So, this is a very significant chapter, and it begins, “Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany.” By the way, that is a shortened form of a very common name. It is from the name ‘Eleazaros’. It was a common name, and some compare it with the narrative in Luke chapter 16, the parable about Lazarus and the rich man, but there is no reason to think this is a retelling of that parable. It was a specific parable showing the need to respond to the work of God, whereas this particular story is not a parable but a historical reality that demonstrates, in fact, the authority of the Son of Man over life and death. Continuing, “Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.” That is an interesting word because we don’t see that happening until the next chapter. This is an intimation here that John actually assumes people were already familiar with that narrative from the Synoptic Gospels. He assumes that people have already read that. This is really a supplemental Gospel in that regard. We well know stories about Mary. We see Mary in the Gospel of John three times at the feet of Jesus and I will comment on that later.
But, Mary and her sister Martha and Lazarus were, in fact, very, very deeply beloved of Jesus. In fact, Jesus used that location, Bethany, as His point of departure in His Judean ministry, just as He used Capernaum as His point of departure in His Galilean ministry. “So, the sisters sent word to Him, saying, ‘Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick’.” Now, here we have a surprise because in verse four, when Jesus heard this He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” By the way, you will see a parallel here with John chapter nine. You recall they asked a question about the man blind from birth and said, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
We must work the works of Him who sent Me.” It is not the idea here that God is responsible for diseased and a death filled world in which we find ourselves, because we are the ones who change the world in a very real way. We are not as we were created. We were created perfect, but we have distorted that, and that virus of sin has been transmitted generation to generation and it has affected the whole of the created order. Still, we see though, that there is nothing in this world that can separate us from the power of God and His power will not be thwarted by any force, either in heaven or under the earth, neither angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nothing will be able to separate us from that work of God.
“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39 (KJV)
So, Jesus says, “This is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it. Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” The same word, by the way, that is used here and only here, the only other place this is used is of the disciple ‘whom Jesus loves’, so it shows the tremendous intimacy that He had with this family and John.
We don’t know that they were living together in that same house. In those days people had extended families much more than we do today. They were often on an intimate basis with first and second cousins and it was a very natural thing. It was very communal in that regard. Our idea about the extended family is rapidly diminishing because of the modern conditions. Furthermore, we are also losing the intergenerational connect as well, and that is a tremendous loss because the wisdom of the elderly is now relegated to nursing homes. We farm them off to retirement city rather than being embedded within the contest of the family where they can nurture and give wisdom to the children. It is a great pity that we are seeing in our own time.
So, the text goes on to say, “When He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.” Now, that is quite surprising. The disciples probably didn’t question this at first because if He went up to Jerusalem He would be in big trouble. As you know, Bethany is only about a mile and half east of Jerusalem.
He couldn’t go to Bethany without word getting out in Jerusalem. Recall that there had been an awful lot of trouble beforehand. Think about the whole imagery here of the controversies that Jesus had and the growing tensions that He experienced. At the autumn feast of the tabernacles the authorities tried to arrest Him. Recall also that at one point a crowd tried to stone Jesus. A few months later, at Chanukah, they tried to arrest Him again and there was also a threat of stoning.
So, His disciples thought it was good judgment that He went east of the Jordan River. But, they had no clues as to what was going to really happen. So, He stayed two days longer where He was.
Now, from our point of view, such an action would seem to contradict the love of God, wouldn’t you say? Did you ever have an experience where God’s action in your life seems to go against the love that we would expect from God? God’s love, we must remember, is not a pampering love but a perfecting love. God understands, as we need to understand, that love, and suffering are not incompatible. That is most clearly illustrated in the life of Christ. This suffering in the present time really is one of the ingredients that God uses to prepare us for our eternal citizenship in heaven. We have to understand, then, that the way it ends really determines whether it is a comedy or tragedy. Of course, the way it ends, it ends well.
So, God uses that as the material to draw us to Himself and that is exactly what each person needs. I have often said we need to be more committed to obeying God than to avoiding pain. That is a very important principle for us to pursue. A pain-avoiding strategy is an end in itself and only leads us away from God and not toward Him. It will cause you avoid obedience and trust. The problem is that we are often more concerned about our comforts than our character.
So, we go to what Larry Crabbe calls the ‘line of linearity’, which supposes that if ‘I do my part, God has to do His part’.
So, we use God as kind of a cosmic slot machine. When you go to a vending machine, what do you do? You don’t embrace the machine, you put your money in and you pull the knob and you get whatever and you go off and enjoy it. You only go back when you need some more. He is not a vending machine to be used in that way. The contrast is between the pursuit of the life of blessing rather than pursuing a life of hope. The path of blessing, we suppose, is better than the path of hope and intimacy.
So, there is a tremendous contrast between the two.
But, God’s desire is for us to pursue intimacy and in doing so cause us to be broken enough so that we pursue Him for Himself and not for His gifts. That is a process that we go through again and again.
So, when we are confronted by disappointment, disease and death, as we will be, we have to put our hope in the character of God and not in the promises of this world, but rather in His promises that flow out of His character. I think it is in those trying times that we have to embrace and walk by faith and not simply by sight.
“For we walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7 (KJV)
In any case, Jesus stayed two days longer, but there was purpose for that. “Then after this He said to his disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again’.” I figure that it probably took about a day for the messenger to go and find Him. Mary and Martha, somehow, knew where He was. Then He waited two days after receiving the message and it would another day to travel back. By that time Lazarus would have been in the tomb. In fact, it would have been at least four days. It means, then, that Lazarus actually died soon after the messenger was sent out.
So, going back earlier would not have made a difference. In fact, His waiting longer does make a difference. By waiting longer, He will demonstrate that this is not just some mere resuscitation. The Jews, you see, had this notion that it was possible for a person to go back into the corpse. Only on the fourth day, when there was decomposition beginning would they conclude that the soul was not returning.
So, He waited until the fourth day so that no one could claim this was only a near-death experience. That is why there is that famous sentence from Mary, in the King James Version, “Lord, by this time he stinketh.” I love that line; “he stinketh.” Another one I love is; “Ye do err.” Ok back to the lesson.
So, when Jesus said, “Let us go into Judea again,” it was a big shock to the disciples. They probably wondered why He waited for two days and they said to Him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” We saw that in the previous chapter and in the chapters before that. “Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours in a day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of the world’.” He is making it very, very clear here that He is, in fact, the Light of the world as He claimed in chapter eight verse 12 and also in chapter nine verse five and that in fact the ones who walk with Me will not stumble because “I am the Light of the world.” And, “If anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the Light is not in him.” He then said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go, so that I may waken him out of sleep.” Again, John is giving us a double meaning. The word ‘sleep’ is often used as a euphemism of death. The point here is that there is imagery that Lazarus was dead, Jesus delays because He is living on a fine timetable and the things that He has in mind are of a very different orientation than the things that we would normally suppose. Because of the delay there would be a greater authenticity to the miracle. In verse 15, in fact, He says, “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.”
So then, the disciples were alarmed about this and said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” They thought he might just wake up. “Now, Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought He was speaking of literal sleep.
So, Jesus then said plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. I am glad for your sakes we were not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him’.” Death of the believer, in Scripture, is compared to sleep. Look at Acts 7:60, concerning the martyrdom of Stephen. “Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this against them’. Having said this, he fell asleep.” This tells us something. In Corinthians 15:51, it also uses this image. Corinthians chapter 15 is a great chapter on the resurrection of the dead and we learn more from this one chapter about the resurrected body than from anywhere else in Scripture. In verse 51 Paul adds this thought, “Behold, I tell you a mystery.” Now, ‘musterion’ is something that was formerly not known but is now made manifest. It is now revealed.
So, mystery, in that sense, is something that has never been revealed but is now made known. Here is the mystery; “We will not all sleep.” Up to that time only two people escaped physical death. You know their names. Elijah was one and Enoch was the other. Those are the only two people who have not died, in the whole history of the world. And so, when we think about death we think of that awful reality, if we have no hope without Christ, of the certainty of the grave that is coming up. Then Paul gives us this word, that actually we are not all going to die. He goes on to say, in fact, that we will all be changed, “In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound.”
What it is saying here that there will some who will be alive when Christ comes from for His own and they will never see physical death and that is actually explained further in 1st Thessalonians chapter four. Paul is writing to believers who are concerned because their loved ones have died, and they weren’t sure when, or if, they would ever see them. Paul writes, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are,” and what is the word he uses? “Asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” I want to interject here that grief is natural and there is good grief and there is also bad grief. He is not talking about not grieving; he is talking about the kind of grieving that still has hope. Do you see the difference? I have been to funerals and seen both kinds. I have been to funerals where there has been a hopeless grieving and I have been to funerals where the grief was only because of our missing the person, but the reality was that it was actually a celebration. It was their coronation day and that was understood. Do you see the concept there? That is a grief, but a grief that is, really, animated by a hope that there is a life after this that goes on and on and on. “If we believe,” Paul writes, “that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” What he is saying there is that those who have gone on before us, they will receive resurrected bodies and then he goes on to say, “We who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” I connect this with Paul’s statement earlier, that we will not all sleep and not all be changed. You see the idea? Those who are alive, and frankly I think it perfectly legitimate to pray, ‘come quickly, Lord Jesus’, it would be a better way to go. Frankly, if you had your choice, wouldn’t you like to go out the way Elijah did? He died with real panache, with those fiery chariots and so forth. Enoch walked with God for 365 years and all of a sudden God took him. He was just a kid. The average age then was around 900 years. The point here is that there is this tremendous hope that we have that is associated with the promises of God that are manifested in the work of His Son, Jesus Christ. It gives context to our lives.
So, returning to the text, Jesus goes on to say that, “We are going to go to Him.” But, “Thomas, who was called the twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.” Now, there are two ways of looking at this. Is he just being a ‘doubting’ Thomas, as we see later on, in which case he would have said, ‘we’re all going to die’. That is one way of interpreting it. Others might say that it actually shows his commitment to Christ, but his lack of understanding as well.
But, there is a sense that he is saying more than he really means. He is anticipating something, just like Caiaphas, later on at the end of this chapter, will say something but it will have more meaning than he himself understood.
Sometimes God will do that. He surely did that with the Prophets. Many times, the Prophets had no clue as to what they were writing. Daniel, for example, in chapter ten, wants to know, ‘what on earth does this mean’? It says, “Go your way, Daniel, the book has been closed for those in the end times.” You will not understand it.
So, the Prophets who came earlier were seeking to understand what these things really were.
So, sometimes God will speak with a word and sometimes we will say something more than we knew. In any case, Thomas was willing to die with Him.
Now, in verse 17, “When Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days.
Now, Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, now remember Jesus wasn’t privy to a Lexus, all this mileage was walking miles! Many of the Jews had come to Mary and Martha, to console them concerning their brother.” Again, we have this image of the extended family here. “Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him but Mary stayed in the house.”
So, after His encounter with the disciples, now He has an encounter with the two sisters, first with Martha. It seems evident that Martha was the older of the two because we see in the parallel passage in Luke chapter 10 that she seemed to have authority over the house. She comes to Him and says, Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Now, she is not chiding Him, but she is just saying that He could have healed him if He had been there.
But, she says, “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” However, I don’t think she is expecting Him to raise him from the dead.