The Gospel of John — Part 13

Jan 2, 2010 2445

—Ritchie Way

The Raising of Lazarus

John 11:1-57, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, is unquestionably the climactic miracle of Jesus’ ministry. Why then do the other evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, not tell this amazing story in their Gospels?

Apart from the fact that the writers of the first three Gospels wrote mainly of the miracles Jesus performed in Galilee, it is thought that they did not wish to draw attention to Lazarus while he was still alive, as the leaders of the Jews had determined to get rid of him because his resurrection from the dead had caused many people to follow Jesus (John 12:9-11). Although their malign focus on Lazarus had been diverted somewhat by Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead, Matthew, Mark and Luke did not want to say anything that would stir the problem up again. John, it seems, may not have had the same constraint, because Lazarus would probably have died of old age before he wrote his Gospel.


Lazarus, and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, lived in the small village of Bethany, on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, beside the road that went to Jericho from nearby Jerusalem. Apparently Jesus was a frequent guest in their home (Luke 10:38-42; Mark 11:11). John’s Gospel makes it clear that he was very good friends with the family and loved each of them dearly. When Lazarus got ill and it appeared that he would die if the Lord did not intervene, the two sisters sent word to Jesus, who was working outside Judea on the other side of the Jordan (11:7).


There are believers who feel, very strongly, that Christians should not get sick. Yet Lazarus—a man whom Jesus loved—was dying of some malady (11:3). Lazarus wasn’t the only believer to get seriously ill. Paul had to leave his travelling companion, Trophimus at Miletus because he was too sick to travel (2 Tim. 4:20); Epaphroditus, Paul’s fellow-worker, got so ill he almost died (Philp. 2:25-30), and Pastor Timothy was frequently sick with stomach problems (1 Tim. 5:23). Not until we are given imperishable and immortal bodies in the resurrection at the last day (1 Cor. 15:51-55) will we be free of the afflictions and ailments of this life. On that day all the followers of Jesus will be given eternal youth and everlasting good health. The question is not a matter of if the Lord will heal us, but when.

Bishop J.C. Ryle wrote: ‘The Lord Jesus, who had power over all diseases, could no doubt have prevented this illness, if he had thought fit. But he did not do so. He allowed Lazarus to be sick, in pain and weary, and to languish and suffer like any other man … but sickness, we must always remember, is no sign that God is displeased with us …’

Jesus was not displeased with Lazarus, nor had he forsaken the one he loved. Had he wished, he could have healed Lazarus from a distance, as he had the son of the royal official from Capernaum (John 4:46-54). But even though Jesus chose not to save Lazarus from death, this should not be interpreted as his rejection of his friend. And so it is with us and our loved ones who also suffer mortal ill.

It should never be assumed that all illnesses can be traced to a break in our relationship with the Lord: Many Romans in Jesus’ day, for example, became ill with lead poisoning, because the water-pipes in their cities were made of lead. New Zealand has a higher rate of some kinds of cancer, because its soils are selenium-poor. And many people are sick because of defective genes they have inherited from their parents. Sickness should never be attributed to a lack of the Lord’s favour.


When Jesus got word from the two sisters about Lazarus’s terminal illness he said, ‘This sickness will not end in death’ (11:4). Most people at Lazarus’s funeral would have declared that Jesus was wrong, for Lazarus’s sickness did end in death. They, however, viewed his demise from a human perspective whereas Jesus viewed it from a divine perspective. What Jesus said about Lazarus he says about every Believer whose days are numbered by the grim reaper—’this sickness will not end in death … he who believes in me will live, even though he dies’ (11:4, 25).

Jesus’ reaction to the sisters’ urgent request appeared strange: ‘When he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days’ (11:6). God is never in a hurry—not even when we deem the situation to be critical—for he is not caught unprepared by our emergencies and often has a better solution than the one we propose. At the time we can’t see how there could be a better way, but we have to trust that God knows what he is doing, and that we will fully endorse what he has done when he has done it. Our prayers are usually for answers in the short-term, whereas, God usually provides answers for the long term.

Two days after getting the message from Martha and Mary, Jesus announced that it was time to return to Judea. The disciples protested that there was a possibility that if they went back there they would all be stoned. Jesus answered them, in effect, ‘If you follow the Light of the World (9:5) you will be OK.’ Trouble that does not have God’s permission will only come to those who act independently of Jesus. Such people are like those who stumble around in the dark (11:7-10).


Jesus then told his disciples why he had decided to return to the hotbed of Judea: ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; I am going there to wake him up.’ The disciples thought that was hardly enough justification for risking his and their lives; it would be better if they stayed away and let Lazarus sleep, for sleep is healing (11:11-15).

What the disciples did not realise was that Jesus had been speaking of Lazarus’s death, but they thought he meant natural sleep. Why didn’t Jesus just say, ‘Lazarus is dead,’ right from the start, instead of using the euphemism ‘sleep’? Firstly, ‘sleep’ is not a euphemism for death; ‘sleep’ was the word Jesus chose as much more representative of the temporary cessation of life, than the word ‘death’ is. Death is a full-stop, whereas sleep is a comma, because a sleeping person wakes up (see Luke 8:52-53). The word ‘sleep’, rather than being a euphemism for death, is a contrast to death.

The prophet Daniel wrote: ‘Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake; some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt’ (Dan. 12:2). Those who are ‘dead in Christ’ will rise to eternal life, while those who die without Christ will rise to experience the same judgement that Jesus experienced for them on the cross, but which they rejected.
Jesus used Daniel’s terminology to describe the death of Lazarus, because death, for Lazarus who trusted in Jesus, was but a comma; he would wake up.


As Jesus and his disciples approached Bethany they heard from a traveller that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Aware of the acrimony that many Jews had for him, Jesus decided, for Martha’s and Mary’s sake, that it would be best not to go directly to their house which was full of friends who had come from Jerusalem to comfort them in their grief. When Martha heard that Jesus was just outside the village she went to see him.
‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here my brother would not have died’ (11:21). Martha knew the truth about Jesus, that he was ‘life’, and in his presence death could not exist (see 11:15). In his entire ministry Jesus never once conducted a funeral. Every funeral he attended he broke up (see also Matt. 9:18-25; Luke 7:11-15).


‘If only you had been here …’ said Martha and Mary.
What are your ‘if onlys’?
‘If only we had not taken that route …’
‘If only we hadn’t shifted to this place …’
‘If only I hadn’t married him …’
‘If only I had listened to my head rather than my heart …’
‘If only I had finished my studies …’
The only thing to do with your ‘if onlys’ is to do what Martha did and take them to Jesus. Jesus is Lord of all the negative circumstances that seem to dominate our lives; he is in charge and he can turn them to our benefit, as he did in the case of Martha and Mary.


Martha, who had implicit trust in Jesus, continued, ‘But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask’ (11:22).
Jesus, testing the basis of her belief, said, ‘Your brother will rise again.’1 Did Martha understand that the resurrection to eternal life depended upon a living relationship with Jesus?
Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
‘Yes, Lord,’ she told him, ‘I believe …’
Martha returned to the family home and told Mary that Jesus was asking for her. Mary, excited to learn that Jesus had arrived, got up quickly and went to meet him. The Jews in the house, assuming that she was going to the tomb to mourn there, followed her.
When Mary came to Jesus she collapsed at his feet and cried in anguish, ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.’ She was absolutely heartbroken, but wasn’t blaming Jesus, just lamenting the circumstances that appeared to have kept Jesus from being able to heal Lazarus while he was still alive. She had yet to learn that Jesus is Lord of all circumstances, as well as Lord over man’s greatest enemy—death.
Mary’s abject grief touched Jesus’ heart and tears flooded into his own eyes. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked.
‘Come and see, Lord,’ the mourners replied, leading the way.


When Jesus asked the men to remove the stone from the entrance to the tomb, Martha, who possibly felt that Jesus was extending himself beyond his capabilities, interjected, ‘But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.’ Jesus encouraged her to have faith in him.
The men removed the stone, their faces screwed up against the sickly sweet smell of putrefaction, and then quickly stepped away from the entrance, their forearms under their noses.
After a short prayer to the Father, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’
‘The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go”’ (11:38-44).
This miracle was ‘a supreme demonstration of the power of eternal life that triumphed over death …’2


‘Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done …. so from that day on they plotted to take his life’ (11:45-53).
Earlier Jesus had said, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’ (Luke 16:31). The fact is, so obstinate is the human heart, that some people will not believe no matter what the evidence, for ‘a man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still’ (Samuel Butler; see John 12:37). People reject the evidence of God’s working, because they worship, not the Lord of glory, but themselves and their own beliefs. And they will do whatever it takes to get rid of anyone who dares come between them and their ‘values.’
We must never think that because we serve God and raise the living dead, that the world will crown us with laurel leaves. On the contrary, some will be incredibly threatened by our activity. It was so with Jesus. When he heard that the Sanhedrin had plotted to get rid of him, he withdrew to Ephraim, a village out on the edge of the Judean desert (11:54).


The story of the resurrection of Lazarus holds many lessons for us, the main ones being that Jesus is Lord even over the greatest enemies of mankind. Those who put an unshakeable faith in Jesus will have the ultimate victory over every enemy.


  1. It is significant that Jesus did not comfort Martha by saying, ‘Don’t worry Martha. Lazarus is happy in heaven above.’ Jesus’ promise of eternal life is not consummated in the soul’s transport to heaven above, but in the resurrection of the body.
  2. Merrill C. Tenny.


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