The suspense-filled drama in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John records one of only seven miracles that appear the book. John presents this miracle as a graphic verification that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). The incarnation is never so real as when the power of the divine Christ raising the dead is coupled with the intense sorrow of His humanity.
The raising of Lazarus from the dead, although not mentioned in the other Gospels, is selected by John so that his readers might believe “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing [they] might have life in his name” (John 20:31).[i] The concurrence of this miracle to the Sanhedrin’s determination to kill Jesus (John 11:53), which is the pivotal point of the book, makes the raising of Lazarus the pre-eminent miracle in the Gospel of John.[ii]
THE RAISING OF LAZARUS FROM THE DEAD (1-44)
A Sickness for the Glory of God (vv. 1-16)
The Illness Conveyed (vv. 1-3). The introductory remarks imply that the readers knew of a woman who anointed the Lord.[iii] In this passage she is identified as Mary of Bethany. Verse two links this passage with the next chapter where this incident is related by the author. The address, Lord, is used in the passage by Mary, Martha, the disciples, and the Jews. The motivation for a miracle of healing is the fact that Jesus loved Lazarus, a theme which re-emerges at the tomb.
Jesus’ Response (vv. 4-6). The motif of misunderstood statements of Jesus first appears in this chapter with Jesus’ comment that Lazarus’ sickness was “not unto death” (v. 4). There is no indication at this point in the narrative that death would occur followed by resuscitation.
The parenthetical remarks in verse five reaffirm Jesus’ love for Lazarus and are linked to the word therefore in the following verse. The use of therefore explains that his lingering for two days, rather than being an indication of His indifference, was motivated by his love for this family.[iv]
A Decision to Return to Judea (vv. 7-10). Jesus informs His disciples that they will once more go to Judea. The use of the word again reminds the disciples that this was the place of the attempted stoning of Jesus.
A Definition of Sleep (vv. 11-16). The death theme if the passage continues in the sub-theme of sleep in this unit. The word sleep is clarified by Jesus as meaning death. There is a progression in the passage from sickness (vv. 1, 4) to sleep (v. 11) to death (v. 14) which builds suspense.
The faith theme first appears in this section and continues through 11:48. Jesus’ use of the phrase may believe (v. 15) links this dialog with the miracle where the phrase repeated in His prayer at the tomb (v. 42). Jesus’ repetition of the phrase Let us go (v. 7, 15) is no longer met met with opposition, as emphasized by Thomas’s repetition of the phrase (v. 16).
A Pronouncement of the Glory of God (11:17-37)
The Declaration to Martha (11:17-27). In the introductory commentary, the reference to four days continues the progression of the narrative while providing historical accuracy. Hengstenberg concludes that the Jews were from Jerusalem due to its proximity to Bethany (v. 18-19).[v] The portrayal of the Jews as mourners in this unit is in contrast with the disciples’ description of Jews as Jesus’ assailants (v. 8).
Jesus’ I am statement is made during His meeting with Martha (v.25), after which He challenges Martha’s faith. Stating that the premise of an encounter story is that “everyone must face the claims of Jesus,”
John uses the meetings with Martha and Mary not only to build suspense as he relates the incident but also to teach the doctrine of His being the resurrection and the life.[vi] Jesus contrasts the event (final resurrection) of verse 24 to His person.[vii] The Pharisees held to a “view of a remote resurrection at the end of time,” but Jesus spoke of a life that began at the point of faith and continued without end, or death.[viii]
A Meeting with Mary (11:28-32). The calling of Mary, seen in her characteristic role of devotedness to Jesus, begins a new section.[ix] The postponement of the miracle continues as Mary, like Martha, encounters Jesus in the same place (v. 30) and with the same comment (v. 32). The role of the Jews as witnesses begins in this section and continues until the last unit (v. 54).
Jesus’ Humanity Revealed (11:33-37). The sight of Mary and the Jews weeping (v. 33) begins this section on emotions. Therefore reveals that this observation by Jesus is the reason for His troubled spirit. The words deeply moved in spirit, troubled, and wept express a variety of emotions, emphasizing the humanity of Jesus.
A Manifestation of the Glory of God (11:38-44
A Challenge to Believe (11:38-40). This unit is divided by a change in location from a place outside the village to the tomb of Lazarus (v. 38). Martha’s protest (v. 39) confirms the previous historical reference to four days (v. 17) and manifests her unbelief. The type scene of the physically dead representing the spiritually deadis placed next to a call to faith.[x]
A Prayer of Thanksgiving (11:41-42). The removal of the stone sets off a section on prayer and prepares the readers for the miracle. Jesus’ prayer, which anticipates the miracle,[xi] presents the Father as a witness-partner in the event and emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God.
The Raising of Lazarus (11:43-44). “And when He had said these things,” denotes a new action. The preparations are completed. It is time for the miracle. The purpose of the miracle was not merely to give life to Lazarus but to give glory to God.[xii] The One who created Lazarus had no problem raising Him from the dead. Jesus does not merely perform the task of resurrecting–He is the resurrection. And, He is life. Life triumphs over death. Lazarus still in his grave clothes (in contrast to Jesus’ resurrection), is a type of the future resurrection of believers.
A Reaction to the Glory of God (11:45-53)
The Plot of the Sanhedrin (11:45-53). The depiction of the Jewish mourners as Jesus’ informers (v. 36) portrays them in an unfavorable light, which is consistent with other references throughout the Gospel. The reaction carries out the theme of belief and unbelief following a miracle. The crowd was divided (vv. 45-46).
There is helplessness on the part of the council in comparison to the power Jesus manifests in His miracles.[xiii] The contrast is between the signs that Jesus is doing continually and what they should do in response or reaction to Him. Caiaphas’ response is not only politically expedient but prophetic. He expresses “the central doctrine of the Christian faith, the substitutionary atonement of Christ.”[xiv]
The relating of the miracle to the Pharisees by the Jewish witnesses initiated the chain of events which culminated in Jesus’ death.[xv] Thomas’ prophetic statement (v.16) begins to see fulfillment in the decision of the Sanhedrin to kill Jesus (v. 53), and further ties the reaction of the miracle to its occurrence.
The Retreat to the Wilderness (11:54-57). Jesus’ withdrawal to the city of Ephraim repeats the theme of miracle and retreat of the Gospel, where Jesus moves from a public ministry to isolation. The plot of the Gospel intensifies as the Jewish worshipers, along with the chief priests and Pharisees, are seeking Jesus–but for different reasons. The readers are left with a question, “What do you think; that He will not come to the feast at all?” (v. 56).
The narrative ends with a reference to the directives of the council of chief priests and Pharisees which reminds the reader of the miracle (and its reaction).
The importance of this miracle to the writer of this Gospel is evident as he places it at the climax of Jesus’ ministry and makes its reaction the pivotal point of the book. Although in the eleventh chapter Jesus is motivated by His sympathy for Mary and Martha, the purpose of the raising of Lazarus was to give validation to His claim, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
But the miracle is more immediately a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. It is presented as the ultimate cause for the plot which culminated in His death. Truly Lazarus’ sickness was unto death–death on a cross. But the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead portrayed hope for Jesus’ resurrection. It also provides hope for the future resurrection of believers.
If Jesus can raise Lazarus, the assumption which the readers are challenged to make is that this same power can raise them from the dead. One’s belief in Jesus’ ability to raise the dead, does not depend upon the number of accounts of like miracles which appear in the Gospel record, but upon the inherent power which He possessed to perform such an act. In response to the inquiry of John the Baptist, Jesus lists raising the dead among the evidences of His Messiahship (Matt. 11:5; Luke 7:22).
The purpose then of the author of this Gospel is to introduce the readers to the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, with such authentic and persuasive evidence that they would believe in Him and obtain eternal life as a result of their faith (20:30-31). The recording of the raising of Lazarus is the crowning effort in John’s attempt to achieve that goal. By selecting Jesus and death as major themes in this chapter and noting that Bethany is only two miles from Jerusalem (v. 18), the author emphasizes the nearness of Jesus’ own death.
Culpepper, R. Alan. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.
Godet, Frederick L. Commentary on the Gospel of John, vol. 2. Funk & Wagnalls, 1886; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.
Harrison, Everett F. “The Gospel According to John.” In The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, Eds. Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.
Hengstenberg, E. W. Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, vol. 2. Translated by Cyril J. Barber. Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1865; reprint, Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1980.
Malick, David E., class notes of student in 305 The Gospels, Dallas Theological Seminary, Summer 1994.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes. New International Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971.
Ryken, Leland. Words of Delight. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992.
Ryrie, Charles C. The Ryrie Study Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1978.
[i] Jesus occurs twenty-four times in this chapter. Lord appears five times. The single occurrence of Rabbi is the last mention of the word in the Gospel. There are fifteen references to death in this chapter.
[ii] John records the following items as evidence of the actuality of this miracle: naming the characters (v. 1), linking Mary to another event in the life of Christ (v. 5), placing the incident after the attempted stoning of Jesus in Judea (vv. 7-8), the length of time Lazarus was in the tomb (v. 17), the identification of the name and location of the village (v. 18), the actions and thoughts of the Jews in Mary’s house (v. 31), the description of the tomb (v. 38), the portrayal of Lazarus (v. 44), the identification of Caiaphas as high priest (v. 49), Jesus’ retreat into Ephraim (v. 54), the nearness of the Passover (v. 55), and the directives of the Sanhedrin (v. 57).
[iii]Frederick L. Godet, Commentary on the Gospel of John, vol. 2 (Funk & Wagnalls, 1886; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), 170.
[v]Hengstenberg, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, vol. 2, translated by Cyril J. Barber (Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1865; reprint, Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1980) 44.
[vi]Morris, The Gospel According to John: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes, 346.
[ix]Everett F. Harrison, “The Gospel According to John.” In The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, Eds. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), 1097.
[x]David E. Malick, class notes of student in 305 The Gospels, Dallas Theological Seminary, Summer 1994.
[xiv]Charles C. Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), 1624.