Summary of the Text
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
The trans-Jordan village of Bethany was the place in which Jesus’ ministry began. It is now the place in which our text finds him (see John 10:40). From the moment he arose from the muddy waters of the river, his mission had suffered its detractors, first the Devil and then a cadre of well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning religious types. There is perhaps a slight irony that the same location from which Jesus was thrust into his initial test in the wilderness will now usher him into his final test in the city of David.
Having retreated, following two failed attempts by the Jerusalem elite to stone him to death (see John 8 & 10), Jesus lays low with his disciples. Before his spiritual putsch into Jerusalem to overthrow the powers and principalities that reign supreme, he needed a breather or at least his disciples did.
Certainly, Jesus’ intention of getting “away for the weekend” was not about something lacking within him. It was about something lacking in his disciples and not the need for safety which they perceived, but the absence of belief.
What is clear from our text is that none of the twelve were too keen to leave the safety of the river to once again run the gauntlet in Jerusalem. Thomas’s words of resignation to his band of brothers in verse 16 are representative of the shared feeling regarding Jesus’ desire to return to the holy city, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” However, the lingering respite while Lazarus lays dying and the return are all part of Jesus’ plan to bolster the belief of his disciples, not to physically bring them harm (v. 15).
Interestingly enough, Jesus’ return to civilization is to another Bethany, a village just on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It will be his staging area for his triumphal entry and ultimately the beginning of the end. Home to his beloved friends, siblings Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, it is the place in which he enacts his final sign, the resurrection of his recently deceased friend Lazarus.
The text itself reveals some of the landscape of 1st-century Jewish customs and culture around death. Death was a communal affair. It was not an occasion for the mourning of a family in private, but for a public display of sorrow. Mary is accompanied by an entourage of mourners who follow on her heels when she rushes to meet Jesus on the way (v. 31).
It affirms the eschatological belief of the majority of Judeans of the 1st century, the final day of history would usher in a resurrection of the dead, while it mirrors the same skepticism that modernity has in believing that such a day has arrived. For example, while Martha affirmed Jesus’ statement in v. 23 that her brother would rise again, it was purely theoretical and founded upon hope and not experience. Contrary to the modern mind, which often assumes the ancients were more inclined to miracles, magic, and mysticism, empirical knowledge reigned supreme. There was not a “mostly” dead category as in the pronouncement of Miracle Max in the Princess Bride. Death was final.
While later rabbinical sources speculated that the spirit lingered for several days at the gravesite until it departed to return no more, such a belief gave no foot in the door for illusions about reversal, of a reinvigorated and resurrected person. This story finds all, including Jesus, surprisingly taken by the aching awfulness of death.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
John 11 provides us with the last of Jesus’ signs, a sign that will objectively prefigure the power he will have over his own grave. Subsequently, the narrative also gives us the fifth of Jesus’ seven “I am” statements. He is the bread of life (Jn 6), light of the world (Jn 8), the door (Jn 10), good shepherd(Jn 10), and now the resurrection and the life (v. 25). However, aside from these obvious Johannine threads and their purpose of both bringing glory to God, bolstering belief (all of preeminent importance), and foreshadowing Easter, this text reveals Jesus’ humanity.
John’s Prologue began with a clear statement on the incarnation, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The “flesh-i-ness” is key to seeing the glory of God and to grasping the profundity of God’s presence in our painful plight. In his humanity, God’s son finds friends, loves people warmly and affectionately, endears himself to others, and joins them in their grief.
Verse 35 packs a theological punch that squarely puts God’s son on the same human footing as us, “Jesus wept.” The Greek verb δακρύω is violent and sudden. The tears that Jesus sheds are more dam burst than trickle, a tsunami produced from an earthquake of emotion more than a tear let loose from shared empathy. Jesus does indeed “get” us because he is one of us.
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts, and relationships today?
My friend Ed recently announced his retirement. It wasn’t unexpected, but it was premature. Most guys his age have another ten plus years of work in their system. Eight years ago, Ed came to me to reveal that he had Parkinson’s Disease. Not a great diagnosis for a professional musician, but surprisingly, it didn’t deter either his spirit or his drive. He continued to work, albeit at a different pace and in a different way. At the announcement of his retirement, he related his reaction on first receiving the news of his diagnosis, “Glory to God,” and how eight years later his refrain still remains, “Glory to God.”
Ed and his wife Roxanne lost their 13-year-old son Drew to heart failure nearly two decades ago and his refrain still remains, “Glory to God.” I can’t help but think of Mary and Martha, but Jesus, “if you had only been there…”
For Ed and for the Gospel of John, the revelation of the glory of God through Jesus’ touch of a blind man and command to a dead man are the stuff of faith-building. Yet, unlike the biblical stories, Ed’s Parkinson’s hasn’t been healed and his son’s life was not revived. Nevertheless, Ed believes in the power of the One who declares himself the “Light of the World” and the “Resurrection and the Life,” and more than that, he counts Jesus as his friend, a lover of his soul, who not only comforts those who mourn, but weeps with them, who not only heals the broken-hearted but breaks together with them.
James 2:23 says “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness and he was called the friend of God.” During this season of Lent as we face periods when God seems silent and Jesus seems far away, let us lean into the light of the truth Jesus proclaims. He is the resurrection and the life and we, like Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and Ed are his beloved for whom he weeps and for whom he acts even though the season we are in may seem bleak.
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
Those who grieve find comfort in weeping and in arousing their sorrow until the body is too tired to bear the inner emotions.
Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon was a 12th century Jewish Philosopher and Physician)
Not Changing Company
As John Preston, the Puritan lay dying, friends asked him if he was afraid of death. “No,” whispered Preston; “I shall change my place, but I shall not change my company.” As if to say: I shall leave my friends, but not my Friend, for he will never leave me.
Quoted in J.I.Packer, Growing in Christ, Crossway.
An Added Bonus, Key Poems on Lazarus from Tennyson and Chesterton
When Lazarus left his charnel-cave,
And home to Mary’s house return’d,
Was this demanded—if he yearn’d
To hear her weeping by his grave?
‘Where wert thou, brother, those four days?’
There lives no record of reply,
Which telling what it is to die
Had surely added praise to praise.
From every house the neighbours met,
The streets were fill’d with joyful sound,
A solemn gladness even crown’d
The purple brows of Olivet.
Behold a man raised up by Christ!
The rest remaineth unreveal’d;
He told it not; or something seal’d
The lips of that Evangelist.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, Canto XXXI
After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white.
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.
From The Collected Poems of G.K. Chesterton
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