Chapter eleven of John’s Gospel is one of my favorite texts in the Gospels, because it is really powerful.
In this Gospel text we see the friendship that Jesus has with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus – three siblings who lived in the village of Bethany. Bethany was a couple miles away from Jerusalem, so it was a convenient spot to stay when Jesus came to Jerusalem for a festival. It was close enough to be an easy walk to the city, but far enough away that he didn’t have to worry about the Pharisees coming for him. And the sense we get from the New Testament is that Jesus is very close to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus; he loves them.
So, in John 11 we are told that Jesus is staying in a certain place away from Bethany. When Lazarus becomes ill, his sisters Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus to let him know that Lazarus is sick. They tell him, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Now, like Mary and Martha we’d expect Jesus to rush off to Bethany to heal Lazarus, since Jesus loved him and his sisters greatly.
Instead, though, Jesus delays and stays two extra days in the place where he was. In fact, the text says something a little odd. It says, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Jesus delays because he loves them. Why? Well, after he knows the Lazarus has died, Jesus says to his disciples, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” So, Jesus has a purpose in staying in the place. He loves Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and his disciples so he wants them to believe in him. He will take the opportunity of Lazarus’ death to show them just who he is.
Therefore, after delaying these two days Jesus decides to go to the town of Bethany in Judea in order to see Mary and Martha and Lazarus. His disciples, though, are shocked, because by going into Judea, he will be in reach of those who wish to stone him. Jesus, though, tells them that Lazarus has died and that they must “go to him.” Thomas tells his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He seems to be thinking that they will all die in Judea with Jesus. This isn’t what Jesus means, though, as we see in what follows.
Jesus leaves the place where he had been staying to head for Bethany with his disciples. By the time they get there Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. Now, in the approximately 200 year span from the 1st Century BC through the end of the 1st Century AD, the Jews in Judea had an interesting burial practice. They would take their dead and put them in a cave in the rocks for burial and then seal them in the tomb with a large stone that they would roll across the entrance. After about a year, after the bodies had decayed, they would go back to the tomb to remove the dried bones and put them in what was called an ossuary, or “bone box.” Then, they would re-use the tomb for the next person.
So, the tombs were re-used over and over again, each time taking up the dry bones from the tomb and storing them in an ossuary. That, by the way, is the significance of Jesus’ own burial – he was placed in a brand new tomb that Joseph of Arimathea owned; Joseph was rich, so he could afford his own un-used tomb in which to put Jesus’ body. Of course, after Jesus was done with the tomb it was still essentially unused, because Jesus rose from the dead. Anyway, Lazarus is in such a tomb where his body is meant to rest for the next year until his relatives come to take away his dry bones and place them in an ossuary.
As Jesus is heading towards Bethany, Martha runs out to meet him. Martha here is a bit of a surprise. The story that we tend to remember about Martha is in Luke 10, which records another visit that Jesus had made to Mary and Martha in Bethany. During that visit, Mary had sat at the Lord’s feet to hear his words, while Martha was “distracted with much serving.” Jesus had told her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Now, though, in this text from John, Martha has chosen the good portion. It is Martha who rushes to meet Jesus while Mary stays in the house. Perhaps Mary is too distraught to move from her seat in the house. Maybe she is angry that Jesus had not come earlier to save her brother. Martha, though, runs to the Lord with her complaint. It’s like Psalm 130 where the Psalmist cries out to the Lord.
So, Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” The first part of Martha’s statement is kind of biting, isn’t it? Jesus, why did you take so long to get here? Why did you not save your friend Lazarus? Why did you let my brother die? Where were you?
If you think about Martha’s complaint you begin to see that our complaints to the Lord are the first cries of faith. Think about why little children complain to their parents. They complain because they think the one they’re complaining to will help them. It’s the same with us and the Lord. We complain to Him because we look to the Lord for relief, we bring our troubles to the Lord in faith, as the Psalms constantly do.
So, Martha comes to the Lord with her complaint: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But then, she pleads for mercy: “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Martha comes in faith that the Lord will answer her complaint.
So, Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.” It’s a simple statement and Martha thinks he’s referring to the future resurrection of the dead. She thinks he’s referring to something like God’s promise in Ezekiel 37 where the dead are raised, our bodies restored, and we are brought back to life. God brings life from dry bones which can not raise themselves. So, she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” This sounds like a confirmand answering; she gives a good confession of the Christian hope that we all have.
Jesus, though, brings to the fore the crux of the issue. The resurrection is not just an abstract hope; rather, it is grounded in Jesus Christ and his own death and resurrection; that’s how we know it’s true, because Jesus has already died and risen and is returning to raise us up to life, just like we see in Ezekiel as the Word acted to restore the dry bones to life.
So, he says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Notice that he doesn’t say something like, “Well Martha, I have a simple seven step program for spiritual happiness. All you have to do is follow these steps.” And he doesn’t say, “Well, death is the natural cycle of life.” No, he says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” because the hope and promise of the resurrection is not some spiritual idea, but is made manifest – it is made concrete – in Jesus Christ. Death is not meant to be in God’s good creation, and Jesus has come to defeat death. He is the one in whom we have this hope of eternal life. And then he asks Martha the key question that we all also face, “Do you believe this?”
“Do you believe this?” The answer to this question sets Christianity apart from all other religions; it is the core of what we believe. For other religions are religions of works or religions of knowledge, in short, religions of “doing something” to be saved, whatever “saved” means to them. There are even elements of so-called Christianity that tell us that we must “do something” to be saved. Here, though, the Lord himself is saying, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Our hopes rest in Christ and what he has done for us on the cross and not in ourselves or in anything we have done.
So, Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” Everything hinges on Jesus as the “resurrection and the life.” And Martha responds, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” Jesus doesn’t say anything in response; Martha’s answer stands on its own as a confession of faith. Nothing more need be said than that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the resurrection and the life, the one who is coming into the world. So, Martha then goes to get her sister Mary to bring her to Jesus.
When Mary leaves her house she is weeping, and the Jews who are with her think that she is leaving to go to Lazarus’ tomb to weep there. But, she doesn’t go to the tomb, instead she goes to Jesus to bring her own complaint before the Lord; she goes to seek the Lord’s answer to her complaint. She doesn’t go to the place of death – the tomb – but instead goes to the source of life – Jesus. She says to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus sees her weeping and the rest of the mourners weeping and “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” And then he also weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus and over the pain and sorrow that death causes. Death is our enemy and it pains the Lord that death separates us from each other and us from him.
And so this is the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus, that he came into the world to defeat death and freely give us the resurrection and the life that is found in him. The Lord doesn’t leave us in death. He doesn’t leave us separated by death from each other and from him. He doesn’t leave us as dry bones littering the valley floor.
So, Jesus heads to the tomb of Lazarus. He gets another rebuke, though, on the way when some of the crowd mockingly say, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” Notice that these people are not bringing their complaint to the Lord in faith, as had Martha and then Mary. Instead, they are scoffing at Jesus’ apparent lack of power over death. It’s like others in our own time who look at death and view death as winning the battle, not considering that Jesus has already won the war.
So by this point, Jesus is quite moved and tells the people to remove the stone from the tomb that is sealing it. He wants the tomb to be opened. Martha, though, gently warns him, saying, “Lord by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Lazarus certainly appears to be beyond saving.
Yet, Jesus persists so that Martha, Mary, the disciples, and the rest of the crowd can see the glory of God in raising the dead and therefore believe in the one who is the resurrection and the life. So, Jesus prays aloud, not because he needs to, but because the crowd needs to see that Jesus is going to raise Lazarus from the dead through his authority as the Son of God.
And then Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” And Lazarus emerges from the tomb still wrapped in his burial cloths, so the people unbind him and let him go. Just like in Ezekiel 37, the Word of God raises Lazarus from the dead. In Ezekiel, the Lord has Ezekiel proclaim His Word to the dry bones on the ground and causes them to come back together and puts flesh and muscle on them and then breathes life into them; and then Ezekiel sees the resurrected bodies and souls of Israel, the Church. And here in the Gospel of John we also see a foretaste of that future resurrection when Jesus, through His Word and authority, raises Lazarus from the tomb. We see that Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, is the one who will raise all people from the dead in order to bring the Church into its inheritance.
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus causes many of the crowd to believe that Jesus truly is the “resurrection and the life,” and they place their hopes in this incarnate Word of God. Some, though, trek the two miles to Jerusalem to tell the Pharisees what Jesus had done; kind of like 1st century tattletales. So, the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem – meets to discuss what they are to do with Jesus. They’re afraid of losing their “place and nation,” because they think that if Jesus continues to perform miracles like this, everyone will believe in him and the Romans will act to place Judea under more direct and strict Roman rule to keep order.
But, then Caiaphas, the high priest, unknowingly says something quite prophetic. He tells the council, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Caiaphas is speaking the prophetic truth, but he doesn’t really know what he’s saying. He thinks that by having Jesus executed that he is saving their “place and nation.”
However, Jesus’ death will accomplish something far more important. For Jesus is truly going to die for the people, he is going to die on the cross to take our sins upon himself and suffer the death that we deserve for our sins. And then, he is going to rise again on Easter morning and then baptize you with his Word and water so that you too will share in his death and resurrection; dying to the old and rising to the new. You have been given the Spirit in Baptism to make you “living beings” again, brought into eternal life (see again the image in Ezekiel 37). Jesus died for you and he rose for you and in him only do you have the “resurrection and the life.” For he came so that you may have eternal life rather than remain bound in your sins and your tombs. And he also came to “gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad;” he came to unite us in him.
We see this gathering in Ezekiel 37 in the vision of the future resurrection when the Lord gathers up the bones of those whom He has redeemed through Christ and resurrects them and makes them the living. And they stand on their feet and they are an exceedingly great army, the Church triumphant whom the Lord brings into the land of the living, the land where He Himself dwells, the new heaven and the new earth brought to fruition on the Last Day at the resurrection. And just like when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Lord will do this for all people on the Last Day through the power and authority of His Word. And those who are His people, those who trust in Christ as the “resurrection and the life,” will inherit this life for eternity, dwelling in the land that the Lord has promised us. We get a glimpse of this in Ezekiel.
And you are the heirs of this promise; you have the “resurrection and the life,” because Christ has willed it to you through his own death. And just as Christ was raised from the dead and brought back to life, so too will you one day live again, although you were once dead. Think of all the witnesses in the Scriptures that speak of the resurrection; Ezekiel, David in the Psalms, Isaiah, the apostolic witness in the Gospels, Paul, John in Revelation, and really all throughout the Scriptures. People like Ezekiel and John saw visions of the future resurrection happening, because that is how sure our hope is in the one who is the “resurrection and the life.”
For on that Last Day, when Christ returns, as you lie in your tombs you will hear the Word of the Lord say, “Come out,” and you will arise and stand before him and he will lead you into the presence of the Almighty Lord where you will dwell for eternity in the restored creation. This is God’s answer to the complaint of death. This is the promise God has made to you through Jesus Christ, the “resurrection and the life.” This is what awaits you: not eternal death, but eternal life. Amen.
(Image: Raising of Lazarus by Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RaisingofLazarusBloch.jpg )