The main focus in the raising of Lazarus, in John chapter 11, is faith. Jesus was soon going to die, and he needed his disciples to understand that this was planned: they needed to believe that he had the power to rise from the dead, that he is the resurrection and the life, and that he is in control of all things.
At the very beginning of the chapter we are informed that Lazarus was ill. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were obviously concerned enough to send word to Jesus, expecting that he would come and heal him.
“When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” – John 11 v 4
As soon as Jesus hears this news he clearly informs his disciples that this won’t be the end of the life of Lazarus. Moreover, his sickness has a purpose, and that is to glorify Jesus as Christ. It is also mentioned in verse 5 that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, indicating a special bond between them.
“When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.” – John 11 v 6
One would expect that Jesus would drop everything he was doing and go to heal Lazarus, especially as he was so dear to him; or perhaps he would just heal him immediately from afar, as he did with the centurion’s servant in Luke chapter 7. It would have seemed quite odd that Jesus stayed where he was for two days after hearing this news, knowing that Lazarus would probably have been critically ill for some time before Jesus got to him.
“These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.” – John 11 v 11
Jesus doesn’t directly inform his disciples that he plans to raise Lazarus from the dead. Instead, he uses obscure phrases to refer to the death of Lazarus and of his intent to raise him from the dead, seemingly encouraging his disciples to read into the things he is saying. Jesus’ disciples react as one would expect, believing that Jesus meant that he was literally resting:
“Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.” – John 11 v 12-14
When his disciples fail to understand the meaning in what he said, Jesus clearly states that Lazarus is dead.
“And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him.” – John 11 v 15
Jesus explains the situation, that he allowed Lazarus to die for a good reason, which was to increase their faith. Without saying that he is going to raise him from the dead, he has made it clear that this is what he shall do. He initially says, “This sickness is not unto death”, then mentions that Lazarus is sleeping and shall be awoken from sleep, then says that Lazarus is dead. Although seemingly contradictory, when the pieces are put together it is clear to the disciples what Jesus plans to do.
“Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.” – John 11 v 17
The significance of Lazarus being dead for four days was great, as the Jews believed that a person’s spirit remained with the body up to the third day. Lazarus being dead four days would mean to them that there was no hope of his resurrection – other than at the last day, the day of judgement at the end of the world.
“Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.” – John 11 v 21-22
The first thing that Martha does, in plain modern English, is to say “It’s your fault Lazarus is dead.” She obviously believes that Jesus had the power to save her brother, but this is hindered by her belief that he had to be present in order to do so. Her attitude suggests that she felt it unnecessary that Lazarus died, and that this was a failure on Jesus’ part: he should have seen this coming and got to them quicker, so why didn’t he do so? Even though she has this negative attitude, she says that she still believes that Jesus has the power to perform miracles, and that she hasn’t lost her faith in him.
“Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” – John 11 v 23-34
As with his disciples, Jesus doesn’t tell Martha that he is going to raise Lazarus from the dead, but seems to encourage her to read into what he is saying. Although Martha claims that God will do whatever Jesus asks, when he says that her brother will rise again she can only think that he is referring to the resurrection of the dead at the last day.
“Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” – John 11 v 25-26
Jesus response is to inform her that life and resurrection comes through him, and that salvation is through him. Rather than being powerless in the situation of Lazarus, Jesus is claiming to have ultimate power, even the power over life and death.
“She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.” – John 11 v 27
The responding statement from Martha shows how God has revealed the truth of Jesus to her, that he is Christ.
“Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” – John 11 v 32
Mary says exactly the same thing as Martha; however, unlike Martha, rather than retaining hope in Jesus she falls down at his feet, weeping, despondent and completely defeated. All she can see is Jesus’ failure.
“When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.” – John 11 v 33
In verse 33 and later in verse 38 we read that Jesus ‘groaned’ or ‘sighed’, and in some translations was ‘deeply moved’. This is not a good translation of the original Greek.
The Greek word translated as ‘groaned’ in verse 33 is ‘enebrimēsato’ and in verse 38 ’embrimōmenos’. The meaning of these words is to be outraged, furious, to have indignation or to sigh with chagrin.
According to the interpretation of the original Greek, Jesus felt righteous indignation, which is anger over an insult, such as what Jesus expressed when he drove the money changers out of the temple in Matthew chapter 21. The Oxford dictionary’s description of chagrin is ‘annoyance or distress at having failed or been humiliated’. A more accurate translation for “he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled” would be “he felt indignation at being considered a failure, and was troubled.”
“And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see.” – John 11 v 34
After feeling this indignation he asked where Lazarus was laid.
“Jesus wept. Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him! And some of them said, Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died?” – John v 35-27
Many people who interpret this chapter claim that Jesus is distressed at seeing Mary and the Jews so upset, or that he is angry that death claimed someone he loved. This doesn’t make sense, especially as he had previously stated his gladness at Lazarus’ death, as his resurrection would be a boost to their faith. Also, he was only a moment away from raising Lazarus from the dead: how could Jesus be upset knowing that the present sorrow of the people will be replaced by overwhelming joy, having their beloved brother back with them, and seeing the power of God achieving the impossible?
It would be like getting upset to see a poor person crying due to their needs when you are bringing them news that they have just become a millionaire: in this situation, wouldn’t one find it hard to contain one’s excitement, knowing that the person would soon be filled with joy, and their despair over? Perhaps an emotional tear may be shed in this situation, but one would not feel indignation or be troubled.
We read that the Jews interpreted Jesus’ tears as a show of love for Lazarus, and sadness of his death. They also question why Jesus couldn’t save him. Note that they don’t ask why he ‘did not’ save Lazarus, but they asked why he ‘could not’. This shows quite clearly their belief that Jesus had failed. Rather than their interpretation of Jesus weeping being accurate, it is clear that they have misunderstood the situation.
“Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.” – John 11 v 38
Jesus didn’t weep because he was moved with compassion due to everyone being so distraught at Lazarus’ death. He didn’t sigh because he was empathically sad at seeing everyone else so upset. This wasn’t evidence of Jesus’ humanity and an emotional response to the death of someone he dearly loved. Jesus wept and felt indignation because, even though he had tried to tell everyone, no one believed that he was in control and that he had the power to raise the dead. To put it plainly, no one had enough faith in him – they considered this incident to be a failure. It was highly important that they believed on him, as he would shortly give his life for them, and the main part of salvation is to believe that Christ died for our sins, and that he was raised that we might have eternal life.
Throughout the chapter, rather than telling of his plan in plain speech, Jesus prompts people to believe that he is in control, and that all things are possible with him. It’s entirely clear to see if one reads the chapter again with this in mind.
What other reason would Jesus have for not telling them plainly at the very beginning that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead? Why unnecessarily cause the people to suffer in grief, and then become upset to see them cry? This interpretation defies common sense.
Hebrews 5 v 7 mentions that Jesus wept in the garden of Gethsemane, before his crucifixion. His weeping here was not just due to the physical pain he would suffer, but also the thought of separation from God by taking punishment for the sins of the world. In Matthew 27 v 6 Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This is in response to the separation from God by sin, as the punishment of sin is transferred to Christ, where he takes on the punishment due to those who find salvation through him. In this situation the feeling of being even temporarily separated from God the Father distresses Jesus.
The only other time that we read of Jesus weeping is in Luke chapter 19, where he weeps over Jerusalem:
“And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, And shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.” – Luke 19 v 41-44
Why was the city to be destroyed? As Jesus said, “because thou knewest not the time of thy visitaiton.” The people had not acknowledged Jesus as Christ, and had not believed in him, even though the scriptures spoke of him. Jesus wept both times because of the blindness of his people. If only they had faith in him, and had listened with their hearts and understood. Jesus wanted them to believe unto salvation.
“Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” – John 11 v 39
Although Martha expressed that she believed Jesus was Christ, and that she had faith in him, she still doesn’t believe that Jesus knows what he is doing. She doesn’t understand what he plans to do – it hasn’t entered her mind that he can raise Lazarus from the dead.
“Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?” – John 11 v 40
Jesus response shows that he expected Martha to believe that he would raise Lazarus from the dead. His phrase “Said I not unto thee” is the same as “Didn’t I tell you?” This reaction is the same as saying, “You should have believed me.” The hints that Jesus gave should have been enough for Martha to, at the very least, hope that Jesus would raise Lazarus from the dead, or trust that he was in control of the situation.
“Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.” – John 11 v 41-42
Here we get to the point of the matter. The entire incident of the raising of Lazarus is centered upon Jesus, to the end that everyone will believe that he is sent from God the Father, and that in him is life and resurrection.
“And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go. Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him.” – John 11 v 43-45
We see that the people who saw these things believed on Christ, but only after they had seen this miracle. Before the miracle they were all filled with hopeless doubt. Jesus desired more that people should have faith, rather than believing on him through witnessing his power.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” – Hebrews 11 v 1
“Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” – John 20 v 19
Belief that Jesus is Christ, the Son of God, and that all things are under his control is the main point of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus, knowing that he would not be physically present with the people much longer, needed them to believe unto salvation. Christians today are called to have this very same faith, and yet even today we are more focused on emotional feelings and easily miss the true message of God.