Commentary. In a key and important way, John 11 continues the central narrative about the signs that Jesus performed in order to people might believe and because of that belief have life. The sign given in John 11 is the raising of Lazarus – technically a resuscitation, i.e., being restored to the life that was before. Too quickly people move to point forward to Jesus’ own resurrection as though Lazarus only served to point to that event. As all the other signs (semeia) in John, the raising of Lazarus points to Jesus who is the source of life – both here and in the “last days.” John has already introduced us to the “life” theme when speaking of rebirth (Nicodemus) and living water (Samaritan woman); in reference to the life-giving word; in context of the life-giving bread (Jn 6); in Jesus’ self description as the “light of life” (8:12); as well as the previous chapter’s assertion “I have come that they might have life and have it to the full” (10:10). All of these accounts continue to remind us that meeting Jesus always operates on the physical and spiritual level – and often the miracle (sign/semeia) serve as the vehicle to make this point clear.
The raising of Lazarus from death has the meaning that is clear and evident: one who was dead has been raised from death and restored to life. It also possesses a symbolic meaning – the giving of life to all people whom Jesus loves. This sign also carries meaning about spiritual death seen as separation from God and spiritual life as connection with God. Both are part of John’s message in this text. One should note the similar dual meaning that was part of the story about the healing of the man born blind man wherein there is both physical and spiritual blindness (the gospel reading for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year A).
The great Johannine scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown suggests the following outline of this narrative (vv.1-44) which he calls: Jesus gives life to Lazarus – a sign that Jesus is the life.
7-16: Should Jesus go up to Judea?
7-10, 16 to die
11-15 to help Lazarus
17-33: Jesus arrives at Bethany
17-19 Arrival and setting
20-27 Martha come out to greet Jesus
28-33 Mary comes out to greet Jesus
34-44: Raising of Lazarus
34-40 Setting and preliminaries
41-44 the miracle
The Setting. Here the setting means more than the location or geography. While there is a mention of “Bethany” the village located in the vicinity of Jerusalem, the opening verses (vv.1-6) are really an introduction of the family whom Jesus loves and who are believers. Even their introduction is laced with references to the impending death of Jesus. The editorial aside (v.2) points forward to Mary’s anointing of Jesus as a sign of preparation for death and burial (12:1-8) placing that death at the very head of the story of Lazarus.
The sisters’ message (v.3) does not explicitly ask for Jesus to respond or take a specific action, but since the message characterizes Lazarus as the one whom Jesus loves, the implicit request is there: come and love Lazarus to life. We are given great hope in Jesus’ response: This illness is not to end in death (v.4); surely those words gave the hearers the impression that again Jesus would provide a healing – as before giving glory to God – but then Jesus inexplicably stays put for two days. At this point within the narrative one can only speculate as to the reason, but from outside the narrative one can begin to wonder about the words: “that the Son of God may be glorified though it.” From the beginning of the fourth gospel the purpose of the signs (semeia) has been to reveal the glory of Jesus: “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him” (John 2:11). Jesus’ glory is described as his possession since before the foundation of the world (17:5, 24) one that is founded in love and indicates a oneness with the Father (17:22).
On one level, Jesus is glorified by the resuscitation of Lazarus. On another level, the hour of Jesus’ glory is his suffering and death (John 12:23; 13:31; 17:1). Lazarus’ illness (and resuscitation) is for the glory of God not just because of itself, but because it will ultimately lead to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Should Jesus Go to Judea? After Jesus’ bread of life discourse in John 6, “Jesus moved about within Galilee; but he did not wish to travel in Judea, because the Jews were trying to kill him” (7:1). The recent appearance in Jerusalem had also ended with the religious authorities seeking to have Jesus stoned to death (10:31-33). Naturally the disciples ask why Jesus would want to do such a blatantly dangerous thing. At one level of meaning, it shows that in choosing the time to enter Judea, Jesus is choosing the time (“my hour”; 2:4; 7:30; 8:20) for his death – God is control of these things. This choice has already been expressed to the disciples: ““This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.” (10:17–18). Finally, the reason is summarized in v.15: that you may believe.”
It is in the context of this summarizing reason that one gains insight into Jesus’ explanation in vv.9-14. The “twelve hours in a day” refers to Jesus’ presence among the disciples, guiding them that they not stumble because they see the “light of the world” – i.e., Jesus (cf. 8:12; 9:5). As Jesus’ hour approaches, the time for the disciples to move from darkness to light is limited. The stumbling block is not death, rather it is walking apart from the light of the world.
The metaphor of sleeping as death is well used in the NT (Mt 27:52; 1 Cor 7:39, 11:30, 15:16-20, 51; 1 Thess 4:13-15) – and so Jesus describes Lazarus’ death (that will not end in death (v.4) – although ironically leading to Jesus’ death) as being asleep and says the in the end Lazarus will be awakened (v.11). The disciples rightly ask: “Well, good… if he is only asleep, let him wake, and let’s not tempt the authorities with our presence.” The word “saved” (sōzō) used in v.12 can mean either “saved” or “healed.” Given the nature of the disciples’ response it seems that “healed” would have been the better option for the disciples – but the subtle Johannine word play would be lost to English readers. This gives rise to Jesus making clear in v.14 that Lazarus has died. What is unusual in this response is that Jesus so quickly clears up their misunderstanding – perhaps only highlighting the shortness of time.
Thomas’ response is that of the obedient disciple who does not fully understand what is being revealed to him, but will trust and operate out that trust – assuming he is responding to the imminence of Jesus’ death. Thomas’ response is actually ambiguous – the “him” of v.16 could refer to Lazarus since that is the most immediate death in context. It is perhaps no more than unclear grammar, but again it may well be the choice that faces all would-be disciples: “believe” (v.15) and as Jesus dies and is resurrected, so too will the disciple die, but be saved.
John 11:1 Lazarus from Bethany: There is a great temptation to attempt to draw a connection with Lazarus the poor beggar from Luke 16:19-31. Many note that it is highly unusual that a character in a parable is given a name – in fact it is the only time it occurs. Add to this that Lazarus is the brother of Martha and Mary, and scholars begin to speculate if the Johannine Lazarus is historical or not. One must remember that Luke and John have different narrative perspectives and purposes – thus one need not form any preliminary impressions about the Johannine Martha, Mary and Lazarus from those descriptions given in Luke.