Do you notice how often John, in chapter 11 of his Gospel, defines Lazarus by his sickness?
“Sick” or “sickness” appears five times in the first six verses.
v. 1: “ a man named Lazarus was sick”
v. 2: “Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick”
v. 3: “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
v. 4: “This sickness will not end in death.”
v. 6: “he heard that Lazarus was sick”
Add to that: he was from Bethany, a town meaning “house of the the poor” or sick. “Sick” is the main description of Lazarus.
Lazarus: Brother, Beloved
Who else was he? Lazarus was brother to Mary and Martha.
These were sisters John’s audience knew well enough that John could just identify Mary by a single story: “the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.”
It was “this Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick.”
Lazarus was a brother. And Lazarus was a beloved. Verse 3 says, “So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.””
Some say the so-called “disciples Jesus loved” is not John but Lazarus… this verse would be evidence for that view. Lazarus was a brother and beloved friend.
As the account progresses, Lazarus becomes defined by his being dead. “He’s that guy who died.”
v. 11: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep”
v. 13: “Jesus had been speaking of his death”
v. 14: “Lazarus is dead”
v. 16: “Let us… die with him”
v. 17: “Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days”
v. 19: “the loss of their brother”
v. 21: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died”
v. 37: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
v. 38: “’But, Lord,’” said Martha, the sister of the dead man”
Even in verse 44 after Jesus has said, “Lazarus, come out,” John doesn’t say: And Lazarus came out… he says, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with stops of linen, and a cloth around his face.”
John primarily describes Lazarus as either sick or dead.
And he heightens the pathos of the narrative by noting he is a brother and a loved one.
Lazarus: Locus of God’s Glory
But there’s one more thing that John says about Lazarus—he is the site of the revelation of God’s glory. He is the locus of God’s Son being glorified.
The miracle sets the stage for the rest of the book of John.
It’s the 7th of the 7 Signs of Jesus in John. We’ve seen Jesus turn water into wine, perform three healings, feed the multitudes, walk on water, and now he’s about to raise a man from the dead.
This paves the way for Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead, which John will narrate at the end of the Gospel.
Look at verse 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.’”
Lazarus is the one through whom Jesus reveals himself to be the resurrection and the life. Lazarus’s death is an occasion for Jesus to show everyone more about himself, leading up to his own resurrection.
Remember that—I’ll come back to that in a bit: Lazarus is the one through whom Jesus reveals himself to be the resurrection and the life.
The Story of Lazarus
So that’s Lazarus, as John tells it: Sick… a brother… a beloved friend… then dead… but ultimately the locus of Jesus’ revelation and God’s glory.
Jesus gets news of Lazarus’s sickness, and even though John’s about to describe Lazarus as “the dead man,” Jesus says, “This sickness will NOT end in death.”
But Jesus stays put for two days.
And he hears about it from Mary and Martha. Both sisters, independently of each other, say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”
God, if you had intervened—and you could have—this man I love would have been healed. Or maybe he wouldn’t have even gotten sick in the first place.
Theodicy: Jesus Mourns with Us
This chapter actually makes an enduring contribution to Christian theodicy, or the practice of trying to justify how an all-powerful God could stop evil but doesn’t.
John doesn’t address the question directly, but he does show a Jesus who comes alongside his loved ones in adversity, and mourns with them.
John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the Bible, and the best one to start with if you want to up your Scripture memory game. It just says, “Jesus wept.” “Jesus wept.”
It’s not the only time in the New Testament that someone cries, but John uses a word for weeping that is only used here in the New Testament. A richer translation is: “Jesus burst into tears.”
He mourns when death seems to have gotten dominion—Jesus is even angry at the injustice of it all. We Christians don’t need to fear death, but it’s awful to lose a friend, a family member, a loved one.
Jesus mourns—bursts into tears, even—right along with us.
The Jewish co-mourners—the ones who were comforting Mary and Martha—are taken aback and say, “See how he loved him!”
Jesus’s weeping was motivated by love.
So that’s a nice sidebar in this story, I think—it doesn’t solve the problem of evil, not at all. But Jesus’s response does remind us that where there is suffering, where there is death, where the unfair and unthinkable happen… in those places, Jesus weeps with us, because he is a loving, compassionate, and empathetic God.
And then the sign comes—verse 43, Jesus says in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!”
We don’t even get a response from Lazarus—he walks out like a mummy, all his death clothes still wrapped around him.
And then, you kind of feel bad for the guy…. After Lazarus is resurrected, in chapter 12 the religious leaders would make a decision about him. They decide not only do they want to kill Jesus, they want to kill Lazarus, too! Even after this awesome miracle, he might be dead again soon.
Jesus is like, “Come on! I just… got him out of there.”
Jesus is Resurrection NOW
The Crux of the Passage
As I’ve read and re-read this passage, as I’ve studied and puzzled over it… I keep coming back to verses 21-27.
They are the crux of the passage.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
There’s a cosmic interplay in their conversation between present and future, between resurrection later and resurrection now.
Martha says, “I know Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
This is common Jewish teaching. The Pharisees believed in a resurrection. The Sadducees didn’t—that’s why they’re so sad, you see. Martha’s response is not unexpected.
Especially since Jesus in John 6 said, about a million times, “I will raise them up at the last day.” Anyone who comes to me, who eats this bread of life (that is me, Jesus), will never die, will live forever, and I will raise them up at the last day.
Martha is tracking with the best of Jesus’ students here.
Resurrection at the last day is not only standard Jewish teaching—it is standard Christian teaching. We affirm that we will experience the joy of resurrection, in body and soul, at some future day we call “the last day.”
At Funerals and during Easter are the two times we’re most aware of the promise of resurrection.
Jesus doesn’t argue with Martha, about raising people up at the last day. There’s nothing for him to correct in her future eschatology. Hope in a future resurrection is kind of the anchor for our faith.
But Jesus pushes a step further and says, “I am—RIGHT NOW—the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
“I am—not just tomorrow, not just in the last day, but right now, present tense, in this very moment—I am the resurrection and the life.”
Immediately after saying so, Jesus gives a manifestation—a pretty literal one—as to what it means that Jesus is the resurrection right now for those who believe. He raises Lazarus from the dead.
By a supernatural sign Jesus shows that the power of the resurrection is not just for tomorrow or some later date, but for this day.
We are Lazarus
I suspect John wants us to use Lazarus as a sort of mirror, a character in whom we find ourselves.
Lazarus was sick. We get sick. We have physical ailments.
And if we allegorize a bit, we have mental lapses, emotional breakdowns, and plenty of imperfections. We see lack of health in ourselves.
Also like Lazarus, we were dead.
“As for you,” Ephesians says, “You were dead in your transgressions and sins…. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” Before coming to know Jesus, we were as good as tomb-dwellers.
Lazarus is also the one Jesus loves. His beloved. John himself, in one of his short church letters, will call his recipients beloved. We are loved by Jesus, just like his friend Lazarus.
We’re like Lazarus in his sickness… like Lazarus in his death… and like Lazarus in resurrection.
That Ephesians passage continues:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
Even now we are raised to new life in Christ, remade in him from sickness to health, and from death to life.
Scripture is rife with passages that suggest resurrection isn’t just for later, but for right now, for those who are people of God.
Paul says in Philippians 3, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”
Romans 8:4 says:
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Right now!)
Had we been protesting the lack of resurrection in our lives, we might have shown up to a rally, chanting, “What do we want? Resurrection! When do we want it? Now!”
Later in Romans 8, we hear:
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
In Living the Resurrection Eugene Peterson (whose Message translation inspired the title of this post) observes that the ones who witnessed Christ’s resurrection were afterwards “walking the same old roads over the same old ground they had grown up on and talked and worked on, with the same old people they had grown up with.” He says:
Now it was becoming clear to them… that the resurrection also had to do with them and the ongoing circumstances of their lives. … They were beginning to get the sense that Jesus’ resurrection had everything to do with their ordinary lives. They needed practice in this reorientation, and they plunged into ordinariness—the old familiar workplace of sea and the fishing boat.
Because Jesus is the resurrection and the life, right now, we live in the light of the resurrection… right now. We already walk and live and work in a new reality—we don’t have to wait for it.
How do we receive such a gift? If we are to be resurrection people right now, how do we practice living out that identity?
Answering this question will actually be a churchwide focus in Lent.
Lent might feel more like crucifixion than resurrection for you. But we have already been raised to new life, just like Lazarus. And there are methods of engagement we can employ to put ourselves in a position to receive God’s grace, God’s new life.
In Lent our congregation will be trying out a series of weeklong habits—“spiritual disciplines” is the familiar name for them. Each Sunday I’ll preach about one practice Christians throughout the centuries have used to open up to God, to receive Jesus as resurrection and life… and then we’ll practice on our own that week.
And as we re-gather Sunday after Sunday in Lent, we’ll do it at this same communion table. At the table we receive a taste of that new life, and a reminder that the resurrected life is ours to receive and live, every day.
We don’t have to be defined—as Lazarus was—by our sickness, by our imperfections, by our falling short.
We don’t have to be identified—as Lazarus was—as being dead… in our case, dead in our transgressions and stupid sins. We are no longer cut off in darkness from the land of the living.
We are, like Lazarus, identified as God’s dearly loved children. Jesus, the resurrection and the life, calls us to put our full trust and faith in him.
And through his resurrection power, he calls us (right now!) into newness of life.
The above is adapted from a sermon I preached last Sunday, the last in a series on the Seven Signs of Jesus in John.