Thought for the day
The historical Jesus was guarded in declaring his identity but by the time the Fourth Gospel was written, Christians had arrived at a rich understanding of the mystery of Jesus, the Son of God. John’s Gospel puts before the believer a grand assemblage of 7 I am sentences, rooted in the name of God in Exodus 3:14, I am who I am. I am the bread of life. (John 6:35, 48, 51); I am the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5); I am the gate for the sheep (John 10:7, 9); I am the good shepherd (John 10:11, 14); I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25); I am the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6); I am the true vine (John 15:1, 5). We are reminded that we believe first of all in a person, not in a philosophy. Anyone one of these images would take us deeply into our encounter with the Risen Lord, none more so than “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus, present to us always, you wept at the tomb of your friend Lazarus. As we face the mystery of death, our own and that of those we love, help us to place our trust in you, the resurrection and the life. Amen.
The Death of Lazarus
John 11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
John 11:7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
John 11:17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
John 11:28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house consoling her saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 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 kept this man from dying?”
Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
John 11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
The Plot to Kill Jesus
John 11:45 Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did believed in him.
This story is found only in the Fourth Gospel, although the other Gospels do tell of people being raised from the dead (Jairus’ daughter, the son of the widow of Nain). Our story, very much longer than these other stories, is the seventh (the climax) of the seven signs: the Wedding Feast at Cana, Woman at the Well, the royal official’s son, the Loaves, the walking on the water, the Blind Man and Raising of Lazarus. The writer has expanded the narrative into a moving drama, thus exploring in a very human way the teaching about Jesus and the resurrection.
Kind of writing
This is the last and most significant symbolic tableau in the Fourth Gospel. It explores the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus for believers. It is the climax of “seven signs”, which undergird the narrative of the Fourth Gospel, thus taking us to the heart of this Gospel’s teaching.
Old Testament background
(i) By and large in the Old Testament, there is no real conviction about a genuine life after death. There are exceptions. Ezekiel, writing during the Babylonian Exile (587-539 bc) and speaking metaphorically, describes the future restoration of the next generation using the language of resurrection (Ezekiel 37 – the Valley of the Dry Bones). The Book of Daniel teaches the resurrection (Daniel 12:2), as does 2 Maccabees 12. The context here is martyrdom. In that context, the question of God’s faithfulness to those who have been faithful till death became acute. In order to continue to speak of God as just, a teaching about reward and resurrection in the next life emerged. The driving force is not speculation about the human condition but the need to continue to speak of God as just. Finally, in some of the psalms there is a possible hint at something more: Psalms 16:9-11, 49:15.
(ii) The Fourth Gospel has many “I am” sentences, on the lips of Jesus: I am the bread of life, the true vine, the Good Shepherd, the light of the world, the way, the truth and life. These are intentional echoes of God’s self-revelation to Moses as I am who I am (Exodus 3:14).
New Testament foreground
i) Links with the rest of the Gospel (relatively unusual in this text):
Lazarus is mentioned elsewhere: 12:1, 9, 17. Mary appears again in 12:3. She is not Mary Magdalene. Martha gets mentioned in 12:2. Caiaphas returns in 18:13, 14, 24, 28. Thomas 14:5; 20:24, 26; 21:2. Judas (6:71); 12:4; 13:2, 26, 29; 14:22; 18:2, 3, 5. Pharisees 12:19, 42; 18:3.
There is also an unusual direct reference to a previous story—the man born blind—the link is Jesus himself, as the one having light and giving sight.
(ii) Location within the Gospel:
The full setting is 10:40-12:11, unfolded over five grand scenes, resembling a play or a drama. I. Across the Jordan (= Bethany), many believed in him (10:40-42) II. Jesus, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Bethany; cross references (11:2) and burial (11:1-44) III. This is the centre – because the plot against Jesus takes off (11:45-57) II*. Jesus, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Bethany; cross references (11:2) and burial (12:1-8) I*. House of Lazarus (= Bethany); many believed in him (12:9-11). Within that wider “plot”, our story has its own outline and centre.
(iii) Our Gospel excerpt:
Our excerpt, 11:1-45, is no. II above, with a line from III. It exhibits its own meaningful pattern, where the physical central passage (C. in the box) is also the centre of meaning.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:23–27)
(iv) Jesus preached the Kingdom of God; the earliest communities preached the king, Jesus risen from the dead. The Johannine community takes this one step deeper and teaches not only that Jesus is risen, but that he is himself personally the Resurrection. Our trust is not in a teaching but in a person. This conviction emerges earlier in the Gospel and in many ways, today’s Gospel excerpt is a comment on this momentous earlier passage:
Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me. (John 5:21–30)
(v) There are important links with the resurrection of Jesus himself:
The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:44)
Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. (John 20:6–7)
The unusual detail about the head band serves two purposes, to connect and distinguish the resurrection of Jesus and that of Lazarus. The distinction: the resurrection of Lazarus is qualitatively different—he still needs to be unbound; contrariwise, the resurrection of Jesus is definitive and effective—he no longer needs unbinding, but has passed from death to life. The connection: Jesus raised Lazarus because he loved him (11:36 “See how much he loved him”).
The Fourth Gospel teaches that, just as Jesus dies for love of us (3:16a), he also rises from the dead for love of us (3:16b). In a word, the gift of new life transcending death is the measure of the love of God for humanity and for each of us. This aspect of resurrection faith is brought out uniquely in this Gospel, especially by the careful linking of the raising of Lazarus and the rising of Jesus.
“So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the physical and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, made of dust; the second man is from heaven. As one of dust, so are those who are of the dust, and as one of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the one of dust, we will also bear the image of the one of heaven.”
Verses 1-5 The narrative opens with the significant people named and the problem — Lazarus’ illness and death — is identified. V. 2 is an anticipation of chapter 12. V. 4 alerts the reader to a different level of meaning.
Verse 6 This is a surprise (creating suspense), especially after the story of the Blind Man, where Jesus initiates the cure. The delay—unexpected and unexplained—seems not to make sense.
Verses 7-10 The disciples try to dissuade Jesus from making a journey that could threaten his life, unaware that the cross leads to resurrection. V. 9 recalls “I am the light of the world” from chapters 8 and 9.
Verses 11-16 As often in this Gospel, people close to Jesus radically misunderstand him. The reader is invited to reflect deeply, looking at these stories with the 20:20 vision of Easter hindsight.
Verses 17-27 Jesus and Martha: a disclosure leads to an act of faith. This is an intense one-to-one encounter, typical of this Gospel and resembling the early quest stories of the Samaritan woman and the man born blind
Verses 28-32 Jesus and Mary: the gesture of imploring implies faith. This is a second, even more intense one-to-one encounter.
Verses 33-43. Jesus himself is moved profoundly to act for his friend. Certainly, this is the emotional and theological climax of our Gospel excerpt.
Verse 44 The “illness” of Lazarus is reversed; note however that he has to be nevertheless unbound – unlike Jesus in this Gospel: … the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. (John 20:7).
Verse 45 This apparent affirmation leads directly to the plot against Jesus, as the very next verse 46 makes clear.
This intensely human account has a profoundly consoling message: the resurrection, realised and offered in the person of Jesus, is the supreme gesture of God’s love towards humanity. In Jesus, God reaches out to the tragedy of the human condition and to each one of us. This is the “tender mercy” of our God (Luke 1:78).
Pointers for prayer
1. Martha and Mary are portrayed as people of faith but Jesus led them to an even deeper faith. Who were the people who led you to a deeper faith in Jesus? Remember them and give thanks.
2. Martha and Mary were struggling to come to terms with their bereavement. What has helped you in similar situations?
3. The concern of Jesus is palpable and touching. Recall those who matter to you and to whom you matter. Such love mediates God’s love, which surpasses human love with the gift of new life and Easter joy.
4. One can imagine Lazarus as a symbol of people and groups that are written off as dead (sometimes by themselves), and yet through faith come back to life again. Have you had the experience of being revived by faith? Has faith helped to free you from what held you in bondage, or was destructive of your life?
Merciful God, you showed your glory to our fallen race by sending your Son to confound the powers of death.
Call us forth from sin’s dark tomb: break the bonds which hold us, that we may believe and proclaim Christ the cause of our freedom and the source of life, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.