparation for His death, also linked with Lazarus (12.1-8). At the same time He is putting the cap on the seven signs of Jesus’ Messiahship and Sonship, thus finalising the impact of the life of Jesus during His ministry.
11.1-2 ‘Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, of the village of Mary and her sister Martha, and it was that Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.’
Lazarus lived in Bethany, about two miles outside Jerusalem. He was ‘brother to Martha and Mary’. It may well have been at their house that Jesus tended to stay when He was in Jerusalem (Matthew 21.17; Mark 11.11; Luke 10.38-42 - see also John 12.1-8), and it could well have been their ass on which He entered Jerusalem (Mark 11.1). He is constantly shown as having a close relationship with the family. They were His friends.
The fact that Lazarus was identified by his relationship to Mary and Martha demonstrates that the author expected the latter to be well known to his readers. This confirms that the Gospel was written against a background of known material. As they appeared in Luke 10.38-42, this may suggest that he knew that his readers would be familiar with the tradition behind Luke’s Gospel.
Verse 2 is also interesting. The incident John mentions has not yet been recorded (see 12.1-8). This again suggests that John expected that that incident was also well known to his readers, even before he himself wrote about it. Thus it is clear that John, in writing, depended on the fact that his readers already had a solid background of knowledge about the life of Jesus gained from the tradition, something possibly known as ‘The Testimony of Jesus Christ’ (Revelation 1.2, 9; 12.17; 19.10; compare 2 Timothy 1.8). Note how it is paralleled with ‘the Word of God’ i.e. the Old Testament Scriptures (Mark 7.13), not however seen as just a written record but as a living witness.
11.3 ‘The sisters therefore sent to him saying, “Lord, he whom you love is sick”.’
It is apparent that Lazarus was very ill, and his sisters therefore turned to the only One Whom they felt could help them. They sent Him a message, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill’. These words emphasise the close friendship there was between Jesus and the family. Jesus is seen to be human and to have close personal friends.
The use of ‘Lord’ here goes beyond just a formal greeting. It is not to be seen as over-theological in its use by Martha and Mary, but rather as an acknowledgement of the respect in which they held Him. It was probably otherwise in the mind of the writer who wants us to see Him as Lord over all.
11.4 ‘But when Jesus heard it he said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified thereby”.’
Jesus’ reply was that the sickness would not finally be terminal, at least from His point of view. “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified by means of it”. This statement was pregnant with meaning. Not only would God be glorified through it, but the glory of Jesus as the Son of God would also be revealed. Jesus knew that the incident would have widespread effects. He knew that Lazarus was, in fact, going to die, but He also knew that He would raise him from death. The whole incident was to be a means by which the God’s glory would be manifested, and the glorious reality of the resurrection would be revealed in picture form. But it would also be an incident which would arouse His enemies and finally result in His death, because they were so blinded that, instead of glorying in a wonderful miracle, they resented the influence that it gave Him (11.45-53). Although in contrast to this was the fact that some did believe (verse 45).
Thus Jesus specifically declared that by it He, ‘the Son of God’ (the God-sent Messianic prince, the only true Son of God) would be glorified in two senses. Firstly in that His power to raise the dead, including the dead at the last day, would be amazingly revealed. But secondly because through it He would be glorified by being raised up on a cross, in order that through His death He might perform the work that would make the resurrection possible (12.23). He was both challenging the power of death and challenging His adversaries, knowing in both cases what the consequences would be.
From 11.40 we are also probably to gather that these words were sent to Mary and Martha as an encouragement in their distress.
The term ‘Son of God’ would be understood by listeners as signifying the One chosen and appointed by God. To Jesus and to the readers, in the light of chapter 1 and often, it signifies that He is God’s only Son.
11.5 ‘Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister, and Lazarus.’
It is now emphasised that Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The author wishes it to be known that what followed was not to be seen as an indication that Jesus did not care, but rather that He cared deeply. Notice how he also balances out Martha and Mary. Mary had been especially mentioned in verse 2, so Martha was especially mentioned here.
11.6 ‘When therefore he heard that he was sick he abode at that time two days in the place where he was.’
On hearing the news of Lazarus’ illness, which would take some time to reach Him, Jesus remained where He was for a further two days. We are probably not to see this as a deliberate act to enhance the miracle, but rather as a statement of fact, and an indication that all things, even the terminal illness of a beloved friend, had to take their place as far as His ministry was concerned. He clearly considered that the important business that He had on hand had to take precedence over the personal needs of his friends, although He was, of course, aware of the course things would take..
It was not that He was impervious to their grief. Rather it was that He could not fail to continue to do God’s present work because of personal friendship. Indeed it was important that men should realise that God’s work must always have precedence (although this must never be taken as an excuse for failing in our personal responsibilities. There was no replacement for Jesus. His presence was essential to the work. With us it may be different).
11.7-8 ‘Then after this he says to his disciples, “Let us go into Judea again.” The disciples say to him, “Rabbi, the Judaisers were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” ’
Once His business was completed He informed His disciples that they would now go to Judea. His disciples were concerned (so they clearly had not expected Him to respond to His friends’ plea in view of the danger, and probably thought that that was why He had not). ‘Rabbi, the Judaisers were recently determined to stone you, and are you going there again?’ (see (10.31, 39). They were not aware, as He was, that His times were in God’s hands. But He knew it and was now determined to go ahead. There is, of course, always a time for God’s people not to be foolhardy. But there are also times when it is necessary for them, when so guided directly by God, to be willing to face death. And He knew that His friend was in trouble.
11.9-10 ‘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”.’
Here He was basically saying that there is a time when it is right to act, even when it is dangerous to do so, as long as it is in accordance with God’s clear prompting. In His case the ‘daytime’ was still here (compare 9.4) and it was not yet the twelfth hour, thus He could safely go forward and would not stumble because He was walking in His Father’s light.
But the thought is also being applied to mankind as a whole as a general principle. Those who know and follow Him as the light of the world (8.12) will not stumble (unless of course they allow darkness to come because they take their eyes off Him). They will be like those who walk during the light of day. But those who walk in the night, who walk in darkness because their eyes are not on the Light of the world, will stumble constantly because they walk in darkness. They have no light to guide.
There are times when it is day, when God has shown us the way and we can act without fear, and there are times when it is night, and we must act accordingly. In those times we must be cautious. In His case He knows that His timing is right, because He walks under guidance from the One Who is the light of this world, as He is. There are other times, He implies, when it is not right to act so, and only those who walk in darkness will do it. Foolhardiness is never spiritual.
‘The light of this world’ may here specifically refer to the sun. But even if it does so, in the spiritual application the One Who is Light (1 John 1.5) is also in mind.
Thus we learn that there are times when it is right to act, and times when it is right not to act. Each of us needs to be sure that we make our decisions in accordance with His enlightening, but we must be careful that it is genuine enlightenment and not just a matter of following our own wishes and ideas. The emphasis is on the need to keep their eyes on the Light Who will guide them on their way.
11.11 ‘These things he spoke, and after this he says to them, “Our friend Lazarus is fallen asleep, but I am going so that I might awake him from sleep”.’
‘These things he spoke, and after this---’ is possibly intended to indicate that a period of some hours elapsed between the two statements. Alternately it may simply be a device to separate two profound sayings.
The New Testament constantly refers to death as ‘sleep’ in the context of resurrection (Mark 5.39; Luke 8.52; Acts 7.60; 1 Corinthians 11.30; 15.6,18,51; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-15; 2 Peter 3.4). Jesus knew that those who were His might ‘sleep’, but that they merely awaited the ‘awakening’. Here He informed His disciples that Lazarus was ‘asleep’ and that He intended to ‘waken him from sleep’. He was fully aware of what the situation was.
11.12-15 ‘The disciples therefore said to him, “Lord, if he is fallen asleep he will recover.” Then Jesus therefore said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there so that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him”.’
John goes on to describe how confused the disciples had all been by this statement, once again the indication of an eyewitness. Who else would dare to suggest that the great Apostles could be so dimwitted? They are presented as assuming that Lazarus is asleep and recovering. So Jesus makes the situation crystal clear. ‘Lazarus is dead’. Note the fact that He knew of this fact, even though He had received no word. His awareness was beyond that of others. (Other examples of such awareness are, however, known. When my uncle was killed in France during the first world war, blown up without trace, my aunt in England awoke and cried ‘Jimmy is dead’).
What a difference there was between the two statements, one speaking of ‘sleep’ and the other of ‘death’. The former speaks of sleep and is thus one of hope in an awakening, the latter speaks of death and of seeming finality. Death is the last enemy, but for the Christian death has ceased to be an enemy, it has become the sleep of conscious peace. In the Old Testament the defeat of death has Messianic links (Isaiah 25.8-10).
‘For your sake I am glad I was not there so that you may believe’. This suggests that humanly speaking Jesus was sad that He had not been able to be there to prevent Lazarus’ death and the heartache of the family. He longed that He could have been there to stop them grieving so. Yet He recognised one benefit as coming from it, the bolstering of the faith of the disciples and the family, and indeed of the world.
‘So that you may believe’. Does He mean believe in the raising from the dead, or in that fact the He is the Raiser of the dead? Or is He speaking of increasing faith? Any is possible, or perhaps all three. For the disciples already ‘believe’.
‘Let us go to him’. Now that His urgent work had been accomplished, He would hasten to help His friend.
11.16 ‘Thomas therefore, who is called Didymus (the twin), said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go that we may die with him”.’
The disciples were aware of the dangers threatening Jesus in Judea, and we learn that Thomas was full of foreboding, as indeed they all were, and now said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go that we may die with Him’. As ever he could only see the dark side, but this did not prevent him from being faithful. He would not desert Jesus however bad the situation looked. Perhaps his intervention indicates that Peter, who would normally have taken the lead under such circumstances, was not with them at this point. This would help to explain why the story is not recorded in the other Gospels (Peter was a main source of the synoptic material).
‘Let us also go that we may die with Him.’ For Thomas, taking up the cross and following Jesus was a reality. He was ready if need be to die with Him. His failure at Gethsemane does not prove otherwise. Things were happening there which panicked them all. At that stage they had been caught up in the unexpected and were shocked at Judas’ betrayal, and at the unexpected occurring in the middle of the sacred Feast. And besides dark forces were at work of which we know little.
John’s main purpose in going into such detail is in order to bring out that what was to happen had a very deep significance. It was not just to be seen as something that happened. It was part of the revelation of Who Jesus was. It is not, however, wise to speculate too much on what Jesus’ inner thoughts were. God did not see fit to make them known.
The Raising of Lazarus (John 11.17-44).
What is to follow was of huge significance, for this was not just one of many miracles, it was a deliberate acting out of the coming resurrection of the righteous. Here we see carried out on earth, for one man, what will one day be carried out by Jesus for all who are His. He is revealed as ‘the Life-giver’. Paradoxically this tremendous sign, which should have demonstrated conclusively to all precisely Who He was, became the means of increased antagonism from His enemies precisely because it was effective in that way. The truth is that whatever He had done would have been ineffective in changing their attitude. By this time His enemies were not seeking the truth about Him. They were preserving their own positions and seeking to destroy Him.
This was not, of course, the only example of Jesus raising the dead. We are specifically told of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5.22-43) and the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7.11-17), but Jesus’ reply to John the Baptiser (Matthew 11.5) suggests that there were also others. There, however, they were not publicised. This one was unquestionably the most public and the most spectacular, simply because it occurred before crowds and near to Jerusalem.
11.17 ‘So when Jesus came he found that he had already been four days in the tomb.’
The time of four days is emphasised so as to demonstrate that Lazarus really was dead and his body probably beginning to decompose. Many Jews later believed that the spirit was retained within the body for three days after death before the body began to decompose. It is possible that this belief was already prevalent. If it was so the four days would be seen as sufficient to ensure that the spirit had left his body.
11.18-19 ‘Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off (fifteen stadia), and many of the Judaisers had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.’
Because Bethany was so close to Jerusalem they knew many people there and many had come to comfort Mary and Martha. The fact that they are linked to ‘the Judaisers’, along with the reminder that it is only two miles from Jerusalem, suggests that these included many important and influential people, which explains why the news so quickly reached ‘the Pharisees’ (v.46). What was about to happen was not done quietly. It was done before some of the most influential people in the land. So what Jesus was about to do, and He did it quite dramatically, was a deliberate revelation to those in the highest places. He had determined that they must now face up to Who He is. It is a direct challenge to the authorities. But its deeper significance must also not be lost, and John brings this out in verses 20-37.
11.20 ‘Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him. But Mary still sat in the house.’
The mentions we have of the pair are totally consistent. Martha, active, busy and practical, Mary, dreamy, quiet and contemplative (compare Luke 10.38-41). Here the mention of Jesus caused Martha to spring into action. She went to meet Him. She wanted Him to do something. Mary awaited Him quietly, probably more accepting of the situation.
11.21-22 ‘Martha therefore said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother had not died. And even now I know that whatever you will ask God he will give it to you.”
It is noteworthy that Martha still retained hope. She had sublime confidence in Jesus. ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died’. This was not a complaint, but a quiet statement of faith. She had no doubt at all that Jesus could have prevented it.
‘Yet even now I know that whatever you request from God, God will give you’. She knew what Jesus could do, what she did not know was whether He would. Many were dying in Judea. Why should this one be any different? Here Martha’s activity produced a faith which a less active person might not have achieved. She just could not sit still and let things happen, even if what she asked for was hopeless.
It is noteworthy that in this incident it was Martha whose faith shone out. In Luke it was Mary whose faith was commended, but the same one who was wrapped up in Jesus’ presence there, was now wrapped up in grief for her brother. It was Martha who looked for Jesus to do something.
11.23 ‘Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again”.’
He tells her that death may seem to be the final catastrophe, but that for those who are His it is not the end. Can she not be satisfied with this? He wanted her to sort out in her own mind what she was asking.
11.24 ‘Martha says to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day”.
Her reply was carefully worded. She knew what she was asking and dare not press it too far, but she would not just be satisfied with words of comfort, however glorious their content. ‘I know that he will rise again at the resurrection of the last day’. (The author wants us to see the background for what was about to happen). It is comforting, but not what she wanted. Note however her confidence even in this. Continual contact with Jesus had given her confidence in the certainty of their resurrection. Not all had the same certainty. Many Pharisees strove for it.
11.25-26 ‘Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he may die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” ’
In her mind Martha was thinking of the last day. But Jesus now brings the idea of the resurrection much closer to home. He wants it to be known that it is not just a hope of something for the future but a certainty for the present. He who stands before her is both the lifegiver now, and the future raiser of the dead. The One Who embodies resurrection is here. It is now not just a far off hope, but something guaranteed by His presence. Because of Him, those who die as His will live again (5.28-29). Indeed they who know Him will never die, they will only sleep, for He is the resurrection, the One Who raises the dead, the One Who transforms the dead, the One Who makes immortal, and He is the life, the giver of life, the source of all life, the provider of eternal life, and they are His. By these words Jesus concentrated her attention on Himself. What did she really think about Him?
But these words were also the declaration to all who would hear, of the wonder of His glory. To all who believe He stands as the conqueror of death, as the giver of life, as the raiser of the dead. In Him death has lost its power to destroy. In Him all who are His will have a wonder-filled life that never ends (John 10.10). This is the promise of the resurrection of the righteous. And this is what the raising of Lazarus would foreshadow and illustrate.
Martha’s faith is up to His challenge. ‘Yes, Lord’. The use of Lord here, something rarely found in John’s Gospel outside chapter 11, must bear its full significance. He is ‘the Lord’. And what is this faith founded on? ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, God’s anointed Son, who is coming into the world’. Martha had still probably not yet come to a full understanding of His deity. But she did know that He was uniquely favoured by God, and sent as God’s ambassador to fulfil His promises. She knew that He was the Promised One. Thus she had no doubt of what He could do. She had, however, stated her case and would not press Him any further. She did not dream that her quiet request would one day illuminate the world.
11.28 ‘And when she had said this, she went away, and called Mary, her sister, secretly, saying, “The Master has come and calls for you”.’
Having made her plea she moved away leaving it in His hands. It would not have seemed seemly for her as a woman to remain with Jesus. And so her practical thoughts turned to her sister. Did Mary know that Jesus was here? She went to her without any fuss and told her, ‘the Teacher is here and is calling for you’. This description ‘Teacher’ contrasts with ‘the Lord’ in v.26. That had come out in her awe at Jesus’ declaration and revelation of Himself, ‘the Teacher’ was her normal way of thinking of Jesus.
‘Calling for you’. Jesus still waited outside the village. This was the time for privacy and He wanted the sisters to be able to see Him alone. Note how it indicates that we have not been party to the whole conversation.
11.29-31 ‘And she, when she heard it, quickly got up and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village but was still in the place where Martha met him. The Judaisers then, who were with her in the house and were comforting her, when they saw that Mary got up quickly and went out, followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there.’
When Mary learned that Jesus had arrived she went to Him immediately, followed discreetly by mourners who thought that she was going to the tomb. John wants us to know that they were witnesses to what followed.
11.32 ‘Mary, therefore, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell down at his feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”.,
Unlike practical Martha she flung herself at His feet. How typical of Mary. She was always to be found at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10.39; John 11.32; 12.3) However, her first thought was similar. ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died’. But, unlike the practical Martha, she was accepting of the situation. She did not blame Him. She sought only comfort in His presence. It was Martha who had hoped for, and believed in, the possibility of action.
11.33-34a ‘When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Judaisers also weeping who came with her, he groaned in spirit and was troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?”.’
Mary was weeping, and ‘the Judaisers’ who were with her also wept. They shared in her anguish. With all their importance they had no solution to the problem. (These were probably not the official mourners who were paid to ‘lead’ the mourning and bewail the dead to ensure a satisfactory expression of grief. Their tears were genuine as is evidenced by their later comment on Jesus’ tears). Having laid stress on Jesus as the Resurrection, the author is now turning his reader’s thoughts to the awfulness of death. Without the presence of Jesus death is still the master.
‘The Judaisers.’ Here the term is more neutral. It still probably refers to leading figures in the Jewish world who were clearly known to the family but has a wider significance as including other local Jews, including possibly many who had earlier shown interest in what Jesus was saying.
Jesus was deeply moved by the sight of their tears and their anguish. Indeed He was ‘angry and troubled’. The Greek words used are very forceful. Anger cannot be excluded. ‘He was angry in spirit and deeply troubled himself’ (enebrimesato to pneumati kai etaraxen heauton). But why was He so angry? Not at their tears, for He Himself would weep (v.35). And the description goes beyond the stress that the performance of miracles lays on Him. Nor was He grieving over Lazarus for He knew that He was about to raise Him. No, He was angry at death itself. As He saw those whom He loved grieving, their grief reminded Him that sin had brought this on the human race, spurred on by the one who introduced sin, the Evil One himself. He was angry at the terrible woe that man had brought on himself. He was angry at the forces of evil that kept men enslaved. It is a reminder that though we deserve nothing He is not unmoved by our anguish, and this expressed itself in anger against the causes of our dilemma. Even in the light of resurrection He felt for the need of the world.
‘Where have you laid him?’ So, emotionally moved, He asked where the body had been laid. He was here with a might purpose to fulfil.
11.34b-37 ‘They say to him, “Come and see”. Jesus wept. The Judaisers therefore said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not this man who opened the eyes of the one who was blind have caused that this man also should not die?” ’
At their offer to show Him the tomb He wept. The word for ‘weep’ is a rare one differentiating Him from those who officially weep at a funeral. The weight of the world’s need was heavy on Him, and His tears were real. He wept because others wept, and He felt for them. This moved some to say, ‘see how he loved him’, and others to say ‘could not he who opened the eyes of the blind have prevented this man from dying?’ Even at a funeral there was controversy among these men, for they were controversialists. And it is made clear to us that they include those who have previously been listening to Him and disputing with Him. Yet both were right, and both were wrong.
Was there also some grief in His heart that He was bringing Lazarus back into this grief-torn world? We do not know. But no one recognised the real root of His distress, whatever it was, for they could not even begin to conceive what Jesus was about to do. They could only relate His tears to Lazarus’ death.
The mention of the opening of the eyes of the blind demonstrates how great an impression that miracle had made. It was the outstanding miracle that those in Jerusalem would think of (not those in far off Galilee, a sign that we have a record of the genuine conversation). And we discover here that it had made some think that He did indeed have extraordinary powers which had to be accounted for.
But Jesus’ weeping may have had even deeper significance, especially when linked with the groaning in Himself. In Hebrews 5.7 we read that ‘in the days of His flesh, having offered up strong prayers and supplications, with strong crying and tears (this noun derived from the same stem as the verb here in John 11.35), to Him who was able to save him from death, was saved for His godly fear’. Hebrews primarily, of course, refers to Gethsemane. But this was a Gethsemane before Gethsemane and it may thus be that His weeping was linked to the cry going up to His Father from His heart as He prayed for the defeat of death in the raising of Lazarus, and thought ahead to His own coming death and the battle that had to be fought.
11.38a ‘Jesus therefore again, groaning in himself, comes to the tomb.’
Jesus was still ‘deeply angry and troubled’. Note how it is emphasised a second time. This is a reminder that He was facing up to something that none of us or of those present could conceive. He saw the incredible power of death brought about by man’s sin. He saw what the Evil One had accomplished. And He saw the inevitable consequences for Himself as He would bear on Himself the sins of the world. All this was involved in His raising Lazarus.
In this anguish He approached the cave where the corpse of Lazarus was lying. John emphasises the great sorrow of heart Jesus was experiencing, and we must therefore stress again that this was no ordinary mourning. It is clear that the pressure of His approaching suffering was on Him, and an awareness of His coming struggle with the forces of evil. Even as these men disputed it reminded Him of their compatriots who were plotting His death. But the anger, as we have already seen, was levelled not so much at this as at sin and its consequences, at the evil heart of man who does evil continually, at Satan who keeps men in bondage and bears great responsibility for this situation, at these men who dispute over a tomb and yet will not open their eyes to see the truth, at all that death means as the last enemy. And even as He was reminded of it He wept, for He was human.
11.38b-41a ‘Now it was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus says, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of him who was dead, says to him, “Lord, by this time he will smell dreadfully, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus says to her, “Did I not say that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone.’
Lazarus’ tomb was a cave. Such burial caves were common in the limestone cliffs of the area, and are in evidence today. A stone lay across the entrance to the cave, mainly to keep wild beasts out, so He said, ‘take away the stone’. This caused a stir, and Martha, ever practical, even protested, ‘Lord, by this time there will be a terrible smell, for he has been dead four days’. By now her hopes that Jesus would do something had reached a low ebb. A short while previously she had been almost confident, but now her confidence had lapsed. She did not believe that Jesus had given cause for hope for an outstanding miracle.
As mentioned previously the Jews later (evidenced by the 3rd century AD) believed that a man’s soul left his body three days after death. This belief was probably connected with the length of time before decomposition visibly began. Thus Martha is expressing the same thing when she pointed out that he would now be decomposing. She believed it was now too late. But Jesus reminded her, ‘did I not say that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?’ (see 11.4). The repetition emphasises that this is to be a revelation of both His Father’s glory and His own.
So they took away the stone, wondering at the same time what He was intending to do. Did he want to see the body? Was there some funeral rite He wished to carry out? But none could foresee what they were about to observe. For although they could not know it, the taking away of the stone was necessary so that Lazarus could come out. Here there would be no earthquake to move the stone, nor was Lazarus rising in a spiritual body.
What followed next can only be described as magnificent. The foundation had been laid in references to the resurrection. Now we are to see the future resurrection acted out in vivid picture form. There can be no doubt that John has this in mind. Previously he had quoted the words of Jesus, ‘the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation’ (John 5.28-29). Now such an event will take place in microcosm before our eyes.
Jesus stood there before the cave in which Lazarus was entombed, the crowds were gathered around in awe, wondering what He was about to do, and obedient to His command they had removed the stone. Now they waited. The tension must have been tremendous. What was Jesus about to do?
11.41b ‘And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me, and I knew that you always hear me, but I have said it because of the people who are standing around, so that they may believe that you have sent me”.’
There was a sense in which Jesus had no need to pray. He had power within Himself to do this thing. But He would not act before the people without His Father. It was to His Father that the glory must go. He had already prayed to His Father and received a positive response (‘You have heard me’, compare on 11.35). And He wanted all the people to know that it was from the Father that He Himself came.
He longed for their response to Him. We must never assume that, because those who are drawn by the Father will come to Him, He does not mind about the remainder. He wanted them to know that if they would come He would receive them. Then having demonstrated to all that He was acting along with God, He moved into action.
11.43-44 ‘And when he had thus spoken he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth”. He that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave-clothes, and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus says to them, “Loose him and let him go”.’
What a huge amount can be conveyed in a few words. Jesus looked at the mouth of the cave, with the whole crowd standing there in suspended animation. What was He about to do? And then He acted. He cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out’. And, to the astonishment of all but Jesus, a living man came out of the tomb, bending under the low doorway and still covered in his grave clothes.
Now they saw for themselves that Jesus really is the resurrection and the life. Now they could see ahead to that day when He will once again look at the places of the dead, and cry, ‘Come out’, and those who are dead will rise and come to meet Him to have their destinies determined (5.28-29). It was stupendous.
‘Bound --- with grave clothes’. Some have carped at the fact that Lazarus could come out if he was so bound, but quite apart from divine help the grave clothes were not tied in order to prevent release (no one anticipated the need) and he could therefore well have wriggled partly loose. But he had woken up in the darkness of the tomb and was probably confused and understandably would not wait to remove them all before emerging, possibly with some difficulty. Nor would he want to emerge naked.
We do not know enough about 1st century burial customs to be sure of what the grave-clothes consisted, but it was normal to bind the arms to the body and to constrain the ankles. The head-cloth (soudarion, borrowed from Latin) would be wound round the head and probably also went below the chin holding the chin from sagging. He possibly also had on a tunic or sheet.
Some have suggested that if Jesus had not named Lazarus personally all the dead would have risen at that moment. The idea is somewhat fanciful, but it contains a germ of truth. For there is no doubt that had Jesus wished to do that, and had His Father been so mindful, that is precisely what would have happened.
The prayer of Jesus was a deliberate way of stressing to the crowds that what He did, He did in the will of His Father. He did not act alone. As ever He and the Father were one. He did not need to pray for He had already done so, and knew that He had His Father’s approval, but He wanted the crowds also to know that He acted according to His Father’s will. It was, however, His voice that called forth the dead, and now that so many witnessed this, surely they must believe. Now surely all of Jerusalem and Judea must respond to Him. How can they do otherwise? He has proved Himself the Lord of Life before witnesses. But man’s deviousness is capable of anything.
The Reaction (John 11.45-57).
11.45-46 ‘Many therefore of the Judaisers who came to Mary and watched what he did, believed on him, but some of them went away to the Pharisees and told them the things that Jesus had done.’
Reaction to what He had done was divided. Many of ‘the Judaisers’, the leading people of the land who were seen as representative of the land, believed in Him. Now they knew beyond all doubt that He was what He claimed to be. But others took a different view and reported what had happened to ‘the Pharisees’, that is the Pharisaic leaders who were mainly responsible for regulating their actions and decisions. They realised just what an impact this might make. Thus do men reveal their hearts by their actions. It is of course astonishing, but it is not at all unlikely. By this time they expected Jesus to do unusual things and had begun to take them for granted. What mattered now was what repercussions this might have among the common people. Their hearts were hardened against any spiritual impact.
The fact that ‘many -- came to Mary’ brings out how Mary’s relative helplessness drew sympathy from strong men (compare verse 31). She was probably noted in the village for her piety and vulnerability, and clearly popular. They probably thought that the stronger and more assertive Martha did not need so much help.
11.47-48 ‘The chief priests therefore, and the Pharisees, gathered a council and said, “What are we going to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him thus alone all men will believe on him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation”.’
Meanwhile the Pharisees who received the news decided that something must be done. Jesus was becoming a danger. And so their leaders went to the chief priests, and suggested to them that it was time to act together. It seems incredible that in the face of this great public act the leaders did not gather in order to back Jesus’ ministry. But they had so hardened themselves against Jesus that they did not even consider that as an option. They did not want the status quo affected, especially by Someone Who, if He was right, would consign their own carefully built up ideas to the waste bin. Their ideas were more important to them than the truth.
‘Gathered a council.’ Not an official one but an unofficial one made up of the enemies of Jesus. Incredible though it may seem, from first to last they were angry rather than impressed. They were fearful that what He had done might win men to His cause and result in an insurrection, with the consequence being that their own position might be undermined in the eyes of the Romans so that they lost even more power. Fear makes men behave irrationally. He was disturbing the peace and people were getting excited. This could start off another rising and they would be the losers. It was necessary to do something quickly.
Had Jesus sided with them more positively it might have been different, but they could not conceive of God working through any but themselves, nor would they allow it. Thus all they could now think of was the harm that He might do by becoming too popular and bringing a reaction from the Romans, resulting in the destruction of the Temple and the nation (verses 47-48). The idea is ironic, for that is precisely what would result from the actions of some of their own within forty years.
‘Our place and our nation.’ They were concerned more for their own positions and status than for their countrymen. They did not want anyone to upset how things stood. ‘Our place’ might have in mind the Temple, or it might have in mind their position on the Sanhedrin and where it met. But they did not need to worry. The ruthless Caiaphas knew exactly what to do.
11.49-52 ‘But a certain one of them, Caiaphas, being High Priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you take account of the fact that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole people perish not”. Now he did not say this of himself, but being High Priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but that he might also gather together into one the children of God that are scattered abroad.’
‘But a certain one of them.’ This confirms the unofficial nature of the gathering. Had it been the official Sanhedrin he would have been the chairman. Here he is just one of the conspirators.
‘Caiaphas, who was High Priest that year --’ . ‘That year’ refers in John’s thought to the year which above all years stood out in John’s mind, that year in which Jesus was crucified. Thus it means ‘in that fatal year’. Whenever he speaks of Caiaphas he uses the phrase. He can never forget the part that Caiaphas played in the death of Jesus. It is not suggesting that he thought that the High Priest was appointed yearly (Caiaphas was in fact High Priest from 18 AD - 36 AD). Indeed the fact that the writer was almost certainly connected with the High Priest in some way (see 18.15-16) establishes this beyond any real doubt.
‘-- said to them, ‘You do not know anything. You seem not to understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish’. Again the words as a whole are ironic. It would appear that some were speaking cautiously in Jesus’ favour. So Caiaphas brusquely puts them right. ‘You do not know anything. You seem not to understand.’ He was impatient with their attitudes and was suggesting a judicial act of execution as the only way forward to save the nation. The man was a disturber of the situation in Jerusalem and the best thing to do was get rid of Him, and quickly. But what he did not realise was that what he was saying was in fact partly true, that Jesus would indeed die for the people in another way in order to fulfil Isaiah 53. We would say he spoke better than he knew. John puts it in terms of unconscious prophecy. He sees it as being somehow an act of God, and who would deny it? But Caiaphas was not all that inspired, otherwise he might also have prophesied the future destruction of the nation in 70 AD, partially as a result of the actions of men supported by some of the Council.
‘And not for the nation only, but also that he might gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad’. John was mindful that his readers also benefited from the death of Jesus. His death was of far wider significance than simply for the purpose of saving the Jewish nation. It was for all who would become the children of God by receiving Him (John 1.12).
‘Scattered abroad’. There may be in mind here the scattering of the nations in Genesis 11. But essentially the thought was of Jews scattered around the world, partly as a result of exile, and partly for other reasons. Now God would gather them together in Him.
11.53 ‘So from that day onwards they took counsel that they might put him to death’.
The continual semi-official attempts to arrest him have not yet become the official policy of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing body, but His death was now determined by a large section of that body who would constantly seek ways to take Him. It is all so true to life. Their own interests were in danger so that it did not matter how wonderful what He had done was, what mattered was their own skins. They were panicking. It gave them no time to consider the wonder of what had happened. In fact they would get quite sick of hearing about Lazarus’ reawakening and would think in terms of reversing it (12.10).
11.54 ‘Jesus therefore walked no more openly among the Judaisers, but went from there into the country near to the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there He stayed for a while with the disciples.’
Aware of the situation Jesus withdrew with His disciples to a town probably about fifteen miles outside Jerusalem (identification is not at present certain, but it was on the edge of the desert). It was ‘night’ and not the time for action (11.10), although that would soon come. He must await His hour. But that has not yet come, for as the Lamb of God He must die at the Passover.
11.55 ‘Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up to Jerusalem out of the country before the Passover, to purify themselves.’
Crowds were now beginning to gather in Jerusalem to prepare for the Passover. They wished to go through the seven day period of purifying there to ensure that they did not risk contact with anything (such as a dead body) which might make them not fit to play a full part in the rites. No one who was ritually unclean could partake of the Passover.
11.56 ‘They therefore sought for Jesus and spoke with one another as they stood in the Temple. “What do you think? That he will not come up to the Feast?” ’
They gathered that a large proportion of the leading religious authorities, including all the top officials at the Temple, were planning Jesus’ arrest and they were wondering what He would do. There was a buzz of excitement in the air. Would He arrive and seek to lead an insurrection, or would He keep away and avoid danger? The negative question suggests they expected the latter.
11.57 ‘Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given commandment that if any man knew where he was he should show it, so that they might take him.’
Meanwhile the plotters had issued an edict that anyone who knew where Jesus was should reveal it so that He could be arrested. They knew that the earlier they could do this the better before the whole area swarmed with Galileans who might side with Jesus. In the end they were thwarted by Jesus’ delay and the result was that they finally had to resort to the desperate measures that followed.
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