First, a question: If you’d been there in Bethany as friends of the family, how would you have reacted to Jesus’ raising of Lazarus?
Would you have been ecstatic that your friend was alive again?
Would have bowed before Jesus in worship?
Would you have gone to the religious experts of the day — the Pharisees — and asked them to explain how a Sabbath breaker could raise the dead?
Would you have feared that the Romans might take notice of this “Messiah” and begin to kill everyone associated with him — including you — by crucifixion?
Would have been angry that Jesus didn’t come sooner — or didn’t heal Lazarus so he need not have died?
Would you grab Jesus by sleeve and beg him to raise your mother and father, too? Do you confront him, asking why your own relatives aren’t good enough to also be raised?
Would you have thought Jesus a fool for risking his life by doing such a sign only two miles from Jerusalem?
Would you have imagined an army overthrowing Rome because, with Jesus as King, the army could not die and could not even become ill?
Let’s be honest. If we’d been part of a brutally occupied, heavily taxed Judea, we’d have pictured Jesus doing something about it.
And so, I think the correct answer is likely “yes.” All of the above.
We are a theological people. We’d have desperately wanted some way to fit this event into our theology — and until we could make it fit, we’d struggle with how to react. We’d be thrilled to have our friend back, but not so sure that we’d be willing to suffer a Roman crucifixion for it.
Jesus has a way of breaking us down to our core, forcing us to confront who we really are. Separating light from darkness.
He doesn’t make it easy. He could have healed from 100 miles away. He could have taken no credit. He could have protected Lazarus from illness and death entirely. But that is not his way; it’s not the way of truth and light.
Now, imagine that you’re Jesus. A friend brings a message from Bethany. Your beloved friend Lazarus is desperately ill and likely to die.
“Bethany” means “house of the poor” and may well have been a place for the diseased to live outside of Jerusalem. The city may have been filled with lepers and others with contagious, incurable diseases — which would explain why Lazarus had not married.
Should you hurry to Bethany? What if you’re arrested on the way? It’s not yet your time and being arrested would do Lazarus no favors. Should you heal from a distance? That would be a great blessing to Mary and Martha, but how would that bring glory to God? How would that encourage his apostles so that they’d later be ready to die as martyrs for Jesus?
Do you delay to make certain the magnitude of the miracle would be seen? Do you delay just to show that no one can tell you when to do anything — you being God in the flesh and all?
In his John for Everyone commentary, N. T. Wright offers what is the obvious answer. You pray.
Jesus would later say,
(John 11:41-42 ESV) 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”
John does not record Jesus’ prayer. Was it a quick, pithy silent prayer made up on the spot? Or did Jesus spend two days in agonized prayer, seeking direction and protection from the Father?
We struggle so much to see the fully human side of Jesus. We imagine that all this was easy for him. But in reality, he was risking his life to save his friend. He was taking a critical step on his journey inevitably leading to his death — and he surely knew it.
He would be forced into hiding for a while. And, who knows, perhaps Lazarus himself would be persecuted for it, just as was the blind man.
Easy? Easy to raise the dead, for Jesus, but not so easy to travel to Bethany and do it before witnesses from Jerusalem. Indeed, there are many things that are easy — unless you decide to do them in the name of God.
Had Jesus been a faith healer, healing for profit, the Pharisees would have paid him no mind. There were plenty of magicians around in those days, and no one cared. Magicians don’t threaten the status quo. No, even raising the dead doesn’t get you in trouble — unless you do it claiming to be the Messiah.
That’s the hard part — and that’s the part that required Jesus to spend two extra days in prayer.