Teaching on the Gospel of John by Rev. Dr. Nadine Burton

“The Threat is Real”

John Chapter Eleven

In this chapter, we experience the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. This is a story that captures the hearts of believers. Raising Lazarus from the dead took Jesus’ ministry to the ultimate level of a religious and political threat. He mentioned, in previous chapters, that his time had not yet come, but here we see that the threat becomes real, set in his own time. “The story points to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the final defeat of death, and the means of eternal life.”[i]

Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Jesus were friends. It is mentioned in the commentary that Mary may have been the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair, causing a stir by Judas, who questioned the cost and potential use of the perfume (see Chapter 12). “John makes this anachronistic connection with Mary, not previously introduced, who will anoint Jesus’ body for burial. This has the effect of placing the death and burial of Lazarus within the framework of the story of Jesus’ death and burial.”[ii] The sisters sent a message to Jesus that Lazarus was sick. When Jesus heard the message, he did not rush to the side of Lazarus. Instead, he stayed two more days in the place where he was located. Jesus shared with his Disciples that Lazarus’ illness “does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of Man may be glorified through it.”

After two additional days, Jesus made his way to Bethany. The Disciples warned him that the Jews wanted to stone him in Judea, so why would he want to go back there (Bethany is only a couple of miles from Judea)? Jesus then makes a statement of working while it is day because they understand something clearly at last, as opposed to those who stumble at night because the light is not in them (because they cannot see). I preached a sermon back in my career with new church ministries asking the question, “How do we, as Christians, stumble in the light?”[iii]

Jesus shared with the Disciples that Lazarus was asleep, which in his understanding, meant death. The Disciples thought that asleep meant that he would be okay. Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake, I am glad that I was not there so that you may believe.” This could seem inhuman and cruel on Jesus’ part. However, we must keep in mind that we cannot explain his divinity or humanity. “To make excuses for Jesus who represents God is to force the Jesus story into a human framework of understanding.”[iv] Jesus continues to act on his own and not by human standards. As readers, we can see it now, but the Disciples did not understand. Thomas interjected and said, “Yes, let’s go to him,” so that they may die as well. Signifying the threat of the Jews, as Jesus gives his life, so must they (the Disciples) give their lives. There is something about the glory of God that Jesus wants to reveal.

When Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. Martha questioned why Jesus was not there to save him. She said, “Lord, if you would have been here, he would not have died.” It is important to note, we pray and hope for healing for our loved ones who are sick, but once they are dead, we live knowing that our prayers were not answered. “In this story, Jesus’ conduct models that of God, and the other characters in the story reflect people’s response to the God who did not answer their prayer.”[v] Jesus’ identity of being the one who is “the resurrection and the life” comes into play here. Martha believed that the Father would give Jesus whatever he asked. Jesus told her that her brother would live again. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha understood this to mean that he would be raised on the last day in the resurrection. Martha then goes on to make her confession that Jesus is the Messiah. “When Martha makes her confession of Jesus – ‘You are the Messiah, the son of God,’ she responds to Jesus’ declaration about the resurrection…confessing her faith in Christ as Lord. The content of faith is Christ, the act of God in Christ. It is personal, not doctrinal. This is the fundamental Christian confession, the author’s goal for the readers in writing the book.”[vi] 

After this exchange, they meet up with Mary and begin to weep at the passing of their brother and friend. “Jesus wept” is a classic scripture showing Jesus’ humanity and compassion, even in death. Jesus asked them to show him where they laid Lazarus to rest. When they got to the cave, Jesus asked them to remove the stone. Martha said, “Lord, surely there is a stench” because Lazarus had been dead four days. The King James Version of the Bible says, “He stinketh – it is precisely in this stinking world of death and decay that the power of the resurrection has been let loose. That I, you (we) may know him, in the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[vii] 

Jesus asked Martha again, “Did I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Boring and Craddock compare Lazarus’ death and resurrection to Jesus’ death and resurrection with at least ten different motifs (see Pg. 323). Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” Jesus calls for Lazarus to come forth from the grave. Lazarus comes forth bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus instructed them to unbind him and let him go. “Lazarus is called forth by Jesus’ word, but Jesus comes from the tomb directly by God’s power.”[viii]  

The Passover was near, and the Jews were looking for Jesus. The chief priests and Pharisees had given orders that if anyone sees him, to let them know, so that they could arrest him. This is the first time in John’s gospel account where they openly decide to kill Jesus. The previous threats became real. But it did not happen until Jesus needed it to happen. They feared that the people would believe in Jesus. This would cause the Roman Empire to come and destroy the religious communities in that area (which eventually happened anyway). Caiaphas, the high priest for that year, made the statement that it is more beneficial if one man dies instead of all the people. “Caiaphas says more than he knows – one man dying for the people is in fact the summary of John’s gospel (3:16).” [ix]  It was probable that the Jerusalem temple leadership, the chief priests were instrumental in handing Jesus over to Romans, who put him to death. “The major reason was his disruption of the temple business for which they were responsible and the threat that he might provoke a popular uprising.”[x] Because of this threat, Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews. He stayed in a town called Ephraim with his Disciples. 

We resume our blog on March 28. Enjoy!

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[i] Ibid., pg. 323.

[ii] Boring, and Craddock, pg. 323.

[iii] Kysar, Robert. “Stumbling in the Light.” Preached by Nadine Burton whiled employed with New Church Ministries, 2006.

[iv] Ibid., 324.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., 326.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.324.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

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