Updated: Dec 24, 2021
John 11 is a very personal passage. We are confronted with the loss of a close personal friend of Jesus, Lazarus. In this loss, we see the humanity of Jesus. We see how this loss hurts and the pain it causes Jesus.
We have each experienced the loss of a loved one. There are no easy words of comfort in the loss. There is not much we can say that will fill the loneliness. What has brought me comfort is this passage. Although death is never easy, Jesus has been here. He has suffered the loss of loved ones. He knows the loneliness that I have felt. Jesus’ heart is broken just as much as mine at the loss of a dear friend. The humanity of Jesus helps me realize this.
However, in John’s gospel, chapter 11 is a significant shift in the narrative. As others have pointed out, John’s gospel is arranged in two major movements. Thus, chapters 1-11 have been referred to as “The Book of Signs.” Whereas 12-13 have been identified as “The Book of Glory.”
The first significant section (ch’s. 1-11) began at Bethany with the testimony of John the Baptist concerning Jesus.
JOHN 1: 24-28 (NIV) “Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
This first major section closes and the next section begins, it begins at Bethany.
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.”
Also, if we are reading carefully, we notice a new "countdown" begins. This movement starts "Six days before the Passover…." The Book of Signs (ch's. 1-11), there is a counting up, the signs leading up to the sign of Lazarus. In (Jn. 2), during the "Wedding at Cana," where Jesus turns the water into wine, John notes that this was the "first of signs" Jesus did in Cana of Galilee (ref. Jn. 2:11). There is a counting up of signs in chapters 2-11. In chapter 12, a counting down of days begins. All of this leads the reader to the cross as we follow Jesus.
One more thing to notice is the emphasis John provides. John, along with the other gospel accounts, focus on the cross and Passion Week of Jesus' life and ministry. If we track the Passover events recorded, John (ch's. 1-11) has occurred over three years. The next movement (12-21) will focus on the final week of Jesus' earthly ministry.
As John pushes us forward in the narrative, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is closely connected to Jesus' resurrection from the dead.
In (John 11), we are confronted with illness and death. In some ways, this makes the passage difficult.
JOHN 11: 1-7
“Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
Lazarus is very ill, and as we read, we learn he has died.
JOHN 11:11-15 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Jesus used similar language in (Jn. 9) with the account of the man born blind; "...he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." Again, this isn't easy. When I consider the suffering, the pain, Marry and Martha having to attend to and watch over their brother these past two days, why did Jesus delay? It's something with which we are left to struggle. Our answer, as Jesus says, it is for "God's glory" (ref. Jn. 11:4).
John goes into great detail to show how much Jesus struggled with the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus truly and deeply loved Marry, Martha, and Lazarus (ref. Jn. 11:3). Jesus weeps over the loss of His friend. He is greatly disturbed (ref. Jn. 11:36; 38).
Illness, death, suffering, this is never easy, and there are no easy answers. Even for Jesus, it greatly disturbed him. Death caused Jesus great pain. Sometimes, all we know is that the Lord knows what it is to suffer loss, pain, and agony. Illness and death are opposed to the kingdom of God; they are enemies of God's kingdom. As Christians, we are never comfortable with death because death is in opposition to life and the kingdom of God.
In our passage, we find hope. Jesus is telling us there is more than death. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. The apostle Paul expresses this hope so beautifully.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:20-26
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Death is not easy. Illness, pain, and suffering are not easy, and there are no easy answers for them. Jesus suffers with us. He weeps with us, and when we hurt, he hurts. His heart breaks as well. Jesus is the resurrection and the life (ref. Jn. 11:25). Although, as Christians, we have great hope, death is not the outcome or victor. The Lord's glory and power are far greater than the enemy of death.
To Save Life, Jesus Gives Up His Own
In the narrative of John's gospel, John records the reactions of the people and religious leaders. It is almost expected that some will believe, some will doubt, and some will be ready to kill Jesus, and it's no different here. Here though, a powerful connection opens up that points us forward to Jesus. Dr. Tim Mackie first pointed me to this connection. To save the life of Lazarus, Jesus gives up his own life.
Bethany is only a few miles outside of Jerusalem (ref. Jn. 11:18), and there were people ready to kill Jesus in Jerusalem.
"Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, "Let us go back to Judea." "But Rabbi," they said, "a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?"
There is a real sense of opposition to Jesus at this time. The political powers are trying to kill Jesus. There is a genuine concern. Strong forces, influential people, and political powers are all seeking the life of Jesus. Going back to Judea could mean death for Jesus and possibly the disciples. Jesus fully understands this. Going back means Jesus may have to give up His life.
Knowing what is ahead, Jesus goes to Judea, and He raises His friend Lazarus from the dead. How do some react?
"Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. "What are we accomplishing?" they asked. "Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation."
What are the Pharisees doing? They are not just going to sit by and risk losing their power and privilege.
"Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life."
Without knowing what he is saying, Caiaphas reveals the glory of God to be fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus would give his life, not only for the nation of Israel but for all people.
Going to save the life of Lazarus will cost Jesus his life. As John transitions to the next significant movement, the final scene is in place as the plot to take Jesus' life is set in motion.
Loss, pain, and suffering are never easy. There are no easy words for someone struggling with loss. Jesus is with us. He has experienced the pain we struggle with. As Christians, we have great hope. Jesus has overcome the enemy.
Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).
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