John 11:1-45 – Lazarus
“Bring us, O Lord, at our last awakening, into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling but one equal light; no noise nor silence but one equal music; no fears nor hopes but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity, in the habitations of thy majesty and thy glory, for ever and ever. Amen.” John Donne
This story of Lazarus who was raised from the dead by Jesus is told only by John. It is a dramatic presentation of how a family’s meaning is transformed through their encounter with tragedy. Lazarus is even a subsidiary character; his death provides the occasion for the exploration of his family’s grief and their consolation in the coming forth of new life. He is not to be confused with the Lazarus of Luke 16: 19-31. John’s story may be a local legend, probably associated with Bethany, alongside the legend of the anointing by Mary. Both of these stories have in view the death and resurrection of Jesus. The greater significance of this miracle (sign) may be seen against the background of the healing on the blind man in chapter 9. There the blind man himself exclaimed, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” 9:32. I suggested there that giving sight to the blind is qualitatively giving life to him. The one born blind lived all his life in a place of deep darkness; Lazarus in death may be said to take up residence in the same place. I will point out later that Jesus’ command, “Lazarus, come out!” has the same force as the Genesis 1 story of God’s command, “Let there be!” The Evangelist John is presenting the narrative of Lazarus as a drama in which the new creation has begun and the coming forth of the eschatological moment into the present testifies to this. This narrative is another example of the idea that the End is the Beginning returning to itself. John introduces this narrative of death and resurrection as the factor that initiates the Passion and leads Jesus to the Cross. 11:53.
The story begins by locating Lazarus within his family and community. It is quite unusual that people are named in miracle stories. He is from Bethany; his sisters are Martha and Mary. The two sisters will appear again in the legend of the anointing at Bethany in chapter 12. They appeared in Luke 10:38-42 without their brother, in a village that was not named. There is a curious statement here. “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” 11:2. It is curious because the event of the anointing has not yet taken place! Apart from this chapter, and 6:22, Jesus is not referred to as Lord until Mary Magdalen announces him as such in 20:18 after his resurrection. Lord is a Christological title, and in this case it is associated with the resurrection. Why is the statement placed here? Does this mean that the raising of Lazarus did not occur until after the anointing by Mary, and is misplaced here? It would make sense if the raising of Lazarus, the last of the signs that Jesus performed in this Gospel, came immediately before the entry into Jerusalem, as the precipitating factor for the Passion. In Mark and Matthew the anointing took place two days before Passover. In John, it is six days before Passover. This would allow time for the event of the raising of Lazarus, if indeed this came after the anointing. Then it would suggest that Lazarus’ illness and death were sudden. Jesus and his disciples would have left Bethany right after the anointing, only to return four days later after the death and burial of Lazarus. 11:17. Again, this would put Jesus in Bethany two days before the Passover in agreement with Mark and Matthew. However, time for John is theological rather than chronological, and it is difficult to draw conclusions here on the significance of the two different theological meanings of history between John and the Synoptic gospels.
My reasoning does not resolve the problem. It becomes more complicated when we read in the story of the anointing, about “Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.”12:1. This makes it look like the anointing came after the raising of Lazarus. The two stories cannot be reconciled on this point. The easiest answer is that an editor inserted 11:2 from a later time to connect the two stories.
But to return to our story, Lazarus is ill. His sisters sent word to Jesus saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” He and his disciples were not in Judea at the time. Jesus received the message and knew the deeper meaning behind the illness. This is not a sickness unto death; its purpose is for the glory of the Lord. We saw the same motive in the blindness of the blind man in chapter 9. John has begun the gradual revelation of the glorification of Jesus that will be completed in his own death and resurrection.
Even though Jesus loved this family, 11:5, he did not respond to their call for help immediately. He stayed with his disciples two more days before leaving. This reminds me of his response to his mother at the wedding at Cana. “My hour has not come.” 2.4. The work of the Redeemer has a schedule that is known only to himself. He alone will decide when to act. There is another motive according to John. The late arrival of Jesus after the death of Lazarus is “so that you may believe.” 11:15. The disciples need to be witnesses to the raising of Lazarus so that their faith may be confirmed. But the return to Judea was not without its problems. The disciples were afraid to return because they remembered their last stay there resulted in the threat of being stoned to death.10:31. Jesus responded to them with a statement that seems to be a proverb. He must do his work while it is daylight, that is, he has only twelve hours in which to complete his work. The 12 hours may not be interpreted numerically. Put another way, the time is short. Jesus is focusing on a particular time, his “hour” which is arriving, in which his own destiny is sealed. After he explains that Lazarus is dead and that they will go to him, Thomas replied, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” In the view of Thomas, when Jesus returns to Judea he is returning to face his death. When they arrived in Bethany there is no mention of the disciples anymore. The focus is entirely on Jesus and the miracle he is about to perform.
When Jesus arrived he learned that Lazarus has been interred for four days already. This idea heightened the significance of the miracle, for there is no doubt that Lazarus is really and truly dead. The “four days” may already indicate an ancient understanding of death and burial where the soul of the deceased lingered in the neighborhood of the body for three days before departing this world. From this perspective, it was completely impossible for Lazarus to be raised from the dead.
Mary and Martha were being consoled by the Jews who had come from Jerusalem. This seems to be the normal religious practice when death has occurred in a family. It shows that this is indeed a religious family. It may also indicate their high socio-economic status. Martha meets Jesus and says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will grant you whatever you ask of him.” 11:21. This is how Martha expresses her grief. She acknowledges the death of her brother, yet at the same time she believes that Jesus can reverse this through the power of prayer, in that “God will grant you whatever you ask of him.” She takes comfort in the power of Jesus. Jesus has the power to heal her grief. Martha’s understanding of the power of prayer reflects that of the early church. Mt. 6:6; 7:7-8. Jesus assures her that her brother will rise from the dead, to which she replies that she knows that he will be raised on the last day. Resurrection was already a part of the faith of the Jewish community. It is clear that Martha believes that Jesus has power over; illness that he is a healer, as she says, “if you had been here my brother would not have died.” I am not sure that she believes that Jesus has the power to raise the dead. Just as he revealed himself to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman and the blind man, now Jesus reveals himself to Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus is saying that in him the last day has arrived already, and that her belief in the resurrection will find fulfilment even now. Death belongs to an age that is passing and in Jesus life is now a present reality. That Jesus is the resurrection means that something new has dawned for humanity: life is possible only in the resurrection. Martha is learning that “resurrection” and “life” are identical. But the full healing of her grief is yet to come.
Life is not the opposite of death. Birth is the opposite of death. Life is its own definition in this context. Death is seen as the status that prevails when life is absent. John can use life as a word that takes its understanding from birth. Jesus says to Nicodemus, unless you are born of the spirit you will not see the kingdom of heaven. “Born of the Spirit” is then how John defines life, for “to see the kingdom of heaven” means to have eternal life. When God says “Let there be!” in Genesis, God commands creation to emerge from primordial nothingness and darkness. God is able to bring life and living things from that primal darkness. God’s “Let there be!” is the bringing to birth of living things.
Birth is the emergence from darkness; death is the return to darkness. When Jesus says “Lazarus, come out!” he is commanding Lazarus to emerge from darkness into the light, that is, he is giving Lazarus new birth, for light and life are identical in this Gospel. Lazarus can return to the kingdom of light. When Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus “has fallen asleep,” he is saying that sleep and death have something in common. Sleep is a going forth from this world temporarily. One returns upon awakening. Jesus is telling his disciples that sleep and death are both temporary states of existence. One can emerge from both of these into the kingdom of light. Life is what occurs between birth and death. Life is experience shaped by faith and lived under the dominion of the Spirit. One does not have to die to receive the gift of resurrection, for “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” 11:26. Resurrection is not simply the emergence from the grave. More appropriately, resurrection is leaving behind the world of darkness and death. “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” 5:25. When Martha hears the affirmation of her faith, she responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 11:27. In this one statement are three Christological titles: Lord, Messiah, and Son of God. In Martha’s words, we get a glimpse into the confessional faith of the developing church. That Jesus is the Messiah is already a part of the faith of the early church. Mark 8:29; Matthew 16: 16; Luke 9:20. The difference here is that John identifies Jesus as “the one coming into the world.” John is making the point again that in Jesus the eschatological moment has arrived, the new world is coming to birth, and it is characterized by resurrection and life. See the way this is presented in Revelation 1:8.
The next stage of the drama brings Mary onto the stage. She is not alone as the Jews who were comforting her in the house came with her because they thought she was going to the tomb to weep. Instead, she went to where Jesus was. She knelt at his feet when she arrived. There is a tradition of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus so this is not strange. She repeats what Martha had said earlier, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The fact that Mary knelt at his feet and addressed him as Lord discloses this as an act of worship. We have seen others fall at the feet of Jesus before: the leper in Matthew 8:2-3; the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5:6; Peter at the large catch of fish in Luke 5:8; Jairus in Luke 8:41; the woman with the blood flow in Luke 8:47; the one of ten lepers who returned in Luke 17:16, and the women at the tomb in Mt.28:9. When Moses ended his proclamation of the Passover, “the people bowed down and worshiped.” (Exodus 12:27). What Mary does is an act of devotion. It is an act of worship. This is how it would have been understood by the Jews who accompanied her. Martha had not taken this position. She entered into a dialogue with Jesus about the resurrection. Mary brought her grief to the feet of Jesus. Martha invoked traditional beliefs. Mary weeps at his feet as did another woman a long time ago. Shortly, Mary will anoint his feet and dry them with her hair.
Jesus saw that Mary was weeping, as were the Jews who came with her. The outward grief of a village had an effect on him. “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Surrounded by grief, Jesus felt an internal spiritual and emotional upheaval. Grief is a lived experience of the total person. It is a fundamental state of existence of human beings. Grief is what overtakes us when death, the complete Otherness of life, emerges from its silent abode in flesh and blood and bones. Death and grief are always already fundamental modes of who we are. In them are grounded that human essence of alienation, the utter isolation from grace. Death wrenches from us every aspect of relationship by which we define ourselves. It is outer darkness of existence from which none can hope to return. The divine itself trembles before it. To redeem humanity from this state of complete oblivion, the divine must take into itself death and its otherness. Thus Christ will humble himself and become obedient unto death, gathering up all death in an instant, and in this way setting humanity upon a new course of freedom. So Jesus gathered Martha and Mary into himself in an instant standing before the tomb of their brother. They disappear from the narrative. Jesus often demonstrated his capacity for empathy with those who suffered. He knew the cause of their grief was Lazarus’ death, and so he asked, “Where have you laid him?” As they were on the way, Jesus began to weep. He has fully joined them in their grief. This is much more than an expression of empathetic solidarity with this family that he loved. Jesus as the Logos that had left its own abode to dwell with humanity knows what it is not to be “at home.” This is the state of existence of Lazarus. Through death, he is not “at home.” Jesus grieves with the sisters and with Lazarus.
Along the way, some questioned why Jesus did not keep Lazarus from dying. He certainly had the power to do so as evidenced by the healing of the blind man. John wants to demonstrate that what moves this tragic drama is a dialogue between faith and faithlessness. He maintains this dialogue so that when the miracle does take place it is heightened and silences the faithless. Jesus himself might have been disturbed by such faithlessness. He is agitated as he arrived at the tomb. It seemed to be an ordinary cave, the entrance to which was covered by a stone. The scene is a portrait of tragedy: life outside; death within. The stone seemed to be a boundary between life and death. Is not Jesus himself the stone which the builders rejected? He, too, is a boundary beyond which darkness and death cannot advance. Jesus asks that the stone be removed, and his request is met with objection from none other than Martha. Martha emphasizes the decay of the body and reminds the audience that Lazarus has been dead four days. Her statement serves John’s purpose, to take an impossible situation and impose upon it the power of God. Martha can speak only from a position of “this world.” Jesus speaks as the resurrection and the life.
Jesus reminds Martha that he told her if she believed she would see the power of God demonstrated. When the stone was removed, Jesus, looking upward, prayed, “Father, I thank you for having heard me, but I have said this for the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” Jesus does not ask the Father to raise Lazarus from the dead. His prayer is one of gratitude that the Father hears him. What Jesus says is for the benefit of the crowd standing by. They will believe that God has sent him only through a miracle. The sending of the Son is the empowerment of the Son. This is a theme that is repeated throughout this Gospel. Just as the Father has heard Jesus, so now Lazarus will hear him. In a loud voice Jesus commands, “Lazarus, come out!” Here we see the divine demonstrating its power over life and death. The divine has not ceased creating. Where Jesus stands, that is the place where creation continues to take place, because he is the one through whom all things were made. The voice of Jesus, the Father’s voice, moves through the darkness and brings Lazarus into the light. The dead man, no longer bound by death, but still bound by the human wrappings of death, emerges into the light of day. Who is this that emerges from the tomb? There is no way to identify this person as Lazarus. Even his sisters would not be able to identify him. They are no longer a part of the drama. John does not mention them again here.
The drama now transcends the human dimension. What is taking place no longer happens in the sphere of history; what happens from now on takes place in the domain of faith. The one who emerges from the tomb is wrapped in bands, his face covered by a cloth. The one who is raised from the dead, remains hidden from sight, just as later Jesus will not be recognized when he emerges from the tomb. John is communicating to his audience that the resurrection is not an event that is visible to sight. This is crucial for understanding the Gospel as a whole. The One who descended from the Father remains hidden as the One who abides in Jesus. The resurrection is not a matter for sight; it is not a matter of history. It is the eschatological moment of the dawning of the new creation, and this is perceived only by faith. Faith in God cannot be supported by proof. No one can prove that the one who emerges from the tomb is Lazarus. To emphasize this, John removes Martha and Mary from the rest of the drama. When Eve is created in the Genesis story, Adam is first put to sleep. Eyes cannot behold the creative work of the divine. When Adam awakens from sleep he is no longer what he used to be. He is now the ground of his other Self, no longer alone. When Adam emerges from his sleep what comes into view in a new world. The divine has absorbed the loneliness of the old. The same idea prevails here. Humanity is blinded to the fact of the resurrection; it is a matter that can be grasped only by faith. The divine has absorbed death into itself. The divine has brought life again where life was not. It is yet again creation from nothing. Now there can be no doubt as to who Jesus is. “I and the Father are one.”
Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” This is how the drama ends. Even resurrection legends cannot pierce the veil of mystery that shrouds the coming forth of new life. I am reminded of 8:37. “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
I began this study with a prayer of John Donne. It is a prayer that shows how divisions are transcended by the divine which is itself and alone the place of unity. Donne is aware that “at our last awakening” we shall abide in one equal light, one equal music, one equal possession, one equal eternity. That abode, and it alone, is the resurrection and the life.