Deeper Insights into the Resurrection of Lazarus
As we prepare for the celebration of Memorial, let’s look at some contextual insights from the last days of Jesus’ ministry. We can learn so much more about the Crucifixion and the Resurrection from reading other Bible stories, such as the stories of Lazarus and Barabbas.
Let’s focus on the story of the resurrection of Lazarus, as told in John 11. This amazing story kicks off the last 40 days of the life of Jesus, that whole Passion of Jesus. I like to call the story of Lazarus the “greatest story never completely told.” The reason being, Lazarus seals the deal that Jesus is going to die.
But, first, let’s back the story up a bit. According to John 11, Lazarus was deteriorating rapidly. He was pretty sick. John 11:1-3 reads:
Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. Therefore the sisters sent to Him, saying, ‘Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.'”
Jesus remains off in Perea, which is in the Jordan Valley on what would be today’s Jordan side of the river. Why do we know Jesus is there? Because it is winter. If you’re leading an itinerant outdoor ministry, you’ve got to be where it’s warm. Perea drops a thousand feet below sea level, and that means temperatures are like Palm Springs in the winter time. Jerusalem’s got snow. So, we know where Jesus was preaching at the time of this story.
I won’t take you through the arithmetic here, but Jesus was located two whole days away from Lazarus by walking, assuming a person at the time walked 16-18 miles a day. So, Mary and Martha see that Lazarus is deteriorating, and now a messenger enters this scenario who’s never mentioned by name. The ladies instructed the messenger to tell Jesus basically, “Go, and find Yeshua, and tell Him that the one He loves is sick.” As if Jesus doesn’t know this, right? They’re exerting a little manipulation there, using love. We certainly don’t attempt to manipulate Jesus in our prayers, do we?
So, the messenger is commanded to go and find Yeshua and tell Him that Lazarus was about to die. The messenger traveled for two days, and finally reached Jesus. He faithfully informed Jesus of Lazarus’ condition.
And here’s what’s fascinating! When Jesus heard the message, He replied in John 11:4, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Notice exactly the very first thing that Jesus did. He gave the messenger a promise. Jesus often does this when He’s going to stretch somebody’s faith. He provides them with a promise. Jesus first gave the messenger a promise, and then He gave the reason why what’s about to happen was going to happen. Jesus revealed that the story of Lazarus’ sickness would not end in death, rather it would be used for God’s glory so that God’s Son would be glorified through it.
Then we are told that Jesus loved Mary and Martha. John 11:5 tells, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
Why tell the reader that fact? It’s because of what Jesus was about to do, otherwise you’d think He didn’t really love them. John 11:6-7 provides a shock, “So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was. Then after this He said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.'”
Jesus stayed two more days in Perea! Has that ever caught your attention? Jesus didn’t leave right away. Imagine if your best friend was in hospice and you got a phone call at around 8 o’clock at night reporting, “He’s probably not going to make it through the night.” Would you wait two whole days before you went to visit your friend in hospice? Of course not! So, something puzzling was going on there.
Everything Jesus does is strategic and for a reason. This is a deliberate delay so that God can be glorified.
Let’s stop for a second and ask a few questions.
Where are we in the story? Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived in Bethany at the backside of the Mount of Olives some two miles from Jerusalem. Jesus, on the other hand, remained two whole days far away across the Jordan River, north a little bit in Perea.
What’s happened before? Another good question to ask. We know the Gospel records two particular miracles had already occurred. Two people had been brought back to life in the pages of the Gospels. The first was Jairus’ twelve year old daughter. The second resurrected had been the only son of the widow of Nain, found in Luke 7.
So, if you are Mary and Martha, these preceding miracles provide your paradigm. Yes, Jesus can bring somebody back to life. But, according to the examples, only if one died during the first day and only if Jesus come physically on site. Those would have been their expectations.
A couple of other things we have to bear in mind contextually. The Hebrew view of death believed that when a person died during the first three days their nephesh, which is the Hebrew word for soul, hovered over their body. In fact, by the beginning of the fourth day, the body would have already fallen into such a rapid state of decomposition that it would stink to high heavens, and therefore the nephesh flees. The upshot is for the first three days you’re just dead, but from the fourth day on, you’re totally dead-dead.
Why does this matter? Because the rabbis had been teaching that when the Messiah finally arrived he would be able to achieve something so amazing they’d easily know he was the prophesied one. It’s so impossible to bring someone back from the dead. That can only happen when Messiah finally came. Only He could achieve such an act. Only the Messiah or his prophets could bring people back from the dead.
The establishment in Jerusalem had a problem with this truth. Jesus brought back to life Jairus’ daughter and the only son of the widow of Nain. If Jesus was really the Messiah, they’ve got a problem, because the rabbis had been teaching that when the Messiah arrived He would go straight to the Temple, set up His throne, and begin his reign. Now, “Temple Incorporated” existed as the biggest cash cow in antiquity, run by the Sadducees and the Sanhedrin. It became the combination of Wall Street and Walmart. It was really something to behold. Should the Messiah actually come and set up his throne in the Temple, well the gig would be over for the religious leaders. They would find themselves out of work.
We really need to understand the backdrop of this story. If Yeshua really was the Messiah, then the religious leaders in order to keep their positions, wealth, and power would have to kill him. At first they’d attempt creating some ambiguity. They’d claim that bringing a person back from the dead during the first day didn’t count, because their soul would be lingering around the body, and therefore the supposedly dead person was just in a coma. The nephesh really hadn’t fled yet. Doesn’t count!
The Jewish religious leaders used their three day hovering of the nephesh teaching to discredit Jesus’ miracles. They’d claim Jesus couldn’t possibly be the Messiah because the resurrections He’d supposedly conjured were problematic. For Jesus to truly be the Messiah, in the people’s eyes, He’d need to overcome this obstacle.
After some back and forth between Jesus and His disciples over the safety of returning to Jerusalem or not, Jesus revealed in John 11:11, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.” After some confusion by the disciples, Jesus flatly states, “Lazarus is dead.”
Lazarus had died. Jesus had tarried in Perea two days too long. By the time He left for Bethany, Jesus wouldn’t arrive until the fourth day after Lazarus had died. If He had left at once it would have only have been the second day. He never would have made it on the first day. Freeze these thoughts.
When Mary and Martha originally sent the message, Lazarus had only been deteriorating. The women thought, “No problem, Jesus will be here before the day ends.” Well, He didn’t arrive, and on purpose. By waiting four days, Lazarus had reached becoming dead-dead.
Wouldn’t you be disappointed if you were Mary and Martha? Would you become disillusioned with Jesus? Would you become angry? Absolutely, you would! Consternation would be the word.
The messenger finally returned to the women and reported Jesus’ reply. He said, “Boy! Do I have good news for you. Lazarus’ illness will not end in death.” You can imagine the look on the sisters’ faces. With bitterness they likely replied, “We’ve got news for you. He’s already dead. Are you sure that’s what Yeshua said?” He could have said, “Oh, I heard it right. I know what Jesus said was so important I memorized it word for word. Your brother just can’t be dead.”
Now, get this. The women heard the promise. They just couldn’t believe it. Ever been there? We can relate to this story.
Whether Mary or Martha came to this conclusion first, who knows? One of the sisters could have been thinking, “Ah! I’ve got this figured out. Yeshua is going to bring our brother back from the dead, but just before the end of the third day before the nephesh flees. This is going to be a really special event. Get Bret Baier and Wolf Blitzer on the line. Get the crews out here. This is going to be something. I knew it! I knew we’d be special. Yeshua really does love us.”
But, the third day had come to an end — no Jesus. Now, what do you do if you are Mary and Martha? How do you process this? You have been let down. Jesus didn’t deliver. Hope is now gone.
Finally, word came early in the afternoon on the fourth day. “Jesus is coming! He’s approaching.” So, Martha went down to the well at Ein Shemesh, a place you can still visit to this day, and intercepted Jesus. John 11:20-22 picks up with the story:
“Now Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house. Now 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 of God, God will give You.'”
Jesus answers simply in verse 23, “Your brother will rise again.”
By verse 28 the sisters switch roles. They basically say the same thing to Jesus, like their statements had been rehearsed. In verse 32 Mary accuses, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
We finally get to the tomb. Jesus orders in verse 39, “Take away the stone.” Because of the amount of time since Lazarus had died, the sisters naturally protest. “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”
After Jesus consoles them and assures them that everything will be alright, the Son of God ordered in verse 43, “Lazarus, come forth!” Behold! Out of the tomb, all wrapped in burial clothes, Lazarus hobbles out alive.
Let’s place this story into a contemporary setting. Say the mayor of your city dies. He was loved by everyone. He lies in state for three days while everyone comes and views his corpse. By the beginning of the fourth day, his will specified that he was to be cremated, so he’s cremated. Now, in this example, Jesus walks into the crematorium and asks which chamber the mayor resided in. “The fourth one? “Open it up.” So, the morticians open the crematorium up and Jesus looks down into the chamber and sees a remnant of ashes some six foot two inches long, weighing about two pounds. The ashes remain still a little moist and heated. Jesus orders, “Mayor, come forth!” And out of the crematorium crawls the mayor.
This is the significance of the fourth day. Jesus’ delay was intentional. His wait was deliberate. A fourth day resurrection, why there’s no question now that Jesus was the Messiah. The argument about three days and the nephesh and the other two resurrected possibly really being in a coma, well, that’s all gone. Lazarus is Exhibit A that Jesus is clearly the Messiah.
By the way, Lazarus is now a wanted man. His miraculous resurrection stands out blazingly as Exhibit A. They Jewish leaders have got to get rid of Lazarus. And, they know they also have to get rid of Jesus or lose their positions of authority to the actual Messiah. Lazarus may have been better off dead. He and his sisters must flee to Ephraim, to a city of refuge, and then travel back in to the Judean Valley until the last week of Jesus’ life.
What’s just happened? Lazarus became like the Good Year Blimp flying over Jerusalem proclaiming, “Yeshua is Messiah! Yeshua is Messiah!” They religious leaders know it. There is now no more argument. And so, the Sanhedrin convened a covert meeting and concluded, “It’s Him or us. Jesus has got to die.”
The raising of Lazarus sealed the deal for Jesus. The Messiah must die. At the same time, the whole Lazarus scenario foreshadowed the empty tomb and the risen Christ. That’s the beauty of this passage. The story of the resurrection of Lazarus completely foreshadows Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. What a beautiful story!
What have we learned?
For one, God is unpredictable.
Two, His followers can’t manage Him. They can’t manipulate Him.
Three, in the end what Jesus does is all about His glory. This word glory means to accurately reveal and portray. That’s exactly what Jesus was doing. He accurately revealed and portrayed what He was about to do. That’s the word glorify in John 11:4. That’s the Hebrew understanding of the word glorify.
And, fourthly, if we’re dead centered in God’s will, like Mary and Martha and Lazarus, life won’t be easy. When you obey the calling of Jesus to be your Savior, life no longer means tip-toeing through the tulips and everything’s convenient and easy. What God achieves is all about His glory, and rarely about our convenience.
Lazarus learned this truth the hard way. Lazarus had to make the ultimate sacrifice to prove Jesus was the Messiah. Think about this as well, Lazarus had to die again. He didn’t stay alive forever. Mary and Martha would have to grieve again.
Our earthly life’s about God’s glory, and very little about our convenience.
By Doug Greenwold (adapted)