Summary: The story of the raising of Lazarus and the hope that awaits us all.
The story of Lazarus is one of the most human in the New Testament. We are touched by several emotions. Here is a family that Jesus loves very deeply. Mary later shows her devotion by anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume and drying them with her hair. Their home was a respite from the world for him. This was not his first visit; he would go there with his disciples to spend the night or enjoy a meal. He was a familiar guest who had become a close friend. Three times in these brief verses Jesus’ love for Lazarus, Mary and Martha is mentioned. But tragedy has struck the home. Lazarus has become very ill and he is at the point of death. The sisters send for Jesus, but he is at least a day’s journey away before anyone can reach him, and it will take another day for him to travel back to the home. And there is another problem. Just before Jesus left Jerusalem the Jewish leaders had tried to stone him to death. For him to go back to that area would be placing his life in danger. So when Jesus received the word that Lazarus was sick and did not leave immediately, his disciples did not question him, because they assumed his delay was due to his concern that the Jews were plotting to murder him. When, after two days, Jesus announced that he was going back to Judea, the disciples said, “But Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?” Jesus explained to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” He explains that what he means is that Lazarus is dead. The disciples know that to return to the area may mean death for them all. That is why Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). When Jesus and his disciples returned to the home they found that Lazarus had already been dead four days.
When Martha heard that Jesus was on his way she went out to meet him, but Mary is in so much despair, and possibly disappointment, she stays at home. Perhaps she felt, “If you could not make the effort to come when we needed you, I will not come out to see you.” And when outspoken Martha finds Jesus she says to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
How human these characters are. How many times I have heard people express those same feelings: “Where was God when I needed him? I thought he was supposed to love me. How could he have let this happen? He must not really care.” We sometimes feel guilty when we complain to God, but the feelings are nonetheless there. And though Martha is disappointed that Jesus was not there to help, she still holds out hope, even for the impossible. Not even fully sure of what she means, she says, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” But Jesus brings the reality of her secret wish for the impossible out into the open when he says, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha knows that there is a heaven, and that God will raise all those who have died, and almost dutifully says, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But, even though that thought is somewhat of a comfort it is too distant to soothe the pain she is feeling at this present moment. Then Jesus says to her, “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?” But Martha still cannot take in what Jesus is trying to say to her. She does say that she believes that he is the Christ, God’s Son whom he sent into the world, but she says nothing about a resurrection or her brother coming back to life. And almost as if to change the subject, she sends for her sister. When Mary comes she too says what they must have said many times together, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus then asks to see where Lazarus is buried. Following Jesus and the sisters of Lazarus is a large entourage of people who have come to be with the family and mourn the death of Lazarus. And then Jesus does something that we only read of him doing one other place in Scripture: he weeps. Tears are streaming down his cheeks, and the people assume that he is grieving the loss of his friend. But Jesus knows exactly what he is going to do. Weeping over the death of Lazarus would not make sense if he knew he was going to raise him from the dead. Why then was he weeping? I believe that the real reason Jesus was weeping was because he was grieving over the human condition. Only he knew what God’s original design for the world was. Only he knew how far it was from that original, beautiful plan. He was grieving because there was death in the world. He was heartsick that sin, suffering and disease was a part of God’s world which was not intended to be dominated by the evil that we as a human family invited into it. He was mourning over the world that he so wanted to redeem, a world that now wanted to kill the only One who could save it. Jesus Christ is distressed over the things that degrade and destroy the world, and one day he is coming back to redeem this world. He is concerned over the things that control your life and tear you away from God. He wants to release you. Like Martha, what you need to have done may seem impossible, but he is the resurrection and the life. “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).