"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 10 New Life Foreshadowed (Jn 11.1-57))


10.1 Jesus Raises Lazarus (Jn 10.1-46)



GENERAL COMMENTS


Like the stories of the healing at the pool of Bethesda and the healing of the man born blind, this is a dramatic and well-told story. It differs from the others, though, by its arrangement: in the two former stories, the focus is on what happened after the healing, but here the focus is on what happened before. First, after the introduction of the family at Bethany near Jerusalem (as opposed to the Bethany across Jordan where Jesus and the disciples are staying), we are told how Jesus did not respond to the news that Lazarus, his friend, was sick, by going there. Instead he tells his disciples that the illness is not for death, that is, will not have death as its ultimate outcome, but rather for God’s glory to be revealed. Jesus didn’t start for Bethany until two days after the news of the illness was brought to him.

Then there is a classic Johannine misunderstanding. Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep, ie, that he has died, but they think he is talking about natural sleep and are heartened to think Lazarus will improve. He has to tell them straight out that their friend is dead before they understand. So their trip begins with ironic confusion and also with trepidation: Jesus and his disciples are in Bethany across Jordan to start with because in Judaea they would be in danger and Thomas the Twin sums up the disciples’ reaction to the news: they are returning to Judaea with the conclusion that they will all die together.

When they arrive Jesus does not go straight to Lazarus’ tomb despite learning that he has been dead and buried for four days. Instead he lingers short of the village for two encounters with Lazarus’ sisters. They are understandably upset and first Martha, and then Mary, begins by reproaching Jesus for taking so long to get there. However after that the reactions of the two sisters are diametrically opposed to one another. Martha affirms her trust in Jesus, despite the circumstances of Lazarus’ death, in the strongest terms yet used by anyone in this gospel, while Mary delivers her reproach and is not heard from again.

Only then does Jesus reach the tomb and free Lazarus. This is done in only a few verses, and there is no long account of subsequent debates or arguments as there are after the two healings mentioned above.


The Bethany Family Elsewhere


Although their home village is not named and Lazarus is not referred to, Luke’s Gospel (Lk 10.38-42) contains a story that is recognisably about the same two women as John writes about here and later in ch12. Luke’s story focusses on the differences in how the two sisters act when Jesus visits: Martha, whose home it is, welcomes Jesus and Mary comes to sit at his feet like a disciple. But Martha is distracted and busy with a lot of serving, so she asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Instead he gently scolds Martha for fretting and being troubled about many things when only one thing is needed. In the context of his arrival on her doorstep with a group of his disciples, it is probable that the “many things” and the “one thing” work on two levels, referring to dishes to be served at the meal she is preparing as well as to the choice that Mary has made to prefer discipleship (sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him teach) over mundane concerns (preparing a special meal for a special guest). (See Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke X-XXIV Anchor Bible Commentary 28A (Doubleday, New York, London: 1985) 891-5.) Interestingly John’s story in chapter 11 also highlights differences between the two sisters, though in John 11 it appears that Martha has chosen the better part.

Neither of the other Synoptic evangelists recounts anything about the Bethany family. So Luke’s anecdote is likely to come from his own sources (designated as L), perhaps the results of his “investigating everything carefully from the very first” (Lk 1.3). The differences in detail between John and Luke could perhaps be explained by the notion of “protective anonymity”, that is, that the names of some eyewitnesses to, or participants in, gospel narratives have been deliberately omitted in the earlier accounts to protect them from the repercussions of being identified. For example, if John was written last, and Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany had all died between the publication of the Synoptic Gospels and the composition of John, then the Fourth Evangelist would have had no need to protect them and could tell the story of Lazarus’ raising, and even that of the annointing by Mary of Bethany (in chapter 12) in full. See Bauckham 2006 pp 184-97. Another possibility is that John, as someone with Judaean and Jerusalem connections, was better informed about other Jerusalem-area disciples than Luke was.


 

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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES


In this verse (and the previous one) the Evangelist uses what appears to be a simple cross-reference to the story of Mary of Bethany's annointing of Jesus in chapter 12 of his gospel to explain who Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are, and their connection to another significant event of Jesus' last days. Richard Bauckham has argued that this cross-reference is more than it appears: John nowhere else makes a cross-reference forward, from the story he is telling to an event that he hasn't yet narrated. Bauckham concluded that what John is doing is making a link between the Bethany family and a well-known story not from the unwritten tradition of stories about Jesus, but from the well-known Gospel of Mark. Having already argued that John used his gospel to correct and augment Mark's story, Bauckham fitted this cross-reference into his schema of complementarity between the two gospels (See Bauckham 1998 pp 161-71). Although it is not clear to me that this verse is somehow addressed to readers of Mark, the argument of complementarity between these two gospels seems to me to be generally convincing. Further discussion of the relationship between the two stories of Jesus' annointing will be found in the discussion of John 12.1-11.

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In this story, John uses two different verbs for “love”: phileō and agapaō. In this verse, he uses phileō in the sisters’ message to Jesus. The former verb is related to the noun ‘philos’, which means ‘friend’; the latter is related to ‘agapē’, one of several words for ‘love’ used in the New Testament. Traditionally it is claimed that John distinguishes between the two verbs, using them to mean different sorts of love. For example, both the late-nineteenth-century NT scholar and editor Westcott and the mid-twentieth-century scholar J.N. Sanders feel that for John agapaō was “reserved for the description of a love of a particular quality which it is appropriate to ascribe to Jesus” (Sanders 1954 p 33).

Comparing the usages of the two verbs suggests that they are rather used as synonyms by John. ‘Agapaō’ is more common in John’s Gospel. It is used 37 times in a variety of contexts: it is used of the Father’s love for the Son and vice versa, of human beings’ love for Jesus and vice versa, but it is also used for humans loving darkness, or people who love the praise of others (see the complete listing at Study Light. ‘Phileō’ is used only 13 times but in ways that suggest it is intended to provide variety in contexts similar to those in which ‘agapaō’ is used (there is also a complete listing for all 13 of these occurrences). A review of John 21. 15-17 is especially helpful here: the two words for ‘love’ are both used in this account of Jesus asking Peter three times if he loves him. In v 15, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him (agapaō) and Peter replies, Lord you know that I love you (phileō). The second time, in v 16, the same variation occurs. The third time, in v 17, both Jesus and Peter use phileō. It seems unlikely that they are speaking of two different kinds of love in these 3 verses!

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Despite the emphasis in much teaching and preaching on the other members of the Bethany family, we should notice here that Martha is named first and Lazarus last in the list of those Jesus loved. Either of those positions could indicate the one considered most important. This is one of several clues pointing toward the importance of Martha among Jesus’ Jerusalem-area disciples, such as the way that she is not identified by Mary’s actions, as Lazarus is.

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The main thrust of this parable is clear to those who have heard Jesus say that he himself is the light of the world: just as those who walk by day can see where they are going and do not stumble, while those who walk by night do stumble, so those who put their trust in Jesus are illuminated by his light, while those who do not are unable to see, that is, to understand. The difficulty is in seeing how it relates to Lazarus’ situation and Jesus’ decision. It seems likely that Jesus is reminding them that while they are walking with him in the daylight they need not fear either losing their way or an untimely end to the day. Just as there are twelve hours of daylight, so Jesus’ life and ministry have a due course of time to run, and they need not fear that it will end before its time, leaving them in the (figurative) darkness. Thus going to Judaea with him will not be dangerous precisely because they are with him and he is going at the right time for him to go. This, then, would tie in not only to earlier remarks about working while it is still light in Jn 9.4, prior to the healing of the man born blind, but also to earlier references to Jesus’ hour, the right time, the kairos time, for him to act (see the discussions on Jn 2.4 and Jn 7.6).

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(vv12-14)

Here it is the disciples who provide the obligatory Johannine irony by misunderstanding what Jesus says to them about Lazarus’ condition. They think he means Lazarus has fallen into a deep, healing sleep, but Jesus is trying to tell them, a tad too euphemistically for their understanding, that Lazarus has died. He must abandon euphemisms altogether in v14 to get his message across.

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This verse, which must have been hard to hear for the disciples, links back to Jesus’ statement in v 3 about the reason for Lazarus’ illness. The disciples, who apparently thought Jesus was talking about the progress of Lazarus’ disease in that verse, now need to be told once again that this is happening for their benefit, to strengthen their trust in Jesus. At this point that must have been totally counter-intuitive: surely it would be more strengthening to their relationship with Jesus for their friend to have been cured rather than be let to die. Still despite their shaky understanding and despite their fears, they accompany him back to Judaea. It is Martha alone who demonstrates unwavering trust in Jesus and what he is doing in the face of Lazarus’ death and Jesus’ late arrival.

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There has been much speculation over the years about why Thomas is called “Twin” -- the meaning of both his Aramaic and Greek names. It is obviously difficult to know why someone gets a particular nickname unless, as in the case of Simon Peter, one is told the story of why they have been given it. But there are two principal theories, one that he was distinguished in this way from an early age from other men having the same actual name by having been one of a set of twins, the other that he looked so much like Jesus that he was called “Twin” by the other disciples.

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The “hoi Ioudaioi” in this verse (and in vv 31, 33. 36, and 45) should not be rendered into English simply as Judaeans, as in v 8. The observation in v18 about the nearness of Jerusalem to Bethany makes sense only if the noun here refers more specifically to people from Jerusalem itself. See the full discussion for more details.

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Why does Martha go to meet Jesus while Mary stays in the house? Perhaps Martha goes because she is the elder sister, or because it was her house. We know that at this time Jewish law and custom made it hard for women to own property. Women from poor families (like the woman at the well in ch 4) could do little about that, but for women of wealthy families, as the Bethany family seems to have been, there were ways to get around the restrictions, such as a deed of gift which handed over money or land to her or stipulations in a marriage contract about her dowry or her right to maintenance (called alimentation) after her husband’s death. For example, in negotiations over the marriage contract, a family of means might insist on their daughter holding and keeping some of the property specified in her dowry in her own possession. Perhaps a wealthy family or a well-off husband might use a deed of gift to insure a woman had some protection in the event of divorce or a lack of children (see Amy-Jill Levine, “‘This Widow Keeps Bothering Me’”, in Finding A Woman's Place: Essays in Honor of Carolyn Osiek, David L. Balch and Jason T. Lamoreaux eds (Eugene, OR, 2011), 129).

In Luke’s account of the sisters, it is clear from Lk 10.38 that it is Martha’s house. Here it is less straightforward but Martha is the one who goes out to greet Jesus upon his arrival like a host. It seems clear that Martha had property: perhaps she was a widow with property of her own, giving a home to her younger sister and brother.

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In this dialogue with Martha, Jesus utters the fifth of the seven descriptive I AM sayings in this gospel (see the discussion in the introduction). In response to her acknowledgement that Lazarus will rise as part of a general resurrection in the end times (“on the last day”), Jesus proclaims that he is (now) the resurrection and the life. The latter part of this statement hearkens back to the Prologue, in which we are told of the Word that “What came into being in Him was life and this life was the light of human beings” (Jn 1.3b-4). The same qualities (such as relationship with the Father, obedience to the Father’s will, love for the Father) that make him able to be life and light for humankind also make him able to be resurrection for humankind. Jesus models relationship with the Father, models the divine life to which we are called, and thus provides humanity with the light of life. And that life and that light together make it possible for human beings to enjoy the divine life themselves, to participate in the divine life as part of the family of the Father and the Son. Thus it is as light and life that Jesus is also able to be resurrection for us. The resuscitation of Lazarus is the clearest possible demonstration of this, short of Jesus’ own glorification, his own death and resurrection.

Martha, like the woman at the well, replies to Jesus with a pious hope: my brother will rise on the last day, she says, just as the Samaritan woman is sure that the Messiah will answer all her questions when he comes. But Jesus gives to each of them a response that goes beyond pious hope: in each case what he offers is immediate. Their hope stands before them in him: to the Samaritan woman, he offers the assurance that he is the hoped-for Messiah, to Martha he offers the assurance that he is the resurrection she longs for.

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We must take care not to allow familiarity with this story make us numb to the extraordinary statement that Martha makes here (not Mary, who is portrayed as an ideal disciple by Luke; not Lazarus, Jesus’ beloved friend). Not only does she trust in what he tells her in verses 25 and 26, that he is the resurrection and the life and that those who trust in him will not die, she proclaims her trust that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of God, and that mysterious figure, “the Coming One”. This far exceeds Nathaniel’s exclamation in John 1.49, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel.” And she makes this statement of long-standing trust in Jesus (emphasised by the use of the present perfect) before Jesus restores her brother to life. She already knows these things about Jesus. Martha is practically a super-disciple!

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Notice the contrast between the way that Martha and Mary each greet Jesus. Both reproach Jesus in the same words over their brother’s death but despite Mary throwing herself at Jesus’s feet, she does not express faith in Jesus, who he is and what he can do, as Martha does. Perhaps to John Mary of Bethany was an impetuous type, a bit like Simon Peter but impetuous in actions rather than in words. Only later, in the story told in John 12 does she show her trust in Jesus and who and what he is in actions as her sister had in words.

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Here and again below in v 38, Jesus is in the grip of some strong emotion. The Greek verb here and below is a rare one and has been the subject of much discussion by scholars both in ancient and modern times. The general consensus seems to be that it indicates not just strong emotion (as in the NRSV, “greatly disturbed”) but anger or indignation. So why is Jesus angry or indignant here? Who or what is the object of his anger?

When we look at the text, it initially appears that he is angry with the mourners, first at the display of grief described in v 32, with Mary and the others weeping and wailing, and then at the heart-wrenching question in v37 with its implicit criticism of Jesus’ failure to come sooner. But it seems out of character for Jesus to react with anger to such natural, human emotions and reactions. His anger elsewhere in this gospel is reserved for those who fail to trust in him in the face of what he considers to be overwhelming evidence or those who desecrate his Father’s house. And he himself appears grief-stricken in v 35.

The interpretation that seems to make the most sense is that Jesus’ anger is directed not at the people around him or their sorrow but at death itself. He is set upon a path that will take him to his own death and beyond death to a resurrection beyond what any of his followers anticipate as yet. Somehow in confronting Lazarus’ death, Jesus confronts his own. After he is lifted up and draws all people to himself (Jn 3.14-15) he can freely extend to all believers the promises of Jn 5.19-29: his followers will pass from death to life in him and the power of death, that last enemy, will be destroyed. But here and now he faces the devastation of death for those who do not yet know the new life in him because they have not yet witnessed his own passage from death to life in his Resurrection. It is no wonder that in that welter of human emotion he also felt anger at the death that had taken Lazarus from him and all his other friends and relatives, even though he knows what he is about to do.

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It is hard to translate verses 41 and 42 without making Jesus sound smug about his relationship with the Father, but surely that is not how we should hear it. Jesus has a special relationship with his Father, and that is why he is certain that his Father will hear his prayer and raise Lazarus. And he wants to make it clear what is happening so that all the friends and relatives who have come to support Martha and Mary will understand and put their trust in him. Even in the face of death Martha has kept her faith in him, but these bystanders are called to have faith in Jesus in the face of life.

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The raising of Lazarus is easily the most dramatic of the stories told about Jesus’ resuscitation of a dead person. Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5.21-4, 35-43 and parallels) has only just died when Jesus raises her; the body of the widow’s son at Nain is being taken out for burial when Jesus encounters the funeral procession. But Lazarus has already been buried for several days!

It’s important to remember that none of these three people has experienced resurrection as Jesus himself will do. Instead these miracles are really healings in an extreme form. What Jesus does is to heal them completely of whatever caused them to die in the first place, thus restoring them to life. But that is the continuance of life on this earth, not the resurrection life of which we get a brief glimpse in the post-Resurrection stories about Jesus. All three will die in the normal course of their lives.

In a sense that raises the question, why do it then? Why restore these people to life if they are just going to die again? A moment’s thought shows, though, that we could just as easily ask, “well, why heal anyone?”, and ask it not just of Jesus, but of any doctor or nurse or paramedic. In this particular case the answer is the same as in the case of the healing of the man blind from birth: the purpose is to show the glory of God so that others might trust in Jesus and who (and what) he is.

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The details are vivid here. Lazarus is bound hand and foot and his head is covered with a towel. So his movements would have been very restricted by the cloth strips with which his hands and feet were tied -- his coming out of the tomb little more than a shuffle -- and the material over his face would have kept him from being able to see much more than a strong source of light, like the entrance to the tomb. Presumably the bystanders, even Martha and Mary, hung back in fear or awe, so that Jesus needed to tell them to untie him and let him go free.

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The miracle has achieved the desired result, of inspiring many of the friends and relations who had come to mourn with Mary to trust in Jesus. But the mention of the Pharisees in v 46 is ominous. We already know that the authorities in Jerusalem are upset with Jesus’ Sabbath healings and the response to them and with many of Jesus’ statements: it is already dangerous for him to travel freely in Judaea. The remainder of the chapter deals with the authorities’ reaction to Jesus’ latest activity.

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