John's Gospel Commentary by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) 2000
Earlier we listed what seemed to be the seven signs around which John constructed his Gospel:
1 Water to wine at a wedding (2:1-11)
2 A royal official's dying son (4:46-54)
3 A man paralyzed for 38 years (5:1-9)
4 Five thousand fed (6:1-14)
5 Walking on water (6:16-21)
6 A man blind from birth (9:1-7)
7 Lazarus raised from the dead (11:17-44)
So the raising of Lazarus would be the seventh sign before the account of the arrest, death and resurrection of the Messiah (chapters 12 - 19). This sign was particularly significant because Lazarus was raised just two or three weeks before Jesus' resurrection. And it was Lazarus' being raised from the dead that decided the religious leaders to call a meeting of the council (11:47, see Matthew 26:3-4) to have Jesus crucified. And this had to be at the latest on the Day of Preparation before the Passover celebration began (18:28, 19:14, 31, 42).
There are two other recorded cases of restoration from death in Jesus' ministry. Jairus' twelve year old daughter was "at the point of death," and then declared dead (Mark 5:23, 35, Luke 8: 41-42) before Jesus came and took her by the hand and brought her back to life (Mark 5:41-42, Luke 8:49-54). The son of the widow of the village of Nain was being carried in a coffin for burial when Jesus came and raised him (Luke 7:11-16). Lazarus had already been dead and in the tomb four days before Jesus called him out (11:17, 39). But in each of these three cases the person came back to this life, and would eventually have grown old and died as usual.
In the later part of his Gospel John will highlight the total qualitative difference when Jesus was raised with a resurrection body (see 20:19-28 and 21:4-14) that was suited for heaven (Revelation 21:22-26). Paul explained the difference by saying "as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but bare seed . . . but God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body" (1 Corinthians 15:37-38). "In this tent we groan . . . we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed" (2 Corinthians 5:1-5).
Lazarus belonged to a family of personal friends in the village of Bethany, which was located less than an hour's walk from Jerusalem just beyond the Mount of Olives. Luke records how his sisters Martha and Mary had welcomed Jesus to a meal (Luke 10:38-42). The family were obviously well off. Lazarus was not just thrown into a hole in the ground but in a tomb cut out of the rock (as was the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where Jesus' body was laid). John also records that Mary broke a flask of very expensive perfume (probably kept for her wedding day) and poured it over Jesus' feet (12:2-4).
It seems possible that Martha's husband, called Simon the Leper, was healed from leprosy by Jesus and, having been declared free of the disease by the priests, was present at that meal (Matthew 26:6, Mark 14:3). It is also possible that Lazarus was the rich young man who ran up wanting to go out with Jesus on a preaching tour (Mark 10:17). The words "Jesus, looking at him, loved him" (Mark 10:21) might connect with the words in our text. "Lord, he whom you love is ill" (11:3). John also records that when the bystanders saw Jesus weeping by the tomb, they said "See how he loved him" (11:35-36). These bits of circumstantial evidence do not amount to a proof, but they might explain John's reticence in identifying the rich young man.
11:2 John records the story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with very precious perfume in the next chapter (12:3).
11:3-6 When Lazarus became seriously ill, his sisters sent a message to Jesus urging him to come immediately. But Jesus took his time. He already knew that Lazarus' death was with a view to a restoration from death, "for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it."
11:7-8 When Jesus got the news of Lazarus' sickness he had moved away across the Jordan because of the religious leaders' intention to kill him (10:31, 39-40). Now when he decided it was time to go to the tomb of Lazarus the disciples tried to dissuade him because of the danger in the area of Judea around Jerusalem which was under the control of the religious authorities.
11:9-10 Jesus reminded the disciples of what he had said. "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life" (8:12). Which meant that as we walk in the Messiah's light we can see the way. So Jesus uses the same metaphor here to tell his disciples that he knows where he is going, and he will not be caught by surprise.
11:11-13 By now Jesus knows that Lazarus has already died, but he uses the metaphor of "he has fallen asleep" (as does Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:6, 18, 1 Thessalonians 4:13,15, and Peter does in 2 Peter 3:4 - in each of these six cases the Greek has "fallen asleep" but the NRSV removes the metaphor and calls it death).
11:14-16 Jesus tells them that he is glad he did not arrive before Lazarus died "so that you may believe." Coming and seeing Lazarus coming out of the tomb after four days would strengthen the disciples' faith for the events they will soon be facing. Thomas had perhaps been tempted to doubt (as he did in 20:24-25), but he persuades the others to follow Jesus into the very dangerous situation they would face in Judea.
11:17-19 The Jews counted the first and last day of a time period, so Lazarus had been dead and buried three full days. Bethany was a nearby village suburb of Jerusalem, and many leading people in the city had come out to visit and comfort the family.
11:20-22 Lazarus' older sister Martha heard that Jesus was coming up the Jericho Road, and she went out to meet him as he approached the village. She chided Jesus for not coming to lay hands on her brother and save him from death. She knew that whatever the Son asked for the Father would grant him, so he could have saved Lazarus from death.
11:23-24 When Jesus tells her that her brother would be raised from death, she quickly stated her Pharisee faith in the final resurrection (Acts 23:8). As in our day many believed, as did the Sadducees, that there was no way out of sheol (Hades) the abode of the dead (Matthew 22:23, Mark 12:18). But the Pharisee hope was that one day the Messiah would open the trap door (as in fact happened in Matthew 27:52-53, 1 Peter 3:18-19). The Pharisee resurrection faith was based on Old Testament texts such as "I know that my Redeemer lives" (Job 19:25) and "Many of those who sleep in the dust of death shall awake" (Daniel12:2). There was also the fact that Abraham, Moses, and David (and no doubt many others) were friends of God (Exodus 33:11, Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23) and God did not intend to leave them in sheol for ever (an argument used by Jesus in Matthew 22:31-32, Mark 12:26-37).
So Martha had the Pharisee hope in a final resurrection, but what had upset her was the Jesus had not come to save her brother from death (11:21).
11:25 Jesus answers Martha with one of his "I am" metaphors (6:35, 48, 8:12, 9:5, 10:7, 11, 11:25, 14:6, 15:1). Each of these metaphors describes a different aspect of who he is. What then does "I am the resurrection" mean? It is not only that he has the power to raise the dead (see in the introductory note above), but he himself will triumph over death. And John has also recorded that "The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out" (see note on 5:28).
John has no doubt that Jesus not only found the way through death, but he gives us the life we will need on the other side. As Paul wrote, "For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being" (1 Corinthians 15:21, 2 Corinthians 5:4).
11:26-27 Here the words "will never die" do not refer to the physical death which we will all go through (as did Jesus himself) but to the eternal death of those who refuse the love and eternal life of heaven. Martha answers cautiously that she believes Jesus is the Messiah Son of God, and perhaps she agrees that eternal life is part of what he came to bring (3:16, 5:24).
11:28-31 During this conversation Mary was still in the house, and she is called to the place outside the village when Martha had met him. Those who had gathered in the house, to express their sympathy and comfort the family, came along with her.
11:32-35 Echoing the words of Martha, Mary says "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died," and burst into tears. Seeing her anguish, Jesus "was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved" (the Greek word expresses vehement agitation). And when he came near the tomb "Jesus wept" (the NRSV has "Jesus began to weep" but the KJV translation is closer to the Greek aorist which means "Jesus wept" which could suggest that Jesus immediately recovered himself for the work he now had to do).
11:36-37 Some said "See how he loved him" but others tried to accuse Jesus of insensitivity for failing to come and cure Lazarus before he died.
11:38-40 Still in considerable anguish, Jesus took command of the situation and ordered the stone to be rolled away. But Martha being practical as usual pointed out the smell there would be inside the tomb. But Jesus reminded her that God's glory would be seen (as in 11:4). And it seems that in fact Lazarus' corpse had not decomposed.
11:41-44 When the heavy stone had been rolled away, Jesus first offered a prayer of thanksgiving to his Father, and then "cried with a loud voice" commanding the dead man to come out. The naming of Lazarus is important. An old Puritan once said "If Jesus had not said "Lazarus" all the dead would have come out." We can imagine the astonishing sight of the dead man emerging with the grave clothes still tightly wound around his body and arms and legs. And Jesus calmly said "Unbind him and let him go." Although John was certainly an eye-witness of the scene, with astonishing economy of words, he does not go on to describe the reactions of Martha and Mary.
11:45-48 He does tell us that many of the onlookers believed that this was the power of God working through Jesus the Messiah. But when the Pharisees heard the news they called a hurried meeting of the council (Sanhedrin). Obviously Jesus was doing things (such as the raising of Lazarus) which gave him a huge following. Their fear was that this would result in the Romans coming and destroying their city and their nation.
11:49-52 The solution proposed by the High Priest Caiphas was to have Jesus sacrificed to save the nation. John comments that he acted prophetically, because as events turned out not only did Jesus die for the Jewish nation but for all people throughout the world. The long term result of killing the Messiah was that forty years later the Messiah himself would destroy the city and its temple (see Matthew 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2) and the result would be huge growth of gentile churches (Matthew 24:30-31, Mark 13:26-27).
11:53 There had already been death threats (7:1, 44, 8:20, 59, 10:39) but now the religious authorities (a strange union of Pharisees and the Sadducee priestly class, see 11:57) began the serious plotting that would end in the crucifixion.
11:54 Instead of withdrawing across the Jordan (as in 10:40),Jesus took his disciples to a small town named Ephraim (2 Samuel 13:23, Ephron 2 Chronicles 13:19, Ophrah Joshua 18:23) which was in the area of the tribe of Benjamin outside the territory of Judah. It is identified with a village thirteen miles north-northeast of Jerusalem.
11:55-57 The Passover season was now approaching, and there was much discussion whether Jesus would attend. The coalition of Sadducee priests and Pharisees had already given orders that if anyone could locate Jesus they should be informed so he could be arrested immediately. In actual fact Jesus entered Jerusalem very publicly on Palm Sunday, and cleared the temple the next day. But the authorities were unable to get him arrested without upsetting the crowds and causing a riot till Judas Iscariot (18:3-5) was able to bring the temple police after dark on the Day of Preparation into the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was praying.
12:1-19 Entering Jerusalem