Lord, Your Friend is Ill

Gospel of John 11:1-44

The first eleven chapters have been about witnessing. First was the Baptizer, and then the disciples who witnessed by accepting Jesus’ invitation to follow him.

They were undoubtedly amazed when they watched Jesus turn water into wine, though it was a relatively private miracle because very few people saw it.

Jesus then teaches the Gospel to the Pharisee Nicodemus, and the Baptizer announces again that Jesus is ‘the One.’ Jesus then helps the Samaritan woman to become the first Christian missionary.

Jesus healed the son of a royal official by long-distance, no less. Then he entered Jerusalem and healed a man who could not walk.

Everyone’s favorite was the feeding of the Five thousand, followed by Jesus walking on water.

That feeding led to much dispute over who Jesus was and who he still is for us.

Chapter 9 has Jesus healing the blind man, resulting in more conflict between Jesus and the authorities.

In chapter 10, Jesus claims to be the Good Shephard. Now we come to the last witness before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time.

Now there was a man by the name of Lazarus who became seriously ill. He lived in Bethany, the village where Mary and her sister Martha lived. 2 (Lazarus was the brother of the Mary who poured perfume upon the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus: “Lord, your friend is ill.” Phillips

We should notice first that Lazarus does not seem to be very well known to John’s expected audience, but Mary is. In verse 2, John reminds all readers why Mary is well known.

Mark 14:3. Jesus himself was now in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. As he was sitting at table, a woman approached him with an alabaster flask of very costly spikenard perfume. She broke the neck of the flask and poured the perfume on Jesus’ headPhillips

Matthew 26:6-7. While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the tableNIV

Luke 7:36-38. Then one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to a meal with him. When Jesus came into the house, he took his place at the table and a woman, known in the town as a bad woman, found out that Jesus was there and brought an alabaster flask of perfume and stood behind him crying, letting her tears fall on his feet and then drying them with her hair. Then she kissed them and anointed them with the perfumePhillips

John 12:1-3. Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the village of Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. They gave a supper for him there, and Martha waited on the party while Lazarus took his place at table with Jesus. Then Mary took a whole pound of very expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet and then wiped them with her hair. The entire house was filled with the fragrance of the perfumePhillips

You can sort out the differences later. For now, we see that John alone connects Lazarus with Mary and Martha. As we follow the three in John, we get the idea that they were a prominent family, perhaps even well to do. Some scholars have even suggested that they were related to Jesus. The evidence is weak, but I like the notion.

Here is verse 3 from another source. So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, he [our brother and Your friend] whom You love is sick.” Amplified Bible

The literal Greek is, Lord, behold, whom you love is sick.

Nearly all English translations include that Jesus loves Lazarus. We do not know why, but it seems Jesus knew all three of them well. Jesus may have stayed with them whenever he visited Jerusalem, either because they were early disciples or relatives or both.

Notice the sisters did not request Jesus come, but it was common for a rabbi to visit a sick disciple. It seems the women knew he would come.

But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. ESV

This illness does not lead to death. A strange statement, given what we read later. Keep in mind that the messenger took a day to reach Jesus, an important point later. If Jesus knew Lazarus was ill before the messenger arrived, he would have known all that was to happen. If the message was his first knowledge, I expect he quickly asked God what he should do. God assured him that what would happen would bring God and His Son glory.

The sisters said that Jesus loved Lazarus, now John clarifies that Jesus loved all three. John wants us to understand that Jesus takes care of his own. He does not do it out of any sense of responsibility; Jesus does it because he loves them, and he loves us.

Having made these points clear, Jesus hangs around two days before starting uphill to Bethany. Why? The text does not answer, but there seems to be some math involved. The count goes like this: one day for the messenger to arrive, wait two days, travel one day. That is a total of four days. Why is four important? Verse 17 will begin the explanation.

Then after this, he said to his disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish leaders were just now trying to stone you to death! Are you going there again?” Jesus replied, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If anyone walks around in the daytime, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks around at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After he said this, he added, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. But I am going there to awaken him.” 12 Then the disciples replied, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 (Now Jesus had been talking about his death, but they thought he had been talking about real sleep.) NET

It is not clear that the disciples heard the message about Lazarus or Jesus’ statement that it would not end in death. Therefore, they thought little of sitting around for two days. When their Master said, ‘let us go to Judea,’ their spines tingled. Jesus had had a close call there on the most recent visit, in fact on several visits. ‘They just tried to stone you! Are you crazy?’ True, they may have been more polite.

What did Jesus mean by ‘twelve hours?’ On the surface, it means daylight is limited. People then did very little after sundown. They worked in the sunlight. Jesus meant that there is plenty of time for the day’s work, but he also meant there is only so much time. Do today what needs to be done.

Jesus contrasts day and night by talking about stumbling around in the dark, or worse, getting up to no good. Drive through any small town or large city at three in the morning, and you will see troubled people doing things they hope will make them feel better but fail.

The deeper meaning Jesus has in mind takes us back to John 1: In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. NIV The Son of God is always the light.

‘Fallen asleep’ was and still is a common metaphor for death. You would think the disciples could follow Jesus’ ideas a little better after three years, but no, they are still obtuse. ‘Right, Jesus, he’ll wake up soon.’

14 This made Jesus tell them quite plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and I am glad that I was not there—for your sakes, that you may learn to believe. And now, let us go to him.” 16 Thomas (known as the twin) then said to his fellow-disciples, “Come on, then, let us all go and die with him!” Phillips

Two different things happen in this section. First, Jesus announces that he knows that Lazarus is already dead, even though no one has come to let him know. He also tells the Twelve that Lazarus’ death is for the benefit of the Twelve. Second, Thomas is sure Jesus will be killed, so they might as well die with their Master.

Jesus shows patience. I wonder if he asked God, ‘are you sure these blockheads can get the church up and running?’ We see Jesus giving them what they need for the job to come without demeaning them or breaking them down. He is our example as well.

We also see the loyalty of the Twelve. Whatever their faults, they were willing to die with him. All but one will die for him (Judas died but not for Jesus). John alone died of old age, and I believe because he needed sixty years to get this Gospel right.

17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. ESV

If you follow the timing, the messenger walked for a day to inform Jesus that Lazarus was ill, but he likely died shortly after the messenger left Bethany. Jesus then waited two full days, going on the fourth day after the messenger left Bethany.

This is God’s timing. Whether Jesus knew the details or not, God knew Jesus would be in the grave for three days. God wanted Lazuras to be so dead in the eyes of the witnesses that they could never say that he was just ‘asleep.’ It was true in ancient times that people were buried, only to revive days later. It became common knowledge that no one survived four days in the grave.

So, why was Jesus only in for three days? Most importantly, he was tortured by professionals and executed on the cross—no one survived that.

Being close to Jerusalem—with Passover around the corner—word spread about Lazarus’ death, and friends and family came to mourn and honor Lazarus. Mary and Martha were sitting shiva. Jews to this day follow the seven-day practice. The immediate family sits in the house after the burial (on the day of death) in straight back chairs and receives visitors. Neighbors and friends bring in food for them.

Martha broke shiva to meet Jesus on the road. Martha behaves the opposite of what we read in Luke 10.

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” NIV

Mary is honoring her brother by staying to properly greet the guests while the older sister (probably) goes to Jesus.

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.” NIV

We should be clear that Martha is a believer; she is short on understanding, but she knows Jesus is of God. She shows her belief that Jesus’ power comes from God, that all he has to do is ask, and it will happen. Here, we see her making a backhanded request to do something he has done for others.

An additional possibility is that Martha realized that Jesus was in great danger, so she went down the road to stop him before all the Jews from the city saw him.

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.” NIV

Martha continues to reveal her faith. The idea of resurrection was a Pharisee belief, one rejected by the Sadducees. We cannot be sure of the general population, but a large portion of them certainly agreed with the Pharisee’s thinking on life after death. Martha likely had a stronger belief on the matter as a friend and follower of Jesus.

Now we have I Am number five. I am the resurrection and the life. Jesus is not here only to bring one man back to life; he is here to bring the world back to life in God. In a way, this resurrection is unfair to him. Lazarus will die a second time. But he will know that his return is a powerful witness to the resurrection of Jesus.

To live in Jesus is to defeat death. Death will win now, but not in the forever.

Martha completes her faith statement. ‘I believe you are the Messiah and the Son of God.’

28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. ESV 

Martha could have explained to Mary the exchange she had had with Jesus, but instead only says that Jesus is asking for her. This suggests that Jesus told Martha to do only that. We see that Jesus remains outside of Bethany to wait for Mary. He may have wanted a private word with her, but it is not to be.

31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So 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 also have kept this man from dying?” ESV

Mary also shows her faith by kneeling before Jesus and saying the same words her sister used to greet Jesus. John does not have Jesus go through the same exchange; instead, he jumps to Jesus’ reaction of grief.

‘Mary, where is Lazarus?’ Mary answered, ‘Come, I will show you.’

Now the Jews who heard the exchange start to take sides. Some stress Jesus’ love, and some wonder why he did not heal his friend. The healing would have been long-distance, suggesting that the people had heard of other such miracles.

Verse 35 is the shortest sentence in the Bible. John wants us to see the humanity of Jesus. Healing a blind man he did not know was one thing; seeing the tomb of a friend was quite another. Even as he prepared himself for the resurrection of his friend, he allowed his grief to show.

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. ESV

There is a translation issue in this verse. The Greek word embrimaomai means to snort like a horse, to snort with anger, to have indignation, to blame, to sigh with chagrin, groan, murmur against. That is a wide range of options. It is up to the translators to read the entire section and select the best meaning for this context.

Groaning in himselfAmerican Standard Version Deeply moved within [to the point of anger]. Amplified  Terribly upsetContemporary English Version Moved with deep angerTLV 

It is not easy to decide who has the best translation with all these options. It is clear from the Greek that the emotion was ‘in himself.’ In verse 33, we read that he was—embrimaomai—deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. The word again indicates that Jesus had the same reaction as in v. 33.

Several leading modern translations have gone with ‘deeply moved,’ or its variations. That seems too weak. William Barclay points out that John was writing for a Greek audience. They had no notion that any god could feel emotions. They reasoned that to make a god feel some emotion gave us power over them; therefore, they were without feeling.

John’s message to the Greek Christians with the account of Lazarus is that the Son of God had the same feelings we humans have. John has already destroyed many Greek ideas with Jesus wept. Now he describes Jesus as snorting anger. We cannot know why he was angry, only that he was. That powerful emotion may have been necessary for Jesus to do this sign.

However you choose to read the phrase, read it as powerful.

39 “Take away the stone,” said Jesus. “But Lord,” said Martha, the dead man’s sister, “he has been dead four days. By this time he will be decaying ….” 40 “Did I not tell you,” replied Jesus, “that if you believed, you would see the wonder of what God can do?” Phillips

We read in verse 38 that Lazarus’ body was placed in a cave. The practice was to seal the opening for one year, at which time the family would move the bones to a permanent shelf or box.

The stone would have weighed several hundred pounds and required several men to move it away from the opening.

From what little we know of her, Martha seems to be practical. ‘Don’t unleash that stink!’

Now, we see Jesus calmer as he rebukes Martha. She believes Jesus, but not after four days. ‘I have heard about all you have done, but even you can’t pull this off.’ We should not blame her; even his Twelve were doubtful.

We need to believe in the wonders of God.

41 Then they took the stone away and Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of these people standing here so that they may believe that you have sent me.” Phillips

For his prayer, Jesus looks up to Heaven. Through the centuries, we Christians developed the attitude of bowing our heads for prayer. One reason was Jesus’ instruction to us in Matthew 6:6. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseenNIV When in public, closing our eyes duplicates the closing door.

But I think there is another explanation. The European culture, which was true in the rest of the world, stressed that commoners should not look directly at their betters. Whenever a person of rank or title came by, people would bow their heads until he passed. It makes sense in that culture to bow before the one who is greater than a king. So we bow our heads in the presence of God.

We quickly learn that Jesus is speaking more to those around him than to God. He and God are in constant communication, so such a public prayer is not about God but about witnessing to the Son of God.

We do not know how loudly Jesus spoke, so we cannot know how many people heard him. The most important people around him would have been Martha, Mary, and the Twelve. I believe they were the primary target.

Jesus is a witness to himself again.

43 When he had said this, he shouted in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The one who had died came out, his feet and hands tied up with strips of cloth, and a cloth wrapped around his face. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go.” NET

Jesus’ shouting teaches us two things. He spoke to a corps, so he needed to ‘wake’ him. There was no need for him to shout; he could speak to the soul of Lazarus with his mind. The shout was for the living—another witness.

The second point is the contrast to the quieter prayer, heard only by those close to him. Jesus goes from speaking to a few—for their spiritual growth—to impressing the crowd with his power over death.

Some have quibbled over the cloth wrappings, saying he could not have stood up if he was wrapped like a mummy. But if God could bring a man dead for four days back to life, a few cloth strips would be no problem. Additionally, the cloth was mainly used to hold in the spices and herbs; mummies were an Egyptian thing.

You may wonder why they wrapped Lazarus in strips of cloth and Jesus in one long cloth. With Jesus, there was too little time, so they had to take shortcuts. More on that later.

Be Righteous and do Good

Mike Lawrence

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