SESSION SEVENTEEN: THE RESURRECTION OF LAZARUS (JOHN 11)
INTRO: Describe a time when you've been very sick, perhaps the sickest of your life.
- How would you describe Jesus' relationship with this family (vv. 1-5)?
- Why does Jesus deliberately delay (v.6)? Why is Jesus returning to Lazarus at this time (vv. 11-15)? What do the disciples fear instead (vv. 8, 16)?
- What do you learn about Martha from the way she talks with Jesus in verses 21-27? How does Jesus stretch her faith by his claim in verse 25?
- How is Mary's greeting (v. 32) like and unlike Martha's? Since Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus (11:11), how do you account for his weeping (vv. 33-35)?
- Have you ever felt like God was not listening when you prayed? How did you deal with this? How does the way in which Jesus postponed his response to the sisters' request help you in understanding your own prayer life?
- When have you been faced with a tough situation that ended up stretching your faith? What would have been different for you if the struggle had simply been avoided?
- Have you ever attended a funeral where there was no sense of eternal life? How did you go away from that experience? What difference does the hope of eternal life make for you?
- What are some "old grave clothes" that still must be shed for you to feel truly free in Christ?
TAKEAWAY: What is your greatest takeaway from this story? What specific life changes do you need to make? How will you hold yourself accountable?
COMMENTARY: THE RESURRECTION OF LAZARUS (JOHN 11:1-45)
It's been said there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes.
Most of us feel taxed to death but, in reality, the greatest tax is death. That's when the "grim reaper" removes our earthly existence and we face a judgment of our lives. In Jesus' day, death was a harsh reality. The average life span was around 40 years of age. Many women died in childbirth. Many men passed away from hard work and stress. Many children died due to disease.
In this chapter we explore one of Jesus' greatest miracles: the raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead.
It happens prior to his final visit to Jerusalem. There's a lot of drama in the air.
ON THE ROAD TO GLORY (John 11:1-5)
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” 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.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
The ancient practice of hospitality created a home for weary travelers, but it did not always insure a friendship. In this story we learn about Lazarus, Mary and Martha, three of Jesus’s closest friends. There's no doubt that Jesus loved them deeply. They clearly did not travel with him. The siblings all lived together in a home, possibly an inheritance house, in Bethany about two miles from Jerusalem. It's likely that they were a wealthy and notable family. Bethany was a bedroom community and a quiet place to live. The fact that Mary will "waste" a day's wage of "pure nard" to perfume Jesus' feet (John 12:3) shows their wealth, as well as "many Jews from Jerusalem" came to pay their respects (John 12:19) reveals the notoriety Lazarus, Mary and Martha.
It is here where Jesus likely stayed when he came for Jewish festivals. We know he stayed with Lazarus, Mary and Martha during his final week on earth.
The name Lazarus means “God is my help.”
It’s interesting that Mary and Martha do not ask for Jesus to come. They know he will when he learns that Lazarus is ill. Of course, at this point, they did not expect Lazarus to die. That fact will change everything.
Jesus noted that this matter will not end in death (for Lazarus). However, Jesus does say that God will be glorified (by his resurrection) and Jesus will also be glorified (in his death and resurrection). Jesus knows that Lazarus will die and be buried (just like he’ll die and be buried). Jesus also knows performing such a miracle so close to Jerusalem will put a sure target on his head. The cross is Christ’s glory.
We all have our crosses to bear. For some its financial collapse. For some it's an affliction or addiction. For others a disease or disability. For still others a divorce or death. And yet it's in our crosses that we build bridges to glory.
TIME ENOUGH BUT NOT TOO MUCH (John 11:6-10)
So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
It’s this part of the story that troubles us. It’s clear from the sister’s message that they assumed Jesus would immediately come to Bethany. At the end of John 10 we learned things got a bit heated for Jesus in Jerusalem, so he headed toward the Jordan river where John baptized him. He’s about 20 miles from Jerusalem, which could easily be done during the day.
But Jesus stayed put...for two more days. The question is WHY, especially if he knew Lazarus was dying?
One reason was Jesus knew what he was going to do (resurrect Lazarus) and he wanted him to be indisputably dead. Another possible reason was to make the miracle of resurrection even more impressive. A third reason, often confirmed by John in other stories, is Jesus does things on his own terms and in his own time. He takes orders from no one, not his mother, siblings, disciples or even his closest friends.
Jesus delay is welcomed by the disciples. They really don’t want to go back to Judea. They fear for their lives. The stones meant for Jesus could easily become their own. It won’t be the last time they shirk from following Jesus into danger. Only John will have the guts to go all the way to the cross with his master.
Jesus then says something very wise that we all should heed: “Are there not twelve hours in a day?” And it's true. A day cannot finish before it ends. We can’t change how fast or slow it goes. We can’t make it longer or shorter. That means if there are 12 hours in a day, there’s time for a man or woman to get done what needs to get done. Take your time, live in the moment, let the day play out.
But with that said, there are only twelve hours in a day, so don’t waste the time you’re given.
It’s why we need to walk in the daylight hours. Traveling at night is risky, difficult and foolish. The ancient person only traveled during the day, especially longer journeys that required finding shelter for the night. The principle is simple: get your work done during the day. The night is for refreshment, relaxation and rest.
But there’s a double message in Jesus’ words. John has used “light” as metaphor for Jesus throughout his gospel. In John 3:19, Jesus is the light that has come into the world. In John 8:12 he’s the light of life. In John 9:5 he’s the light of the world. In John 12:35 Jesus commanded his disciples to walk in the light, when it is light. The message is clear: Jesus is the LIGHT. But even more so he is the DAY. And the wise follower will do His Work and follow His Way...and walk IN THE LIGHT during THE DAY. The evil lurks in the darkness. The nighttime is dangerous. You can’t see when it's dark. You can wander, trip and get lost.
John will remind his own followers of this truth in 1 John 1:7: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
THE MAN WHO WOULD NOT QUIT (John 11:11-16)
After 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.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Then Thomas (also known as Didymus said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
John has a unique way of telling his stories. He used the same literary technique repeatedly in his gospel. Essentially, Jesus said something that sounds rather simple (Lazarus is asleep, but what he said is misunderstood (Lazarus is taking a nap). Jesus then explained and clarified (Lazarus is dead).
One of the more interesting twists on words in the New Testament is how death is described. In Jesus’ time, just as in ours, the primary way to describe this final human moment was simply: the person died. Death was the end. Life was over. The person was now gone, never to return.
But Jesus introduced a new concept for death: “sleep.” He said Jairus’ dead daughter is only sleeping (Matthew 9:24) and in this passage stated Lazarus was just sleeping. After Jesus’ resurrection the apostles and early church continued this novel idea. Death wasn’t an end. Life wasn’t over. The person was just “sleeping,” waiting for his final resurrection.
When Stephen was stoned to death, Luke said he “fell asleep” (Acts 7:60) When Paul taught the Thessalonians about the dead, he said they were asleep in Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:13). When he informed the Corinthians of those who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, he noted how some had now “fallen asleep” or died (1 Corinthians 15:7) and that all who died had “fallen asleep.”
It’s a powerful concept. One the world simply cannot grasp. For those outside of Christ, death is an end. For the atheist, death finishes whatever time life gave him. For the Hindu and many earth religions, death propels a person on an endless soul journey to be reincarnated repeatedly to work off the bad karma. For the Buddhist death, ideally, is perfect nothingness or Nirvana. For the Muslim, death involves a fearful judgment before Allah.
For the Christian we just fall asleep.
Actually, you might better say we WAKE UP. That's what Jesus is going to do for Lazarus. He's going to "wake him up" and resurrect him back to an earthly existence (John 11:11). This life is like dream, distorted and disturbing, and death is our wake up call. We rise out of our slumber to embrace REALITY, TRUTH and ETERNAL LIFE. Jesus redefined death. He turned it on its head. He stole it back from the devil.
It’s no wonder Thomas figured it out. There was no doubt on this day for him. He figured if death was just a good nap, then today was a good day to die. He wasn’t being courageous as much as honest. If there is no sting to death, then who can fear walking into the hornet’s nest.
If you want to evaluate your faith, the strength of your Christianity, this is where it starts: What’s your fear factor regarding death? Franklin D. Roosevelt was right. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. If you’re afraid of dying, it means you have some unfinished business to do with God. Something isn’t right. It might be you have a religion but not a relationship with Christ Jesus. It might mean just letting go, putting your faith fully in God and living free.
The wise follower of Christ will live every day as if its his or her last day on the planet...that way we won’t be surprised when it is.
We don’t have a death wish. We have a LIFE wish. We're just living for glory now.
THE HOUSE OF MOURNING (John 11:17-19)
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother.
Jesus arrives in time to find the typical Jewish funeral was in full operations. Typically, in Palestine, a dead body was dealt with quickly. For centuries leading up to Jesus, funerals became more extravagant, particularly for the rich. The body was anointed with expensive ointments and spices, then wrapped in fancy garments. The body would be deposited in a tomb cut into rock, with valuable treasures surrounding it, and a rock to seal it from theft.
An ancient Jewish funeral lasted seven days, the first few with the body remaining in the house. No one could eat meat or drink wine in front of the dead, and no food could be consumed in front of the dead. There was no study or worship in the house. Friends and family would come to pay their respects, to mourn and wail loudly. In fact, professional mourners were often hired to insure a “loud” funeral.
The fact Lazarus had a house and was being buried in a tomb gives some indication, once again, to his social status. He had enough money for his own private tomb. For those Jews who had not wherewithal for a tomb, their body was ritually cleaned and thrown into a fire that burned continually outside the gates of Jerusalem. The name for this place was Gehenna, a fiery garbage dump that Jesus commonly interchanged with his word for eternal fire: HELL. If it hadn’t been for Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethia seeking possession of Jesus’ crucified body, he would’ve been dumped in Gehenna. Unlike Lazarus, Jesus was not rich, owned very little, had no home.
John notes that by the time Jesus has arrived that Lazarus body has been in the tomb for FOUR days. We’ll talk momentarily about what that means.
THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE (John 11:20-27)
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “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. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
In Luke 10, we are introduced to Mary and Martha through a wonderful story where Martha was busy preparing a meal for Jesus. Meanwhile Mary spent her time being close to Jesus. Martha was a woman of action. Mary was a woman of solace. It’s no wonder it's Martha who, therefore, came out to greet Jesus.
And, honestly, she wasn't happy. IF you had been here, Jesus, Lazarus would be alive. IF you didn’t take your time. IF you loved us as much as you say. This “IF” theology drives a lot of our lives today, doesn’t it? IF God is good, then why is there evil? IF God cares for me then why doesn’t He deal with my situation? IF God loves everyone, then surely He won’t send people to Hell? IF, IF, IF.
But note that Martha left her “if” and returned to FAITH. “EVEN NOW God will give you whatever you ask,” she said to Jesus. There’s a FAITH in those words. EVEN NOW you will bring strength and peace and joy to our house. EVEN NOW you can supply our needs (because Lazarus was likely the breadwinner and widows didn’t fare well without support systems). You might even read in EVEN NOW you could resurrect Lazarus, like you did Jairus’ daughter, if you ask.”
EVEN NOW faith is what will get us through life. EVEN NOW, regardless of the circumstances, the troubles, the inadequacy, the losses, the failures or our sinfulness, EVEN NOW...Jesus is there...and can do whatever He wants.
Jesus told Martha that Lazarus will rise on the “last day.” This idea of resurrection comes to us through the prophet Daniel regarding the “time of the end”: “There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”
This was good news for Daniel and his people. For centuries the Jews had a different theology about death. Essentially, throughout the Old Testament when a person died they went down to the Sheol or place of the dead. There were only a few exceptions to that rule. An early patriarch named Enoch, mentioned in Genesis, who didn’t die and Elijah, the great prophet, who skirted death and was translated or glorified up to be with God. Later Jewish legend would add that Moses also joined Enoch and Elijah, and was glorified into heaven. This idea is confirmed in the transfiguration story when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus in their glorified bodies.
No one else was in Heaven but Moses, Elijah and Enoch. They went UP to heaven but everyone else—righteous and wicked—went down to the Sheol.
The Greek translation for this place is HADES and we learn deeper truths about this place from New Testament writers. We learn, for example, in a story from Jesus about a different man named Lazarus that this LAND OF THE DEAD had two regions: a place of torments (for the unrighteous) and a place of comfort (for the righteous (Luke 16:19ff). We know it’s a place of waiting and on that final day the righteous dead would be RAISED TO LIFE eternal while the wicked and faithless to ETERNAL PUNISHMENT.
In Revelation 20:12-15 it gives the picture of the "last day": And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Note that Sheol/Hades is not Hell, a poor translation of these words. It is the LAND OF THE DEAD. Note also that those who are righteous, waiting beside Abraham, Daniel and the other saints, all have names and these names are in written in the BOOK OF LIFE. They will be glorified like Elijah and Moses and live forever. Finally observe that the wicked and faithless “death and Hades” will face a SECOND DEATH...an eternal punishment in the LAKE OF FIRE...a huge Gehenna for the unrepentant soul.
For you and I today, our identification with Christ Jesus through baptism is what resurrects us to LIFE. Paul wrote the Colossians that our baptismal burial not only raised us from the dead, but also made us “alive in Christ,” forgiving our sins and canceling our spiritual debt (Colossians 2:12-14). To the Romans he penned our baptism into Christ was a “union with his death” and a spiritual resurrection to “new life” (Romans 6:3-5).
The bottom line is now, in our baptism into Christ, we are ALIVE IN CHRIST. Like Paul, we can confidently say that death is a transport ticket to heaven. We do not have to worry about going to the Sheol/Hades. Jesus has won the victory for us. With that thought, let’s read the rest of this story.
THE RESURRECTION OF LAZARUS (John 11:28-46)
After Martha had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When 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.
When 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.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “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.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 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.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.
The story really speaks for itself from this point forward. We need no special insight save one. Remember how Lazarus had already been dead for four days. The Jews had this belief that the soul of a person hung around for three days after death. This is why they kept the body inside the house. But on the fourth day the corpse was buried. The spirit was not gone, departed down to Sheol/Hades.
The fact that Lazarus is now in the grave meant his spirit was gone. There was no longer any hope. Even Jairus’ daughter was a recent death when Jesus resurrected her. Nobody BUT GOD could resurrect Lazarus now. Even Mary and Martha knew that truth. And God wasn’t going to resurrect Lazarus until Daniel’s appointed time of the end. Do you see why Martha was so hopeless?
It’s probably why Martha protested. Lazarus was now decaying. He stunk to high heavens. He was beyond hope in this life. She had faith, yet even her faith had its limits. Nevertheless Jesus was more than just a GOOD SHEPHERD, he was the GOD-MAN.
He was a GOOD man, just like Lazarus was a good man.
In God’s story, the righteous don’t just win. They win BIG and GOING AWAY.
If we learn nothing more about Lazarus. We know Jesus lived with him, Mary and Martha during his final week on earth, but his name (and story) ends here, in this tale of resurrection.
A good man raised to life by the GOD-MAN.
Because we all know you can’t a GOOD MAN down. Not Lazarus. Not Jesus. Nor even you and me.
Discipleship. Fellowship. Prayer. WORSHIP.
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Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.