Resurrection Of Lazarus, Jews And Jewish Tradition (john 11:1-44)

resurrection of Jesus1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

The story begins with introducing to us Lazarus (in Hebrew Eliezer, which means God will help) who resides in Bethany (in Hebrew Beit Aniah, which means the House of the Poor). These Hebrew names are not coincidental.

Bethany was not far from Jerusalem (there was also a Bethany across the Jordan river). There are many reasons to think it was a very special village. It is likely that this village served as one of the Jewish Essene diaconal centers. These centers were spread throughout the ancient Jewish world. Essenes (a Jewish sect) were known for their commitment to serve the poor and sick. Incidentally, there seems to be a strong connection between sections of the Essene community and the early Jewish believers in Jesus movement, but this is a topic for another time.

It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.

It is interesting and somewhat surprising that John makes this comment so early. The reason is because the incident of Mary anointing Jesus, is not recorded until next chapter. This means either John wrote his Gospel after the other Gospels, expecting people to be familiar with the story, or more likely that the story had already circulated orally and John assumed that the hearers were familiar with it.

So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

There are remarkable parallels here with between the raising of Lazarus and the healing of the man who was blind from birth. In one case light is given and in the other case, life. Interestingly enough both themes are the major themes alluded to in John 1:4: In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Also, the reason for both Lazarus’ death and the man’s blindness was for God’s glory (John 9:2-3 and John 11:4).

(Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.) So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

If we read vss. 5-6 they make little sense (since Jesus loved them, why didn’t he come immediately). If we read the text carefully, we will quickly realize that verse 5 is a parenthetical comment inserted between vss. 4 and 6. This means verse 6 (“So when he heard…”) continues as the end of vs.4 (“it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it”.) So no one would think Jesus did not truly love the family, the parenthetical comment was added – “Now (you must know) Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”.

The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “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. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

If we attempt to understand the Jews here as being the Jewish people, the sentence would  sound completely ridiculous. Clearly, the Jerusalemite authorities who were seeking Jesus’ life are in view here. We must continue to remember John’s statement in the prologue that summed up Jesus life, death and resurrection: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5) Jesus is referring to the light that illuminates the world. Remember, in John the world does not always mean humanity at large, sometimes it means Judea and its inhabitants.(John 7:3).

11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.

Jesus clarifies for his disciples that his close friend Lazarus had died. What is important in vs.17 is John’s statement that when Jesus arrived in Bethany it was already the fourth day. This explains why after hearing the news that Lazarus was very sick “he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” (John 11:6) Jesus knew how long it would take to travel to Bethany. He was determined to arrive, not only after Lazarus’ death, but when, according to popular Jewish belief, resurrection was no longer possible – on the fourth day!

18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother.

Lazarus, who may have been an Essene, and his family were given fully to the service of the poor and sick in Bethany. He was highly respected by the hoi Ioudaioi. Many, hoping to bring them much needed comfort, came to mourn together with Martha and Mary. It is in this story that Jesus makes his final strike against the stronghold of unbelief within the Jerusalem priestly elite. He was about to resurrect a respected member of the Jerusalemite religious society in plain view of members of the hoi Ioudaioi. This would necessitate a response of faith in Him. Mary and Martha were being comforted by their own people from among the Jerusalemite ruling establishment.

20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”

Martha told Jesus that if he would have come within the three days when resurrection was possible, he could have resurrected her brother. Her faith went even further and she said “even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you!”

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Martha is careful, seeking not to raise her own hopes too high. She probably thought to herself: “Jesus seems to be saying that my brother will be resurrected, but he could be referring to some distant future.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.

Jesus’ point was simple. Martha must stop thinking of him as the one who can ask God for resurrection and receive a favorable answer from on high. She must understand instead that Jesus is the Logos of God, the God who gives life. In Jesus’ own words – “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”

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Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” 28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him.

Apparently Jesus remained outside the village for a time since enough time lapsed for meetings and conversations to occur. Vs. 30 is another parenthetical comment in which the author is clarifying the meaning of his story as it unfolds.

31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there.

What is important here is that the author highlights the fact that when Jesus spoke with Mary outside the village, some of the hoi Iouidaioi who had come to comfort the family followed her. This indicated that they witnessed this exchange. The Hoi Ioudaioi who followed Jesus outside of the village both saw what happened and heard most of the interchange between Jesus and Mary.

32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Mary repeats Martha’s regret (John 11:21). We can imagine that this had been discussed in their family circle.  

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.

Here we see Jesus enter the suffering of humanity and his connection with hoi Ioudaioi as never before in this Gospel. Jesus saw Mary and members of the hoi Ioudaioi grieve passionately over the passing of Lazarus. He was deeply troubled.

How burials occur within a particular culture tell us a much about the people’s worldview. Christian culture is always solemn, but festive when it comes to the burial of a righteous man. Grief is always mixed with hope and celebration. In Jewish culture, while the resurrection of the righteous is also affirmed, there is a strong belief that when a righteous man dies the world suffers loss.

The balance of good and evil is tipped, at least at that moment, towards evil. While the righteous man is taken away from the world’s evil, those who remain have lost significantly and in a sense, are left to fend for themselves.

34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

A brief excursion into Jewish burial practices of the first century will be helpful here. Jews of the first century in the Land of Israel buried people twice. When someone died. the body was first wrapped in a cloth and placed in a cave for a prolonged period of time. After the body decayed and only bones remained, they were collected into a special box called an ossuary. The ossuary was then placed together with other ossuaries of family members, and put into a family tomb. Jesus, realizing that the first burial had already taken place, asked where they had laid the body. They responded “Sir, come and see”. The word Lord, used here in Greek, is not a confession of faith that Jesus is the incarnate God, but simply a respectful term of address.

35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

No other section of the Scriptures shows Jesus so deeply full of emotion. His full divinity and full humanity meet here in the expression of his grief. He did not just cry. He wept. His reaction (even though he knew he was about to resurrect Lazarus) was fully compatible with the Jewish practice of grieving and wailing. The Hoi Ioudaioi who witnessed this exchange concluded that Jesus indeed loved the same person they appreciated so much for his service to the community of the poor and suffering.

37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

One can see that the crisis of the hoi Ioudaioi’s opposition to Jesus was deepening. Now it was not only those from Jewish Galilee and a few members of the system that began to take interest in Jesus. Many who came to comfort the Lazarus’ family were moving toward a positive view of Jesus. Their regret was “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” Remember, they were not talking about resurrection. Their reasoning is therefore very logical. If Jesus could give sight to the man born blind who had never seen light, surely he could have given healing to a man who was sick. One action was much greater than the other. However, none of them realized what Jesus was about to do.

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”

Martha told Jesus to stay away from the entrance of the tomb since the smell of a decaying body would be overwhelming. She once again pointed out that Lazarus had been dead for 4 days. You will recall that Jesus’ arrival was perfectly timed for the resurrection to take place on the 4th day, when it was believed that resurrection was no longer possible.

40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”

Earlier, Jesus had told Martha that arriving on the fourth day would not limit him. Resurrection was not something he would do with his Father’s help. Resurrection and Life are both the essence of what Jesus is. He is indeed the Word/Logos/Memra of Israel’s God, and he was destined to show the world his Father’s Glory.

43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”

Some tombs were extremely deep and they literally included a tunnel to get to the actual place where the bodies were deposited. So it is not surprising that when the stone that functioned as a door would be rolled away, Jesus would call Lazarus in a loud voice. This was not to make this event more dramatic, but was that the resurrected Lazarus could physically hear the voice of his Life-giver from afar.

44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

John (or whoever wrote this Gospel that was later attributed to John) was an eyewitness who was concerned with detail. He mentions something that no other Gospel says. Lazarus, when he came out of the tomb, was not covered with one piece of cloth but with two. His face had a cloth that was separate from the body shroud. Today, when ancient Jewish burials have been discovered, this description is confirmed. Jews indeed buried the way John described. John was a local. He was an insider. He was an eyewitness.

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  1. Art Naranjo

    I think Jesus called out Lazarus by name because if He didn’t, everyone would have came out of the tomb.

  2. Alfred Ramiah(Jew) Jai

    EVERY WORD WRITTEN IN THIS ARTICLE IS A ONLY A PERSPECTIVE NOT WHAT AND WHAT WAS ACTUALLY SAID BY YESU WHO SPOKE ARAMAIC.

  3. Lucky Manoka

    Praise God for the insight from the Jewish culture on the delay of Jesus coming to raise Lazarus. This is the 4 days delay. Apart from other significant factors scholars argue to be the reasons for the delay this is an eye opener.

  4. jane z. mazzola

    Thank you for the actual post re: the Lazarus story, info: Bethany, Jewish customs of burial & resurrection beliefs. It made the recent readings more insightful. Some of the blog, while interesting, became a little obtuse! Sorry, my opinion, a yr later!
    Jane M.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Such is life. The story is timeless.

  5. Anderew

    I believe now (Amen)