John’s Gospel: Chapter 11:1-16 (“Lazarus has fallen asleep”)

(John 11:1-3 ESV) Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.  3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

We know from the Synoptics that Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were great friends of Jesus. Here we’re told that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet — which John will cover in more detail in chapter 12.

It’s very interesting that Lazarus is introduced as “he whom you love.” Ben Witherington concludes that the disciple whom Jesus loved is in fact Lazarus and not John, a theory which explains many features of the gospel, such as why the final meal recorded with the disciples before the crucifixion is so very different from what we read about in the Synoptics. There’s no Lord’s Supper in John and no washing of feet in the Synoptics. But if Lazarus is the reporter, then Lazarus may well have not been present for the Lord’s Supper, since he wasn’t an apostle.

This would also explain such passages as —

(John 21:22 ESV)  22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

It would make sense that the disciples might wonder whether Lazarus would ever die again.

Witherington’s intriguing article is posted.

(John 11:4 ESV)  4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Jesus was, of course, looking beyond the immediate.

(John 11:5-7 ESV) 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.  7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

Huh? How does the “so” in v. 6 fit? Jesus delayed going because of his love for the family? He delayed?

Since Jesus has just been quoted as saying that Lazarus will not die, Jesus was obviously planning on raising him from the dead. The author’s point is not that Jesus was ignorant of the likely course of the disease.

Now, when Jesus does arrive in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days. Bethany is only two miles from Jerusalem. It’s unlikely that Jesus’ delay resulted in Lazarus’ death. In fact, Lazarus had likely died by the time the messenger reached Jesus, to fully account for the time.

And yet Jesus delayed. If he knew Lazarus was already dead, the delay put Mary and Martha through the agony of a funeral for their brother. They were all unmarried, and Lazarus may well have been the support of the family. In any event, he was the only family they had. It had to be a terrible two days.

And yet the text says “so.” Because Jesus loved them, he waited two days. Why would Jesus do this? What possible advantage would it be to the family for Jesus to wait?

It’s a hard one. But the “so” is there in the Greek, too. Jesus’ delay was motivated by love. It’s up to us to figure out how.

Well, in those days, many had the superstitious belief that the body was not fully dead until the third day. I suppose this arose from the occasional mistaken burial of a living but comatose person. Therefore, for the miracle to be perceived in its fullness, time had to pass.

What does this have to do with loving Mary and Martha? Oddly enough, if he’d raised Lazarus on the second day, they might have been accused of burying their brother when he was not yet truly dead.

Moreover, anything that redounds to the glory of God is for the love of God’s children. Surely, the women were ultimately blessed to have been part of such a wondrous miracle.

Some commentators suggest that it’s the author’s desire to demonstrate that Jesus always acts at his own way, in his own time. He is too “other,” too supreme, to be driven by earthly circumstances. Thus, Jesus goes to the Feast of Booths at a time of his own choosing. He crosses the Sea of Galilee at his own time.

Frankly, I find little comfort in that theory at all. After all, one of the most obvious lessons in the passage is: “Jesus wept.” Jesus is touched by human events and emotions. He not utterly “other.” He is both fully human and fully God. He certainly has a wisdom far beyond our own, and will often make decisions we’d not have been wise enough to make. But the point is certainly not that he is unaffected by the people around him!

(John 11:7-8 ESV)  7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”  8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”

The disciples aren’t stupid. You have to figure that they’d seen enough close calls in Jerusalem! They reminded Jesus that he was a wanted man — not that Jesus could have forgotten, but they were looking for an explanation for Jesus’ risky decision.

(John 11:9-10 ESV)  9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.  10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

“Are there not twelve hours in the day?” surely means that Jesus must use the time granted him very well. That may just require taking some risks.

There’s a lesson there for us all, I’m sure.

As a rabbi and the Word, Jesus could not resist applying the lesson to his listeners. While you have Jesus with you (while the disciple “walks in the day”) you will not stumble, because Jesus himself is their light. In other words, they’ll be safe with Jesus. It’s still day.

The second sentence, however, looks ahead to the more dangerous days after the crucifixion. The light of the world will be dead, and the disciples will be at great risk of stumbling.

More broadly, while you are following Jesus, you are safe. Leave the path, however, and life will be very dangerous indeed — just as is true of sheep and shepherds.

(John 11:11-15 ESV)  11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”  12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”  13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.  14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died,  15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

To “fall asleep” was a common Jewish euphemism for death, but, of course, it could also mean “fall asleep.” The disciples took the optimistic interpretation.

Jesus then makes the real situation clear, and declares that, for the sake of the disciples, it’s better that he died. At first this seems terribly callous, but we have to remember where we are in cosmic history. Jesus is about to be crucified. Peter is about to deny him. The apostles will all desert him.

They need to know that Jesus has the power to raise Lazarus — after he’s been dead long enough to remove all doubt — so that they will have faith to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. After all, there is hardly anything more important in the history of the universe than the willingness of the apostles to truly believe in the resurrection.

(John 11:16 ESV)  16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

This is false bravado, but at least the apostles were willing to make the trip with Jesus. They really needed to be in Bethany.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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