John 11: 1 — 44
We have another long reading from John during the holy season of Lent. It is the beautiful and deeply touching story of our Lord raising Lazarus, his dear friend, back to life. Because of its length, we will take the commentary by Ronald Cox from "The Gospel Story". (Slight modifications to the text are made to render it suitable for the Internet).
At Archelais: Jesus Receives News of Lazarus' Death
This incident is found only in St. John; he is taking for granted the reader's knowledge of the intimacy of Jesus with the Bethany household…. The family at Bethany kept in touch with our Lord's activities, through travellers coming up to Jerusalem; the Jordan valley was the main trade route from the north. The message, sent by hired courier, makes no mention of Lazarus by name, nor does it ask Jesus to come. This gives the right atmosphere: the need of secrecy because of the great danger to Jesus at Jerusalem. Lazarus died while the courier was on his way to Jesus; yet his reply is meant for the two sisters, as well as his apostles. It is enigmatic, because he intends to test their faith; the true way to perfect union must come through belief in him who is their God, as well as their friend.
Our Lord was probably at Archelais, a few miles north of Jericho; it is not necessary to take him back to the east bank of the Jordan. The whole of the Jordan valley was often spoken of as an area distinct from both Judea and Perea; in this instance, 'Judea' really means Jerusalem, the headquarters of Jesus' enemies. It would be a good day's journey, about thirty miles uphill, from Archelais, passing through Jericho on the way.
The thought of another visit to Jerusalem filled the disciples with dread; the deep discussions, the cold hatred of the leaders, baffled and bewildered them. In a little parable, Jesus explains that no harm can befall him, until the time set by the Father has come; there are still a few weeks to go before the 'night' of his passion and death. But the knees of his disciples have turned to water; so he tries to shame them by calling Lazarus 'our friend'; he himself will go alone if they hold back. They make another pitiful attempt to escape by seizing on
the reference by Jesus that Lazarus had fallen asleep. Sleep was an accepted medical sign that the patient was recovering. It would be foolish to go into danger, now that Jesus' presence at Bethany is no longer needed. Our Lord dashes their last hope of reprieve; Lazarus is dead. With a touch of bravado, Thomas proclaims the loyalty of the twelve.
At Bethany: Jesus Comforts Mary and Martha
In Palestine, funerals took place the same day that the person died; it was customary for relatives and friends to visit the grave for three days after death, but not on the fourth day when decomposition began; sympathetic mourners came to console the relatives for seven days after the funeral. Probably a servant of the household was posted to watch for Jesus' arrival; as soon as the group on the Jericho road was identified, word was brought to Martha; she met Jesus on the eastern edge of the town. Martha's first remark (echoed later by Mary) shows how confident she was of Jesus' affection, and her belief in his supernatural power. His message by the courier had puzzled both sisters. Could it be that he intended to bring their brother back from the dead?
Jesus does not say that he will raise Lazarus. Martha, like most of the Jews, believed in the general resurrection; but that was a long way off. Actually Jesus is raising her mind to supernatural life; faith in him gives the believer access to a life which death cannot destroy; it is eternal. Through union with Jesus, Lazarus is still united to Martha. Her faith is strengthened; she feels consoled, but she does not conclude from his words that her brother is to rise that very day.
Meanwhile Mary is in the house besieged by comforters who can give her no relief from her sorrow. Jesus tells Martha to extricate her quietly from the visitors. Mary's thoughts were on Jesus all the time: 'If only he were here.' At the mention of his name, she is out of the room in a flash; on past the tomb she runs, weeping as she goes. There is the same contrast between the two sisters, as in two other scenes at Bethany; Martha the elder and more practical, Mary intense and emotional. With Martha, Jesus reasoned; he wept with Mary.
Jesus Raises Lazarus From the Dead
This is one of the most dramatic scenes in all literature. The real human emotion of Jesus, moved to the very depths of his being; his anguish more intense as he caught sight of the tomb of his friend; his words brief, almost abrupt, like a man afraid to trust his voice. And then the prayer of one intimately united to, and speaking in the Father's name; the commanding voice of him to whom even death is obedient; the astonishing miracle of divine power. The human and divine natures of our Lord are here portrayed with the simple naturalness of an eyewitness.
A well-known picture of the resurrection of Lazarus shows him wrapped up in bandages like an Egyptian mummy. That is false. 'Cords' are either rope or leather thongs, not bandages; the Jews did not swathe their dead. They wrapped the body in a white linen sheet (sindon in Greek), as our Lord (Chap 19), or buried the person in his own clothes, as the widow's son (at Nain) and Dorcas (Acts 9: 36 — 41). Lazarus was laid in the tomb in his own clothes, not covered from head to foot in a linen sheet. A white shrouded figure rising from the grave would have had a terrifying effect on the spectators, not to mention his own embarrassment when freed, after the miracle. The object over his head was a 'chin band' (soudarion in Greek; the same article is listed, distinct from the sindon, in our Lord's tomb; it was tied under the chin and over the top of the head like a handkerchief, to keep the mouth closed. It was an essential article of Jewish burial. The 'cords' are not mentioned elsewhere in burial literature; possibly they were used to keep the body in position till rigor mortis set in. Both were visible as Lazarus appeared from the tomb, which was below the surface of the ground; a flight of steps led down to it. He that could not walk or talk, or even lift a hand to help himself, stood there obedient to the voice of his Lord.
Although the customary reading finishes at verse 44, it is helpful to consider for a moment the final two verses of the actual account in John.
Verses 45 and 46
"Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done."
The following commentary from J. C. Ryle draws some important conclusions from these verses, focussing mainly on verse 46.
We see in this area the bad effect, which the raising of Lazarus had on some who saw it. Instead of being softened and convinced, they were hardened and enraged. They were vexed to see even more unanswerable proofs that Jesus was the Christ, and irritated to feel that their own unbelief was more than ever inexcusable. They therefore hurried off to the Pharisees to report what they had seen, and to point out the progress that our Lord was making in the immediate neighbourhood of Jerusalem.
The amazing wickedness of human nature is strikingly illustrated in this verse. There is no greater mistake than to suppose that seeing miracles will necessarily convert souls. Here is a plain proof that it does not. Never was there a more remarkable confirmation of our Lord's words in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus: "If they believe not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."
Musculus observes what a wonderful example we have here of the sovereign grace of God, choosing some, and leading them to repentance and faith, and not choosing others. Here is the same miracle, seen under the same circumstances, and with the same evidence, by a large crowd of persons: yet while some believe, others believe not! It is like the case of the two thieves on the cross, seeing the same sight, one repenting and the other impenitent. The same fire, which melts wax, hardens clay.
J.C. Ryle also draws some helpful items to note from the text.
In leaving this wonderful miracle, there are three things, which demand special notice.
(a) We should observe that we are not told of anything that Lazarus said about his state while in the grave, and nothing of his after-history…
As to his silence, we can easily see there is a Divine wisdom about it. If St. Paul "could not utter" the things that he saw in the third heaven, and called them "unspeakable things," it is not strange that Lazarus should say nothing of what he saw in Paradise.
(2 Cor 12: 4.) But there may be always seen in Scripture a striking silence about the feelings of men and women who have been the subjects of remarkable Divine interposition. God's ways are not man's ways. Man loves sensation and excitement, and likes to make God's work on his fellow creatures a gazing-stock and a show, to their great damage. God almost always seems to withdraw them from the public, both for their own good and His glory.
(b) We should observe that we are told nothing of the feelings of Martha and Mary, after they saw their brother raised to life. The veil is drawn over their joy, though it was not over their sorrow. Affliction is a more profitable study than rejoicing.
(c) We should observe, lastly, that the raising of Lazarus is one of the most signal instances in the Gospels of Christ's Divine power. To Him who could work such a miracle nothing is impossible. He can raise from the death of sin any dead soul, however far-gone and corrupt. He will raise us from the grave at His own second appearing. The voice, which called Lazarus from the tomb, is almighty. "The dead shall hear the voice of the Son of Man. and they that hear shall live." (John 5: 25.).