Today we read the familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. This foreshadows Jesus’ own coming death and resurrection. Even the description of Lazarus’ grave points towards Jesus’. It was shortly after Jesus raised Lazarus that Jesus was anointed for His own burial, and the hour of his glorification began. In the Hebrew, Lazarus is a shortened form of Eleazar, which means God helps. Among Jews in the first century Lazarus was the fourth most common name for a man. And no, I do not know who kept those records. We have seen Bethany before. It was a small, poor village a couple of miles east of Jerusalem just over the Mount of Olives. Jesus stayed there often when He was in Jerusalem. Jesus would have traveled through Bethany on the way to Jerusalem because most Jews used a route going east from Jerusalem, down to Jericho, and north to Galilee. This allowed them to avoid the much hated Samaritans. Mary and Martha were sisters with Martha most likely being the oldest. In Luke’s story she acted as the host and here she represented the family. It was Mary who later anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. The two sisters had a serious dilemma. They knew Jesus to be a powerful healer but they also knew that if He came to Bethany He would be perilously close to Jerusalem, and the religious leaders were trying to kill Him.
Jesus’ response here paralleled His words about the man born blind. Jesus already knew Lazarus was dead. He was speaking of his resurrection which would bring glory to God. The trip from where Jesus was staying would have taken no more than a day but Jesus had His own sense of timing. He would not be compelled by others, and He waited two more days before He and the disciples went to Bethany. The disciples were rightly worried about the risk Jesus was taking. But, God’s purpose was to glorify His Son, causing the disciples to grow. Had Jesus rushed to Lazarus’ bedside and healed him, Lazarus would not have died and Jesus would not have been able to manifest His glory by raising him. The disciples were confused as to why Jesus wanted to risk His life being so close to Jerusalem. They didn’t understand that Jesus had a plan until Jesus was as clear with them as He could be. Jesus wasn’t glad Lazarus was dead but He was glad for the opportunity the disciples would soon have to see an amazing miracle. They already believed but each new opportunity gave them a chance for their faith to grow.
Thomas the twin struggled with twins of his own; the twins of belief and unbelief. He seemed to combine devotion to Jesus with a tendency to see the dark side of things. The Lord saw their development in faith here but Thomas saw their deaths. In his loyalty, Thomas followed anyway. People were buried on the same day as their death and John tells us Lazarus had been in his grave for four days already. Jews believed that a person’s spirit hung around for three days after someone died. So Jesus waited four days so there could be no mistake that Lazarus’ being raised from the dead could only be a miracle. What we have seen is that life in New Testament times was lived publicly and Lazarus’ family as well as the villagers had all arrived for a seven day mourning period. There would have been great wailing and crying to console the sisters. I have always pictured Martha as large and in charge and when she heard Jesus was coming she went out to meet Him. Maybe she stood waiting with her hands on her hips. “Lord if you had been here this wouldn’t have happened.” It isn’t quite an accusation as much as it is a matter of fact statement by someone who loved Jesus. Mary later echos these same words. They both knew Jesus could heal Lazarus but never did they think Jesus would raise him from the dead. Martha still thought that Jesus could still intervene in some way but she also objected when Jesus asked that the tomb be opened. She knew of the resurrection on the last day and was confident that Lazarus would be raised then, but Jesus helped her to believe in Him not just as a healer but as the one who vanquishes death all together. Jesus flat out told Martha He is the resurrection and the life. Victory over death is an aspect of living in association with Jesus. His followers are still mortal but they will enjoy eternal life after death. Christ is the resurrection for those who believe and are physically dead. He is the life for those who believe and have not yet died. When Jesus asked Martha if she believed this, He wasn’t referring to whether or not Jesus could bring Lazarus from the grave. Jesus was asking if Martha believed that life itself is linked to Jesus. Even though the full implications were beyond her comprehension Martha did acknowledge that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Still, she was surprised at the power He held. Mary joined the scene and fell at Jesus feet, not out of worship but grief. The loud weeping and wailing was typical of the displays of grief in this culture, as was beating ones chest. The deep anger of Jesus expressed human outrage, furry, and anger. Jesus was furious, not at Mary and Martha but at the futility of the whole scene and the people’s unbelief in light of the reality of the resurrection. Jesus wept. The Word here is not the same as the weeping and wailing used for the mourners. This refers to quiet and private mourning.
The tomb Lazarus was in was common for that day, a cave cut out of a rocky hillside. It was closed and opened then for further burials with a rolling stone that covered the entrance. A central door led to a cave room where burial benches were carved into stone along the inner wall. Horizontal burial chambers were cut along the top edges of the benches. After they rolled the stone away Jesus raised His eyes heavenward and spoke to the Father. He thanked God for hearing Him and acknowledged that God always hears Him. And Jesus also acknowledged that He is speaking to the Father so the people will realize God has sent Him. Jesus shouted to Lazarus to come out. No doubt He was trying to be heard over the crowd and the wailing. Saint Augustine once said that if Jesus had not called Lazarus by name all the graves would have been emptied out at His command. Raising Lazarus is the seventh sign of Jesus’ Messiahship, the greatest miracle of all, giving life back to the dead.
News of this miracle spread like wildfire into the city of Jerusalem. Public opinion was divided again. Jesus reputation as healer and as one who could raise the dead was known in Galilee. Now He had brought this power to Judea. While some marveled, others went straight to the leaders in Jerusalem. They leaders didn’t know what to do. They wanted Jesus gone but they were afraid of the crowds of people who were followers. And they were afraid of Rome because if there was an uprising the leaders stood to lose everything that was meaningful to them…power, prestige, and money. They were also afraid that everyone would believe in Jesus. If people believed that the messiah had come, the political implications would be threatening. The Romans viewed Jewish messiahs with suspicion, and the movement surrounding Jesus might inspire them to invade and destroy Jerusalem and the temple. Caiaphas was the ruler of the high council from 18-36 AD. He worked alongside Pontus Pilate, governor of Judea keeping the peace with Rome. Here his words are prophetic and ironic and he had no idea. What he said and what he meant were two vastly different things. He meant that it was better for a revolutionary to die than have the Romans crush the whole Jewish nation. The salvation that Judaism needed had little to do with Rome. In fact it would come through the cross of Christ. John makes sure to note that Caiaphas’ inspiration was not his own but it came from God. Jesus’ death was not just for Israel but for the whole world.
Humanly speaking the resurrection of Lazarus was a major factor that led the Jewish religious leaders to kill Christ. At this point they were firm in their desire/need to put Jesus to death. It is ironic that these men thought they could put to death the One who could raise the dead. After raising Lazarus Jesus withdrew from public life for a time. He met privately with His disciples, no doubt teaching and perhaps even resting. Ephraim was a village about 12 miles north of Jerusalem, where Jesus was safe from the Sanhedrin but close enough to walk there for the Passover. As crowds arrived in Jerusalem on pilgrimage for Passover the city was buzzing with talk about His miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. People wondered if Jesus would be obedient to the law and come to the city to celebrate or play it safe in the countryside. The priests and Pharisees knew that Jesus as faithful to the law and that He would attend the festival. So they tried to make the city a trap for Him.
Two stories build simultaneously in chapter 12. A growing number of people are praising Jesus and the authorities are increasingly determined to put Him to death. John records three events that occurred just days before Passover and then he explains why most of the people refused to believe, and details Jesus final public appeal. Pilgrims from all over began arriving in Jerusalem the week before the Passover. The festival was on Thursday that year. Jesus arrived late the preceding Friday, just before the sabbath. There was a dinner party for Him at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The typical position for eating was to recline at the table with your feet stretched out behind you. Mary took a jar of expensive nard and anointed Jesus feet with it. Once she had done that she wiped His feet with her hair. It was a dramatic gesture since the jar cost one years wages. We know John was there because he is the only one who records how the scent of the nard filled the house. It is a rich, thick scent. Women NEVER let their hair down in public. Mary was acting with abandon and devotion. Jesus defended Mary because the nard was a burial spice for His death though no one knew that. Jesus was readied for burial as He moved towards the hour of glorification and death. Jesus would never neglect the poor but this opportunity to serve Him was unparalleled. The leaders were also plotting to kill Lazarus because it was his resurrection that was bringing even more people to believing in Jesus.
The next day was Sunday and word that Jesus was approaching Jerusalem swept through the city causing both excitement on the part of the people and angst in the part of the religious leaders. As Jesus followed the road to Jerusalem the people followed and cheered Him. Others went ahead of Him and spread their cloaks on the road. After all, a king was coming. This event appears in all four of the gospels. The date palm was a celebratory symbol of Jewish nationalism and people were cutting them down and waving them. Others put them on the road as well. Up until this point Jesus had discouraged any public display regarding him. Here he let the people carry on. Riding on the back of a donkey fulfilled the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, showing that Jesus was in fact the long awaited Messiah. Had Jesus entered Jerusalem on a war horse there would have been complete and utter chaos and Rome would have come down hard on Judea. Jesus showed that his kingship is not that of a warrior. His gift is life, not conquest. No one completely understood the significance of what Jesus had done, but when the disciples received the Holy Spirit then they fully comprehended who Jesus was. This scene was the apex of Jesus’ popularity. It is interesting that the Pharisees said that the world had gone after Jesus, because He had come to reach the world with his saving grace and the gift of eternal life.
If you recall, there were many times Jesus said it was not yet the time for Him. But now, the time had come for Jesus to die and be raised from the dead. It was time for Him to ascend soon and give the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Greeks arrived at this time which is also significant. Jesus’ ministry among the Jews alone was finished and now He belonged to the wider world. For John, Jesus’ highest glory and the purpose for which He came was on the cross. God had already brought glory to Himself when Jesus entered the world and through the works that Jesus did that showed God’s power to the world. Jesus called the Father to bring glory to His name and the Father replied that He already had and would do so again. The final glory came on the cross as Christ was lifted up. Jesus was prepared for crucifixion like a king coming to His coronation. The cross was like a throne and He was buried like royalty. Jesus’ time of glorification included the entire sequence from His arrest through resurrection. It was impossible for people to comprehend what was happening with Jesus and many of His signs led to confusion and division in the crowd. Only later did His disciples understand. Still God’s voice symbolized His validation of His Son before the World.
The time for judging does not only occur on judgement day. It began when the light penetrated the darkness and unmasked it. The evil one is the architect of darkness, corrupter of the world, and promoter of death. Although the evil ones demise is in the future, the work of Christ served to unravel his domain. Christ is now enthroned in heaven, a place where the evil one will never be. The lake of burning sulfer is reserved for him. And what a grand and glorious day that will be! The crowd didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about when He spoke of being lifted up from the earth. The Greek verb here means being exalted or honored. John didn’t see the cross as a place of shame but instead a place of glory. Popular Judaism believed the Messiah would live forever and triumph over His foes. They didn’t understand what sort of Messiah planned to die. Jesus was the light and He urged them to quickly make the choice to believe in Him before it was too late. They had the choice of becoming children of the light by rebirth through the power of God. Jesus was hidden from them. First He withdrew from Judea and then he withdrew from this crowd and soon He would withdraw from the world. Jesus’ work was finished but most of the people did not believe in Him. But the people couldn’t believe and John quotes Isaiah 6:10 to explain why. When revelation comes we must believe. If we refuse, the light disappears. When God’s light departs from the World, the darkness closes over unbelieving hearts. Isaiah had already glimpsed the Messiah’s glory and how the world would respond. Many people did believe Him but they wouldn’t admit it. Following Jesus involves telling others about Him despite the social consequences.
In verses 44-50 Jesus makes a final appeal for belief. These verses summarize chapters 1-12. Jesus was sent by the Father, the sole source of His ministry. Jesus is the light shining in the darkness to bring salvation and eternal life to all who believe in Him. And the greatest error is for people to see the light and reject it, thinking it had no connection with the Father who sent the light.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W