August 21, 2016.
This week a group of us got together to do a bible study, and we talked about the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (I know, I keep using my past week as prompts, but I’ve just gotten some good ideas from these discussions!), and during the discussion, someone brought out a new point of view that explains the story in a way I hadn’t really thought about before. Jesus shows his power over death through this story, and lets us know that it is in him that we should trust, though the waves rage. The new perspective has more explanatory power in my opinion, and I think it really brings out the emotion and personalities of the people involved well. Often, we read the bible in a very dry manner and forget that these stories were very animate as they played out. I hope you stick with me for a few minutes as we explore the story, perhaps in a new light.
The story is found in John 11, but a little background is needed to understand the story. In the previous chapter, Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem for the feast of dedication. it was here that Jesus made some bold claims, equating himself to God, and the Jewish authorities that were there tried to stone him for blasphemy. This will be important to remember when we see his disciples reaction to the possibility of going back to the place where he was almost stoned.
Further back, however, began his relationship with the three people that are introduced at the beginning of the story: Mary, Martha and Lazarus. As we will see from this story, and from the stories that mention them in other places (see Lk 10:38-42, John 12:1-11, Mt 26:6-13, Mk 14:3-9), Jesus had a special relationship with these friends. Lazarus is called “he whom you [Jesus] love” in this account, which is the same title given to John the beloved. Mary had anointed Jesus with oil and wiped his feed with her hair, and it will become apparent in this story that Martha had spent some serious time with the teachings of Jesus. It would seem that she might have even grasped them better than the disciples did. Certainly they had seen his miracles. So, when Lazarus fell gravely ill, it is no surprise that they turn to Jesus.
“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 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.”
Their brother was sick, and they knew just the person who could make him well again. Better yet, this person was their friend, their teacher. They had spent many days with him, listening to his words and witnessing his signs. Now they needed a miracle themselves. Surely the Rabbi would come and save the day. And that he would. Little did they know, however, that he would do it in a way that would test and refine their faith in a way that they didn’t even imagine.
This illness did not lead to death. It would lead Lazarus through death. Though his death, Jesus would show that He held the power over death. He would show that He is the resurrection. But first, Lazarus had to die.
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 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. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
This part of the story always threw me. Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus… so he didn’t go to them right away. Can you imagine how hard that would have been? You’re friend is dying, and you are the only one with the power to stop that; you’re friends are going through great emotional grief, and you know that you can stop it. But Jesus stayed to let Lazarus die, for he knew what was going to happen. He knew that what he was going to do would change them and make them grow in ways that were not possible through a simple healing. Though he knew what was best, he still had to choose what was hard at the time.
Jesus had a point to make: Death had no claim on Him.
We see the doubt of this claim first in these verses. Once Lazarus dies, Jesus tells his disciples that they are going back to Judea. His disciples don’t want to go. They are afraid. Jesus had almost been stoned there not too long ago. Why would he want to go back! Notice his statement to them. “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. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” Perhaps an oddity to us, but I believe that Jesus was telling his disciples that he was not going to be with them for much longer, but while he was, they were to trust in him and not give in to their fear of death. While he was with them, they would be protected (John 17:12). Jesus did not fear death, though he was on the path to his own; his disciples did. That was why they needed this lesson, which would foreshadow His own raising.
“After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Note their reluctance still. “He’ll be okay, we don’t have to go back there.” Jesus had to tell them plainly that Lazarus was dead. I’m sure his next statement confused them even more, saying he was glad that he wasn’t there for their sakes. They weren’t grasping the lesson yet. In the end, I take Thomas’ statement as frustrated reassignment. “Looks like we have no choice. Let’s go die I guess.” He still wasn’t trusting in Jesus (though he should get some credit for still going, regardless of what he believed was going to happen).
What they were to learn, however, was that Jesus was the Resurrection and the Life.
“Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
Here we see the first reactions of Mary and Martha when they hear Jesus is coming. “He’s too late! Why did he wait this long!” They feeling of betrayal must have been running through their very being. He was their friend. They loved him. How could he not come?
Mary doesn’t even go to Jesus at first. But Martha does. She is still upset. “If you had just been here…” I can feel the tears in her eyes. But this is were I think we should see something remarkable in Martha (and the new perspective that was suggested to me). Martha seems to understand something about Jesus that his disciples didn’t even get. “But even now, whatever you ask from God, God will give it to you.” This is what I never understood about this passage because of the interpretation of the next verse that I had. The next part the passage to me always seemed like Martha didn’t think Jesus would raise Lazarus. But this verse makes it seem like she does think he can do it at least. And now I do think that Martha at least had a feeling that Jesus would raise him. Let’s look at the next passage.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”
I’ve always taken this passage to indicate that Martha didn’t know what Jesus was going to do. But it is possible to take Martha’s statement here, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” to mean “Yeah, I understand that he’s going to rise again in the last day, but I’m asking you to do something now.” I think this explanation fits the text better. Marth comes out to Jesus, and just like most of us have likely done in the past, starts to bargain with him. Think about it. If we bargain with God today, without seeing him physically or talking with him face to face, how much more would those who were close friends with Jesus, who interacted with him on a very physical level, tend to bargain with him? Perhaps bargain isn’t the right word exactly. Plead might be better. But more so with a sense of justification for herself, because she thinks Jesus should have come sooner. Martha comes out pleading: “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died. But I know you can do something even now.” It’s almost as if she is saying, “Jesus, you should have been here. But you weren’t. Fix it.”
We truly learn a lot about Martha here. First, it seems like she understands Jesus on a deeper level than his disciples usually do. Typically, when he makes a statement, he is making a spiritual application, but his disciples take it way too literally. For example, when Jesus tells them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, they think he’s talking about literal bread, or in their case, the lack thereof (see Mark 8:14-21). But here, Jesus tells Martha that her brother would rise again, and she automatically assumes he is making a spiritual application. It is a bit ironic, actually, that one of the few times Jesus is talking very literally, it is taken spiritually. Apparently, Martha knows the teaching of Jesus well enough to look for the spiritual application. Further, it would seem that Martha had a clearer understanding of the resurrection than most in the first century.
Secondly, we learn that Martha is a firm believer in Jesus as the Son of God. Note her confession here: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” This confession is very similar to the confession that Peter made on the mountain (Mt. 16:16). I don’t think we give Martha enough credit. We typically see her as a busy body and type A personality, always having to fix something or do something. We see Mary her sister as the one who loves and cares deeply. But I think Martha was much more aware of who Jesus was and believed in him on a level we miss. I think she at least had a idea of what Jesus was going to do here. After she makes her confession, she doesn’t stay and continue to ask Jesus to do something about her brother. She immediately goes inside to call Mary. To me, that says that she understood Jesus’ statement, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die,” to be an answer to her plea. Perhaps she wasn’t fully convinced, because later she would say, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days,” when Jesus said to remove the stone from the tomb, but I think that might be a statement from nagging doubt more than not thinking he was going to raise Lazarus period.
Third, we learn that Jesus certainly believed that Martha had at least a decent grasp of everything that was going on with Him and that she could be reasoned with. Note here that when Martha comes out to meet Jesus, he has a conversation with her. If you take the perspective indicated in this post, he even tells her what he is going to do. Compare that to what happens when Mary comes out. She falls at his feet in emotional turmoil. Jesus seems to know that a rational conversation was not what she needed, nor would it have helped the situation. Rather, he saw her broken and distressed, along with everyone around them, and he was moved with compassion. Then what may well be the shortest verse in the New Testament floods with so much meaning.
The story finishes with a foreshadowing of things to come. Jesus calls Lazarus to come forward, and the dead man got up. I can only imagine how terrified and confused the people watching must have been. Jesus wasn’t only working a miracle. He was teaching a lesson so that they might believe.
Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.
I think Martha, at least on some level, understood this. His disciples didn’t. They were afraid to go back to the place where he almost got stoned. Mary was visibly upset that Jesus had not saved her brother from death. Onlookers said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” The lesson Jesus was trying to teach everyone was death had no power over him. With Jesus, even a dead man could wake up. Jesus had a limited amount of time to teach this lesson, so he made the hard choice to let Lazarus die so that he could bring him through death, and increase the faith of those who saw him.
Ultimately, Jesus would carry out what this even shadowed, in that he himself would raise from the dead, buried in a tomb for three days. Jesus’ statement was both literal and spiritual when he said “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” In him, there is no fear of death, for death no longer has power over those who have been washed in his blood.
So, the question is, have we learned this lesson? Do we have the faith of Mary to say, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world,” in the face of death? Or are we like the disciples, afraid to die even when they were with Jesus? Why fear death when we call the one who conquered death Lord?
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
Do you believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life?
Suggested Reading: John 11, 20, Romans 8, Hebrews 2.
Walk by the Light of the world.