Exploring the Gospel of John: 11


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

New word:  Click here for definitions:  prolepsisforeshadowingprolepsis

The Raising of Lazarus

John 11:1-57

(1) The raising of Lazarus is the seventh and final sign, which Jesus performs in this Gospel.

It is helpful to take note of the other six:

(1st)       Water transformed into wine (2:1-11);

(2nd)     The healing of the official’s son (4:46-54);

(3rd)      The healing of the paralyzed man (5:1-18);

(4th)      The healing of the man born blind (9:1-41);

(5th)      The feeding of the five thousand (6:1-15) and

(6th)      Walking on water (6:16-21).

The raising of Lazarus is the culminating sign. It is significant that there are seven signs.  We can divide the raising of Lazarus into six scenes:

(2)  Scene I:  11:1-6:  This scene sets the stage for the action that follows. 11:2 points forward to 12:1-8, where Mary anoints Jesus with perfume and washes his feet.  This action clearly indicates that the focus of this episode is not so much the death of Lazarus but that of Jesus.  In 12:1-8 Mary prepares Jesus proleptically for burial.   Jesus does not immediately respond to the plea of Mary and Martha for help but waits for two days before departing for Bethany (11:6).  The reason for this, as we have seen before, is that Jesus follows a timetable that God – not human need – dictates.  Jesus’ remark, “this illness does not lead to death” (11:4) probably does not mean that Lazarus will not die but that death will not be the final outcome of what appears to be a tragedy.  Once again, Jesus is here more focused on his own death than on the death of Lazarus.  The raising of Lazarus is essentially an enacted parable about Jesus’ crucifixion and death, which also “does not lead to death.”   Lazarus’ death will be an occasion for the glorification of the Son of God and will also be the catalyst for his death (note 11:45-53).

(3) Scene II:  11:7-16:  In 10:31, there is an attempt to stone Jesus for blasphemy, followed, in 10:39, by an attempt to arrest him (presumably for the purpose of being put on trial).  Given this, it is understandable that the disciples do not receive, with enthusiasm, Jesus’ decision to return to Judea.  (11:8).  Jesus attempts to turn their attention from the peril of death to what he considers to be a greater peril, that of stumbling (11:9, 10).  “To stumble” is to leave off obedience in the face of difficulty, something that Jesus considers worse than mere death.  Jesus says that Lazarus has “fallen asleep” (11:11), a Jewish euphemism for “died.”  As I Corinthians 7:39; 11:30; 15:6; 18:20, 51 indicate, “falling asleep” also became an early Christian expression for “death.”   The emphasis falls upon the temporary state of death as something that will be overcome.  The narrator explains Jesus’ real meaning and the disciples’ failure to grasp it, in 11:13.  Thomas (11:16) is correct, in thinking that the journey to see Lazarus is really about Jesus’ death.

(4) Scene III:  11:17-27:  It becomes clear that Lazarus is really dead, in that he has been in the tomb for four days (11:17) and Jews believed that the soul left the body after three days.  Jesus will not merely revive Lazarus but will resurrect him.  Martha’s greeting of Jesus clearly carries overtones of disappointment and complaint (11:21).  But even so, it implies belief in Jesus’ healing powers.  Martha has not rejected Jesus but expresses the view, common among Jews, that God hears the prayers of a righteous person (11:22).  Of course, Jesus does not really pray in this episode, a fact that has great theological significance for John.  In a real sense, Jesus has no need to pray, given his relationship with the Father.  This conversation, in the midst of grief and some disappointment, leads to a moment of epiphany:  “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). The “I am” formula is important (as it was in 8:58) but so is the idea that resurrection is not simply an event brought about by God (according to Jewish belief) but is actually a person – Jesus.  While Martha assents to this, it is not at all clear that she sees its implications or fully embraces it — for, when Jesus orders the stone to be removed from the tomb, in 11:39, Martha raises what, to her, seems to be a sensible objection.

(5) Scene IV: 11:28-37:  It is now Mary’s turn to greet Jesus.  We find the same mixture of disappointment and resentment (11:32) but a new twist is added:  “the Jews” who had come to help her mourn have followed her to Jesus (11:31).  In 11:33, a great change comes over Jesus.  There is disagreement over the nature of this change.  The verb used here is the same as that in Mark 14:33-34 (“greatly distressed and troubled”) and Matthew 26:37-38 (“sorrowful and troubled”).  Quite probably, the emotion being expressed here is that of anger and the object of the anger is most probably death.  On one hand, Jesus the Incarnate Word does not simply jump into action when informed of Lazarus’ illness.  On other hand, as a real human being, Jesus responds to death with real anger and sorrow (11:35).  The response of “the Jews” to Jesus here is divided, with some remarking on Jesus’ affection for Lazarus (11:36), while others offer the implicit criticism that he who restored the blind man’s sight may now be in over his head (11:37).

(6) Scene V: 11:38-44:  The Gospel writer emphasizes, once again,  Jesus’ anger at death, in 11:38 (the same verb is used here as in 11:33).  11:40 makes it clear that God will soon reveal his glory. But the glory is Jesus,’ as well, since he does not pray to God to restore Lazarus to life but commands this to happen.  The thanks he offers to God is not really necessary but is offered “on account of the people standing around” (11:42).  It now becomes clear that, what Jesus said in 5:25 (“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear him will live.”) is now coming to pass.  The episode of Lazarus is a proleptic demonstration of the resurrection.  The release of Lazarus from the burial wrappings emphasizes his freedom from the bondage of death.

(7) Scene VI: 11:45-53:  The reaction of “the Jews” is significant, with “many” believing in Jesus but “some” heading to Jerusalem, to inform the authorities.  The most significant consequence of the raising of Lazarus is the decision, by the authorities, to put Jesus to death (11:53).  Ciaphas prophesies (11:51) that Jesus will die “for the nation,” that is, for Israel.  While Jesus’ death has a universal dimension to it, we should understand also that he died on behalf of Israel, as well – this is an aspect that we cannot overlook.  Of course, the text makes clear here that what Ciaphas says is ironic:  Jesus, he says, will be handed over, to guarantee Israel’s continued existence, but he uses “for” in a way that he does not understand.

(8) Epilogue: 11:54-57:  The text makes clear that the raising of Lazarus sealed Jesus’ fate.  Jesus is coming to Jerusalem, to celebrate Passover, and the authorities are making ready to arrest him.  This will be his last Passover and, as John makes clear, the Passover will finally find its true fulfillment.

Questions for Reflection

(1) Why is it significant that Jesus’ last sign in this Gospel is the raising of Lazarus?

(2) John makes it clear that Jesus raises Lazarus, not because he is Jesus’ friend but in order to glorify God.  Why is this important to emphasize?

 (3) What is revealed about Jesus in this episode?

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Filed under Interpretation of Scripture, The Gospel of John, theology and doxology

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