The resurrection and the life.
Death has no authority or sway over anything when in the presence of the one who is life itself.
Charles Dickens begins his timeless tale of Ebenezer Scrooge in stunningly abrupt fashion. “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail,” he writes (1). This, of course, is written about Scrooge’s deceased business-partner Jacob Marley, who eventually haunts his miserly friend on Christmas Eve, warning his yet-living colleague of the trio of ghostly guests who were slated to pay him a visit. In a sense, that’s how St. John situates the narrative of chapter 11 of his Gospel. As Jesus draws near to the village of Bethany after hearing word that his friend Lazarus had taken ill, John tells us that it’s actually too late, because Lazarus “had lain in the grave four days already” (John 11:17). Which is just to say that Lazarus “was as dead as a door-nail” by the time his Friend and Lord arrived. And that’s the thing: this was no Scrooge-Marley situation, where the nature of their friendship was held together by the thin thread of their common business interests. Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha (John 11:3, 5, 36). They were as much his personal friends as they were his disciples. Which is why it surely made zero sense to Mary and Martha that Jesus wasn’t there when their dear brother died.
News of Lazarus’s passing was certainly a stinging announcement, one that brought the people of Bethany to their knees. The sisters he left behind were desperate for comfort, which was a void that was quickly filled by some of their neighbors from Jerusalem. “And many of the Jews came to Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother” (John 11:19). There is a sense in which these Jews were assuming the role of consoler that should’ve gone to Jesus. It is evident from the text that he’s who the sisters truly longed for, who they really wanted to see. Such is why Martha sprints out of her home as soon as she gets wind of his arrival. The other comforters were appreciated but they weren’t who she wanted to see by Lazarus’s bedside. Jesus’s arrival means the arrival of Mary and Martha’s truest sympathetic friend. Martha, though, has some questions, and she needs answers:
Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house. Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. (John 11:20–22)
Martha greets Jesus in the middle of road, where, forgoing any pleasantries, she bluntly asks that which was most pressing on her mind. “Where were you, Jesus? Why weren’t you here? If only you had been here! If only you had shown up, my brother wouldn’t be dead right now!” Martha was at an agonizing loss. Her beloved brother was dead, and the one Person she counted on to be there for her and her sister never showed up. And it’s not as though she didn’t get word to him. It’s not as though Jesus was unaware of what was going on. A courier had been sent post-haste to give the Lord the urgent news: “Lazarus is sick. Come quickly!” (John 11:3). He knew, and yet, he didn’t come. Day after day went by with nary a sign of Jesus popping up on the horizon. No sign of the One who had worked miracles. No sign of the One who had cast out demons. No sign of the One who could do something. Instead, things go from bad to worse, as Lazarus’s illness progresses to the point of death. Mary and Martha couldn’t wrap their minds around why Jesus would let this happen (John 11:21, 32). “You let us down, Jesus.”
The sentiments of those grieving sisters are likely familiar to many of us. You’ve undoubtedly endured something similar, something perplexing that, suddenly, turns tragic. Those moments make it hard to find words that aren’t apoplectic, with what faith we had often being out-volumed by frenzied confusion. Our minds are filled with a bevy of questions, not unlike Lazarus’s sisters. Why would you do that, God? Why didn’t you intervene? Why didn’t you do something when you had the chance? Why would you let that happen? Martha’s circumstances are not at all foreign to us. Indeed, they’re all too familiar. From Martha’s perspective, Jesus did nothing. And that’s the locus of her aggravation (John 11:22). She confessed that she knew he could’ve done something, so why did he appear to do nothing at all? If he had the ability to save Martha’s brother from this devastating fate, why didn’t he? Well, because Jesus had something different in mind.
The Lord knew exactly what he was doing, even his seeming dilly-dallying was purposeful. “When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby” (John 11:4). He clues his apostles in to the fact Lazarus’s sickness was about to allow “for the glory of God” to be revealed in sublime fashion. Such is why, after hearing about his ailing friend, Jesus sticks around for another few days “in the same place” (John 11:6). This, I’m sure, greatly puzzled the apostles. “Why aren’t we going to Bethany?” they inquire amongst themselves. “It’s only a day’s journey away, and yet, here we still are. Aren’t these his friends? Why isn’t Jesus doing anything?” Eventually, Jesus speaks plainly with his apostles, letting them know that his dear friend Lazarus was not merely sick, he was dead — “as dead as a door-nail,” in fact. And that was precisely the plan all along.
Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him. (John 11:14–15)
It ought to stun us something silly that Jesus admits he is “glad” he wasn’t there when Lazarus passed. That sentiment certainly doesn’t have any notes of kindness or compassion it. But that’s because Jesus is after something far greater, far deeper, and far truer than just another random act of kindness. The hint he gives his followers is a teaser for the Main Event they were about to witness — something that’d be infinitely better than merely the healing of an infection. Indeed, they were about to witness the reversal of death itself.
Martha, of course, wasn’t privy to any of those insights. For all she knew, Jesus wasn’t there, and that’s all that mattered. The Lord responds to her question and not-so-subtle-accusation in a way that doesn’t quite satisfy. “Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:23–24). She was, no doubt, a devout attendee of the nearby synagogue, which led to her confession and hope in a future resurrection. But inherent in Martha’s words is the admission that merely believing that wasn’t really helping her in this moment. I get the sense that she’s almost disappointed that that’s all Jesus had to say. She wanted something more, something that’d offer more immediate comfort, more tangible consolation than just the future hope of resurrection. Such is when Jesus “lets the cat out the bag,” so to speak, revealing who he is and what he has been up to the entire time.
Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? (John 11:25–26)
These are unquestionably some of the most foundational words to our entire Christian faith. To Martha, and everyone in earshot, Jesus of Nazareth has just intimated that he’s no mere “teacher” of resurrection truth and philosophy. Rather, he’s the Author and Arbiter of resurrection itself. He’s the One who holds the keys to death and hell in his hands (Rev. 1:18). He’s the only One who has ultimate authority over life and death. This he affirms in the previous chapter, too, where he declares to his apostles, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17–18). There is no one, and no thing, more powerful than he who is the Resurrection and the Life. “Christ is the Life, and, therefore, Christ is the Resurrection,” Alexander Maclaren comments, “and the thing that we call death is but a film which spreads on the surface, but has no power to penetrate into the depths of the relationship between us and Him” (10:2.106). Such is Jesus’s definitive proclamation here. But along with that, Jesus’s words are an affirmation that the resurrection is no mere hope which only exists in some far-off future day. In his presence, the resurrection is an ever-present reality. He is the Resurrection and the Life right then and there. Such is why I believe that when he told Martha that her brother would “rise again,” he wasn’t alluding to the End of Days. He was referencing the “now.” “You don’t have to wait till ‘the last day’ for life to course through cold veins, I am the Life,” Jesus says. “You don’t have to wait till this life is over for the resurrection, I am the Resurrection.”
Martha, however, doesn’t quite put two-and-two together. To Jesus’s inquiry, she replies with a rather rote affirmation of who Jesus is (John 11:27). But as true as her confession was, it was incomplete. There was nary a hint of death and resurrection in it. Which is why she’s seen protesting Jesus’s instructions when they arrive at Lazarus’s tomb. “Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days” (John 11:39). “Why in the world would you want to do that, Jesus?” she objects. “Don’t you know what rigor mortis is?” Martha didn’t have the full story, though. Neither did anyone else, for that matter (John 11:37). Such is why Jesus gives her a knowing glance, and responds, “Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?” (John 11:40). As if to say, “You still don’t believe me, huh? You still don’t get it, do you? Just watch”:
Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave-clothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go. (John 11:41–44)
All it takes is a word and death is forced to release its hold on Lazarus’s life. Death had no jurisdiction there. Indeed, death has no authority or sway over anything when in the presence of the One who is Life itself. It didn’t matter that Lazarus was “in the grave four days already.” Neither would it have mattered if he was dead four hours or forty years. “When the Resurrection and the Life says ‘Lazarus, come forth,’ the rest of the story does not depend on Lazarus,” as Robert Capon puts it in Between Noon and Three (100). When the Life-Giving Word speaks life, life is born immediately. That’s who Jesus is. He is the Word of the Father by whom “all things were made” (John 1:1–3). And just as he is the Word which gave birth to the universe, he can just as surely speak life into dead bones (Ezek. 37:1–14). He is the Word from the beginning, in whom “was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (John 1:4–5). Christ Jesus, then, is the Word which pushes back the darkness and reverses the power of death. Such is what makes this scene so poignant.
The death of Lazarus, you see, is the perfect backdrop for what was about to occur in just a few short days. Jesus, of course, is on his way to Jerusalem — on his way to be nailed on a cross for the sins of the world. Which means that this is the final miracle he performs prior to his own passion and death. And it’s quite fitting, then, that this last miracle is a miracle of resurrection, because death and resurrection have been Jesus’s endgame from the very start. “Death and resurrection,” notes Capon elsewhere, “are the key to the whole mystery of our redemption” (Parables, 71). A stone’s throw away from the place of his ignominious fate, Christ Jesus, the Life-Giving Word himself, manifests his resurrection power in the only place where that’s possible: in the stench of death, decay, and ruin. “Resurrection,” A. W. Pink writes, “can be displayed only where death has come in” (2:170). By raising Lazarus, the Son of Man shows us, in word and in deed, what his own death on the cross would accomplish. Namely, that for those who believe, the only thing that’s truly “as dead as a door-nail” are their sins — the very sins that are nailed to that tree are the very sins that are left behind in the tomb (Col. 2:10–15). The good news, then, is that we are all Lazaruses. We are the ones who’ve been found by the Author and Giver of all life. We are the ones who’ve been raised to walk “in newness of life” by the power of that Life-Giving Word (Rom. 6:4).
Robert Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (New York: H. M. Caldwell Co., 1901).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).
Arthur W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John, Vols. 1–3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975).