John 11:1-21, The Unexpected Basis of the Little Flock

[October 9, 2011] Today we come to the story of the raising of Lazarus just two miles from the gates of Jerusalem. It is the crowning sign before the Lord’s “hour” has come, demonstrating the life-giving power of His word, signifying and signaling His own resurrection, and becoming grounds for the enmity of Jerusalem’s priestly establishment.

I accept Richard Bauckham’s arguments for the historicity of the family in Bethany and the raising of Lazarus—the raising of Lazarus really happened and John was an eyewitness of it—even though the other gospels make no mention of the miracle. I also believe that Lazarus was actually dead when Jesus raised him. In the Gospel according to John the story also plays a narrative role from the building opposition to Jesus to the arrest in Gethsemane. The crowd from Jerusalem that came out to greet Jesus on Palm Sunday did so because they had heard of the miracle (12:18). The chief priests had also heard and were alarmed at how dangerous Jesus had become (11:47-50), especially as this had been followed by His anointing, which would have been given messianic or royal—and therefore treasonous—significance.

Chiastically the story also corresponds to the healing of the basilikos’ son when Jesus was in Cana of Galilee. Both stories are the first layer inside the “bookends” of the story of the thirsty woman of Samaria and the outpouring Mary of Bethany.

The entire gospel is about Jesus as life, Jesus come as life, presenting Himself as life, offering Himself as life, and going through the process of death to multiply His life and make it available for others. This life is the eternal life of God (God is life), a life that is impervious to death and that overcomes death. This story of the raising of Lazarus demonstrates the power of this life through the word of Jesus which carries His personal authority. Lazarus was dead for four days. The power of death had its chance with him. After three days it was assumed that Lazarus’ “shadow” had left his body. Decay had set in. Death was complete. Yet Jesus raised Him. The resurrection was real, and this fact was made clear by the physicality of it. Yet what it demonstrated was the reality of the power of this life in terms of our spirituality. The gift of Jesus through the word is no mere opinion or impression. It is the gift of life: a life so powerful that it can overcome even the intractability of physical death. This is the life that enters and abides in us when we believe. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Yet, this life also uses death to make itself manifest. This is what is visible but, invisibly and more to the point, it uses death to make room for itself. Life shines through our soul as it yields itself to dying, life that overcomes our death and remains—as it vivifies the same soul with its life. Orthodoxy calls this divinization, and this makes sense. The definition of Christ comes true for us, only in the reverse direction (the divine becomes created that the created may become divine—yet without change or confusion although without separation or division, of natures).

I am struck by something else in this story. As much as it is an apex, it is also has a transitional role between the casting forth of the sheep that they might become a flock in chapters 9—10 and the little gathering in Bethany at the beginning of chapter 12. The crossing of the sea in chapter 6 was a turning point in the gospel, bracketed by the feeding of the five thousand on the one side and the discourse on the Bread of Life on the other. On the one side we have the woman of Samaria, the dying son of the basilikos, and the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath. On the other side we have the healing of the man born blind on the Sabbath, the raising of Lazarus, and the woman of Bethany. Both sides of this balance bring out the significance of the Sabbath and make allusions to the stories of beginnings in Genesis. Passover and Succoth themes, allusions and associations—exodus, wilderness (or exile) and Promise Land—also predominate in both. Thus the significance of Jesus is the promise of the whole Torah.

However, while ecclesial images have been with us from the beginning of the Gospel according to John, they have been particularly lucid after chapter 6. Chapter 5 alludes to the children of Israel who could not enter the Promised Land but were compelled to stay in the wilderness until they died out. Chapter 6 speaks of the manna that was their wilderness food. Chapters 7—8 alludes to their wilderness sojourn (and exile) and their dying in their unbelief while the Presence was in their midst. Chapter 9 continues to speak of their unbelief as inherited blindness (born blind, born children of the devil—as children of the world, not as Israelites). Israel, in this connection, has become the world, no different than the Gentiles (though the Promises still obtain), and in need of mercy no less than they (see Isaiah and the other prophets).

In chapter 9—10 Jesus, the Messiah-Shepherd, calls individual sheep out of the fold of Israel (and from elsewhere in the Gentile world) and casts them forth that He might form them into a flock around Himself. For the first time the Christian gathering comes into view (though it was there implicitly from the beginning when Jesus called the first disciples in chapter 1). In 12:1-11 we see the gathering. It is in a home in Bethany where Lazarus and Mary and Martha live. The scene takes place as they gather for a meal. The central event is Mary taking “a pound of ointment, of very valuable nard, and anointing the feet of Jesus, and [wiping] His feet with her hair; and the whole [being] filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” Mary pours herself out on Jesus—at great cost—in an act of love, adoration and worship, an act that also christens Him as King. It is a picture of the local church, what it is mean to be.

Bethany means “House of Figs” which has allusions to the Promised Land—so after the sojourn of chapters 6—10 we have arrived! It also means “House of Misery” or suffering. And there we see Lazarus reclining at table with Jesus. The presence of Lazarus is prominent, being expressly brought forth in the frame of verses 1-2 and 9-11. Lazarus is there with Jesus. What is significant about Lazarus is that he has been raised from the dead and thus demonstrates the power of Jesus’ own resurrection (the power by which He raised Himself, see 2:19 and 10:18) for His own. Indeed, Jesus will raise all the dead when the time comes (5:28-29), but Lazarus speaks of the power of His life in the present for those who believe (11:25-26). As the frame implies, Lazarus’ presence signifies that resurrection constitutes this little community. The House of Misery—because it implies the suffering of the Cross, that is, process of Jesus’ own death and the process of death working in us—becomes the House of Figs, the Land of Promise, because of the power of life, of resurrection life, which is the eternal life given to those who believe. Jesus Himself IS this life (11:25; 1 John 5:20), and He communicates Himself to us as life by the gift of the Holy Spirit. In His divinized humanity He “becomes” the Holy Spirit by resurrection (by their mutual coinherence; hypostatically they remain distinct). The house gathering in Bethany is a picture of what will become a reality in 20:19-23.

What then is this gathering a picture of? In other words, in the eyes of John (the writer of the gospel and epistles, and perhaps the Book of the Revelation as well), what is the church? John does not use the word church, by which we mean the gathering (ekklēsia) of the believers, though like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, he alludes to it. He writes of the inner reality of these things, not dismissing but in any case not naming their outer form. The church is none other than the local church. Every local church is the manifestation of the universal church. So what do we see here?

The local church is a personalist community of our “rediscovered” (original) family, a community of feasting and love and caring. The meal is Jesus Himself who is served to us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, though they have to be prepared and cooked into the meal by the siblings themselves. The sharing of praise and song further nourishes the community. With prayers they take each other’s concerns to God. Jesus gives Himself to us (as we feed Him to each other) and we give ourselves to Him in the sacrifice and service—and supreme pleasure—of our love, devotion, praise and worship. The more mature ones (the sheep dogs?) hold the group together that people do not slip out from neglect or lack of regard—though all the believers are given this charge (we each are sheep and shepherds) even if they have to grow into it. This is the local church. (John also acknowledges the apostolate—see chapter 21—but His primary concern is with the life and living of the believers, which is in and as the local church.)

The obsessive concern of believers in our day is with the church’s role in social change and with how we can meet the needs of the world. The role of the church in this regard is to serve the poor, the sick and shut-in, the outcast and the lonely. Individually we live out our lives in the world (society), primarily through our employments, civic life and in our neighborhoods. When we do so, we carry our values as Christians with us and allow those values to shape and color all that we do in the midst of the world. So, the church profoundly affects the roots of society by its very existence. While individually we participate responsibly in the civic life, we have no illusions that politics or any ideology can change the nature of the world. Politics, policies and ideologies will not save us. Our involvement is practical, completely divorced from and opposed to the idolatries of society and state. In this way, the church exists in every society, helping but never committing (following the example of Daniel in the Bible).

Sandwiched between the Shepherd casting out the sheep from the fold of synagogue (and Christendom?) and the picture of the called ones gathering around the Messiah in the house gathering is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. A transition has to take place between the individual sheep whose eyes are opened (to mix metaphors) and the formation of the gathering. That transition takes place in our own death and resurrection. It is expressed most succinctly in Jesus’ words, “Unbind him and let him go.” We need to die to the world in order to be freed from it. We have eternal life within us. By faith we—our souls—participate in it. But our souls are still in bondage to the world, enslaved to its powers. The word of Jesus coupled by the unbinding of the grave cloths liberates us so that we can become His flock, the household gathering around Jesus in newness of life.

Suffering Death Is Not for Its Own Sake but for the Glory of God (John 11:1-4)

First, however, we have to undergo a death. Jesus is told that Lazarus is sick and says that this sickness is not “unto death but for the glory of God, in order that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” It is not unto death, and yet Lazarus dies. This means that his death is not for its own sake and does not end in death. It is for the glory of God. God is glorified by the Son of God being glorified. In the Gospel according to John, the Son of God is glorified by undergoing death and resurrection. In this case, the death is the death of another, but the gospel associates it with Jesus’ own death. The resurrection is also another’s, but he is resurrected by the resurrection life that is already in Jesus prior to His resurrection. Jesus raised Himself from the dead by the power of the life that was already in Him. It was not an external power that operated on Him but the eternal life within Him that was imperious to the process of death. The manifestation of this life in Lazarus glorified the Son of God. The manifestation of the life of the Son of God in the raising of Lazarus, the manifestation of the authority of this life in Jesus, was a manifestation of the power of God’s own life in Him and thus of the divinity of Jesus who could wield its authority. The death of Lazarus was therefore for the glory—the manifestation—of God, that is, for the shining forth of His light. In another context, life is the light of men (1:4). The divine life, eternal life, is the light that shines forth Jesus and from the Scriptures when they reveal Him.

Jesus Allows Death to Take Place (11:5-6)

Jesus loved Lazarus, we are told in verse 3. No doubt this was a special affection that Jesus had for Lazarus, the same that He also had for John, the beloved disciple. We are also told that He loved Martha and Mary. Here are four individuals who are singled out as objects of Jesus’ love. The word is usually agapaō, though in verse 3 it is phileō. They are also the ones at the feast in chapter 12. We too are the objects of Jesus’ love and affection.

With this in mind, we notice that Jesus “remained in the place where He was” when He heard that Lazarus was sick. Jesus allowed him to die. This is incomprehensible to us. The reaction to Jesus is not only confusion but anger. “If You had been here, my brother would not have died!” (verses 21 and 32). For death is intractable. The tragedy of death is that it is so final. This is why we grieve so. The dead cannot be brought back to us. They have crossed a divide and cannot return, and we are left alone without them. So how could Jesus, who seems to heal strangers indiscriminately, how allowed one whom He loves to die? How could He do this, not only to Lazarus, but to the sisters, the others whom Jesus loves?

Can we not identify with this? If He loves us, why does He allow us to die, or allow us to suffer the loss of our loved ones? How can the Master of Life, the One who has power over death, allow death to take its toll of us? How can He allow death to apparently conquer us? He loves us, does He not? Or is He so consumed with His mission, that we are overlooked or even disposed of? He angers us, does He not? Or if He does not anger us, we blame ourselves, that we are rejected because we are not worthy of His love: we become depressed.

The Disciples Argue with Jesus (11:7-16)

Jesus confuses the disciples by telling them that He wants to go back to Judea. (He had crossed the Jordan to—significantly—another Bethany, “to the place where John was baptizing at first.”) When Jesus was last in Jerusalem during Hanukah, they had tried to stone Him (10:31). The hostility toward Him was intense. Why would He go back there? Did He want to die? Thomas, always the cynic, even says, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”

Jesus insists that He is walking in broad daylight, that is, He sees clearly what He is doing. He sees the danger what they see—He is not blind—but He is also guided by a greater light than they see. The danger that they see is not the whole story. He does not stumble because He walks by this greater light, a light that is within Him. This reference to light connects this story to chapters 9, about the opening of the eyes of the man born blind. It sets Jesus before us as an example. We too must walk with the open eyes of our spirit rather than with the eyes of our flesh or of our souls merely.

Jesus then tells them that Lazarus is asleep in death and He is going to wake Him. At first they misunderstand, because He speaks only of sleeping and waking. So they counsel that it is still not necessary to go to Judea to awaken him; he will wake up on his own. Apparently they are not all as willing to die as Thomas is.

Jesus tells them that He “rejoices” that He was not there, not because He rejoiced in Lazarus’ death but anticipatively, because they would see what He will do and believe (that is, perceive in their spirit who He is). This—their recognizing Him further—is cause for Him to rejoice. As it is cause for Him to rejoice when we see Him more clearly.

In verses 7-16 Jesus and the disciples argue back and forth. They misunderstand Him and they are afraid of what He is proposing. They have opinions of their own and they think their own light, the light of their opinions, is better than the light with which Jesus sees. When Jesus allows death to enter our lives—whether it is death around us, death within us, or the death of our things—we cannot understand and are prone to cling to our own perspectives, our own opinions and ways of thinking. We enter into conflict with Him. We may, like Thomas, agree to go along with Him—we take the risk of believing—but emotionally we still disagree or at least cannot comprehend. There is dissonance between Him and us.

Unless we experience this, we cannot die to our own opinions and expectations of Him. This is necessary for the community to form. We cannot be together if we hold too tightly to our own ways of looking at things. Community requires humility. Those who first form the community and those who later enter it must learn to put themselves aside.

Failed Expectations and Anger (11:17-21)

Jesus and His circle of disciples arrive at Bethany. By the time they arrive, Lazarus has been dead for several days and many people have come to the house to console the mourning sisters. When news arrives of Jesus’ arrival Martha rises up to meet Him. Mary stays behind, we are not told why. Is it because of the guests (verse 31)? Or because she is too angry with Jesus to see Him right away (verse 32)? Or both? One of them has to get up to greet Him, and Martha, who is probably the older one, takes it upon herself.

Martha is humble. She knows who Jesus is, and she is in awe of Him. Yet she cannot comprehend why Jesus would allow this to happen to them when He could have done something to stop it. “If You had been here, my brother would not have died.” He could have stopped it from happening! They had told Him in time, perhaps. Maybe they even knew of how Jesus had healed others from a distance (such as the basilikos’ son).

Here is another example of people, Jesus’ own loved ones, entering into conflict with Him. His actions are incomprehensible, and moreover, painful. Jesus’ theme all the time was life, yet here He allows death to conquer. How were they to make sense of this? This was not the kind of anger that made people turn away from Him; but it was the kind of anger that expressed the deep hurt caused by Him.

Yet this is the kind of hurt that creates the community of love. Unless we hurt in this way, we cannot learn to let go of our own expectations and surrender to the way of Jesus. His way is the way of resurrection through death. We hold on to our way of looking at things instead of stepping into the darkness where is the only real light. It is not by suppressing our souls—our anger, our frustration—at Jesus, but by allowing death to have its way with us, to work on us. For on the other side we do not end up soulless. We end up with a soul through which our spirit shines forth.

We are not, however, at the other side yet. We will continue next week.  

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