1 Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. 3 So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” 4 But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when He heard that he was sick, He then 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.” 8 The disciples *said to Him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” 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.” 11 This He said, and after that He *said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.” 12 The disciples then 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 was speaking of literal sleep. 14 So Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” 16 Therefore Thomas, who is called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.” John 11:1-16
This is the denouement of gospel miracles. The grand finale of John’s seven signs. The stage was set in Bethany for Jesus to teach his disciples, friends, the scribes and Pharisees, a weeping and wailing crowd, and us, about his absolute power over death.
The main characters, Mary, Martha, and Thomas, are well fleshed out in scripture. Doting Mary. Fretting Martha. Doubting Thomas. But we go even deeper into their psyches as the pressures revolving around the untimely death of friend bring out raw emotions.
Bethany was just two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews were in town to comfort and console Martha and Mary on the death of their beloved brother Lazarus. In those times, funerals were certainly no private graveside affairs.
But it would have all been different if Jesus, also a close friend, would have done something! But for some crazy reason (ah, His glory?), he hesitated two days in coming back to Bethany, or in some people’s minds, like the centurion, to “just say the word” from afar. Here’s a truism: delays in healing (or anything else stretching for that matter) are calculated for God’s maximum glory. In this case, the two-day delay was to teach the disciples to believe.
“…and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” (v.15)
Let’s recount the story as it stood upon Jesus’ arrival at Bethany. Four days prior, with Lazarus in obvious decline and clinging to life, the sisters dispatched a messenger to Jesus in Bathabara, about 20 miles away. “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick,” the messenger choked out as he caught his breath. But it is likely that as soon as the courier left Bethany, Lazarus breathed his last. Probably at the end of the first day, the exhausted messenger reached Jesus and delivered the bad news. The Master sent this return message:
“This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” (v.4)
It is likely that the messenger resumed in the morning, the second day (if on foot). But still, even if he turned right around and high-tailed it, it would have been on the second day that Jesus’ “encouraging words” were relayed to Mary and Martha. Amid preparations for Lazarus’ body and flowing tears, hearing Jesus’ perspective now was like reading yesterday’s newspaper.
But this message is key to understanding the setup to the major miracle. How would Mary and Martha react? By that time, Jesus had raised the widow’s son at Nain and Jarius’ daughter at Capernaum. Who knows what was in the back of their minds? Could Jesus pull it off again? That’s where the four-day wait caused them to lose all hope. Unlike the widow’s son or Jarius’ daughter, their brother was now embalmed and entombed in a cave. Everyone knew by now he had begun decomposing.
This is precisely what the Lord was going for; an absolutely hopeless, “all is lost” scenario in which to work.
Now back to the disciples’ camp. You can imagine the mixed emotions among the disciples. Was the Lord going back into harm’s way to minister to his dear friends? The Jews had planned to stone him if he ever showed his face in Judea again, you know. There was some relief, at least initially, when he was silent on the matter. But then he announced, yes, he was indeed going back. “Oh no, he can’t do that!” they thought to themselves. “Does he expect us to go?” they had to think. Then Jesus describes Lazarus as “asleep.” Why worry then? “Alright, let me be plain,” Jesus pronounced, “He’s dead!”
Thomas, tone deaf to these semantics, was riveted on the greater issue: “Am I willing to die for my Lord?” With passion, Thomas announced that he was “all in.”
I see a lot of me in Thomas. Yes the doubting part fits easy, but don’t I always project into the future and see only gloom and doom? His resolution to die with the Lord was commendable, but he practically ignored the Lord’s omnipotence. Jesus does not want us to lose hope–ever. The reason: he’s still in the driver’s seat.
The Lord’s seemingly “left field” illustration about day and night (v. 9-10) is also noteworthy. To Jesus, being in the light was an opportunity to do good. It also brought about a sense of urgency, because the light was fleeting. Then there was God’s purpose for us; to live our lives in the light that he shines on our paths, making his will clear to us.
There are far more lessons packed into this passage, and I will get to them in another installment, but for one, as mentioned, as long as Jesus is around (that’s forever and ever!), all hope is not lost. We see Thomas planning a protection plan for Jesus, Mary consumed with grief and looking to Jesus for solace, and Martha perplexed and using the Lord as a sounding board. He’s present and accounted for, on the other hand, saying later, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (v.40)
As long as Jesus is alive and well, He is still a game-changer, especially in a matter of life and death. Is he then, alive and well right now in your times of trouble? You gotta believe!
Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. (v.25-26)
He is a “very present help” in times of trouble.” See Psalm 46:1
For background, a reasonably faithful rendering of this story from Jesus of Nazareth, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies about Jesus ever made.