Most Christians know the story of Jesus’ miraculous raising of Lazarus (John 11-12). As the story unfolds, suspense and sorrow increase until Jesus utters the well-known words, Lazarus, come out! (John 11:43). Lazarus becomes an overnight celebrity, as people flock to see a person who had been dead for four days. But Lazarus becomes a target of the religious leaders who were planning to get Jesus crucified (John 12:9-11). What a range of intense emotions must have flooded the hearts of Lazarus and his sisters during these tumultuous events! What would it have been like for Lazarus to suffer illness and death and then to be brought back to physical life, only to be in imminent danger of dying again, this time by execution?
But there’s much more here than a suspenseful plot full of anguish and danger. We need to understand how the story of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus fits into the Fourth Gospel and what it teaches us about the abundant life that Easter provides for us.
Lazarus and the Signs of the Fourth Gospel
It is well known that John’s Gospel features Jesus’ signs (sēmeion, σημεῖον; 17 times in John). The beloved disciple explains near the end of the book that he selected certain signs to lead people to believe in Jesus and have life through him (John 20:30-31). These signs were miraculous events that bore witness to (“sign-ified”) Jesus’ credentials as Israel’s Messiah. Sadly, many who saw signs did not believe in Jesus (John 11:47; 15:24), and many who “believed” proved to be something less than credible disciples (John 2:23-25; 6:26; 12:37-43). Although Jesus did many signs (John 2:23; 3:2; 6:2; 7:31; 9:16; 12:37), seven are featured as Jesus’ public ministry unfolds in John 1:19-12:50, commonly known as the Book of Signs:
- Jesus turns water into wine at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11).
- Jesus heals the official’s son in Cana (John 4:46-54).
- Jesus heals the 38-year invalid at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (John 5:1-9).
- Jesus feeds the multitudes near the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1-15).
- Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee (John 6:16-21).
- Jesus heals the congenitally blind man in Jerusalem (John 9:1-41).
- Jesus brings Lazarus back to life in Bethany (John 11:1-44).
As John unfolds these seven signs become more and more impressive—the raising of Lazarus clearly tops them all. Soon after it occurs, the Book of Signs comes to an end with the plaintive words of John 12:37: Despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, still most of the people did not believe in him. (NLT). There is only one sign in John greater than the raising of Lazarus, and as that sign looms nearer Jesus teaches his disciples about his departure and the coming of the Spirit (John 13-17). After Jesus’ arrest, death, and resurrection, doubting Thomas sees and believes the ultimate sign, the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ himself (John 20:24-29).
The Flow of John 11-12
The raising of Lazarus causes public acclaim for Jesus to grow, which leads to more people accompanying Jesus when he enters Jerusalem. The religious leaders are now more determined than ever to do away with Jesus. The raising of Lazarus becomes the catalyst for John’s story of the passion week. It also anticipates the death and resurrection of Jesus. As the story of John 11 begins, Jesus has left Jerusalem for the east side of the Jordan to avoid arrest. There he hears of Lazarus’ illness. Suspense builds as Jesus intentionally delays coming to Lazarus’ aid, and Lazarus dies. Only then does Jesus travel back to Bethany, dangerously near Jerusalem. Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha still believe in Jesus, despite their deep grief, but others who remember Jesus giving sight to the blind man (John 9) wonder why he didn’t keep Lazarus from death. At this moment of peak suspense, Jesus goes to the tomb and miraculously calls Lazarus out. This leads some to believe in Jesus, but others tell the religious leaders about the miracle. The high priest Caiaphas fears that the messianic fervor surrounding Jesus will lead to a disastrous Roman military intervention. His grim counsel that one man should die instead of the nation ironically predicts Jesus’ mission to save Israel. And so the ruling council confirms their plan to have Jesus executed (John 11:53).
After Martha and Mary host a dinner for Jesus, Mary anoints his feet with expensive perfume. Jesus interprets this as a reference to his burial. His entry into Jerusalem the next day (John 12:12) is all the more exciting and notable because many in the crowd have come to see Lazarus (John 12:9, 18). Others bear witness to Jesus because they saw him call Lazarus from the tomb (John 12:17). The religious leaders realize they are powerless to control the growing fervor for Jesus among the people: There’s nothing we can do. Look, Everyone [literally, the world] has gone after him! (John 12:19). Of course, the leaders can and will do one thing—have Jesus executed. Their statement that the world was following Jesus is both hyperbolic and ironic—Jesus really had come so that the world might follow him. John 12:19 unwittingly echoes John 3:16-18 and several other passages in John.
Learning about Easter with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus
The story of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus teaches us a great deal about “Easter-life,” the transforming power of the resurrection. Easter-life involves the resurrection that Jesus promised and Mary affirmed in John 11:23-24, a future end-of-time resurrection. This had been promised in Daniel 12:2-3, and Jesus had taught about it in John 5:28-29; 6:39-40, 44. In Jesus’ day, most Jews (with the exception of the Sadducees, Matt 22:23; Acts 23:8), believed in this resurrection before the final judgment. The church as well has believed in a future resurrection, but Jesus had much more than this in mind.
To understand Easter and the resurrection in John we need to understand Jesus’ teaching about the coming hour that is already here (John 4:23-26; 5:25). Jesus’ teaching in John 11:25-26 is linked to what he had already taught in John 5:24-29. According to John 5:28-29 and John 11:23-24, Jesus taught about the coming future “hour” of judgment and resurrection, when dead people in the tombs would hear his voice and come forth. But Jesus also spoke about the coming hour being already here in John 5:24-25. He said that those who heard his teaching and believed in his Father had already passed from death to eternal life. Jesus’ call for Lazarus to come forth from the tomb in 11:43 parallels John 5:25, where Jesus was calling people who were dead to God to believe in him and come alive. People who believed this Spirit-empowered, life-giving message (John 6:63, 68) were raised to a living relationship with God just as real as the physical resurrection to come. When Jesus raised Lazarus, he gave his audience a glimpse of the life-giving power already at work in his followers, the same power that will one day raise all humanity to stand before God in judgment.
As the resurrection and the life (John 11:25), Jesus is the incarnation of the power of God to raise and give life to humanity. This means that believers in Jesus who have died will one day be resurrected to a new life in the presence of God. Death is not the end. But there is something even more profoundly comforting in John 11:26—Jesus says that those who believe in him will never die. To understand this shocking teaching we need to go back to the book of Genesis. In Genesis 2:17 God warned Adam and Eve that they would die if they disobeyed God’s command. When they disobeyed, they did not immediately die, but they were immediately banished from the presence of God in the garden of Eden. They eventually did die, a sign that their relationship with God had been previously broken. As the resurrection and the life, Jesus provides believers with a double victory over death. First, death is not final. Believers will be raised physically just as Jesus was. Second, death does not sever their relationship with God. They already possess eternal life, so there is a sense in which they will never die.
Images of an empty tomb, viewed “from the outside in” are common. Like the first followers of Jesus, we look into the empty tomb externally as spectators of a historical event. This is a fundamental truth of our faith, but there’s more to the resurrection than this. We also need to picture the resurrection “from the inside out,” as participants in its power. The resurrection is first of all an epochal miracle of God that is external to us, but this past event presently transforms us internally when we open ourselves to God in faith. We need first of all to think of ourselves as looking in on the empty tomb of Jesus, but we also need to think of ourselves as looking out of the empty tomb of our past life toward our new life with Christ. We’re not just watching what happened to someone else a long time ago, we are sharing in that experience today. We have risen with Christ!
The upshot of all this is that, as George Ladd put it, Easter signals the presence of the future. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus anticipates his own resurrection. As the resurrection and the life, Jesus calls people to believe in him and enjoy eternal life already in the here and now. Through the Spirit, Jesus’ followers have already been “raised” to a transformed life in fellowship with God. This is the kind of life that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus learned about in John 11. This is the kind of life that Paul taught about in his letters, a life of believing participation in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, sealed to us in baptism (Rom 6:1-11; Eph 1:19-2:10; Phil 3:10-11; Col 2:11-12; 3:1-4).
What does participating in Christ’s resurrection look like in John? “Life eschatologized” is fundamentally an abundant life (John 10:10), a life engendered by the Holy Spirit through the word of Jesus (John 1:13; 3:5; 6:63, 68), who is life (John 14:6; 1 John 1:1-2; 5:11, 20) and who gives life (John 17:2; 20:31). Jesus’ life-giving word comes to benighted people in a sin-darkened world, illumining them just as God illumined the world he originally created (John 1:1-5; 3:16-21, 36; 8:12). This life is actually the same sort of life that is already shared by Jesus, his Father, and the Comforter (John 6:57; 17:3). It is a life of authentic worship in Spirit and truth, wherever it occurs (John 4:23-34). It is a life of love, a love for Jesus, fellow Christ-followers, and other humans. This love is actually the same sort of love as that already shared and shown by Jesus, his Father, and the Comforter (John 13:34-35; 1 John 3:14-16). It is a life of obedience to Jesus. This obedience is actually the same sort of obedience with which Jesus obeyed his Father (John 15:10). It is a life of unity with fellow believers. This unity is actually the same sort of unity as that shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a missional unity designed to bring the world to faith in Jesus (John 17:21-23; cf. 4:36). Finally, it is a surviving life, one that anticipates ultimate transformation when Jesus raises the dead on the last day (John 5:28; 6:40, 54; Rev 2:10; 20:4). This is actually the same sort of survival experienced by Jesus on that first Easter morning (Rev 2:8).
When Jesus asked Martha if she believed in this sort of Easter-life or eschatologized life, she responded Yes, I have always believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who has come into the world from God (John 11:27 NLT). If we respond as Martha did, we will realize that Easter isn’t over—it’s just the beginning.
. . . . . . .
I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself. . . .
. . . God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus. God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (Ephesians 1:18-23; 2:4-10 NLT)
Go here for “No More Weeping,” an Easter message on John 20 by Pastor Joel Wayne.
Through the Easter season I’ve been encouraged and blessed by music. Songs like these proclaim the message that we learn with Martha, Mary, and Jesus. Easter isn’t over.