What did Jesus Want to Accomplish by Raising Lazarus from the Dead?
Our story today is a well known one. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
Now you may not believe this ever happened, your may believe it did. But what I don’t want us to miss is how strange this story is on a variety of levels.
Jesus and Dead People
We saw a few weeks ago that part of the mastery of the Gospel of John is how Jesus engages a variety of people.
- Jesus and John the Baptist
- Jesus and Nathanial
- Jesus and his mother at the Wedding at Cana
- Jesus and Nicodemus
- Jesus and a Samaritan Woman
- Jesus and a disabled man
- Jesus and Simon Peter: Feeding of 5000 and Walking on Water
- Jesus and the Jewish Leaders: Nicodemus makes another appearance
- Jesus and the woman caught in adultery
- Jesus and the man born blind
- Jesus and Mary, Martha and Lazarus
- Jesus and his disciples
- Jesus and his religious/political adversaries
- Jesus and his disciples again
Here with Lazarus Jesus intentionally sets up an encounter with his dead friend.
If you knew a Super-hero…
John 11:1–7 (NIV)
1 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” 4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
We see Jesus fully in control, just like we saw him when he met with Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well. He seems to know right from the start exactly what will happen here and takes steps to make sure it will happen.
When he hears the news that his friend is sick, he tells his disciples how it will end and then proceeds to delay so as to allow Lazarus’ death. This does seem like strange behavior for a friend does it not? Does it mean that Jesus doesn’t care?
Weak faith for friends of a Super-hero…
John 11:8–16 (NIV)
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.” 11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” 12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. 14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Right away we shouldn’t miss the strange juxtaposition involved in what is happening here. Mary and Martha are asking that Jesus come because they believe he has the kind of miraculous power to save their sick brother Lazarus from death. They believe, as do the disciples we assume, having seen numerous miracles that they believe this too.
Now I ask you. Is it easier to heal the sick or to make someone sick?
The disciples know that Jesus has this kind of power yet they fear the military and political forces in their world. They know that life is a bit looser away from the power center in Jerusalem but if they go down there and have a confrontation with the religious power structure Jesus will likely be killed, and they might be caught up and killed too.
We should also notice the Gospel of John’s pattern of intentional misunderstanding that we saw in both the Nicodemus story and the Woman at the Well story.
What kind of a friend is this?
Before we get too judgmental towards the disciples we should probably pause again and ponder what friendship with Jesus looks like.
Lazarus was Jesus’ friend and it seems Jesus is fully willing to let him die. Maybe the disciples aren’t so much unconvinced about Jesus’ power as unsure that he would use this power to actually rescue them. They have seen Jesus heal crowds of people in dramatic ways, but they have never seen him hurt anyone. Maybe they would feel better if Jesus was Ironman. If Jesus was Ironman and blew up a Roman outpost and killed some Roman soldiers perhaps they’d feel differently. Perhaps they’d want Jesus to drive that old taken down Jerusalem, blow a hole in the gate and drive it right down main street. Maybe it is exactly the lack of intention showed by Jesus to save the skin and ambitions of his disciples at the cost of Roman lives that makes them worry.
Let’s keep reading.
Late, just like he planned
John 11:17–22 (NIV)
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
OK, let’s take stock of some details here.
Jesus seemed to have timed this understanding the local customs to maximize the audience. He seems to know exactly what he is going to do and in this case he WANTS an audience.
This is rather strange because there have been multiple instances of Jesus doing great works and speaking sternly to his disciples to not say anything. In this instance Jesus WANTS everyone to see what is going to happen.
In his ministry in the Galilee he had huge crowds and asked for secrecy. Now he’s going down towards Jerusalem, where his life will be under threat, and he’s asking for more publicity. He understands that this publicity won’t be for the kind of benefit his disciples are hoping for. This will actually draw the kind of attention his disciples are fearing.
Sunday School Lesson
John 11:23–27 (NIV)
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Jesus for the second time tells us, and his listeners exactly what is going to happen and his friends misunderstand.
Martha wades in as someone proving before her teacher that she has learned her Sunday School lessons.
Jesus says something to her that she is simply not prepared to hear and it completely blows by her. Scholars have long known that the “I am” statements in the Gospel of John are Jesus’ declaration that he is the God of Israel, the creator God, the Lord of heaven and earth come to them.
“I am the resurrection and the life”
He is the author of life. He is the one who can give life when everyone else takes it away.
He asks Martha “do you believe this?”
Martha answers with a pretty amazing confession but it is clear that what Jesus has said hasn’t sunk in. In fact that reality permeates this story.
The disciples would have been more comforted by the presence of Ironman than by friendship with Jesus. His friends in Bethany treat Jesus like medical insurance. They simply can’t comprehend the person standing before them and the significance of their relationship with him. They are not alone, Neither do we.
Calm, In Charge, Furious
John 11:27–37 (NIV)
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” 28 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.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 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. 32 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.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Mary comes out now too and it’s the same scene as with Martha. This is Mary, one of Jesus’ greatest disciples who choose well and sat at his feet while Martha was busy but neither can she fully comprehend who Jesus really is. The disciples would rather have Ironman. Mary and Martha would like good medical coverage and a modern hospital. Everyone kind of sort of blames Jesus for negligence.
Now Jesus is ready engage and here we find a surprise. Jesus seemed stoic, in charge, in control, purposefully ready to allow his disciples to be afraid for their safety and Mary and Martha to experience the grief and sorrow of seeing their brother die. We might think Jesus heartless. Everyone is charging him with negligence for being so slow to get there but we’ve seen right from the start that he is intentional.
What happens here in Greek is dramatic. The Gospel of John uses some strong language here. Jesus shares the grief of his friends and he adds to it anger.
Now we might imagine that Jesus’ disciples would be angry because he has put them in danger. We might imagine that Mary and Martha are angry for letting Lazarus die. Even if they knew and really believed that Jesus would raise Lazarus they might be angry for letting them suffer the experience of losing their beloved brother. The last person we would expect to see here is Jesus. Why is he angry?
Jesus shows anger selectively in the gospel accounts, but the most common occasion is when he is confronted by the work of Satan. What do I mean by that?
Matthew 13:24–30 (NIV)
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. 27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ 28 “ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ 29 “ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ ”
Even though Jesus is fully in control, in being with his grieving friends, facing the death of his friend he meets his old enemy, and ours. This is the enemy that has sown evil in the world. This is the enemy that we have collaborated with to turn this world into a place of evil, sickness, pain, decay and death. Jesus knew exactly what he was going to do, but Jesus is also a human being. Now facing it, seeing what death has done, he’s angry, he’s feeling the pain of grief, he’s ready in this moment to grab death by the throat and teach it who’s boss and he wants an audience for it.
Setting the Table
John 11:38–44 (NIV)
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” 40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 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.” 43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Now that the crowd is assembled, Jesus raises Lazarus. John doesn’t embellish it but includes the points that are most important. Jesus is going to do this so that people believe he is exactly who he’s been saying he is, but they can’t comprehend.
By calling Lazarus out of the grave he robs the age of decay by raising his stinking, decaying flesh and making him whole once more.
What Jesus also does here, if you continue to read the chapter, is to see that Jesus has just done exactly what his disciples had feared. This act has pushed the religious leaders in a way that they MUST act against him. They MUST kill him. (See my raising the dead thought experiment.)
What is funny is that the religious leaders suffer from the same blindness as everyone else. If again, Jesus was Ironman they might have paused and consulted with the Romans to try to defeat the suit. Now they are just plotting to kill Jesus. If any of them had any appreciation for his power that plot would simply look silly. But then again Jesus has not rained down fire and brimstone or called down bears or struck anyone dead so they haven’t thought through the capacities of the type of power he’s shown.
What is “life”?
Yural Harari who is a secular atheist suggests that modernity is about a covenant. We exchange meaning for power. I’d suggest that moderns don’t have a monopoly on this exchange, or its desire.
Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 199). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The disciples might have preferred Ironman to the power Jesus was displaying. Jesus’ friends might have preferred a modern hospital to the Jesus’ seeming willingness to let them suffer the death of their beloved brother, even if he’s going to raise him again.
Harari goes on to point out that in our modern exchange the universal value is economic growth. Whether you’re a blue-state liberal or a red-state conservative or a Red Chinese Communist or a Stalinist Marxist or a Hindu Conservative like the new Prime minister of India or a Saudi Prince all gather around the table together able to collaborate happily if everyone can experience economic growth.
Today Hindu revivalists, pious Muslims, Japanese nationalists and Chinese communists may declare their adherence to very different values and goals, but they have all come to believe that economic growth is the key to realising their disparate goals.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 206). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
This was an observation made by Voltaire at the beginning of modern capitalism. One might imagine that actually the only proven way for the Google doodle this week to come true is when this diverse group of children all make money and get the material satisfaction they want. This is the promise of the modern world. It was also, however, the promise of the Roman world and almost every world in between.
Why does Jesus say you can’t serve God and money? God seems to recede when there is enough money. right?
But what happens. Why is it that its not the poor who flock to ISIS or Al Queda but the middle class and the wealthy? Why is it that suicide rates triple when countries experience economic development and prosperity?
In 1985 most South Koreans were poor, uneducated and tradition-bound, living under an authoritarian dictatorship. Today South Korea is a leading economic power, its citizens are among the best educated in the world, and it enjoys a stable and comparatively liberal democratic regime. Yet whereas in 1985 about nine South Koreans per 100,000 killed themselves, today the annual rate of suicide has more than tripled to thirty per 100,000.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 33). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Why do poor Haitians and Africans struggle and fight to survive while rich people in the developed world become victims of opiate addiction and eat themselves to death on rich diets and sugar?
We exchanged meaning for power but once we got power we discovered we couldn’t live without meaning. We imagined our biggest problem was suffering because of material want only to discover that suffering meaninglessness was tougher than suffering material want.
When Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life”, and intentionally puts his disciples in harm’s way and intentionally allows his friends to suffer the death of their brother, and then goes on to place himself in jeopardy and suffering, he is basically saying that you cannot make that deal with power and actually have life. You will simply die a different kind of death, a worse kind.
Dallas Willard makes the point
If I am just my brain and everything I’m thinking and doing is just chemistry I want to know that. I’m not trying to hide from that. The big issue is not if you’re going to stop existing. If you’re going to stop existing you’re out, it’s like going to the dentist. It will be unpleasant for a while but it will be over. The real problem comes if you’re NOT going to stop existing.
In other words if you are just your brain then all that matters is satisfying the cravings of your brain and maybe if we can figure out how to get the benefits of opioids and none of the downsides then we can all hook up and drift off and check out, no suffering required. Most of us would look at that as a horrible future. Why?
“If you can find a better way than Jesus Christ offers he would be the first person to tell you to take it. And if you don’t believe that about him then you can’t be his disciple because you could never trust him.”
So what do you do with this Jesus?
This Jesus offers both physical life, but selectively, while being very comfortable not only taking on suffering but allowing his friends to suffer too all for the sake of meaning? What kind of person would have that much insight?
Could it be a person who in fact has zero anxiety about his physical welfare because he has just that much power? He has so much confidence in that he sees through the preliminary challenge of physical security to see where the issues really lie? Isn’t he the one that says don’t worry about those who can kill the body but be concerned with the One who can throw body and soul into Gehenna.
You may want Jesus for his power, what he can do for you to achieve your goals or release you from suffering. If this is all you want from Jesus I’d recommend you look elsewhere because he was not above putting his friends in harm’s way and letting them suffer. He does so because he’s looking for and delivering on greater things for them than mere power or an experience of meaning. He wants to give him everything. He wants to give them himself who is life itself.
So what do you want? Do you want him even if it means you will suffer and he will allow it?