In the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John, we learn that sickness and death had come to the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus at Bethany. And barring the soon return of Christ, sickness and death will eventually come to every home. If they have not occurred yet, they will in the future. One wife sadly said, following her husband’s death, “You would have thought that we never expected to die. We never discussed it or made any preparation for it.”
Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, was sick and likely died before the message about his illness ever reached Jesus. Burial in Bible times was usually done without embalming, and it often occurred the same day as the death. The raising of Lazarus from the tomb, after he had been dead four days, was the greatest of Jesus’ miracles recorded by John. This event occurred just before the time of our Lord’s crucifixion in Jerusalem.
1. The Illness and Death of Lazarus (John 11:1-16)
Sickness is not necessarily a sign that God is displeased with us. Illness is permitted in our lives because it often leads to spiritual growth. Sickness tends to draw our affections away from the world to center them on things above.
Unless the return of Jesus to the earth occurs very soon, every human being will eventually face death. Many people today live in fear of death, because for them death is the end of their pleasures in life. They shrink from death because they are not sure what they will encounter in the process. The Bible teaches that victory over the fear of death can be found through faith in Jesus Christ.
a. The sickness of Lazarus (11:1-6)
When introducing the great miracle described in chapter 11, John identifies the man who died by giving his name, the place where he lived, and his connection with others who are named in the account (verses 1-2).
Lazarus, and Mary and Martha, provided a home for Jesus when He ministered in the Jerusalem area. Their home was always open to the Lord Jesus. They loved Him and provided an atmosphere that brought a sense of serenity to their best Friend. John says that Jesus loved all three members of the household (verse 5). All three of them were disciples of Jesus, and loved to serve Him.
Martha enjoyed preparing food for visitors; Mary sat at the feet of Jesus while He taught important truths (Luke 10:38-42); and Lazarus most likely provided something that was precious to Jesus. Readers of the Bible are not sure what that was. Verse 3 clearly says that Lazarus was one whom Jesus loved, and this Mary was the Mary who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped His feet with her hair (verse 2).
The brother, however, on this occasion was sick, and the sisters turned to Jesus for help (verse 3). They believed that He could help because they were aware of His miracles. Like Mary and Martha, we should not hesitate to ask Him for help when extraordinary help is needed.
Jesus explained that the sickness was allowed “for the glory of God” (verse 4). He then delayed His departure from Perea two more days before going to the house of this family that He loved very much (verse 6). Jesus was not indifferent to human suffering, but He knew that delay would provide a setting by which God could receive much glory. The Lord’s delays are not necessarily His denials.
b. The alarm of the disciples (11:7-10)
After a two-day delay (verses 6-7), Jesus said, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples knew that for Jesus to return to the Jerusalem area would be very risky indeed (verse 8).
Jesus and His disciples were ministering in Perea, on the east side of the Jordan River (John 10:40). To walk back to Bethany would take about two days, and the disciples knew that enemies were waiting with threats to stone Jesus, and so they were not sure about returning.
The phrase “twelve hours in the day” (verse 9a) was part of a proverbial saying. For the Jews, twelve hours of daylight referred to the time-slot from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. For every person, each hour of every day is a valuable gift which should be used to glorify God.
Jesus had said, “I must work the works of him that sent me while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4). None of us knows when the Lord will come, or the death angel will call—but when that moment comes, all opportunities to speak for the Lord, and to serve others, will suddenly grind to a halt.
c. The purpose of the delay (11:11-16)
When Jesus said (verse 15), “I am glad . . . I was not there,” He did not mean He was glad that Lazarus was dead. But He meant that if He had been there, He would likely have healed Lazarus before his death—and that would have canceled the opportunity for a large group of skeptical people to see the mighty miracle of raising Lazarus from the tomb—after four days of death.
Lazarus had been dead four days and therefore decay had set in and there would be an odor (verse 39). The fact that Lazarus was dead four days was evidence that he was truly dead—and so the miracle which Jesus would perform was not merely resuscitating His friend.
Death has been a mystery down through the years. The state of the dead is not described in great detail in the Scriptures, but death has sometimes been likened to sleep (verse 11) because the outward appearance of death and sleep are very similar. The Greek word translated “sleep” does not mean that the dead are unconscious. The term sleep has often been used in the Bible as equivalent to death. Jesus knew that the death of Lazarus was only a temporary state—for he would be awakened to begin life again.
The disciples knew the dangers of going back to Jerusalem with Jesus. They did not believe it was safe to return to Jerusalem, and so they questioned such a move (verse 8). Finally, Thomas expressed the thought that they should go with Jesus—and be prepared to “die with Him” (verse 16). Thomas, in the KJV is called Didymus, a word which means “the twin.” There is no indication who the twin brother or sister of Thomas might have been.
The words of Thomas imply that he was sure Jesus would be executed if He returned to Jerusalem, and the disciples also would suffer. But his readiness to share the danger with Jesus seems to show loyalty to Him. On the other hand, we learn in Matthew 26:56 that on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion “all the disciples (including Thomas) forsook Him and fled.”
So Lazarus was dead, and Jesus was ready to go back to Bethany (near Jerusalem)—but the disciples feared for their lives because they knew enemies were waiting to kill Jesus.
2. The Conversation with Martha and Mary (John 11:17-37)
By the time Jesus arrived at Bethany, the body of Lazarus was in a state of decay—so much so that no one could question whether Lazarus was really dead.
a. Jesus talks with Martha (11:17-27)
We know from Luke’s description of an event at the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) that Martha was inclined to be active and energetic, while Mary was more passive and retiring. Both sisters grieved that Jesus did not come to their aid when He was first summoned, but Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, rushed out to meet Him (verse 20), and said that if He had been there, their brother would not have died (verse 21).
Jesus used the occasion of the death of Lazarus to instruct Martha, not only about the resurrection of the dead, but also about the fact that He is the source of life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (verse 25a).
Believers (verse 25b) are pictured at the time of death. The words of Jesus (considering the Greek tenses), in essence say, Those who keep on believing in Me, though they die physically, yet will live; they will possess an ongoing everlasting life.
Those who believe in Jesus as the Messiah (verse 26) are also pictured as they live here on earth, before the time of death. The words of Jesus (considering the Greek tenses), in essence say, Those who keep on living and believing in Me shall never, never die; they shall never be separated from the presence of God.
Jesus has the power to impart, to maintain, and to restore life. Those who live for Jesus will die physically, but will never die spiritually—and will in a future day share the resurrection glory with Christ.
In Luke’s account, Martha is seen as being very busy about her serving, and perhaps less spiritual than Mary—but here she is seen as a woman of strong faith, when she says, “I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world” (verse 27).
b. Jesus talks with Mary (11:28-37)
Mary’s nature was more subdued than Martha’s.
Mary had been so overcome with grief that she had not ventured out of the house—but when she heard that Jesus had come and was looking for her, she quickly went to Him at a place outside the town where He had met Martha (verses 29-30).
Mary said the same thing that Martha had said, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother [would not have] died” (verse 32). Mary was weeping (verse 33), and Jesus also wept (verse 35) when He saw Mary and the others weeping. Jesus did not weep with the hopeless wailing of the other mourners, but He sympathized with tears that ran down His face.
Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. The weeping in verse 33 is described with a form of the verb klaio (which means to wail or to lament loudly). However, the Greek verb in verse 35 is not klaio, but dakruo, which simply means to burst into tears. The word dakruo is used only here in the New Testament. It is a rare word which means merely “to shed tears.” The weeping of Jesus was not the hopeless wailing of the other mourners, but a sympathizing shedding of tears, which may have indicated that Jesus was reluctant to call Lazarus back into this vale of tears.
Christians are reminded in this passage that we have a God who cares. Jesus is a God who is filled with compassion and concern for His followers. At the graveside of Lazarus, Jesus showed that He cares enough for us to weep with us in our sorrows.
Jesus’ delay in returning to the home in Bethany gave the impression to some that He did not care what happened to Lazarus—but the opposite was really true. Jesus has never been indifferent to human problems. Even the bystanders sensed that Jesus deeply loved Lazarus (verse 36). We have a high priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Hebrews 4:15).
The Lord Jesus is full of sympathy and of tender compassion. Just because He is the mighty Son of God, does not remove Him from understanding our human needs. Christians can see the deity of Christ in the account of the raising of Lazarus, but His humanity also is clearly in evidence in the account. John 11 is really more about Jesus than it is about Lazarus.
3. Lazarus Brought Out of the Grave (John 11:38-44)
By this time Lazarus had been dead four days and his body was beginning to stink (verse 39b). The custom was to use spices to counteract the repulsive odors.
The crowd who had gathered for the funeral believed that the life and work of Lazarus was ended, and that any effort now to restore him to life was futile. Lazarus was buried and the tomb was sealed (verse 38). However Jesus is the Master of death—and quickly ordered that the stone should be removed (verse 39).
In the prayer which Jesus prayed (verses 41-42), He calmly thanked the Father for His answer even before the miracle had taken place. In these verses, believers are given a glimpse into the intimate relationship between the Father and Son in the Holy Trinity. And at that point Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”—and Lazarus emerged from the grave even though he had been dead four days (verses 43, 44a)! Jesus brought Lazarus alive from the tomb! Can you imagine the amazement that must have gripped the onlookers?
The grave clothes (verse 44) involved wrapping the dead body in bandages from the arms to the ankles, and then there was a separate head wrapping. When Lazarus was restored to life, he had to be released from all of those wrappings (verse 44b).
4. The Pharisees Plotted to Kill Jesus (John 11:45-57)
Many Jews believed as a result of witnessing the raising of Lazarus, but others were irritated and hostile. Some of the hostile Jews went to the Pharisees and told them about this activity of Jesus. Even some people who were opposed to Jesus, were convinced by the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead that Jesus was who He claimed to be—the Son of God who is equal with God the Father—and many who witnessed the miracle “believed in Him” (verse 45).
People could not deny the witness of what they saw—a dead man restored to life again after his body had begun to decay in the grave. The miracle proved that Jesus is the real life-giver. But instead of worshiping Jesus as the Messiah, some reported the miracle to the Pharisees (verse 46). They were annoyed by the fact that Jesus had been drawing the attention of the crowds to follow Him, and so the enemies began to lay a plot to put Him to death (verses 47-48).
John explains that some of the eyewitnesses not only rejected Jesus, but actually plotted His murder. They were desperate to kill Him.
In verses 49-53, Caiaphas the high priest, without knowing it, spoke a profound truth. He said that the death of Jesus would be expedient for the nation (verse 50), but he meant that it would be better to get rid of the unwanted Jesus—than it would be to face the Romans who might take some of the Jewish self-rule out of their hands.
The miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead was the occasion which ultimately led to the trial and death of Jesus (John 11:53)—but it was also the occasion for proclaiming that Jesus is the resurrection and the life (verse 25).
God’s people possess a faith that claims victory over the grave. Christians stand by the graveside today, knowing that since their Lord is this same Jesus, they have a sure hope of a beautiful life beyond, even though death is a time of grief and sadness. Christians really need not fear death.
While those who believe in Jesus prepare for death—death is not the central focus of our lives. The central focus for us is the resurrection. We look for the day when Jesus will appear and will transform our lowly bodies to become like His glorious body (Philippians 3:9-10).
While we are burdened for those we love and leave behind at death, we recognize that our dying will be great gain. We look forward to the “riches” of God’s grace as mentioned and promised in Ephesians 2:7.
While we enjoy life here on earth, it is enjoyed only temporarily, because we are ready to depart from it. We know that “to die is gain” and that “to depart and be with Christ is far better” (Philippians 1:21-23).
Death, for the Christian, is not the end of the road.
It is a tunnel that leads to a bright and shining land.
Death is like graduation in school.
For the Christian, it is promotion from a lower to a higher life. Death is a mystery to the human mind, but in the Bible we find the key which unlocks the meaning and purpose of death.
The Scriptures speak often about the death of believers. Their death is “precious” in the Lord’s sight (Psalm 116:15).
Death for believers is being carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22).
Death for the Christian is a going into Paradise (Luke 23:43);
- it is entering a place with “many mansions” (John 14:2);
- it is to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8);
- it is “gain”—and it is “far better” than life here (Philippians 1:21, 23).
Death is a “shadow” (Psalm 23:4), but you can’t have a shadow without a light—and the Lord Jesus, our Shepherd, is that Light!
John Bunyan, in Pilgrim’s Progress, tells how the timid Christian named (Mr. Fearing), knowing that he must cross the river of death some day, approached it with trembling and uncertainty—but found that it was only ankle deep. All of us experience the joys and trials of life, and all will face death. But the presence of Jesus with us can help free us from the fear of death. Those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ shall not die eternally.