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Jesus Raises a Close Friend

December 13th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Resurrection of Lazarus

John records a third resurrection which was performed by Jesus, shortly before the crucifixion. This is the story of Lazarus, a close friend of Jesus’ from Bethany. Unlike the widow’s son at Nain or Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days prior to Jesus’ arrival. Commanding the removal of a stone which had blocked the entrance of Lazarus’ tomb for over half of the Jewish week of mourning was the most inexplicable of actions. The only possible justification for such a request would have been the resurrection of the occupant. This account demonstrates more clearly than any other the foreknowledge; the prophetic insight that Christ held concerning these miracles.

Vincent Van Gogh: La Résurrection de Lazare (d’après Rembrandt)

Vincent Van Gogh: La Résurrection de Lazare (d’après Rembrandt)

Before we examine the passage from John’s Gospel, a little background is in order. Some have questioned why John alone would chronicle this most remarkable of pre-crucifixion revivifications. One might reason that such an amazing incident should have been a keynote feature in the Synoptic Gospels as well. The answer to this seeming paradox, once again, depends on when each account was written. All four Gospel accounts record that Jesus’ life had been threatened by the Jewish authorities prior to the events at Lazarus’ tomb[1]. In Chapter IV we examined the reasons for this conflict between Christ and the Jewish rulers. John’s account preserves considerable detail of how this underlying premise affected the decisions and actions of the participants.

John tells us that the resurrection of Lazarus caused the chief priests and Pharisees to call for a meeting of the Sanhedrin[2]. This notable miracle had been performed at Bethany, a village only two miles east of Jerusalem. (The resurrections of the widow’s son at Nain and Jairus’ daughter were both in Galilee.) Because Lazarus had been entombed for four days, this resurrection could not be explained away as a case of misdiagnosis of death. The impact of Lazarus’ resurrection upon the Judean populace reinforced the ruling Jews commitment to kill Jesus. But more important to our understanding is John’s statement that the Jews resolved to kill Lazarus as well:

1Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

4But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

7“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

9Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.

-The Gospel of John, 12:1-11

This is the only time, other than the resurrection account, that Lazarus of Bethany is mentioned in the New Testament. Interestingly, Matthew and Mark do record the events of this dinner, which they place at the house of one Simon the leper[3]. Matthew refers to very expensive perfume, while Mark mentions very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. Matthew and Mark agree that the ointment was contained within an alabaster jar. Matthew and Mark narrate that the perfume was used to anoint Jesus’ head, while John specifically states she poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet. Whether this means she anointed both Jesus’ head and feet, or that she anointed Jesus’ head and it dripped onto his feet, John was particularly moved by the picture of Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. You are capable of determining for yourself whether this difference is reconcilable.

But significantly, Matthew and Mark never refer in their accounts to Mary, Martha, or Lazarus by name. If the Jewish rulers had determined that Lazarus must die along with Jesus, who had been crucified prior to the creation of any Gospel narrative, then any responsible author of these events had to consider that a man’s life was at stake. This would be a necessary precondition until Lazarus either passed away, or until the destruction of Jerusalem which removed the Jewish leadership from power. Was Lazarus in hiding? Did an uneasy truce exist between Lazarus and the authorities as long as he maintained a low profile? These things are impossible to know today. When the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued the fatwa calling for Salmon Rushdie’s death in 1989, he caused the author of The Satanic Verses to spend many years in hiding. Even today, thirty years later, I am reluctant to mention his example, although I understand that the edict has expired.

Based upon the testimony of the early church we can date the Synoptic Gospels from the late 40’s to the mid 60’s AD. Luke’s compilation of the Acts of the Apostles ends abruptly after two years of Paul’s first Roman imprisonment – so 63 AD or slightly earlier. Luke’s Gospel was written before the Acts[4], probably during Paul’s two year imprisonment in Caesarea, (around 60 AD.) But a precise date is difficult to ascertain. All the testimony that we have examined agrees that Mark wrote his Gospel before Luke’s Gospel. And all witnesses agree that Matthew was written first. Since the Synoptic Gospels were written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and John wrote his Gospel more than twenty years afterward, it makes sense that John alone would be released to disclose the details of Lazarus’ resurrection. This exercise reemphasizes the need to consider these accounts at face-value, from the perspective of the author and contemporaneous audience. Giving much deserved credit to the statements of the martyrs allows these perceived inconsistencies to melt away. And how much more worthy is it than to be forever calling falsehood the dying testaments of the slain.

And now we proceed with John’s record of the resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany:

1Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. 3So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

4When 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.” 5Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

7Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

8“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?”

9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. 10It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.”

11After 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.”

12His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

14So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

16Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

-The Gospel of John, Chapter 11, Verses 1-16, (NIV Translation)

John begins by identifying Lazarus and his family. The episode in which Mary anoints Jesus with perfume (v. 2) has not happened yet. John provides this information to distinguish Mary from the other Mary’s in John’s Gospel[a]. The essence of this passage is that Jesus waits several days after hearing of Lazarus’ illness before traveling to Judea. Once again, Jesus refers to death as having fallen asleep. The disciples are reluctant to return to Judea, where Jesus is now a wanted man. Thomas Didymus, who John alone brings to life as a character, exhorts the other disciples to travel to Judea to share Jesus’ death. Best remembered for his doubts concerning Jesus’ resurrection, this willingness to die for the Master indicates that Thomas was not devoid of faith. Several days later, Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany:

17On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20When 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. 22But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

28And 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.” 29When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31When 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.

32When 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.”

33When 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.

35Jesus wept.

36Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

-The Gospel of John, Chapter 11, Verses 17-37, (NIV Translation)

Jesus arrived in Bethany four days after Lazarus burial. This was the middle of the seven days of intense mourning proscribed by Jewish law; a time when all of the Jewish community, including representatives of the city council, would visit and console the bereaved family[5]. Lazarus’ family received news of Jesus’ arrival, and Martha went to speak with him. But Jesus had not yet entered the village, or made his arrival public knowledge. Remember that the Jewish leadership was still trying to apprehend Jesus. Martha called Mary aside, and privately told her that Jesus had asked for her. Some translations say that Martha secretly told her, or that Martha whispered this information to Mary. However that may be, the mourners were unaware of Mary’s destination when followed her. Once they had assembled in his presence, Jesus allowed the mourners to show him the grave:

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.”

-The Gospel of John, Chapter 11, Verses 38-44, (NIV Translation)

Consider for a moment the implications of removing the stone from the tomb. What plane was Jesus operating on, that he could so petition the bereaved? Picture yourself making the same request to a dear friend at his close family member’s funeral. Two-thousand years after the fact, John’s remembrance still speaks to our hearts, allowing us to see what he saw and feel what he felt. Who present would not be moved? And small wonder the Pharisees’ allegation that Lazarus’ very existence drew converts to Christ.

When Lazarus, the dead man, came out, he was bound hand and foot with the linen strips indicative of Jewish preparation of a corpse[6]. The mourners had to undo the burial preparation by unwrapping the corpse, a procedure not addressed by Jewish tradition. Was Mary’s concern over the odor from the tomb valid? Did the reek of decay still cling to Lazarus after he was restored to life? Our testimony only tells us that all were convinced, and many came to Christ as a consequence.

John’s account of Lazarus easily meets our three criteria. John, Jesus’ beloved disciple, was the eyewitness. No one on the planet expressed doubt of Johannine authorship for this Gospel during the first fifteen–hundred years after it was published. We not only know who wrote it, but we know where, when, and why. It makes no sense that this disciple, who saw his own brother beheaded by Agrippa I and his closest friends martyred for sixty years, would be anything other than true to his message. And John still remembers a lot of inside information concerning the motivations for people’s behavior to be mistaken about something as graphic as Lazarus walking from the tomb.


[a] Although John never refers to Jesus’ mother by name, either to avoid misunderstanding or for reasons of modesty, we know from the other Gospels that she was named Mary. In addition, John mentions Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, (e.g. John 19:25).


[1] Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6; Luke 4:29; 13:31; 19:47; John 5:18; 7:1; 8:40

[2] John 11:45-57

[3] Matthew 26:6-16; Mark 14:3-11

[4] Acts 1:1-2

[5] Shemuel Safrai, M. Stern, The Jewish People in the First Century, Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum, Vol. 2, p. 782-783, Van Gorum, 1974

[6] Shemuel Safrai, M. Stern, The Jewish People in the First Century, Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum, Vol. 2, p. 775-776, Van Gorum, 1974

  1. December 14th, 2009 at 09:10 | #1

    The raising of Lazarus was truly a great miracle, but what happened to Lazarus after Jesus gave him this one-of-a-kind gift from God and how this experience would have changed Lazarus is the rest of the story!

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