For John, Jesus’ resurrection from the grave is paramount.
Here the raising of Lazarus is the seventh, climatic sign Jesus performs in John’s gospel, directly foreshadowing Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Moreover, beyond a mere miracle, Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is a sign, a demonstration of Jesus’ true identity as the promised messiah and Son of God.
John recounts that after hearing Lazarus was ill, he waits two days to travel to Judea. Given the fact that Jesus was almost stoned the last time he was in Judea, it’s no wonder the disciples weren’t eager to go back, especially after Jesus told them that Lazarus was already dead. Thomas even sounds a bit resigned when Jesus makes the decision to make the journey: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16). But Jesus knew that his hour had not yet come.
Consequently, by the time Jesus reaches Bethany, four days had passed since Lazarus’ death, which according to Jewish tradition, meant that his soul had already left the body (see Kieffer, 2001, The Oxford Bible Commentary). In other words, Lazarus was, without question, completely dead.
Martha, true to the character sketch we’re given by Luke, takes initiative and comes out to meet Jesus’ while Mary stays back home, presumably to take care of the guests who’ve come to mourn with their family. The dialogue between Martha and Jesus, culminating in her confession of faith, forms the theological highlight of the narrative.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said 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?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (v. 23-27)
Martha, like Peter, understands Jesus to be the Messiah and believes in an eventual life after death. But Jesus wants her to see clearly. “I am” – calling forth resonances with God’s holy name – “the resurrection and the life.” The invitation from death to life corresponds to the invitation from unbelief to faith. As John states later, his whole point for writing this gospel is “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
There are two interesting elements to John’s account that stem from his word choices.
First, when Mary eventually goes to meet Jesus, she has a similar conversation to her sister’s. However, her tears, along with the tears of mourners who had followed behind her, had a powerful effect on Jesus. Our translation says Jesus, “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (v. 33) and apparently the meaning of the Greek word translated as “deeply moved” implies anger, indignation, even outrage.
A variety of hypotheses have been proposed to explain this sense of indignation that seems to be out of step with the emotions one would expect to find in a similar situation, but few seem to adequately account for the force of the verb. The most plausible explanation, at least for me, seems to be that the pathos of human suffering he encountered, especially as he was likely also inwardly wrestling with his own cup of suffering that was quickly approaching, aroused a fierce anger against the power of death.
In any event, it is comforting to know that when confronted with such profound grief, Jesus began weeping with Mary. I can’t imagine the weight that must have been on his shoulders, but instead of disengaging and sorting through his own challenges and emotions, he put himself aside and was simply there for Mary, sharing in her grief.
A profound picture of selfless love, which brings us to the second noteworthy element. At the beginning of the passage, when the sisters sent the message to Jesus that, “he whom you love is ill” (v.3), the word for love used is a form of phileō, the dispassionate, virtuous, fraternal, general type of love among people in a community.
However, when John points out that Jesus waited two days to leave despite the fact that he loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus (v. 5), he uses the stronger word agapō – the more intimate, personal kind of love for one’s children or spouse.
Like these three siblings, Jesus doesn’t love us in an abstract, general kind of way; rather Jesus loves you in a particular, personal kind of way. Like a husband loves his wife or a father loves his children, Jesus loves you. And in the middle of these deeply challenging times, where we are worried for the health of our loved ones, perhaps even worried about our own health, Jesus is not off on some far away cloud. He rose from the dead and he is here with us now. Jesus loves you, and he desires to take our burdens – whether it is grief, or worry, or fear. Jesus is a messiah who weeps with those weep and gives rest to those who are weak and weary.
To jump back to the OT passage today of Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of the valley of dry bones, God explains to Ezekiel at the end of the vision that the bones represent Israel who say that their hope has dried up. The power of this prophetic vision has inspired hope throughout the centuries, that the power of God can change even the most hopeless of situations.
In our hearts, deep down, when we’re confronted with tremendous fear and uncertainty over our physical well-being and financial future, as well as for those we love – I wonder how we conceive of Jesus as messiah. Is he asleep in the boat? Is he a failed messiah, powerless in the face of this growing worldwide crisis? Is he capable of bringing Lazarus back to life, perhaps even you and me one day? Will God breathe life back into these dry bones? How do we truly view Jesus’ messiahship?
John’s testimony to us today is that when Jesus called into the grave, into the cave of despair, “Lazarus, come out! The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth” (v. 43f.).
This morning if you feel overcome by fear, Jesus invites you to take your frets, your worries, your anxieties and lay them down at his feet – letting them go and trusting him.