John 11

The Raising of Lazarus

Lord, the one you love is sick.—John 11:31

Andrew Polychronis

The account of the raising of Lazarus is clearly the crowning jewel of the “miracles, wonders and signs” (Acts 2:22) performed by God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The narrative of the miracle not only reveals Jesus’ authority and power over death, that he is indeed “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), but it also presents us with some remarkable challenges for our walk of faith with the Master as revealed in the responses and reactions of Martha and Mary.

Eluding the fury of his Pharisaic adversaries in Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples “went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days” (John 10:40). The place of retreat was probably Perea on the east side of the Jordan, approximately twenty miles from Jerusalem. It was here that Jesus received word from Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, saying, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” We immediately catch a glimpse of the wonderfully warm and intimate relationship that Jesus had with this family that lived in Bethany, a village two miles outside of Jerusalem. It is apparent that Jesus was a frequent guest in their home when he visited Jerusalem. We read that at the time of our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus “went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11).

Upon receiving the news, the response of Jesus was both optimistic and purposeful. He 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.” What a powerful faith lesson this is for every footstep follower of Jesus. Those Jesus loves are not exempt from illness and other experiences. How we respond to those experiences is all-important. Allowing God to work his will through the experience will not only bring us into a closer and deeper relationship with him, but in the long run will bring honor and glory to his worthy and holy name.

As the narrative continues, we are given the assurance that indeed “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” But for this event to glorify the Father and the son, Jesus stayed where he was for an additional two days, knowing full well that his good friend Lazarus would succumb to his illness.

When Jesus finally suggested to his disciples that they return to Judea, the disciples were astonished that after such a short time, Jesus was ready to return to this hotbed of conflict where the Jews sought to stone him. The proverbial response of Jesus to the disciples’ reluctance to return to Judea—“Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light”—is similar to his earlier remark when he said, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). In both instances, Jesus reminds us that the obligation and commitment to do the Father’s will must take precedence over what appears to be safe and convenient. To digress from God’s purpose is to walk in darkness.

To explain his reason for returning to Judea, Jesus told his disciples “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” The explanation was intended to be part of the education of the disciples. ­Assuming that “sleep” meant that the fever had passed its crisis, they expressed their hope for Lazarus’ recovery. Jesus, however, had used the word in a figurative sense, meaning “death.” The Lord’s rejoinder made that fact absolutely clear: “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.” Why was Jesus glad that he was not present to save his beloved friend from death, or to comfort his sisters, and how would Lazarus’ death be of any benefit to the disciples? Of all the miracles that Jesus performed, this one would truly authenticate his sonship and in a supremely powerful way demonstrate that he is truly the long- awaited, promised Messiah. Jesus was certain of the outcome. He knew the faith of the sisters and disciples would be confirmed and many of the Jews who were there would also believe (John 11:45).

Thomas’ comment at this point seems strange: “Let us also go that we may die with him.” The “him” no doubt refers to Jesus, not Lazarus. Thomas, along with the others, expected Jesus would be seized and executed and that they would suffer with him. Nevertheless, Thomas’ loyalty to the Master is revealed in his readiness to share in his suffering.

Martha’s Testimony

When Martha, the more aggressive of the two sisters, heard that Jesus was coming to Beth­any, she went out to meet him. Mary, the quiet, more contemplative one, “stayed at home.” (This portrayal of the sisters by John agrees with that found in Luke 10:38-40.) The dialogue between Martha and Jesus presents us with some of the most exquisite theology we have in Scripture. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, 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 replied: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

What an incredible woman! What remarkable spiritual insight and faith! Although distracted by her many chores and responsibilities (Luke 10:40-42), Martha had accurately learned many precious truths from the lips of the Master which had obviously impacted her life. The intensity and depth of her faith blazes brilliantly through her sorrow. She knows that if Jesus had been there, he had the power and authority to heal Lazarus and prevent his death. But even now, yes, even now, she had that brilliant spark of hope that “God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus’ reply, “Your brother will rise again,” elicits a response from Martha which once again reveals a profound depth of understanding, confidence, and trust in the promises of God. “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” There was no confusion in her mind, no doubts, no uncertainties about who Jesus is, about what he is capable of doing, about the nature of death and the hope of the resurrection. When we consider the confusion in Christendom over these and other biblical issues, we can only marvel at the perceptiveness and clarity of vision Martha had.

In what is certainly one of his most majestic and comforting utterances, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus had clearly taught his disciples about the hope of the resurrection, and it became one of the core themes in the ministries of the apostles. On one occasion Jesus said, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28,29, RSV).

When Jesus asked Martha if she believed what he said concerning the resurrection, her response again reveals the clarity and certainty of her understanding: “Yes, Lord,” she said. “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” The confusion that existed at that time over the identity of Jesus is clearly indicated in the response of the disciples to the question posed by Jesus: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Bless­ed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-17). The same simple revelation had been given to Martha that was also expressed in Peter’s great confession —Jesus is the Anointed One, the Son of God! No confusing enshrouding of Jesus in a trinitarian mystery, or viewing him as God incarnate or a God-man: simply, the Anointed One, the Son of God! What a wonderful and powerful example for us, to walk in the same simple faith demonstrated by Martha, uncluttered by human imaginations and philosophies.

Mary’s Testimony

When Mary was told that Jesus had arrived, she quickly went out to him. Falling at his feet, she repeated the words spoken by Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Again, we are privileged to catch a glimpse of the intensity of our Lord’s love and his deep compassion for Mary and those grieving with her. “He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” This is followed by the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Surely, these powerful emotional and physical responses in an otherwise perfectly calm and fully composed Savior reflect not only our Lord’s true humanity, but also reveal the resentment and full displeasure he feels against the ravages of death because of sin. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15,16).

Jesus experienced the same deep emotional distress when he came to the tomb. He ordered the stone covering the tomb’s entrance to be taken away. It was time for Jesus to fulfill his promise to the disciples that the outcome of Lazarus’ death would be to the glory of God. It was also time to keep his promise to Martha that her brother would rise again. As deep and as strong as Martha’s faith was, her natural reaction is understandable. Lazarus had been in the tomb four days! The process of decay had begun. But this is not a problem for the one who is “the resurrection and the life.” Jesus ­reminded Martha, “ ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would 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. . . . but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’ ” After his prayer, Jesus cried in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus, the one who had been dead for four days, walked out of the tomb, hands and feet still wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to those nearby, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”


In our Lord’s prayer to his Father, we see the complete unity in purpose between Father and son. Jesus did not ask God to raise Lazarus, but rather thanked him for already having answered. In his mind, it was an accomplished fact. It was for the benefit of those assembled that Jesus prayed “that they may believe that you sent me.” Having finished his prayer, Jesus addressed the dead man. He spoke with power and authority: “Lazarus, come out!” It has been suggested that if Jesus had not addressed Lazarus directly, all the dead would have come out of their tombs in fulfillment of John 5:28, 29! Truly, one day they will. And so Lazarus came out, had his grave clothes removed, and returned to normal life.

What a supreme demonstration of God’s unlimited creative power, reversing the process of corruption and quickening a four-day old corpse to life! What a sublime picture of the ultimate triumph of God’s eternal power over sin, death, corruption, and hopelessness! What a glorious prospect this profound miracle holds for the restoration of the whole world of mankind! In light of this miracle, the earlier and often quoted words of John take on a deeper significance: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16,17).

Indeed, Jesus has purchased life for all by paying the ransom price at Calvary. Through the promised seed—Christ and his bride (Gala­tians 3:16,29)—eternal life will be made available to all.

It is because of the loving obedience of our Master to the will of his Father that “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). Hallelujah, what a Savior!

1. All Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise indicated.