Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

141. The Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44)*

Among the closest friends of Jesus were Lazarus and his family in Bethany, just over the hill from Jerusalem. John refers to Martha and Mary as though already well-known to his readers. This is just another of the many times that he appears to assume his reader's familiarity with the synoptic gospels (e.g. 3 :24; 6:53,70; 7:42; 20:2). Morethanthis, his mention of Mary's anointing of Jesus rather awkwardly anticipates the narrative in the next chapter— unless, that is, he is steering his reader to the record of an earlier anointing (Lk.7 :37,38; see Study 73). The words: "wiped ... feet ... hair(v.2)... weeping (v.33)" all come together in that earlier narrative. Also, would John have distinguished Mary in this way, knowing that the same description belonged to another woman?

Lazarus, the brother of the two sisters, was desperately ill. The time of this sickness can be pin-pointed fairly accurately. "Master", said the disciples, "the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again?" (v.8). That expression: "of late" is really the Greek word "now" (i.e. just now, a short whileago;see21:10; cp. also 11:37), so the attempt at stoning was very recent. But that foul episode took place at the Feast of the Dedication, i.e. Christmas (10:31,22). So thedeath of Lazarus can be fairly safely placed at the beginning of January, about four months before the crucifixion.

"If only Jesus were here!" was the constant sigh of both Martha and Mary, as they saw their brother fighting his losing battle. Yet how could they send and ask Jesus to come, for they knew that he could only return to the vicinity of Jerusalem at the risk of his life.

Possible Timing

But at last they could hold back no longer. Their brother was dying. Now all help, save that of Jesus, was useless. So, very urgently, they sent a messenger to him in Peraea on the other side of Jordan. If it was a one day journey to reach Jesus, the chronology of that week goes roughly thus:

A. The messenger leaves Bethany,
B. He delivers his message.
C. He arrives back in Bethany.
D. Jesus begins the journey to Bethany.
E. He arrives, and raises Lazarus.

Then L, the time of the death of Lazarus, was very soon after the messenger left Bethany.

If Jesus was two days' journey away, the time pattern is more probably this:

In this case Lazarus died soon after Jesus received the message.

"Lord, behold (here is urgency), he whom thou lovest is sick". This was all that the sisters said in their message. Thus they taught all their brethren in many generations how to pray in time of dire need. It is not for the disciple to say what must be done. It is sufficient simply to tell the Lord how great the need is (cp. Jn.2 :3). The rest may be left to Him. And, as the sisters were soon to learn, the divine response is not always precisely what has been sought or expected.

Christ's immediate rejoinder on receiving the message was: "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God (ls.49 :2,5), that the Son of God may be glorified thereby." The messenger heard these words and with great eagerness took them back to Bethany (v.40), only to find that Lazarus had already been laid to rest.

The mystification and pain of the two sisters may be well imagined. This sickness not unto death? But it was! Lazarus was dead already! The glory of God? Some would have lost faith in Jesus forthwith. But these were of finer spiritual quality. So it is not difficult to imagine them talking over every possible meaning of the Lord's enigmatic words, as they tried to read his intention in them. Perhaps they grasped his meaning.

But time went by, and he did not appear. The fourth day I By this time corruption had surely set in. They must come to terms with their loss, and rest their hopes on the last day when, as the prophet Daniel had foretold (Dan.12 :2), the dead would be raised. What hope now that they would see their brother again before that great Day? Then, surely, and not before, the Son of God would be glorified, for had he not said: "The dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live" (5 ;25)?

Yet Jesus had meant more than this. The glory of God was soon to be witnessed not only in the re-awakening of Lazarus from the sleep of death, but also in the tenacious faith of these bewildered sisters and in the unique witness which the raising of Lazarus was to make in the face of Jewish unbelief. One writer has very trenchantly said: "He will have his glory somehow in the death of every man!"


"When therefore Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick'—he set out immediately to succour him. No! "he abode two days in the same place where he was." This is a dramatic unexpected consequence of that "therefore." The love of Christ was testing the faith of Martha and Mary, but, as their words were to testify, he would not suffer them to be tempted above what they were able to bear (1 Cor.10 :13). Comparison may be made here with the way Jesus held lit nobleman at arm's length when he pleaded for his sick son: "Except ye see signs and wonders,, ye will not believe . . . Lord, come down ere if child die" (Jn.4:48,49). Yet another comparison is with the tantalising, frustrating delay when Jesus was on his way to restore the daughter of Jairus—did he have to stop on the road to spend time talking to the woman who had touched hi garment to gain health and blessing (Mk.5 :22ff)?

Why did Jesus wait those two days? Knowing Martha and Mary to be on the rack, he too would feel wretched on their account, for, "Jesus loved Martha, and her sister and Lazarus" (v.5)—these words come in here to acquit him of indifference to their misery. Yet he held back-a delay that had its purpose. His prayer at the graveside: "Father, I thank thee that thou didst hear me" (v.41), implies that during that time he was praying on Lazarus' behalf and for wisdom to do what was best in this trying situation. More than this, who knows what transcending blessings came into the lives of nameless men and women there in Peraea during those two extra days of bewildered uncertainty before Jesus set out for Bethany? In more ways than one this delayed answer to prayer was to the glory of God.

Discussion and Return

At length Jesus bade the apostles prepare for departure to Judaea. He met with immediate and sustained remonstration: "Master, of late the Jews sought to stone thee (10 :31), and goes! thou thither again?" By any standards of human judgement such a journey seemed the height of folly. So disciple might well expostulate with Teacher.

Jesus gave them one of his characteristic indirect answers: "Are there not twelve hours in the day?" It was a saying complementary to: "Mine hour is not yet come," only with more point to it. The last Passover had marked the first mass rejection of Jesus by the people (6:60,61,66). From that time he knew for certain that only twelve months more remained to him in the days of his flesh. But until the "day" of twelve months had run its course he knew himself to be inviolate.

The disciples could hardly be expected to appreciate this, so Jesus generalised the lesson for their benefit: "If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because the light is not in him." The disciple of Christ who lives his life in a conviction that all is under God's control and his times in God's hand finds that " all things work together for good" (Rom.8 :28). But the one who does not have this "light" in himself is bound to flounder and stumble in the dark experiences of life. Before long both Judas and Peter were to prove the truth of this.

Jesus now told the twelve plainly, though not plainly enough, the purpose of the journey: "Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go that I may awake him out of sleep." The disciples remembered the earlier dictum: "This sickness is not unto death," and confidently assumed a completely literal meaning. Indeed, they may have concluded that, by the "remote control" that they had known Jesus to operate on other occasions, the sleep of Lazarus had been brought about by him, and that his "going" to awake him would be a similar exercise of power from a distance. So, greatly relieved that there was now no need to go to Bethany and danger, they blithely replied: "Lord, if he sleep he shall do well." A sick man falling into a sound sleep! Isn't it a sure sign that he is on the way to recovery? (cp. their misunderstanding in Lk.22 :36-38; Jn.4 :32-34; 14 :5,8,22; Mt. 15:15; 16:6-12)

So Jesus had to tell them bluntly: "Lazarus is dead. And (he added) I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe." The Lord was glad because, had he got there in time, there would have been a less sensational, less convincing, restoration of the sick man. This miracle, then, was to be "for the glory of God", not only by provoking the gratitude of Martha and Mary, not only in the higher life of Lazarus in ensuing years, not only by proving to disbelieving Jews that Jesus was the Son of God (v.45), but also in the strengthened faith of the disciples (v.15).

Coming after the earlier declarations of their faith(e.g.l:41,45;2:ll;6:69;Mt. 14:33; 16:16), these words read strangely. Yet they serve to indicate that there may be different degrees or qualities of faith. They are also a reminder of how in the finest of people faith may ebb and flow.

Loyal Thomas

"Let us go to him," Jesus concluded, and must have been greatly heartened by the reaction of Thomas: "Let us also go that we may die with him." Could anything be more hazardous than, a return to Jerusalem? But, argued Thomas,' strong in loyalty, though not in faith (20 ;25,26), the least they could do was to stand by Jesus in this peril. After all, if he died, what did life hold for the rest of them? This grand affirmation of constancy and devotion might well have come from the lips of Peter. Why didn't it? Was Peter not there at the time? The need for Thomas's exhortation to the rest seems to imply that there was a marked reluctance among some of the twelve to face such a palpable risk. And for all his doubts, this pessimist was right, for it was the raising of Lazarus more than anything else which drove the rulers to an irrevocable decision (11 :47-53).

The names Thomas and Didymus are Hebrew and Greek for "twin" . It has been speculated that, since Lev! means "joined", the other twin was Matthew the publican. But in this place the implication surely is that Thomas himself was twins, a kind of double personality— marvellously loyal to Jesus, yet terribly unsure.

Man's mortal soul

It is worth while, at this point, to note the emphatic witness which this record of the death of Lazarus makes against the common assumption of the immortality of the human soul. "Let us go to him, " Jesus said. The real Lazarus, all that there was, was in Bethany, not in heaven. Compare also "Where have ye laid him" (v.34). "Our friend Lazarus sleepeth" is a further reminder that Jesus and his apostles always speak of the death of the faithful as "sleep" (Mt. 9:24; 27:52; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Cor. 15:6,18,20,51; 1 Th.4-.13-15). The word is meaningless if dead people are more alive than they are in this mortality. And so also is the assurance of "waking" Lazarus out of his "sleep." The call: "Lazarus, come forth" (v.43) was addressed to the corrupting body in the tomb, not to a spirit in an unseen world. "And he that was dead came forth." This chapter needs no reinforcement to establish the mortality of man.


As Jesus drew near to Bethany, he foresaw that the house would be crowded with mourners and sympathisers—important people (for, in this gospel, "the Jews" means the leaders of the nation). The Greek text also neatly implies that the Bethany family were regarded as important people. These mourners of consequence would be there the more readily because of an expectation that Jesus would be present.

The Lord therefore sent a messenger ahead to inform the sisters of his coming. (Or had a lookout been posted in expectation of his coming?). Apparently Martha did not pass on the news to Mary, but immediately went to meet Jesus outside the village (v.30). She greeted him with the words; "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." It was the nearest to a reproach that she could attempt. "But," she added less directly, "I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee." The raising of Jairus' daughter and of the widow's son must have been known to Martha. But those had taken place within hours of death. Lazarus had been dead four days. However, such was the confidence of Martha in her Lord that even in these circumstances help might yet be possible.

The Lord's reply of comfort was designedly ambiguous; "Thy brother shall rise again". Was he directing her hope to the great resurrection at the end of the age, or was he preparing her mind for an immediate reward of faith?

Martha was not prepared to presume on the latter: "I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day." There is evidence of much uncertainty and ambiguity in contemporary Jewish thought about life after death, so Martha's emphatic declaration of faith had surely been learned from Jesus himself. Her confidence rested on what he himself had taught her.

Jesus now centred this re-assuring doctrine specifically on himself: "I am (i.e. now) the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." Martha's hopes were not to be disappointed.

The balance of phrases in this saying is worth noting. For those who die before his coming in glory he is Resurrection. For those believers who live to witness his return (1 Th.4 :15,17) he is Life.

It was probably at this point that Jesus also encouraged Martha with the assurance: "If thou believest, thou shalt see the glory of God" (v.40). The first miracle Jesus wrought is called a "manifesting of his glory" (2 :11), so this was now an almost direct promise that the Power of the Father in him would succour the sisters in their distress.

In reply Martha, in a comprehensive confession of faith, declared her confidence: "Lord, I do believe. I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, the Coming One." These familiar phrases point back to the great promise made to David (2 Sam.7), for "Christ" (Anointed) means "the promised King," and it is in that foundation Scripture (and in Ps. 2, 89, as commentaries on it) that he is picked out as Son of God. In these prophecies also there was anticipation of the resurrection of the dead, for "when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers" is given its completion in "thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee" (7:12,16), thus plainly implying resurrection. And "his seed shall endure for ever" (89:36) has the same idea. Martha's convictions were definite and clear.


Jesus added no more, save to bid her send Mary to him. This Martha did, taking care to communicate the message in a whisper, for among the many influential people joining in the formality of sharing their mourning were critics and enemies of Jesus.

Mary now lost no time in going out to meet Jesus, who had made no move to come to the house. Falling at his feet (see Study 74), she too confessed her grief, her need, her faith and hope: "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." How many times during the past few days had that sentiment been spoken with a sigh of sadness in that Bethany home! (but note here the force of Mt. 18:19).

There was opportunity to add little in reply, for the Jews who saw Mary leave the house had assumed that she was going to her brother's grave and therefore followed her. Seeing Mary's tears renewed, as a result of her meeting with Jesus, they too broke into loud conventional lamentation of an obviously artificial nature, The sharp contrast between the intense grief of his much-loved disciple and the crude insincerity of their clamour affected Jesus very strongly. A mighty surge of indignation at their hypocrisy almost mastered his deep sympathy for Mary in her bitter loss. The wave of emotion showed in his face (see the use of this word "troubled" in Jn.5 :4), and as he moved with Mary to the tomb tears came to his eyes, but whether in sorrow with the sisters, or in bitter disapproval of hypocritical mourners (cp. Lk.19 :4 1,42) it is difficult to say. The wretchedness and woe of the two sisters, the thought of his dear friend under the cold hand of death, and (very probably) the sickening plight of that nation that they should have as leaders and exemplars such false men as these who now added their caterwauling to the scene of sadness— all these things combined to produce in Jesus a tangle of emotions almost too much for his self-control. So even as he wept, he prayed (v.41,42).

Some of these Jews even broke off from their lamentations to comment repeatedly and in hostile cynical fashion: "Behold, how he loved hirn." Even more caustic was the unbelieving mockery: "Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man (even one so sick) should not have died?". The hostile intent of these words is surely established by Psalm 69 :10: "When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach" - with reference, naturally enough, to the miracle Jesus had recently wrought in Jerusalem (9 :6).

At the Tomb

So it was with mounting indignation that Jesus came to the sepulchre. Like the tomb in which he himself was to be laid, it was hewn out of the rock, and its entrance blocked by a mighty boulder; indeed, certain details in the Greek text might suggest that the entrance to the tomb was at the top, with a short flight of steps wining down into the interior (see Notes).

Peremptorily he called for the removal of the stone. Naturally enough, the practical-minded Martha protested; as nearest relation she had a right to protest. Lazarus was four days dead. By this time corruption could have set in (perhaps it is unwise to assume that it had).

But Jesus insisted. Had not the word brought by his messenger (v.4) bidden her: "Believe, and see the glory of God"? (cp.2:11). The Shekinah Glory of God, which had led forth captive Israelites to freedom from Egyptian bondage, now in the person of Jesus was to initiate a yet more splendid deliverance. There was no lack of willing hands to shift that ponderous boulder. Even if these influential Jewish mourners were loth to be implicated, Jesus had the twelve with him, and by this time, because the word had gone round that Jesus was come to Bethany, the entire village was gathered there (v.42).

Now, before the open tomb, Jesus stood and prayed, with eyes up-lifted to heaven. It was probably a quiet prayer, heard only by John and the few who stood close by. It was not a prayer for power. This gift had already been sought and received, probably when first the news about Lazarus had come to him: "I thank thee that thou didst hear me (in that prayer spoken earlier). I asked it then for the benefit of the multitude now standing here, that they may see and believe" (cp. Jn.12 :20). In this later prayer he now attributed the impending miracle to its Source.

Then, with a loud voice of authority (s.w. Mt.12 :19), he addressed himself to the corpse within the tomb: "Lazarus, come forth." The tense silence and concentration of attention of all that crowd may be imagined. Then the suppressed gasp of astonishment as Lazarus himself came into view—the eerie spectacle of a living man completely enswathed in the white linen wrappings of the dead. He groped his way uncertainly into the light of day, for sight was obscured by the cloth over his face.

"Loose him, and let him go," commanded Jesus. The reader is left wondering how many seconds elapsed before one or two bolder spirits conquered their sense of awe at the sight, and moved forward to help the risen man remove the napkin obscuring his face.

Detail upon detail combines to underline the matter-of-factness of the miracle. Wrought out of love for a lovely family, it was also for the benefit of “the multitude which standeth around.” Jesus did not know the place of interment (v.34), so there was no opportunity for any deceit. And Lazarus was four days dead (v.39), so no chance of burial mistake either. The great stone sealing the tomb’s entrance (v.38,41) was guarantee enough of an undisturbed body. Nor were the tears and prayer of Jesus the tokens of a charlatan (v.35,41,42). There was even something miraculous about Lazarus’s emergence from the cave “bound hand and foot with grave clothes” and sightless because of the covering secured over his face (v.44).

And it was of set purpose that Jesus commanded: “Loose him, and let him go”; i.e. “let him go away” (Gk.), to save him being pestered by the attentions of a curious crowd. To the end of their days those who first overcame their trepidation and set about releasing the risen Lazarus would testify emphatically that their hands handled a firm warm living body. There the whole multitude, friends and enemies alike, saw Lazarus united with his sisters, saw and heard him give praise and thanks to Almighty God and to His compassionate Son, saw him—still clad in linen wrappings—go through their midst to the familiar home whence he had been carried. Thus was the nation’s last tenuous excuse for doubt concerning Jesus finally shot to pieces.

But though doubt was gone, disbelief lived on. As always Jesus once again set the Jews into sharply defined groups. There were those, even among the nation’s leaders, who saw and believed. Others went off and vented their, antagonism in a virulent report to the Sanhedrin. "In truth (says one old commentator) death yields more readily to Christ's power than unbelief does."

The Seventh Sign

Why did they not believe? Jesus had given them evidence in plenty, and none more conclusive than this. It taught them not only the divine power and authority of this Man of Nazareth but also that there is hope of life after death only for those who are his friends. To these, who have believed him to be the Resurrection and the Life—to these, even though they have corrupted, he will come with the trumpet voice of authority (1 Th.4 :16): "Come forth." And come forth they will, cumbered still with all the marks of mortality until, with o further word of power, Jesus pronounces them loosed from such disabilities.

Various other details may perhaps be fitted into this picture. For instance, as Lazarus prefigures the sleeping friends of Christ, so also Mary and Martha could represent those who are alive at his coming; and this suggests o gathering to meet the Lord not all at once but in two well-defined groups (cp. Mt.25 :1-13; Study 178). Lazarus four days dead might suggest the long 4000 years from Abraham (the first man in Scripture to be told of a glorious resurrection to the fulfilment of that promise. The raising of Lazarus caused many to believe; and—it may be safely surmised—so also will the resurrection of other friends of Jesus at the last day. But there was also a sharp reaction by others into conspiracy against Jesus. This, too, will have its counterpart (Ps.2 :1,2).

These are not the only features of the story worth examining from this angle. For this miracle was also a sign, the seventh in John's gospel.

Notes: Jn. 11:l-44

This account of the resurrection of Lazarus is designedly enclosed between two pointed allusions to the death (and resurrection) of Jesus: 10:17,18; 11 :50-52.

Of Bethany, of the town of Mary. . . The variation in prepositions here (apo, ek) implies that Bethany was where Lazarus originated but that after his (and Jesus') resurrection he had to cease living there (cp. 1 :45,46 Gk.)—his life being under threat?

Mary and Martha. Everyone assumes that Mary was the younger. But it is easy to see why she is given priority here.
Lovest and loved (v.5). These differing Gk. words preserve a nice decorum about Christ's relations with this family. For the distinction see also: 15:17,19; 21 :15,16,17; Rev.3 :9,19; 1 Cor.l6:22,24.
Glorified. It is difficult to find a comprehensive definition of what is meant in this gospel by the diverse uses of this word. Strong witness? With this passage cp. 9 :2,3.
Other examples of the Lord's indirect answers:2 :4,19;3 :5,10;4 :13,21; 6 :32,53; 8 :7,25,54; 10:25.
Another possibility is that Jesus *vas still speaking with reference to himself and his present but not long-tasting uncertainty as to how best to cope with the problem created by the death of Lazarus.
Our friend. Lazarus was evidently held in affection by all the apostles also.
He shall do well. Gk: shall be saved. John with a keen eye to a double meaning sees this as signifying also; if he sleep, he shall be saved by resurrection (at the last day). Other examples: v.50; 7 :35.
Spake. This word means a special divine utterance, the equivalent of "Thus saith the Lord," in Old Testament.
Fellow disciples. This one Gk. word, which comes nowhere else, is used concerning Thomas to prepare the way for his later loyalty in spite of disbelief; 20:26 (and see "Risen indeed", ch. 17).
Mary sat still in the house. The suggestion has been made that Mary was the one who had ministered to Lazarus at his end and that therefore she was now unclean through contact with the dead (Num.19 :11,12). In that case, in v.28 (and 44) the Lord was setting aside the uncleaness of death.
Lord, if thou hadst been here. The presence of Jesus all-sufficient; cp.4 :49.
Whatsoever thou wilt ask of Cod. Jesus had prayed openly at the healing of the blind man; 9:31.
Shall never die. On this phrase see Study 112.
She goeth to the grave. So the grave and Jesus were in the same direction, i.e. on the east side of the village.
He groaned in the spirit. NT, LXX, Versions all use this word in the sense of indignation, anger, severity. There is no single example of it meaning lamentation.
Where have ye laid him? Here and in v. 17 ("found") are signs of limitations in the knowledge of Jesus.
Take ye away the stone. The verb here and in v.41a is the same as v.41b: Jesus "lifted" up his eyes to heaven. Also, in v.38 "a stone lay upon it," not "before it" (in 20 :2; Mt.28 :2 the details are different).
He that was dead. This perfect participle might imply that it was as a corpse that Lazarus came out of tomb (cp. ls.26:19).

Other details in the symbolism which attract attention are: the two days' delay, the wailing of the Jews, the indignation of Jesus, and his prayer at the graveside.

Previous Index Next