Before we dive into John 11 I’d like to recap a few events that lead to this particular chapter. In John 8 we read how Jesus entered the Temple precincts early in the morning and preached an incredible sermon. Though the sermon is briefly interrupted by a group who brought before Him a woman caught in adultery, Jesus finishes the exchange in John 8:56 by declaring, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.”
No doubt perplexed by what Jesus had just said, the religious leaders then ask, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” John tells us Jesus replied with a most extraordinary statement, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”
Because of the clear and undeniable implications of Jesus applying the divine name of God (“I AM”) to Himself, in verse 59 we’re told, “They took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.”
As Jesus is escaping this attempt on His life and making His way through Jerusalem, He notices “a man born blind.” Because this man’s complete blindness perfectly illustrated the spiritual blindness of these religious men, Jesus heals him in a most dramatic fashion.
Needless to say this then sets off an entire chain of events recorded in chapters 9 and 10 that ultimately lead to another interaction with the religious leaders concerning Jesus’ claim of divinity. In response to these things, again John records in 10:39 that for a second time “they sought to seize Jesus” and stone Him to death, “but He escaped out of their hand.”
On account of these two aggressive attempts on His life, John closes chapter 10 by telling us Jesus wisely leaves Jerusalem and “went away again beyond the Jordan to the place where John was baptizing at first, and there He stayed.” What makes this significant is that chapter 11 picks up the story with Jesus still hanging out in this secluded place a few months later.
John 11:1-2, “Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.”
John opens the chapter by shifting the scene from the Jordan to the town of “Bethany.” Bethany was a suburb located about two miles outside of Jerusalem on the Eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Most notably, Bethany was the hometown of “Simon the Leper.”
While we’ll come to learn more about this man and his home in the next chapter, it’s likely Simon — who it seems was a man of considerable means — had been healed of his leprosy by Jesus at some point. Because of the relationship that no doubt resulted, Simon’s home was always open to Jesus and His disciples whenever they were visiting Jerusalem.
What ends up resulting from this dynamic and the incredible amount of time Jesus spent residing in Simon’s home is that over the years Jesus grew to become dear friends — not only with Simon — but the man’s three adult children: Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.
Since there were many Mary’s mentioned throughout the Gospel record (Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene to name two others), writing years after Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John adds that this particular “Mary” was the one “who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair.” What makes this significant is that this event is actually presented in the very next chapter — implying most were already familiar with the story.
In establishing the scene John adds that “Lazarus was sick.” In the Greek the word “sick” implies that he’d grown weak with illness. We’ll come to learn things had grown so dire that they feared Lazarus was going to die as a result. Note: The name “Lazarus” was actually an Aramaic version of the Hebrew name “Eleazar” meaning “whom God helps.”
As we seek to unpack this story only recorded in John’s Gospel, please keep in mind this family had a unique relationship with Jesus. Not only do they love Jesus and consider Him a dear friend, but it’s likely on account of their father’s radical healing they all had come to believe that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of God” (this is Martha’s confession in verse 17). These siblings are more than friends. They are true believers — converts!
Because of their obvious desperation and worry concerning their brother Lazarus and the tole this sickness had taken, coupled with their knowledge Jesus could heal, John 11:3, “Therefore the sisters sent to Him, saying, ‘Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.’”
Knowing Jesus was only a one day journey from Bethany, Mary and Martha send to Him a message via a currier. Notice these sisters make no demands of Jesus nor do they present a specific request. Instead, they are convinced and confident that if they simply made Jesus aware of Lazarus’ condition — because of His love for him — He would act accordingly.
I think it’s important to point out right from the beginning of this story that the most significant home in Jesus’ life — a home His presence was always welcome — a home filled with not only believers, but His close personal friends was experiencing a serious crisis.
Lazarus was Jesus’ friend. He literally loved Lazarus like a brother. (The word “love” used in verse 3 is phileō meaning a brotherly love.) Clearly a genuine relationship with Jesus did not immunize them to sickness or the general challenges of residing in a fallen world. Lazarus, a good man, became sick, no doubt suffered, and eventually died.
Additionally, it should also be mentioned the text presents no evidence Lazarus’ sickness resulted from some kind of sinful choice or a lack of faith. Lazarus contracted an illness and his fever was dragging him to the inevitable fate of all who live on this rock — physical death!
To their credit, these sisters respond to this crisis with the correct approach. They simply bring their honest need before their Lord — trusting Jesus would act in a loving way. Now the question… Would they still trust Jesus when He doesn’t act as they expected?
John 11:4, “When Jesus heard that, He said, ‘This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’”
What we have recorded here was Jesus’ formal reply to Mary and Martha’s request. Now what makes this statement “this sickness is not unto death” so fascinating is that Lazarus is either dead by the time the currier returns to Bethany or dies soon there after.
How do we know this? First, we’ll soon learn that by the time Jesus finally arrives in Bethany Lazarus has been dead for four days. Since logically Jesus will make the journey to Bethany on day four after tarrying for two days, the currier would have returned on the day of death.
Whether Jesus’ message arrives the moments before Lazarus dies or the hours that directly follow, the purpose was evident either way. Jesus is telling these ladies the reason for this specific sickness was not for Lazarus to die, “but for the Son of God” to “be glorified through it.” Jesus is seeking to comfort Mary and Martha with the knowledge He was in control.
Though challenging, it’s not an accident Jesus’ message for these sisters in their place of tragedy and grief is almost identical to His response to the disciples question about the nature of the man’s blindness… In John 9:3 Jesus was clear that “neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.”
Fundamentally (and I know this is a difficult idea to accept), Lazarus’ sickness was allowed by God to create an opportunity for Jesus to reveal to them a new aspect of Himself. The tragedy was not random, but allowed for the opportunity it created in their lives.
In the moment of crisis it’s important you take a moment and hold fast to this very promise made by Jesus — Nothing comes into your life without first being allowed by God. There is always an everlasting purpose to what may appear random and meaningless. Jesus wants to meet you in your need and use these things to reveal Himself in a powerful way.
If you’re like me it would be easy to see such a reality as being cruel, but notice what verse immediately follows… John 11:5, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
Isn’t it true in the midst of tragedy we’re so quick to question God’s love? And yet, according to John and confirmed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, everything that was happening in this story — Lazarus’ sickness and Jesus delay — occurred because He loved them!
As I mentioned earlier the word Mary and Martha use in verse 3 to describe Jesus’ “love” for Lazarus was the Greek word “phileō” or brotherly love. That said, when John interjects in verse 5 that “Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus” we find an entirely different Greek word. The word “agape” described a deeper love, a divine love, a selfless love.
Friend, as hard as it is, in the moment of pain and loss — when tragedy strikes unexpectedly, I encourage you to hold fast to this amazing reality… Jesus loves you more than you even know and everything He does in your life manifests from His incredible love for you!
John 11:6-7, “So, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was. Then after this Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’”
Before we continue any further into our story, I want to address why it was that Jesus decided to “stay two more days” before heading up to Bethany. Don’t forget the reason for Lazarus’ sickness — it’d been allowed to create an opportunity for Jesus to work in a very unique way! While Jesus knew Lazarus had died, He had given Mary and Martha a promise aimed at carrying them through the next few days if they believed.
According to Jewish tradition (note: this is not Biblical in any way) it was universally believed in that day that the soul of a person remained near the body for the three days following death just in case the body was revived. Since by the fourth day the body was almost unrecognizable and clearly uninhabitable, the soul would finally make its way to Paradise.
Because of this societal superstition and in the context of the work Jesus planned to preform, it was important Lazarus be in the tomb for four days so there would be no doubt he was truly dead and gone into the afterlife. What this means is that Jesus tarried for two days for a reason. He wasn’t being callous to the grief of Mary and Martha. Instead, Jesus was deliberately waiting for the perfect moment to come and work!
Well, in response to Jesus’ declaration to His crew, “Let us go to Judea again…” John 11:8-11, “The disciples said to Him, ‘Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You, and are You going there again?’ 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 one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.’” John then adds, “These things Jesus said, and after that He said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.’”
I should point out this statement made by Jesus is again identical to what He said to the disciples before the dramatic healing of the man born blind… In John 9:4-5 Jesus said, “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
The disciple’s core concern about venturing back into Judea centered upon the very clear and present danger. They say, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You, and are You going there again?” Keep in mind Jesus’ answer, “Are there not 12 hours in the day?” was His way of articulating the limited time He still had to work. His time was running out and He uses this opportunity to again reiterate the idea to the disciples.
Clearly the illustrative nature of His statement, “Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up” was lost on these men… John 11:12-15, “Then His disciples said, ‘Lord, if Lazarus sleeps he will get well.’ (Isn’t sleeping when sick is a good thing?) However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him.’”
What a weird exchange… While the disciples were initially puzzled by what Jesus meant when He said, “Lazarus sleeps” Jesus clears up any confusion by saying plainly, “Lazarus is dead!” What makes this interesting is that no one had broken the news to Him. Then, in a bizarre twist, Jesus follows up this news — “Lazarus is dead” by saying, “And I am glad!”
What a reaction to the death of a dear friend! In the Greek Jesus is literally saying, “I rejoice exceedingly that Lazarus is dead!” Why would Jesus have such a strange reaction to the death of His friend? Jesus knew Lazarus’ death created the perfect opportunity for Him to work so “that they might believe!” Now the logical question is “believe” in what? Jesus wanted them to believe He had the power to resurrect the dead!
Keep in mind this story follows the previous (I know crazy thought)… In John 10:17-18 while discussing the Good Shepherd remember what Jesus said of Himself, “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.”
In the context that Jesus would soon — likely within weeks of this event — be crucified and laid in a Tomb, He’s wanting to use Lazarus’ most improbable resurrection to help these men believe that He had the power to overcome death and would rise the third day! God allowed Lazarus to die, so Jesus could resurrect him, so they would believe!
There is no question these disciples are really concerned about the immanent threat they all faced going back into Judea… John 11:16, “Then Thomas, who is called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with Him.’”
Two quick points about this… First, John tells us Thomas “was called the Twin.” One of the more interesting theories about this is that Thomas was considered Jesus’ twin because of their physical resemblance. If this is true, it explains his pessimism. “They’re after Jesus and I stand a good chance of being arrested via a mistaken identity!” Either way, their resolve to go with Jesus into Judah believing they would all likely die is to be commended.
John 11:17-19, “So when Jesus came, He found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles away. And many of the Jews had joined the women around Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother.”
By the time Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead for 4 days. Keep in mind, in the first-century, the very day Lazarus died he would have been laid “in the tomb.” Because of the lack of refrigeration and the fact the Jewish people didn’t embalm a corpse like the ancient Egyptians, the burial process had to happen quickly to avoid complications.
Culturally, soon after his death, the body of Lazarus would have been washed from head to toe. Then he would have had his hands and legs bound and body wrapped tightly in a burial cloth. At this point Lazarus would have been laid in a family tomb known as a Sarcophagus.
The word “sarcophagus” literally mean flesh-eater as it would be the place the body would decay and deteriorate. They would placed the body on a small ledge in the tomb and anoint Lazarus with all kinds of burial spices aimed at keeping the stench at bay. Once this process was completed, a shroud would be placed across his face and the tomb sealed shut.
Side note: Two years following the burial, the tomb would be reopened and the remaining bones placed into an ossuary that would be stored with the rest of the family who’d passed.
Because the passage is clear Lazarus has been dead for four long days, the natural processes of decomposition are well underway. Not only has rigor mortis come and gone, his blood separated and settled, bodily fluids released, but the natural bacteria in his gut has already broken down his internal organs. Enzymes in the pancreas have caused the organ to digest itself. His lungs and heart are decomposing. His brain is a soupy mush. And that doesn’t even begin to discuss the effect insects are having on the body tissue.
Aside from these effects on Lazarus… For the last four days John also tells us Mary and Martha have been in mourning. Culturally speaking, this would last for seven days, but could last an entire month. The entire community has gathered to weep and wail in solidarity.
John 11:20-22, “Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house. Now Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. (To Martha’s credit she undoubtedly believed Jesus had the power to heal Lazarus of this sickness.) But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.’” (It’s unlikely resurrection was considered.)
John 11:23-24, “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’” (Again to her credit she believes Lazarus would be resurrected, she just doesn’t expect it to happen then.)
John 11:25-26, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. (This is a double-negative — never ever die.) Do you believe this?’”
When Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life!” He’s not saying there was a resurrection or would be a resurrection, but that He is the resurrection and the life!
Understand, resurrection and life occur through a specific interaction with Jesus. In the context of the practical and present implications of everlasting life, Jesus will use Lazarus to illustrate a critical point… He came not only to offer life for eternity, but life today!
This is why Jesus continues, “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.” Then He explains that “whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” Do you see the connections Jesus is making? It is the present life that comes from believing in Him that causes a man to live forever. Jesus is offering you a life today that will last for all eternity!
It’s with all of this in mind that the obvious question Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” is really the fundamental question posed for all of humanity. Do you believe that resurrection life is found in Jesus? And if you don’t — may I ask why not?
Notice Martha’s response… John 11:27, “She said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’” Martha had come to believe all the essential points about who Jesus was, but tragically she failed to fully understand what Jesus had come to provide. This will soon change!
John 11:28-31, “And when Martha had said these things, she went her way and secretly called Mary her sister, saying, ‘The Teacher has come and is calling for you.’ As soon as she heard that, Mary arose quickly and came to Him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the town, but was in the place where Martha met Him. Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and comforting her, when they saw that Mary rose up quickly and went out, followed her, saying, ‘She is going to the tomb to weep there.’”
John 11:32-35, “Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (The identical appeal of Martha.) Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled. And He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to Him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept.”
While Martha and Mary came to Jesus with the same appeal, Jesus handles each woman differently. In the case of Martha Jesus answers with theology. And yet, with Mary Jesus replies with tears. Jesus individualizes His care to what each woman needed.
Notice, in the presence of a “weeping” Mary, John tells us “Jesus groaned in the spirit and was troubled.” What He saw provoked two interesting responses. First, “Jesus groaned!” In the Greek this word “groaned” meant to snort in and described a bull ready to charge. The word spoke of someone moved with indignation and anger. Secondly, “He was troubled!” Again in the original language this word means Jesus was moved or stirred up to action.
Understandably, this leads Jesus to inquire where the tomb was… They tell Him and invite Him to come, and then notice what happens… John says, “Jesus wept!” Keep reading…
John 11:36-38, “Then the Jews said, ‘See how He loved him!’ And some of them said, ‘Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?’ (They’re questioning His power.) Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it.”
Every time I’ve heard this passage described it presents Jesus standing in front of Lazarus’ tomb weeping over the death of His friend; and yet, this is not the picture the text paints. Instead, John tells us “Jesus saw Mary weeping, groaned, was troubled,” asked where they laid Lazarus, and then “wept” — presumable as He’s making His way to the tomb itself. It actually seems Jesus has stopped weeping by the time He arrives at the tomb.
In the Greek the word “wept” means Jesus shed tears. This was a passionate, almost uncontrollable emotional expression. But for our purposes notice why “Jesus wept” — and it’s seemingly unrelated to Lazarus. “Jesus wept” when He saw the raw effects Lazarus’ death had on His dear friend Mary! Her weeping caused Jesus to weep! In the face of death and the pain it caused Mary Jesus was angry, moved to act, and emotionally overwhelmed.
“Jesus wept” not over His own loss. He didn’t weep because Lazarus had died or to identify with the human condition. Instead it was in the presence of death and the effects it had on those He loved that drove Him to tears. “Jesus wept” because sin had destroyed life. Death had been victorious over His creation and caused, in the process, so much pain.
John 11:39-44, “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, ‘Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?’ (Jesus is reminding her why He allowed all of this to happen.)
Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said (He prayed), ‘Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.’ (Jesus is praying out loud so everyone who’s gathered at this tomb can hear what He’s saying.) Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Loose him, and let him go.’”
While there is to much for us to discuss about this miracle than we have time to unpack this morning, I do want to close our time together with a particular point of application. Friend, the trying situations you’re presently facing do not have to be seen as random, meaningless, or without purpose — Instead, I challenge you to see them as an opportunity for Jesus to reveal an important aspect of Himself you’d never have known otherwise.
These ladies already knew much about Jesus. They confessed Him as “the Christ, the Son of God.” They heralded Him their “Lord” and saw Him as their “Teacher.” They were confident Jesus had the power to heal. And beyond all of this, they considered Him their friend.
Once more, as illustrated in their initial appeal, Mary and Martha were willing to trust that in His love for them Jesus would act accordingly upon receiving word Lazarus was sick. And yet— in an even greater act of love than they knew — Jesus allows Lazarus to die so that they could see and believe in Him as “the resurrection and the life!”
Friend, this story illustrates that grief and loss are not allowed into our lives to cripple us, but to deepen our understanding of who Jesus really is! Now you may think… “Are you saying in order for me to fully realize Jesus as the Comforter of broken hearts I’ll have to go through a situation where my heart is broken — that to really know Jesus as the Prince of Peace I may have to endure a war of sorts — that to completely experience His strength I may be pushed to the brink of what I can handle?” Yes, I am.
Consider that regardless of your view of Jesus all of the things I’ve just described are going to happen anyway. You see “Jesus wept” because tragedy was never part of His Master design. The pain we experience in this life is purely a manifestation of a cancer we introduced to the ecosystem that’s taken over and destroyed everything God declared good! And yet, Jesus does more than weep over this state of affairs, He’s stirred to action.
Practically, how does Jesus act? He became the remedy for the effects of sin. The effects of this broken world reveal a new aspect of who Jesus is for one reason… He’s also been affected by sin! It’s provocative, but there are many aspects to who Jesus is that have only manifested because sin and death entered the human equation.
Most notably, God dawned human flesh and came to earth as a baby boy for one reason — to save us from sin and provide eternal life! Jesus manifests as a great Comforter because those experiencing the effects of sin need comforting. Again… Consider, it was directly because of sin and death that Jesus became “the resurrection and the life!” Resurrection was never needed in the context of a Garden when man could live forever!
My point is this… You only have one of two perspectives in the presence of human tragedy — You can chalk it up to pure random chance and meaninglessness OR you can be thankful Jesus is willing to become your remedy. In Lazarus’ death Jesus was able to reveal Himself as being more than they could have ever imagined… He was “the resurrection and the life!”
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