Raising Lazarus: Bethany

Dodekaorton 6 Raising of LazarusJesus Arrives at Bethany. Upon their arrival in Bethany, Jesus’ assertion about Lazarus’ death (v.14) is confirmed. The four-day period underscores the finality of death. According to the popular belief, the hovered around the body for three days after the death, hoping to reenter the body. But after the third day, when the soul “sees that the color of its face has changed,” the soul leaves the body for good (Gen. Rab. 100). When Jesus arrives fellow mourners had already arrived to console the grieving sisters – but they will also serve another purpose: witness.

Martha and Jesus. What was implied in v.3 is now explicit in v.21: we were hoping that you would have come and saved our brother. Martha speaks these words to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v.21). We know what she says; what is unclear is how, with what tone, she says them. Most often commentaries have the words carry the tone of regret yet in a faithful voice. Too often one cannot imagine the tone being a basic complaint. Yet the complaining is the language of the psalms, the language of Job and so many other passages in the OT – it should not be so quickly dismissed. The complaining tone make the faith statement (v.22) even more pronounced. Martha still believes that Jesus is the righteous man to whom God will listen (one need not move to rapidly to the confession of Jesus as Messiah in v.27).
Jesus response is simple and perhaps ambiguous: “You brother will rise.” These words could be taken to mean either ‘your brother will rise again in the general resurrection on the last day’ or ‘your brother will be restored to life immediately’. Martha responds within the context of her Jewish beliefs asserting the belief in the general resurrection.

To move her beyond the orthodoxy of the Pharisees, Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ This statement contains the fifth of seven different ‘I am’ sayings with predicates in the Fourth Gospel (6:35, 48, 51; 8:12; 10:7, 9; 10:11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5). It involves three claims:

(1) Jesus himself is the resurrection and the life, i.e. the Father has given him to have life in himself and to bestow resurrection life upon whomever he will (5:21, 26).
(2) People who believe in him, even if they die (as Lazarus had done) will live—Jesus will raise them from death on the last day. What he would soon do for Lazarus would foreshadow the resurrection of the last day.
(3) People who live and believe in him will never die; not even death can break their relationship with God.

With these claims Jesus made himself central to the Jewish hope of the resurrection and eternal life, and by asking Martha, Do you believe this?, he encouraged her to recognize this.

Martha’s response is a confession of faith: “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” She had moved beyond her previous beliefs about Jesus’ righteousness (v.22) and the general Jewish beliefs (v.24). She accepts Jesus’ central role in bringing about the resurrection on the last day, adding that she believed he was the Christ, the Son of God, the one whom the Father had sent into the world. The title ‘the Son of God’ is now known to have been used as a messianic title among first-century Jews. Martha’s confession echoes Nathanael’s confession (1:49), and is of the status of Peter’s confession (6:68-69) and Thomas’ (20:28) and is an example of what the evangelist hopes will be evoked by his Gospel in the hearts and minds of his readers (20:31).

Jesus and Mary. When Jesus calls, Mary responds. The mourners believed Mary was going to the tomb and so they followed, but Mary’s destination was to the feet of Jesus. Perhaps the evangelist wants us to see in Mary’s prostration an act of worship. And seemingly in tension with her worship, she reproached him as Martha had done (v.21,33) for not coming in time to prevent her brother’s death. Perhaps these two things can coexist, reflecting her faith in Jesus and her despair at the same time. She says nothing else. She doesn’t utter all the proper phrases like Martha about the all-powerful Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God or any belief about the resurrection of the dead. Mary just cries.

Verses 33 and 34 present a problem in translation – consider the following three modern translations:

  • “When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled 34 and said, “Where have you laid him?” (NAB)
  • Jesus was greatly distressed, and with a profound sigh he said, 34 ‘Where have you put him?’ (NJB)
  • he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” (NRSV)

The word translated ‘perturbed/great distressed, greatly disturbed’ is embrimaomai. It is a rare word, found only here and in 11:38 in the Fourth Gospel, and elsewhere in the NT only in Matthew and Mark. Its meaning is to “snort as an expression of rage” – which seems to be the sense here in John, i.e., become indignant, be furious. If directed at someone it means to “scold” (Mark 1:43; 14:5). The inner reaction of Jesus has a strong emotional sense – but also raised two questions: (a) in response to what/who? And (b) what has he seen in the what/who to whom he has responded?

Two interpretations of embrimaomai in 11:33 have been suggested. First, Jesus was ‘perturbed’ with compassion for Mary when he saw her weeping, and second, that he was ‘perturbed’ with anger. It is hard to linguistically justify the sense of “compassion.” Anger is more consistent with the word’s meaning In the latter case there have been a number of suggestions why he was angry: (1) he was angry because of the faithless weeping and wailing of Mary and ‘the Jews’—they were grieving, as St Paul said, ‘like the rest of men, who have no hope’ (1 Thess. 4:13); (2) he was angry with death itself, the consequence of sin, which caused such pain; (3) he was angry with himself for not coming sooner to heal Lazarus and so prevent his death and the grief it caused Mary and Martha. This last suggestion is unlikely because Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from death. The first suggestion has most to commend it, because the text says it was when Jesus saw Mary weeping like the rest that he became perturbed…but we often rebel at that interpretation. Why? I suspect it is because of the influence of the Lukan portrait of Mary, the one who sat at the feet of Jesus.

But this is John’s narrative. In the two sisters we have two partial ways to come to Jesus. While Martha had depth in her confession, there was little emotion. Mary has great emotion, but perhaps little depth in the knowledge her faith. While it might appear that Mary’s tears moved Jesus to raise Lazarus, that isn’t the case. Jesus had told his disciples before they had arrived that he was coming to “wake up” “sleeping” Lazarus. He went there with the intentions of raising Lazarus before either sister came to him. While both approaches are less than whole, less than complete – none the less each is a pathway to a relationship with the Lord.

John 11:16 Didymus:
lit. “twin.”

John 11:18 Bethany was near Jerusalem: The geographical reference reminds the reader how close Jesus is to Jerusalem, the center of the authorities who are plotting to have Jesus killed.

John 11:24 resurrection on the last day: Martha’s affirmation of end-time resurrection was in keeping with Pharisaic beliefs (cf. Acts 23:8; Josephus, Jewish War 2.163) and those of the majority of first-century Jews, as well as Jesus’ own teaching on the subject (cf. 5:21, 25–29; 6:39–44, 54). The resurrection of the dead was the subject of lively debate between the Pharisees and their opponents (e.g., b. Sanh 90b, referring to Deut. 31:16; Isa. 26:19; Song 7:9). Mishnaic passages likewise denounce those who refuse to affirm the resurrection of the dead (m. Sanh. 10:1; cf. . Ber 9:5). Belief in the resurrection is also evident from the second of the Eighteen Benedictions: “Lord, you are almighty forever, who makes the dead alive.… Blessed are you, Lord, who makes the dead alive” (cf. m. Ber. 5:2; m. Satoh 9:15). The Sadducees (as well as the Samaritans), in contrast to the Pharisees, flatly denied the future reality of resurrection (cf. Matt. 22:23–33; Acts 23:8; Josephus, Jewish War 2.165 and Antiquities. 18.16).

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