The apostle John records seven miracles (or signs) from Jesus’s public ministry. Today we come to the seventh sign, and it is without question the greatest sign. For in John 11, the Lord Jesus powerfully restores the life of Lazarus. And it’s actually a miracle that we can relate to, in the sense that probably all of us are familiar with the kind of situation faced by Martha and Mary: grieving for the death of someone who has been dearly loved.
We have been to hospital wards or nursing homes in the last days of a parent’s or grandparent’s life. We have been to funeral services and graveside ceremonies. We have seen caskets and tombstones, and we have faced that confronting moment of a body being laid in the ground, to be covered over with soil. We know people who have died at a good old age, and people who have died far too young. We know that death can come through illnesses like cancer, or through accidents at work or on holidays, through plane crashes and car crashes and suicide.
When we read John 11, and we recall those times we have mourned a loss in our family or church community, perhaps we can relate to the confusion that was felt by the sisters, and their tears, but we also know about their hope and confidence. Altogether, it’s an account of a common human experience, one that each and every one will endure at some time in our life—and probably many times: a death, a funeral, and the aftermath of grieving.
Of course, the events in John 11 are also unlike anything we have experienced. For the burial of Lazarus isn’t the end. The story doesn’t stop with the tears of Mary and Martha, or even the tears of Jesus. No, this typical story of grief has an unexpected twist, a miraculous climax, where Jesus raises his friend from the dead. With his last miracle, Jesus defeats the last enemy!
In this amazing event there is a rich message for us all. We will face grief in this life, and even our own mortality and earthly end. But Christ gives to all his believers the sure promise of a glorious resurrection. He says that we can enjoy new life already now, while we look forward to a full restoration on the day of his return. I preach God’s Word from John 11,
Jesus powerfully restores the life of Lazarus:
1) the man whom Jesus loved
2) the mourning which Jesus did
3) the miracle which Jesus performed
1) the man whom Jesus loved: When Jesus walked on this earth, did He have any friends? It’s not a strange question. He was a person like us, with all the human needs that we have—like the need for prayer, and rest, and friendship. His disciples were his friends, of course, men who spent three years with him. But Jesus had called the twelve, summoned them to follow him, and I’m not sure they could say no.
Yet there was another circle of people around Jesus, people who were loyal and supportive. We meet some of them at the beginning of the chapter. Mary and Martha are two sisters who live near Bethany, which is a short distance from Jerusalem. Jesus had visited their home in the past, a place for him to rest and to teach. These two sisters have a brother named Lazarus—a different Lazarus than the one in the famous parable, by the way. Lazarus has a beautiful name, because it means ‘God helps.’ This meaning was certainly true in his life, and it would also be true in his death.
But Lazarus is sick. There’s no indication what kind of illness, but his condition is grave, because the sisters send a message to Jesus, “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick” (v 3). Notice how Lazarus is described: ‘the one whom Jesus loves.’ This great sign will take place within the circle of Jesus’s close friends—Lazarus is not a nameless part of a big crowd of hungry people, an anonymous stranger begging near the temple, but there’s a real connection. This adds to the depth of what’s going to happen. Jesus knows the pain of losing someone dear.
The sisters know about Jesus’s power and compassion—this is why they send for him. They fully expect that He can heal their brother. But Jesus is some distance away, at least a two days’ journey from Bethany. If He’s going to help his friend, He needs to act quickly. But Jesus already has a purpose in mind, and He tells his disciples, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (v 4).
We know how the story ends, so we get what Jesus is saying: the sickness of Lazarus will not end in permanent death, but God is going to reveal his glory through Jesus’s mighty work of raising up Lazarus. The disciples don’t know this is, of course, so when two days pass and Jesus has made no move, they probably think Lazarus will get better on his own.
But then, after two days, Jesus announces that it’s time to go. The problem is that Lazarus lives in Bethany, which is in Judea, which is near the epicentre of hostility against Jesus. His disciples gently remind him, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone you, and are you going there again?” (v 8). And this will in fact be the last time that Jesus travels south to Judea and Jerusalem. His own life is under threat—it’s on this trip that He’ll be arrested and killed.
It seems unwise to go, but Jesus answers, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world” (v 9). Jesus is keen to work according to God’s schedule. While the sun shines, it is day, and that’s when the light of the world can share its brilliance.
And this time, the ‘light of the world’ is going to shine into the dark gloom of the grave. He says, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up” (v 11). We recognize that phrase about ‘falling asleep,’ because it describes death many times in Scripture. Think of 1 Thessalonians 4:13, where Paul says, “I do not want you to be ignorant concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.” Even today, it’s reflected in the word cemetery, which means literally, ‘a place of sleeping.’ Think about that, whenever you remember your father, your husband, your brother, whom you once buried at the cemetery: those who sleep in death will wake.
Once again, the disciples aren’t sure what Jesus means, and they think Lazarus simply needs to wake up from his serious state of illness. So they need to hear it straight: “Lazarus is dead” (v 14). This would’ve been a shock. They knew Lazarus and his sisters, and they also know how Jesus cared for them, yet He’s been delaying his journey.
But Jesus has a strategic purpose for the sign that He’s got in mind. It’s in verse 15, “And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe.” The disciples will have their faith strengthened and deepened by going to Bethany and seeing Jesus’s power over death.
And so they travel to Bethany. We might say, ‘Too little, too late.’ Verse 17: “When Jesus came, He found that [Lazarus] had already been in the tomb four days.” Still today, Middle Eastern practice is to bury a body within hours after death because of the hot temperatures. Perhaps almost a week ago, Mary and Martha had sent their urgent message, but Jesus has been slow in coming. Now four days have passed since the tomb has been shut.
By that time, the body of Lazarus would have been well and truly into decomposition, including an awful smell, and probably worms, and the disintegration of the eyes and other tissues. Apparently, Jewish belief was that a soul hovered around the dead body for three days, but after four days the spirit departed for good, since the corpse was too badly decayed. Jesus has come too late.
Maybe in your own life you’ve seen how this is when God loves to do his best work: when it’s altogether too late, from our perspective. When all hope is gone. When we can’t imagine how a situation can possibly get any better, and we’re out of options. Then we are even more amazed and thankful for God’s grace, for how He provides for us, and how He gives us a stronger peace! Jesus comes to Bethany on the fourth day to perform the kind of miracle that only He can do. But first, He will mourn.
2) the mourning which Jesus did: As Jesus comes near the village of Bethany, Martha goes out to meet him, but Mary stays in the house. This is actually what we would expect. You might recall the story in Luke where Martha is the busy and practical-minded one, while Mary just sits and waits. But whatever these sisters’ different characters, we’ll see that Jesus interacts with both of them graciously.
Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v 21). This is not an accusation, simply sad regret. Martha accepts that even though Jesus could’ve done something to help Lazarus, Jesus did not come. What’s done is done—and yet, Martha sees a ray of impossible hope. She’s aware that Jesus has a special relationship with God the Father, that He can bring about something amazing: “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you” (v 22).
And Jesus signals his intent: “Your brother will rise again” (v 23). Death is not the end: not for Lazarus, not for our loved ones, not for us! Now, Martha knows that Jesus has power to do incredible wonders. But human faith is always limited, and her words show it: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (v 24).
On its own, it’s a wonderful confession of faith. Martha is a child of God who knows God’s promise of resurrection. Maybe she is thinking of Daniel 12:2, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Those who sleep will wake! But she reckons that day is a long way off.
But Martha is speaking with the person who is the sure fulfillment of all the ancient promises. Jesus reveals another of his special identities, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live” (v 25). If you’re a believer, you never really die. Even when your heart stops and your body decays in the ground, you never really depart from the presence of the One who is our life. Indeed, what is going to happen to Lazarus is not an isolated event, but it applies to all people who believe in Christ: “Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (v 26).
Jesus has mentioned this requirement at least twice already, and now He makes it explicit: “Do you believe this?” (v 26). It’s a question for Martha, and for everyone who wants to know the Lord and his salvation. The way to live ‘in Christ alone’ is ‘by faith alone.’ This is when our whole existence is marked by a sincere and humble and total dependence on the grace and power of God—when we know that Christ is all we need. Do you believe this?
Martha believes. She makes another beautiful confession: “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (v 27). We could say much about this confession, but just underline the three phrases which affirm her belief in Jesus: He is ‘Christ,’ the divinely sent Saviour; He is ‘the Son of God,’ who is one with the Father; and He is the One who was always going to come into this world. Her eyes are truly opened to see Jesus.
Now it is Mary’s turn to interact with Christ, for she leaves the house and goes out to the tomb of her brother. As you picture this, remember there’s a big crowd with her, people from the town and the surrounding area. When there was a death, Jewish tradition was to devote some days to collective wailing and weeping. It was considered an appropriate farewell for someone who had died, and it was a way to show support for the family.
Surrounded by all these weeping and wailing people, Mary falls before Jesus. Falling at someone’s feet like this is an act of worship, so Mary too, is acknowledging Jesus’s power. And Mary too, pours out her heart to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here…” (v 32).
At this, John says, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (v 33). If you’ve ever groaned, it might’ve been in frustration, or perhaps in pain. But the word here suggests something like anger or indignation. As He faces death, the loss of one of God’s children, the loss of someone He loved, Jesus is deeply troubled. For life is broken. Things are not the way they should be. The final enemy has made his presence felt again, even in Jesus’s inner circle. And Jesus grieves for this.
He asks, “Where have you laid him?” (v 34). It’s interesting that this is exactly the question that will later be asked about Jesus’s own body, when the tomb is found empty on the first day of the week. Call it a bit of foreshadowing in John’s Gospel. Where is Jesus? Where is the Lord, the one who has conquered death?
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The crowds bring Jesus to the tomb of Lazarus, and there Jesus stands and weeps. Maybe you’ve had that experience too, when you visit the grave of a loved one. Seeing the name, the dates of birth and death, it’s a very physical reminder that a life has ended, that this person is no longer present on earth.
Seeing the tomb, “Jesus wept” (v 35). It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, but profound with meaning. The Greek word doesn’t describe the ritual crying of the Jews, but a heartfelt sorrow, a raw sadness. As a man, Jesus shares in genuine human emotion, feels the hurt of this moment and the weight of sin’s curse. Even as He knows that this story is going to have a happy ending, He is grieved by the brokenness of life, by the wrongness of a person living, getting sick and dying. And in the grief and suffering of Jesus, He shows his love.
Jesus does love Lazarus, but He’s about to show this love more powerfully than simply by tears. He is going to deal with death, once and for all. He has been turning back the curse throughout his ministry, like when He opened the eyes of the man born blind, and now He is going to do that in the ultimate way.
3) the miracle which Jesus performed: Just like when Jesus is buried, the body of Lazarus has been placed into a cave, with a heavy stone laying against the opening. Jesus simply orders that the stone be moved. And Martha, for all her steadfast faith, shows that she has no idea about what’s about to happen: “By this time there is a stench” (v 39). Lazarus is beyond any possibility of being restored to life.
But then a gentle rebuke, Jesus reminding her of what she should have known: “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (v 40). So the stone is taken away, but before anything else Jesus prays, “Father, I thank you that you have heard Me” (v 41). As He does so often during his ministry, Jesus prays.
The Father and the Son were in a constant dialogue, and the Father was always responsive to the prayers of his Son. And here too, Jesus wants to point the crowd to the true source of the miracle. Jesus was an instrument in the Father’s hand, and as such He had great confidence in what He was about to do.
“When He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” (v 43). This is the moment of restoration, as Lazarus comes forth. You can’t even imagine the shock that this was. You’ve been weeping and wailing for four days, you’ve seen the heavy stone rolled into place, maybe you’ve started to come to terms with the loss—and then you see Lazarus appear at the mouth of the grave: not dead, but alive!
And he “came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth” (v 44). Like an Egyptian mummy, cocooned in his coverings, yet able to walk out of the tomb. How could Lazarus ever move, bound up as he was? We don’t know. It is enough to know that the dead Lazarus has heard the voice of Jesus and he has come to life.
For this is the power of God the Son. Listen to what Jesus said earlier in John’s Gospel, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live” (5:25). It was impossible for Lazarus to live again, but the dead man heard Jesus’s voice, and he came forth.
When we reflect on the raising of Lazarus, we sometimes wonder if he would’ve been a bit disappointed to come back. Wouldn’t his soul have already enjoyed the bliss of being in God’s holy presence, unencumbered and free? But now he’s stuck on earth again, back in small town Bethany! And being brought back to life meant a return to the same kind of existence that he had before he died, still subject to sin and weakness and illness. Lazarus was still going to have to face death again in the future, and that time he would stay in the grave.
So what was the point? The miracles of Jesus are signs, events that point us to a deeper truth. The raising of Lazarus too, points us not to the man Lazarus and his faith and experience of the realm beyond the grave, but he points us directly to the One who raised him. The story is about Christ, not Lazarus. For shortly after this event, Jesus too will die. He too will be buried, and then He’ll leave his tomb on the first day of the week. And when He rises up, He rises to life immortal, never to die again.
Scripture calls Jesus the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). Other people were raised from the dead, but Jesus is the first to enter into the everlasting and unfailing life of the resurrection. And as the firstfruits, Christ is just the beginning of an amazing harvest, He is the key to the final stage of God’s plan of redemption.
Remember what Jesus has said about himself: He is the resurrection and the life! The person who believes in Christ shall live, even though he dies. We grieve for those we have lost. We feel very sharply the sting of sin and it curse. But when we remember those who have fallen asleep in the Lord, we are comforted.
We know that the great day will come when “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.” The day will come when all the graveyards and all the cemeteries in the world will be emptied out. They will give up their dead who will live again.
And those who have believed in Christ will live forever with him. Those who seek Christ alone, by faith alone, get to enjoy the full and everlasting gift of redemption. We have a small taste of it today, as God gives new life to our hearts. Through his Spirit, God makes alive in us what used to be dead, He releases us from our spiritual graves, and He restores the joy of fellowship with him. It’s a beginning, with so much more glory to come. Says Jesus, “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Amen.