[October 16, 2011] We continue the story of Jesus raising of Lazarus from the dead. In the first twenty-one verses of the chapter, Jesus’ inexplicable behavior gave rise to fear and confusion on the part of the disciples and anger on the part of the sisters of Lazarus. Jesus allowed Lazarus to die. I expounded their experience of Jesus, or rather of their reaction to Jesus, as the process of their own dying—a dying to their own opinions and expectations of Jesus. Our attachment to our opinions and expectations of Jesus breaks down in the face of death, for Jesus allows it and we cannot get our minds and hearts around this. By death we mean more than literal, biological death. Death comes to us in many forms. We strain so hard against it! It is so painful we often deny it. Religion helps us deny it. Yet the realism of lived life places death always before us, and Jesus comes to us in its guise.
I do not mean to glorify death. Nor do I think that the goal of spirituality is self-abnegation or annihilation. We need to deny and lose our soul, but not literally, for this is phrased in a paradox: we must deny our soul to save and keep it, to gain it. We need to let go of the lie, of that to which the soul clings, which is illusory. A large portion of the soul’s identity comes from the “world” as a delusionary system, whose gestalt has power over us. The soul needs to die to this false identity and be freed. The soul dies as it comes to a true knowledge of itself. The soul that understands itself befriends death and is free to become childlike. Along with a realistic humility, it becomes loving, full of wonder and awe, ever thankful, playful, creative, and straightforward. What is in view when we consider death in the Gospel according to John is life.
I did not point out the disciples’ fear and confusion or the sister’s anger to make a moral lesson. It is not that we should not be afraid or confused, should not become angry, or should not have opinions and expectations. I presented these as facts. We have opinions and expectations, fears and confusions, and anger. Watching the crowd take up stones to stone Jesus must have been frightening. To lose their brother to the finality of death was painful. It is not that we must battle against our nature and force ourselves to become unfeeling and inhuman. The story here does not carry such moral overtones. These are things we simply need to go through to get to where we are going. We need to allow ourselves to be afraid, to become confused, to experience pain, to get angry. It is when we go through them that we can undergo the process of transformation. If we are overly “righteous” and deny them, we delay the process. We need to submit ourselves—the way we are—to God’s almighty hand and let the process we undergo have its way with us.
The Martha who said to Jesus, accusingly, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died,” is the sister who served Jesus at the table in Bethany. The Mary who said to Jesus, perhaps not without a note of bitterness, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died,” is the Mary who broke the very valuable alabaster vial of pure nard and anointed Jesus’ feet with it as she wiped His feet with her hair. Jesus allowed them their feelings, in all four cases. The flock that gathers around Jesus is not based on the repression of our humanity but on its liberation.
Martha and Faith (John 11:21-27)
When Martha heard that Jesus had come—though He was still outside the village—and went out to greet Him, she left Mary behind. We can imagine that the two women had mixed emotions. Jesus delayed to come and allowed their brother to die. Martha, who acted as the older one, went out as the more responsible of the two.
Her first words to Jesus were accusatory: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” We can imagine that she could have said any number of other things instead of this. She could have considered Jesus’ own grief. But she did not.
Nevertheless, she addressed Him as “Lord.” Even though Jesus was a friend of the family, she speaks of Him with this title of respect. It can mean “sir” but it also means “master.” She went on to say, “But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” “You let my brother die, but even now I know that God will give You whatever You ask. I know that God hears Your prayers; at least You can pray for us.” What did she have in mind? Certainly not what was about to happen. What she said was not without some irony. “If You had been here my brother would not have died. But even still, God hears Your prayers—You could have prayed for him! Even if You weren’t able to come, You could have kept him from dying. You could have prayed for him! Well, the damage has been done. At least You can pray for us, now that You’re here.” She spoke more respectfully than this, but might this not have been the undertone?
Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” She answered, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection in the last day.” She confesses her Jewish faith. She may have thought that Jesus was taking the heat off Himself, that He was offering her words of comfort. She accepts that, for she has a great deal of respect for Him, in spite of her other emotions. She acknowledges what she and all the mourners believed. They found comfort in hope. She will see her brother again in the resurrection.
However, she misunderstands Jesus’ intention. He did not mean to take the attention off Himself. He says to her, “I AM the resurrection and the life.” This is one of the “I AM” statements, all of which indicate His uniqueness and the exclusivity of His identity. We can imagine that as Martha said, “I know that [my brother] will rise again in the resurrection in the last day,” that her eyes moved away from Jesus as she recalled the faith with which she and her sister and the other mourners comforted one another. Jesus calls her attention back to Himself. “That is not what I mean. I know that I have disappointed you. But when I say that your brother shall rise again, I am not shrugging off what has happened. I am not detaching myself from what has happened. If your brother shall rise again, it is because I am the resurrection and the life.”
“He who believes into Me, even if he should die, shall live; and everyone who lives and believes into Me shall by no means die forever.” Jesus makes two statements here, though what their difference is may be difficult to distinguish. Perhaps He speaks of before and after His own death and resurrection. “Lazarus has died, yet because he believes into Me, he shall live, whether now or in the last day is not the point. He shall live because of Me.” This is clear. Then Jesus also says, “Everyone who lives and believes into Me shall by no means die forever.” The living seems to refer to the women and everyone else living at the time Jesus said this who would still be alive when the Holy Spirit comes. If they believe into Jesus, because of the coming of the Holy Spirit they shall never die. Certainly they shall die biologically. In that case, the death in verse 25 refers to biological death and the death in verse 26 refers to something else. We shall not die because we will be resurrected; our biological death is not the end of our being—death will be only the passage to life.
There is an alternative way to look at this. In verse 25 Jesus says, “He who believes into Me, even if he should die, shall live ‘in the resurrection in the last day.’” Verse 26 then means, “When the resurrection takes place in the last day, not everyone will be dead. Those who are living at that time shall never die.” This would be literal enough, but I am skeptical about whether this interpretation does justice to the context, for then verse 25 would no longer include the raising of Lazarus.
In any case, believing into Jesus overcomes death because Jesus is in Himself the resurrection and the life. As Jesus said in 5:21 and 26, The Father has life in Himself and has given to the Son to also have life in Himself. He thus has authority to give life to whom He wills. “An hour is coming, and it is now, when the [spiritually] dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” But not just the spiritually dead: “An hour is coming in which all in the tombs will hear His voice and will come forth: those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have practiced evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”
If the dead rise, and we are told that they all will, it is because the Son has life in Himself and by the power and authority of His own life will raise them to life. “I AM the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?”
Martha answers, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, He who comes into the world.” Her confession here is at least as clear as Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16. “He who comes into the world” perhaps embraces more than the mere term “Messiah” (Christ) does. Messiah implies prophet, priest and king, and people usually meant one or another of these. Salvation is implied in these titles, though perhaps people only applied it to Israel, and to what extent varies. “He who comes into the world” implies something universal. Martha understood that Jesus fulfilled the greatest and most encompassing vision of the prophets, perhaps even that Jesus was the coming of God.
When Martha says this, it speaks remarkably to her own faith, even in the face of her conflicting emotions with respect to Jesus. This is possible for us, and perhaps even normally so. Faith speaks of something we know on a different level than the turmoil in our emotions and the confusion in our minds. Faith emanates from what we know in our spirits, what we know because we are personally addressed by the divine Person. Faith is cognitive, of course, but it emanates from a knowledge that is not cognitive. It is existential because it is spiritual.
Martha’s faith is also the faith of the flock (chapter 10). The community of believers, as they live through much suffering, has the faith of Martha in spite of conflicting emotions. Their faith reflects the fact that they have heard and recognize the voice of the Shepherd. That voice calls them out of the fold. When the man who was born blind saw Jesus for the first time, Jesus asked him, “Do you believe into the Son of God” (10:35). So now, He has asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” This believing into Him is what calls them into the flock, the gathering into His name.
Mary and Love (11:28-38a)
While Martha is the more responsible one, Mary is more sensitive. Martha says to her, “The Teacher is here and is calling you.” Presumably Jesus did ask for her, for He waited for her to come to Him. Why Mary did not go out with Martha at the first but waited until Jesus called her, we do not know. Perhaps it was to stay with the guests. Or maybe it was because of a sense of bitter disappointment in Jesus. Yet, in spite of this bitterness, she also longed to see Him and perhaps find comfort in Him. She rose quickly and came to Him.
Jesus did not continue on to the town but waited for her. When she arrived, unlike Martha, she fell at His feet and wept (verse 33). She laid her grief before Him: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” The words are accusatory and bitter, but she also expected Jesus to comfort her, to reconcile her emotions, for she seems to have had no doubt concerning Jesus’ love for her and her sister and Lazarus.
Seeing her tears, and the tears of the other mourners who came with her from the house, Jesus “was moved with indignation in His spirit and was troubled.” What are these emotions that He was feeling? Did He grieve as they did? Perhaps not, for they grieved over their loss; He knew that He was going to bring Lazarus back. Yet He felt their feelings and this wounded (troubled) Him. Perhaps His indignation was towards death itself, for He felt it in His spirit. While He knew Lazarus was going to rise, He also knew that He Himself was going to encounter death more deeply than Lazarus. He was going to confront the powers of death as the judgment of God breaking over His soul and He was going to intentionally give Himself over to its powers and deliberately, willfully, lay His soul down in death. Death was a thoroughly ugly thing for it was not just the termination of our time but it was God’s limit and judgment on sin.
Jesus’ indignation may well have been His indignation at human sin that makes death what it is. He sees our sin the way God does. Our sin is our deliberate attempt to cut ourselves off from God, indeed, from Himself. We bring death upon ourselves as a consequence of rejecting life. Yet we do not see this. We are blind. Nor can we help it, for we are slaves of sin and children of the world. If only death were simply the terminus of our time, but it is not. It is the judgment of God on our willfulness, and the favor of God to end our self-torment. Jesus saw Mary—whom He loved—weeping at His feet and, feeling the pain that she was feeling, and thinking of His beloved Lazarus cold in the tomb, He was moved with indignation in His spirit and was troubled.
They took Him to the tomb and when He saw it, He wept. As Mary wept, He wept. Her sense of loss was greater than His, but His sense of tragedy was greater than hers.
Mary loved Jesus. Her feelings brought to expression His own. He loved them: Martha, Mary and Lazarus. He wept because of His love, but it was suffering compassion mixed with indignation at the self-wrought tragedy of the human condition and His own intention towards it. With this weighing on Him, He approached the tomb.
The Authority and Impartation of Life (11:38b-44)
Jesus tells them to take the stone away. Not knowing what He intends, they perhaps thought that in His grief—for they saw Him weeping—He was not thinking clearly. Martha gently reminds Him, “Lord, it is the fourth day since he’s been in there; by now he smells.”
Jesus, however, was very lucid. He was staring death in the eye. The reality of it was all too clear to Him. “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” In verse 4 Jesus told His disciples, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, in order that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The glory of God is God’s shining forth, the expression of His brilliance, the revelation of Himself. God is life, life that is imperious to death and overpowers and overthrows death. “If you believe you will see” it. If you do not believe you will be blind to it. It will be there, but you will not have eyes to see it.
What follows is completely unexpected. The disciples argued with Him. The sisters were hurt and disappointed by Him. Everyone had expectations of Him and held opinions about what He should do or should have done. No one was prepared for what now happens.
Jesus prays: “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me.” The Father already heard Him. Jesus had already prayed and had already received an answer. When He delayed to come to Lazarus when his sisters called Him, it was because the Father had already heard Him when He had prayed. He knew what He was going to do and what would happen. He could tell them to remove the stone from the tomb because the Father had already assured Him. We are describing the inner life of Jesus with whose humanity we can identify but whose relationship to the Father is incomprehensible. The Father and the Son lovingly face each other in complete personhood, yet they also dwell in each other for they share one simple and indivisible essence. Their communion is ineluctable, though we can speak of it in the metaphors of language. Jesus, as fully human as we are, has no other “person” than the person of the Son. His “I” is the “I am” of the Son, even in His humanity. His humanity—as such—is none other than the humanity of the Son, as His own nature, even though the Son is originally and still divine.
He opens this window and allows us to hear Him address the Father as the Son “so that they may believe that You have sent Me.” For He is not just a miracle worker. He is none other than the presence of God in their midst, the personal presence of God as resurrection and life. A miracle worker may have powers of his or her own, or may be able to manipulate other powers, or in the case of a true miracle worker, is one who knows God’s will and whose prayers are heard. Jesus is like this last one, for He prays as One who is always heard. Yet as “sent” by God He is more than that. He comes from God to represent God (as God) to the world. He does not act on His own, praying for concerns of His own. He is sent.
Then He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The voice with which Jesus speaks, the voice that raises the dead, is a voice of authority, the voice of creation, and the voice of life. He speaks with the authority of God. Death claims us with authority, for its act is final and irreversible. Yet the authority of Jesus is greater than this. Jesus speaks with the voice of creation. As God calls things into being by His word, Jesus repairs the damage of death and recreates Lazarus’ body, imparting life into it as the Creator imparted life into the body of Adam. The spirit had left Lazarus’ body. Jesus calls the spirit back and revives his soul. Jesus’ creative voice is the voice of the Creator. Jesus also imparts life by His word. “The words which I have spoken are spirit and are life.” The words of Jesus have the power to impart spirit into what is dead, but also life. This is true spiritually. We hear the Gospel and the words impart life. The life that it imparts however is the kind of life that can raise those who are biologically dead! It usually does not, because God has set us a limit, but it could. Jesus’ words can impart life because they carry the authority of His person. It is His own life that He imparts through His words. He does not manipulate life as something apart from Him. He is the life that raised Lazarus out of the coldness of death.
Lazarus came out in response to Jesus’ life-giving words. He was bound hand and foot, and his face was covered, so it is hard to imagine how he moved, but moved he did. Lazarus was alive! God had breathed into him the breath of life and his soul came back to him.
Life in the Gospel according to John
It is appropriate that the last of the great sign that Jesus performs should be the resurrection of someone from the dead. This is not the last miracle, of course, for 12:28 records a voice from heaven; in 18:6 the cohort and attendants fall back; in 19:34 blood and water came out of His side; and of course there is the resurrection itself. However, the first twelve chapters of the gospel present Jesus with some singular signs: Jesus turns water into wine; He heals the basilikos’ son; He heals the man by the pool of Bethesda; He feeds the five thousand; and He healed the man who was born blind.
In the first twelve chapters Jesus presents Himself to the world as life. The water becoming wine can be interpreted this way; the raising up of the Temple in three days refers to His resurrection; He talks to Nicodemus about the new birth and the gift of eternal life, which John the Baptist reiterates in 3:36; Jesus speaks to the woman at the well about living water; He heals a man’s son who is about to die; when He heals the sick man by the pool of Bethesda He speaks of His authority to give life to the dead; He speaks of Himself as the Bread of Life; at the Feast of Tabernacles He speaks of giving living water again and of Himself as the Light of Life and interprets the healing of the blind man as giving abundant life to His sheep. When He raises one from the dead, He is going beyond all these others and yet also staying within the bounds of their meaning. He is life; He is eternal life (the divine life of God); He is resurrection (life that overcomes death); He gives living water (the Holy Spirit) to drink and is Himself living bread to eat.
Resurrection is life, but life in its capacity to overcome death. It is overcoming or victorious life. What is able to give life to a physical body is the same life that gives us new birth spiritually. The new birth is not metaphorical but concrete, even if not physical. The life that overcomes physical death, that recreates the body, gives it the breath of life (spirit) and brings the soul back into it, is the life that regenerates our spirit for the new birth. The regenerated spirit is the seed of our bodily resurrection from the dead. They are genetically connected.
When Lazarus comes out of the tomb, he is bound hand and foot and even his face—his eyes, ears, nose and mouth—are bound about with a handkerchief. Jesus says, “Loose him and let him go.”
The literal meaning of Jesus’ words is obvious. The man needs help! But the words also hint at the spiritual meaning of the story. Like the man who was born blind, Lazarus is a parable of the believer. In 5:25 when Jesus said, “An hour is coming, and it is now, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live,” He was not speaking of those who are physically dead but of the spiritually dead. When we hear the voice of Jesus—as the sheep in chapter 10 do—His voice raises us from spiritual death. This is another way of speaking about the new birth or regeneration. Prior to this we are unable to hear and unable to see (the message of chapters 7—8). We are unresponsive to God and to the words of God. We are so dull and dense that we are as though “dead” to God. Jesus gives us the gift of hearing and seeing and awakens us. This awakening to reality makes us receptive to the Holy Spirit who fills us with the divine life (namely, Herself).
However, the new believer is still bound by the world. While there is usually an immediate experience of freedom, the person soon discovers that the world still has its tentacles wrapped around him or her. The fellow believers are needed to help unbind and loose the person. Jesus does not tell Lazarus to loose himself. He says “Unloose him” to those around him, presumably the people who will be at the supper in 12:2. We loose one another not by being moral watchdogs and by reprimanding each other but by the fellowship of life and love, by sharing our light, by mutual support, by sharing Jesus with one another. It is in the flock gathered around and depending on the Shepherd that we find our freedom from bonds. The fold protects the sheep with its own bonds (the wall around the sheep). The flock does not have such bonds. Instead it has the Shepherd. The analogy of the flock, however, has its limits. For in the real-world “flock,” the believers must also love one another and shepherd (care for) each other.
How do I distinguish between the kind of judgment that Christians typically display toward each other and the liberating loosing that Christians really need? The Holy Spirit looses us as we love one another through the Holy Spirit. This life in the Holy Spirit and in our spirits is different than the moralistic life that most Christians equate with Christianity. It springs up from the light of the revelation of Christ, not from dogmatic rigidity or behavioral guardedness and repression. Ethically it is a superior life, but its high ethics arises from within, by the growth of life, spontaneously and vigorously, and gives no room for the greed and pettiness that people catch from the world.