Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 29, 2020
Commentary on the Texts
(There is also available a Voice Bible Study on John 11:1-44)
The miracle story in this chapter, the raising of Lazarus, as with other materials in John, is not arbitrarily placed in the Gospel. John clearly says in his statement of purpose in 20:30-31 that he carefully and intentionally decided what miracle stories to include in the Gospel. The selection is not arbitrary but fits perfectly his theological and redemptive purpose, "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name."
Just as the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 functions as an object lesson to illustrate and amplify the theme of Jesus being the light of the world, so also the raising of Lazarus plays on the theme of Jesus being the source of life. The theme of life and death, or more precisely life out of death, is a keynote that is sounded throughout the length and breadth of the Gospel. As noted above, life is alluded to in the statement of purpose toward the end of the Gospel. That note is also struck in the Prologue at the beginning: "in him was life, and the life was the light of all people" (1:5). Not only at the beginning and end but also throughout the Gospel this theme comes up over and over. Perhaps the most crucial statement, which should be taken as a commentary on the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11, is in 5:21, 25-26, 28-29:
Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes . . .. 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 . . .. 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 . . ..
The raising of Lazarus, then, is very much part of the recurring theme of life, or eternal life, in the Gospel of John.
I do not assume that the miracle story and the ensuing dialogue in John 11 as it stands now is in its entirety a word for word reporting of what happened and what was said in the lifetime of Jesus. The Gospel writer has taken a resurrection story from an older tradition and shaped it in such a way that it fits perfectly the theological purposes of the entire Gospel. Furthermore, John has made the raising of Lazarus the cause for the religious leaders' decision to arrest Jesus and have him put to death (11:46-57). This is in contrast to the Synoptic Gospels that make the cleansing of the temple the event that precipitated the plot to arrest and execute Jesus (see Mark 11:15-18). Interestingly, John has moved the cleansing of the temple to the beginning of the Gospel (2:13-22). Thus neither the context nor the wording of the account in John 11 can be taken with certainty to reflect the exact historical situation in the lifetime of Jesus.
Having said that, I should also point out that in this commentary I do not deal with the philosophical question of whether such miracles are possible, although I do recognize the importance of such discussions in certain contexts. It is unreasonable to dismiss miracles on a priori grounds without first giving some consideration to the evidence at hand. However, the person who has decided in advance that miracles are impossible and that the story in John 11 is pure fiction will find this commentary of little use. I am starting without a philosophical prejudice against miracles. With these caveats in mind, let's explore the theological message that John intends to lay before us in this account.
Jesus receives news from Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus is ill. John tells us in 10:40 that Jesus was across the Jordan in Perea where John had been baptizing. Bethany, where Mary and Martha lived, was approximately 20 miles away. When Jesus receives the news he says, "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" (11:4). Since John knows that Lazarus did die, how is it that he reports Jesus as saying that this illness does not lead to death? The meaning is that death will not be the final outcome of this illness. The final outcome will be the glory of God and the Son of God. Then Jesus waits two days longer before making the trip to Bethany.
As in the case of the blind man in chapter 9 (see Commentary on John 9:1-41) so also here the tragedies of life become the occasion for God's activity. No doubt the two sisters were heart-broken over their brother's death and wondered why Jesus was so slow in coming to them. In fact, they say as much to Jesus when he does arrive, but it's already too late, the sisters think. They say, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (vv. 21, 32). In the difficult circumstances of life what is one to think when God does not act as quickly as we would want him to?
Lest the reader think that Jesus did not care, John is quick to tell us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (v. 5). Commentators have given various explanations as to why Jesus delayed his trip to Bethany. Some have suggested that Jesus does not order his life by human demands but by divine directive. At the wedding in Cana, when Mary the mother of Jesus tells him that the wine was gone, Jesus says to her with some irritation, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come" (2:4). Note also the similar response when his brothers tell him to leave Galilee and go to Judea and show himself to the world (7:6).
Another suggestion as to why Jesus delayed his trip to Bethany is that he wanted to wait until Lazarus had been dead at least four days before arriving in Bethany. According to Jewish tradition, the soul lingered around the corpse of a dead person for three days before its final departure. Note Martha's comment to Jesus about the four days since Lazarus had died (v. 39). According to this explanation, Jesus waited two more days so that there would be no question at all about the reality of Lazarus' death and thus his resurrection would have a much greater impact on people and bring greater glory to God than the healing of an illness.
Yet such an explanation fits neither Jesus' view nor the Johannine view of miracles as noted in the commentary on Nicodemus a few weeks ago (see Commentary on John 3:1-17; cf. John 2:23-25). On the other hand, we may consider the possibility that since the glory of God is what matters for Jesus, he waits for an opportune time to manifest God's glory in a most clear and powerful manner and thus bring to completion the work he was to do on earth. It should be noted that this final and greatest miracle, unlike the previous ones, is performed not on or in behalf of people who are strangers and at best have inadequate faith, but in a circle of people who are dear and beloved friends and disciples. Jesus lets Lazarus die, this one whom he loved so dearly, and allows his sisters to go through unspeakable sorrow even though his love for them was tender and profound.
However, there may still be some uneasiness about the statement of Jesus in verse 4 in the fact that Jesus is seeking not only God's glory but also his own glory, "so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." But before we attribute selfish motives to Jesus, let us consider the fact that in John's theology the glorification of the Son refers not only to the people's positive response to the miracle that was to take place but also to the ensuing plot of the religious leaders to have Jesus put to death (11:45-54; 12:9-11). Indeed, John clearly sees Jesus' death on the cross as an integral part of his glorification. In fact, in the very next chapter, Jesus says, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified" (12:23).
In the next two verses the meaning of this glorification is made clear with the statement that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Then in 12:27 Jesus says that his soul is troubled. It seems reasonable then to take the statement of Jesus in 11:4 about the glorification of the Son not in the sense of self-aggrandizement but in the Johannine sense that the glorification includes death on the cross. It is also in this way that we must understand the double meaning in the statement that the Son of Man will be lifted up (3:14; 8:28; 12:32-33). He will be lifted up on a cross as part of being lifted up to the right hand of God in glory and majesty. It is all one act.
The meaning of all this is that in Jesus the conventional boundaries between death and life, dishonor and honor, crucifixion and glory are redefined. Now the death of Lazarus will take on a different meaning in light of Jesus' own anticipated death. Likewise, the resurrection of Lazarus derives its meaning and power from the greater resurrection that will happen on Easter Sunday. It is not without significance that the New Testament, including our passage (v. 11), often speaks of the death of believers as sleep (Mark 5:39; 1 Thess 4:13). This is not a stoic idealization of death but an affirmation of hope and trust in the life-giving power of God in Christ.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, there is first a dialogue between Martha and Jesus. She tells him that if he had been there her brother would not have died. Martha does not intend to rebuke Jesus for not being there, but she is simply expressing her grief. Her faith and confidence in Jesus are apparent in the next verse where she says, "But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him" (v. 22). But what exactly does she mean? Does she believe that Jesus can even now raise Lazarus up? That does not seem quite likely in view of her next statement and also her horror in verse 39 at the thought of having to uncover the tomb. Perhaps what she means is that she has unwavering faith in him, even though that faith cannot see at the moment what might happen. Her confidence is in the person of Jesus rather than in certain knowledge of future events.
Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again. She agrees that he will rise again in the resurrection in the last day. All of Judaism in the first century, with the exception of the Sadducees, believed in a final resurrection at the end of the age.
At this point Jesus is going to help Martha make a quantum leap in her faith journey. By now the reader of this Gospel should be quite familiar with this sort of thing. Jesus led the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 and the blind man in chapter 9 in their journey of faith to the point where they come to confess Jesus as the Christ. So also now he will guide Martha to a deeper level of faith. He says 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?" (vv. 25-26). The statement sounds like a riddle. It cannot be properly understood unless we keep in mind John's love for a literary device where words have double meaning. That is the case here with "live" and "die." In the first statement (v. 25), the meaning is the traditional faith of Judaism: those who die will live, that is, those who die (literally and physically) will rise to life in the final resurrection. This is in keeping with John 5:28-29.
However, there is much more than traditional Judaism here. Jesus himself is the resurrection and life, and it is those who believe in him that will rise in the final resurrection. It is not enough that Martha believe generally in a final resurrection. Will she believe that resurrection and life are in Jesus? She had said earlier that God would give him whatever he asked of him, which of course is true. But Jesus wants her to go beyond that. He is not simply a godly man, a prophet, a holy sage whose prayers are sure to be answered by God. He himself is the source of life and resurrection.
But Jesus makes even a more radical affirmation in the second part of his statement to Martha. He says to her that everyone who lives and believes in him will never die. Now "live" and "die" take on a meaning different from the first part of the statement. "Live" in this statement refers not simply to persons who are alive physically but to those who have the life of God in them. These are the ones who have believed in the name of Jesus and have been given the power to become children of God, "who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God" (1:12-13). These persons will never die, that is, they will not taste the second death, to use the language of Revelation 2:11. They will never be separated from God.
Again, life and death take on new meaning through the Christ event. In Christ the future resurrection that was accepted by Judaism in general has spilled over into the present. The future event is already becoming present in view of Christ's death and resurrection and as a token of that presentness Lazarus will experience the resurrection in the present. This does not mean that there is no longer a hope for a future resurrection (cf. 5:28-29). But it does mean that those who are in Christ are no longer in a state of anxiety wondering what the last day will be like. In Christ the last day has already begun. Much of the feverish speculation about the end times carried on by dispensationalists today is a rejection of the eschatological perspective of the Gospel of John.
Now Jesus asks Martha point blank, "Do you believe this?" In response she makes the most astounding affirmation that anyone makes or can make in the Gospel of John. She calls him Lord, Christ, and Son of God, all in one breath (v. 27). She makes this great confession of faith, but of course that does not change the fact that her brother is still dead. She still does not know what will happen, how things will turn out. She must live by faith in Christ, the Son of God. That affirmation of faith does not instantly alter all the circumstances, ambiguities, tragedies and traumas of life. It still remains to be seen how the future will unfold. But now there is a new twist: Christ becomes the focus of conversation and concern rather than Lazarus. The issue now is no longer what has happened or will happen to Lazarus. The issue is Christology. Who is Christ to me? Once that question is settled, all of life (and death) takes on a new look. Jesus brings Martha to that point.
In the next scene (vv. 28-37), Martha goes back to the house and tells Mary privately that Jesus had arrived and was calling her. Mary goes out to the outskirts of the village where Jesus was and says to Jesus the same words that Martha had said. The people who had come to console Mary and Martha follow Mary, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Jesus sees Mary and all the people weeping, Jesus has an emotional outburst. Critics disagree as to the exact nature of this emotion. The NRSV renders it "he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved" (v. 33). The same word, "greatly disturbed," is also in verse 38. Some recent commentators point out that the meaning of the two verbs in verse 33 should be rendered much more strongly than they are in most English versions. German translations in fact may be more on target. Without going into a detailed discussion, it seems that the emotion Jesus was exhibiting here was not simply sadness, grief, and empathy with Mary and the crowd of mourners, but rather anger. If so, what was the reason for his anger? Here is a summary of various suggestions that have been made.
1. Jesus was angry at the insincerity of the mourners. It is true that even Jesus himself weeps (v. 35), but the verb used of Jesus in this verse is "shed tears," not the same verb that is used of Mary and the mourners. The argument is that the mourners were wailing, which is the expected thing to do in oriental culture, perhaps some of it exaggerated and therefore insincere. However, there is no indication in the text that the mourners were viewed as insincere.
2. Jesus was angry because the people did not believe that he himself was the resurrection and the life. Here they were weeping and wailing when he himself was among them as the source of life. Again, if this is what John intended to convey, it was done too subtly to make the point clearly. In many other contexts in John people respond in unbelief but Jesus does not respond in anger.
3. Jesus was angry because he was put into a situation of being forced to perform a miracle in public. Jesus did not perform miracles to attract attention. True faith should not be predicated upon spectacular miracles. Yet he was in a situation where a crowd was present and a miracle was expected. If he does not raise Lazarus, how would God be glorified? Thus he is put in a difficult situation and therefore he responds in anger. Again, if this is what John intended to communicate, he would surely have made the meaning more explicit and not so subtle.
4. An earlier source that John used and from which he derived this story had this verb in it and John simply let it stand even though it does not truly reflect John's own understanding of the emotions of Jesus. This is certainly possible. On the other hand, John is a creative writer with considerable liberty to phrase things in his own way and not be tied down to the sources or traditions he used. However, John does not hesitate to portray Jesus as fully human and capable of the whole range of emotions from elation to anger, even though Jesus is also fully God. The Word was God, yes, but the Word also became flesh (1:1, 14).
5. Jesus was angry because of what sin and death have done to humanity. Thus the anger is not directed at anyone in particular but at the condition of humanity living under the reign of death. This seems to be the most attractive explanation.
Needless to say, it is very difficult to know the reason for Jesus' anger. However, what needs to be said here is that Jesus was capable of the emotion of anger and from time to time he expressed it. Unlike German translations, English versions of the Bible have by and large stayed away from this translation of the verb, although the NRSV does translate it "was greatly disturbed."
Quite often in Christian piety the emotion of anger has been viewed as sinful and therefore as something that must be suppressed, possibly under the influence of Matthew 5:22 where Jesus says, "If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment." Two things should be noted about this statement, however. First, the verb used here implies much more than an inner emotion. It involves the idea of wrath and vengeance targeted at another person. It is not the same verb as the one in John 11:33, 38. Second, the context in Matthew 5 is a list of six antitheses that Jesus makes to contrast what was said in the Law with what he himself is saying to his followers. Thus Jesus may be using a bit of exaggeration to make this contrast: not only is murder ruled out, but even anger, insult and demeaning labels hurled at the brother or sister will make one liable to judgment.
My intention in this discussion is not to justify anger, particularly the kind that is destructive. I am merely concerned that we recognize anger as a legitimate emotion under certain circumstances. For some reason, Jesus in John 11 seems to have been extremely agitated to the point of anger. However, we must not fail to note that whatever the reason was for his anger and agitation, he also sheds tears of sorrow and empathy to the point that the mourners said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them expressed doubt saying, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
In the final scene (vv. 38-45) the drama heightens. Jesus is moving toward the tomb where Lazarus is buried. "Take away the stone," Jesus says. Martha, who seems to be the more outspoken of the two sisters, is horrified. "Lord," she says, "already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." One commentator puts it this way: "The statement of Martha . . . in its dreadful realism no longer betrays a scintilla of faith" (Haenchen, John 2:67). How is it that moments earlier she made her great confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God and now she protests having to remove the stone from the entrance to the tomb? But doesn't Martha's response demonstrate how difficult it is to believe in such a miracle, not only now in this scientific age, but in any age? How can one imagine God doing that which is inconceivable?
Jesus never rebukes Martha, neither should we. We are all like her. The text recognizes the legitimacy of Martha's sentiments. Who has ever heard of someone being restored to life after the body has begun to decay? In the Gospel of John, Jesus does not reprimand sincere people who desperately want to believe but find it difficult to believe because human rationality cannot comprehend how God works. A prime example is Thomas who refuses to believe that Jesus is resurrected unless he has the opportunity to touch Jesus with his fingers. Jesus grants his request. Thomas is not rebuked. The Gospel of John does not demand that rationality be set aside. Faith is not superstitious credulity. In fact, Jesus himself is the logos of God, the Word, the truth. Jesus is not a negation of rational thinking.
The Gospel of John does not expect people like Martha and the rest of us to have an easy time with miracles just because we have confessed Jesus as Son of God. But it also invites us to be open to all that God might want to do even though it may not quite fit our preconceived notions and paradigms. So Jesus says to Martha, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" (v. 40).
Jesus offers a public prayer in verses 41-42. Actually it is a thanksgiving prayer rather than a petition. Jesus already knows that God will grant his petition and give life to Lazarus. The purpose of the thanksgiving is "for the sake of the crowd standing here." Jesus was not moving from non-prayer to prayer. His whole life was prayer. But these words of thanksgiving were for the sake of bringing others into the orbit of God's work in Christ, "so that they may believe that you sent me." His prayer is not that the miracle will amaze people and leave them dumbfounded, but that it will move them beyond mere sensationalism to a genuine recognition that God sent his Son into the world.
The miracle itself is described in great economy of words. Jesus gives a command in a loud voice and the dead man comes out.
Astonishingly, the result is mixed. Our Lectionary reading ends in verse 45, which describes the positive result: many of the Jews believed in him. But that was not the only response. When we look beyond verse 45, we find that the religious leaders are making plans to have Jesus arrested. Beyond that, there is even a plot to kill Lazarus himself (12:10). One would think that this miracle of miracles would convince everyone beyond any question that Jesus is from God. Alas, that is not so. The author of this Gospel has used seven miracles as signs to point people to Christ, with the raising of Lazarus as the last and greatest sign of all. In fact, it is a foreshadowing of the resurrection of Jesus (v. 25).
But John knows full well that not everyone will see these signs as demonstrations of God's work in Christ. In John's mind the raising of Lazarus becomes a parable of the new life that one must receive through Jesus Christ. If that does not happen, that is, if one sees the dead man walking out of the grave and does not recognize himself or herself as the dead man or woman who needs new life, the result may be either amazement or rejection. In either case, the miracle does not do a thing for the person who is merely a spectator. It is only when the miracle story becomes my own story that the prayer of Jesus in verse 42 is answered.
One possibility for preaching is the decision of Jesus to linger two more days after receiving the message that Lazarus is ill. The fact that Jesus is not with Martha and Mary and does not go to them immediately even upon hearing of their brother's illness is worth reflecting on. Jesus intends for this crisis in the lives of this beloved family to be an occasion for the glory of God and the accomplishment of his purposes. If Jesus had been with them, Lazarus would have been healed and no doubt God would have been glorified. But Lazarus dies, and Jesus is convinced this will mean even a greater glory for God, even though it will mean a greater suffering for the two sisters. The question that is forced upon us is whether we would be willing to go through difficult circumstances, without doubting the love of God, but trusting that God in his own time and in his own way will work through all things, even traumatic events such as death, to accomplish his own purposes and receive glory and praise through it all beyond our fondest dream.
The story is also a powerful drama that calls us to reflect on the meaning of life and death in light of the Christ event. Christ's death and resurrection have forever changed the meaning of our own mortality and the meaning of life. Therefore Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians not to grieve as others do who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). Death, the most formidable enemy, has lost its grip on those who are in Christ. Alluding to statements in Isaiah and Hosea Paul exclaims:
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
It's not that those who are in Christ escape death but rather that they face death with a new confidence that they are in God's hands.
The response of faith to God's work in Christ is not a call to suspend our rationality or to refuse to use our minds. Faith is not believing just anything that comes along. John recognizes the difficulties created for a thinking person. Martha is not reprimanded for being so skeptical toward the end of the story even though earlier she had confessed Jesus as Lord, Christ and Son of God. But Christ's call is that Martha and others be open to what God will do even if for the moment they can't fit it within their accustomed ways of thinking and perception.
Ultimately, the story of Lazarus must become a parable for us in the sense that it must become our own story. John uses the miracles of Jesus as signs to point beyond the miracle to the person of Christ in whom God is at work. So the question for us is, Have I heard the voice of Christ and come out of the grave? Or do I still carry about me the stench of death and the wrappings of the entombed? Jesus says to us as he said to Martha, "Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" Is Christ my life, my hope, my all?
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