If I had to pick a text to call “my favorite Bible text,” it would probably be this one. I might even go as far as to say that if this were the only story preserved about Jesus, it would be enough to cause people to want to know Him better. It is that powerful.
By the time John’s narrative reaches chapter 11, the intimidations of the Pharisees have had an effect on the disciples, but not on Jesus. Yet because His hour had not yet come, and because Jesus was always perfectly in control of His life and the hour of His death, He left Judea and spent some time elsewhere. The disciples were relieved to be out of the place of danger and were perfectly content to let things “cool off” for a while in Jerusalem before going back there. Then the word came that a dear friend, Lazarus, was sick. The Great Healer was summoned to Bethany (right outside of Jerusalem), but He deliberately waited long enough for the illness to run its deadly course. When Lazarus was dead (the account seems to imply that Jesus knew when it happened), then Jesus announced that it was time for them to go to Bethany and pay a visit to Lazarus’ family. The disciples, still wary of the religious authorities in Judea, objected. “Tensions are still too high there” was their sentiment. Jesus tried to tell them that it would work out in the end (v 11), but as was typical, they did not understand His words. Instead they objected, but Jesus insisted and they reluctantly followed Him (although they expected to get killed there, v 16).
As Jesus approached Bethany, it was a sad scene indeed. The Jewish mourners commented about what a tragedy it was that the friend of a known healer was dead (v 37). “If only He could have been here!” In fact, Martha mildly scolded Jesus for being late: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v 21) and Mary confronted Him with a similar complaint (v 32). There was a faint glimmer of hope in Martha’s words as she said “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You” (v 22). Exactly what she was thinking is not clear, but to this spark of hope Jesus immediately turned and said “Your brother will rise again.” Martha, however, could only respond with a general statement about some comfort to be found in the idea of a general resurrection at the end of time.
Jesus, however, meant “Your brother will live right now.” To encourage her to believe this, He spoke what were arguably the greatest words ever spoken in all of human history: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” From this great proclamation came a pointed question: Martha, do you believe this? Alas, it seems that Martha did not. All she could muster was a confession about Jesus being the Christ (v 27), but that, as noble as it was, was not what Jesus was asking.
Thus, as Jesus arrived, He was surrounded by people with little or no faith in the power of God. The friends had written the situation off as “to late for Jesus to help.” Martha and Mary basically shared those sentiments, and the mourners were going on with the death ritual as if Jesus’ presence meant nothing. And there was one more thing about this situation: death, the great enemy of man, had won another victory. Yet Jesus had come to turn the tide of the war, to strike the death blow to death itself. It was time that people see it, and believe.
Into this situation of doubt, sadness, defeat, helplessness, and loss Jesus gave the order for triumph. “Remove the stone” (v 39). In their unbelief they objected, and incidentally provided proof that Lazarus had not simply become unconscious, but was really dead. Jesus, however, angered at the triumph of death and the weakness of faith around Him, retorted “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (v 40). With that they opened the tomb. Jesus was there to conquer death, and so He gave the order “Lazarus, come forth!” and a dead man came to life.
The prophet Ezekiel had seen a vision of exiled Israel like a valley of dry bones that came to life when the word of God was given to them (Ezek 37). Jesus was, in a great sense, fulfilling that vision. Living in the exile of the land of death and its shadow is not God’s plan for us. Instead He has sent His Word, His Son, to speak the divine message that brings life. Jesus Himself had said “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5.25). John 11 was the proof of that statement.
Every one of the miracles of Jesus is a miniature paradigm, a physical illustration, of our situation and of what He does for us spiritually. Every one of us, you see, is a Lazarus, and a Martha, and a Mary. We live in the shadow of death, helpless to stop it, angered by its success, discouraged at its power, limited by its presence, saddened by its triumph, afraid of its coming, and finally overpowered by its strength. The scene in John 11 is the human situation, it is a stark reminder that this is, in the end, what human life is: a story of dying. And we have become so accustomed to this predicament that we, like the characters in this story with hardly an ounce of faith, tend to accept it rather than look for the way out of it, and we don’t believe that it will be well in the end (even though God has told us so). And like those characters, we tend to see the power of God on our behalf as something that will work “one day” in the future, perhaps even at the resurrection. Then everything will be “OK” (but not today). But God’s power is not reserved to be used for His people only at the end of the world. His power is available to help us get through life “here and now” (see Eph 3.20; Col 1.29). Martha and Mary did not see that, and sometimes neither do we. But they learned on that occasion that God’s power can fix both the future and the present, and that it is by God’s power, through Christ’s word, that we all live right now.
John 11 is a typical human scene except for the fact that Jesus was there. Because He was there, the story ends in life instead of death, in victory instead of defeat. This story gives me hope. Although I, like everyone else, am caught in the human situation of sin and death, John 11 tells me that my Savior has the power to defeat that which defeats me, and that power is available to me today to overcome every form of death and to live.
Some pictures of the place that claims to be the tomb of Lazarus can be found here.