John 11: 17 – 44 Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
Martha went to meet Jesus, but Mary stayed at home. Did she blame Jesus for not healing her brother? It would have been understandable.
‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.’
Martha certainly blames Jesus, and says so. But she also feels a desperate hope and, even though Jesus has let her brother die, she feels a tiny trickle of faith.
Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’
This has been a central part of Jesus’ teaching (see, for example John 6: 40). Martha thinks about what Jesus has just said, and then answers in a way which shows that she has remembered his teaching.
Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’
Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
Jesus amplifies the teaching, making it clear that belief in him is the way to eternal life. Then he asks Martha whether she truly believes it. This time, she answers not just with her intellectual understanding, but with heart and head and will. She confesses Jesus as Messiah.
‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’
Now she has genuine hope! The trickle of faith has become a stream. She goes home and persuades Mary to come to Jesus.
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. ‘The Teacher is here,’ she said, ‘and is asking for you.’ When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’
Mary blames Jesus, but her faith in him is unshaken.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked.
‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied.
Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’
Jesus mourned with Mary. He stood alongside her in her grief and wept. He knew there was no need to grieve for Lazarus; he knew what he was going to do; but out of sheer fellow-feeling he weeps with Mary and the mourners. In this, he shows that the Son of Man is fully human, as well as being the Son of God. He experiences our emotions.
But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Yes, he could, but that was not what God had planned. God’s plan was that the miracle of Lazarus being raised to life should strengthen the faith of the witnesses, especially the twelve disciples who were closest to Jesus and who would need to bear witness to Jesus’ own resurrection.
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. ‘Take away the stone,’ he said.
‘But, Lord,’ said Martha, the sister of the dead man, ‘by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.’
Martha doesn’t know what’s going to happen. She has faith in Jesus, but she also trusts what her senses and her experience tell her. Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. The corpse will be rotting. She makes a very human objection.
Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’
What authority Jesus must have shown to cause them to open the tomb with no further argument!
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’
Now Jesus explains to the onlookers why he didn’t heal Lazarus, but let him die. It was so that this great miracle could inspire the witnesses. But as we shall hear tomorrow, it goes further than being a sign to bring people to faith; it’s a cause of division between Jesus and the chief priests and Pharisees, and it is the catalyst that makes Jesus’ death inevitable.
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth round his face.
Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’
What did Martha and Mary feel, I wonder? Horror? Awe? Terror? Joy? How do we feel when God answers prayer?
* * *
This narrative can be looked at as a model of intercessory prayer. When Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus, (John 11: 3) they are praying. They believe that Jesus can heal their brother, and the request that Jesus should heal him is implicit. They are praying in faith, because they have seen Jesus heal people. Despite praying in faith, their prayer doesn’t seem to be answered; Lazarus dies.
But Jesus goes to them, arriving four days after Lazarus has died. “Why didn’t you heal my brother, Lord?”
Jesus teaches Martha by saying, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ And Martha says, “Yes, okay, at the resurrection, at the last day.” She doesn’t say so, but you can imagine her anguished thought, “But that doesn’t give me back my brother.” So Jesus makes it personal. He reminds her of what he has taught many times, that those who believe in him will live, and then asks her if she believes this. And she says, ‘I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’
This exchange is emphatically not Jesus testing Martha’s faith. He knows the state of Martha’s faith better than she does. By prompting Martha to confess her faith in him as Messiah, Jesus draws her closer to himself. She knows him better, and she understands the relationship between them better.
She can still make mistakes, though. Her very human response to Jesus’ instruction to take away the stone from the tomb shows that her understanding is still far from perfect. But Jesus is in control now, and, after spelling out his motivation for doing the miracle – that the witnesses may believe that God has sent him – he raises Lazarus from the dead.
I draw three lessons from this account. The first is that God does miracles for his own reasons; we need to align ourselves with his plan if we are to see miracles happen in response to our intercessions. Secondly, an intercession should be a two way process – not just us asking, but us listening to what God has to say to us about our request. Thirdly, provided we approach prayer with a clear understanding that we are to do God’s will rather than that he is to answer what we want, there is no barrier to what Jesus can accomplish.
Thank you for the love you show in teaching me through prayer. Please help me to put your will first in everything I do.
In Jesus’ name, Amen