John 11 - Who is dead and who is alive?

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

In the sixth chapter, Jesus first fed thousands of people and then started to talk about the bread of life. In the ninth chapter, he healed a blind man and then talked about spiritual blindness. In the section that we are now discussing, he raises Lazarus from the dead. However, this section is about much more than only about his raising from the dead. We are confronted with these questions: what is life and what is death, and who is dead and who will live.

Intentional dawdling 11:1-10

When Jesus is on the other side of the Jordan, he receives word that Lazarus is seriously ill. Yet the Healer will not set off but delays his departure on purpose. This non-action will reveal what lies at the heart of the whole chapter: it is not only about raising the dead that we are now talking about. The aim of these events is to reveal the glory of the Son of God, in other words, to show the real identity of Jesus. It is for this reason that the mourners will have to wait and Lazarus is left to die.

The disciples are surprised that Jesus should leave for the region of Jerusalem. After all, he had only recently been in danger of death there. Jesus gives the same reasons for his actions as when he healed the blind man (9:4-5): there is only a limited time to work. When the night comes, it is no longer possible to do good. This applies particularly to Jesus – he had his task, and it lasted for a limited period. During that time, he had to work and not avoid danger.

"Lazarus is dead" 11:11-16

Lazarus died in Bethany. For Jesus, it was a sign to start off. Twice the disciples misunderstand his words, which is characteristic of the Gospel of John; first they want to become good nurses, and then Thomas wants to show the courage of a martyr. In both instances, the disciples mean good. The plans of the great God seemed totally strange to them.

Martha’s confession of faith 11:17-27

The house of the deceased Lazarus was full of mourners comforting his sisters. First John tells us how Jesus talked with Martha.

By now we have noticed that the word ‘believe’ holds a variety of meanings in the fourth Gospel. Sometimes it is said that some people ‘believe’ in Jesus and, at the same time, they are wondering that when the Christ comes, would he do more miracles than Jesus.

In most cases, the people talking with Jesus have no idea what is going on. This was last seen as the disciples were speaking and failed to understand things. Now the situation is different; Martha’s confession of faith is perfect and beautiful. She first shows her faith when she says that Jesus can do miracles. He could have healed the sick Lazarus and, even now, could raise the dead man. Her statement after this expresses her unfailing faith in the last day resurrection.

The crucial question here is the one that comes last: is life and resurrection bound up with the person of Jesus, so that what is conclusive is not our heartbeat or breathing, but our relationship with Jesus?

Martha is one of those whose spiritual blindness God has removed. She can clearly see the glory of Christ,

”Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

So the issues of life and death are made clear by the discussion between Martha and Jesus. It is not a loss that Lazarus is dead in the tomb. Nothing bad has happened to him. It is when Christ is rejected that misery befalls.

The power of death is brought down 11:28-44

John tells the story of the resurrection in his own, wonderful way. We are confronted with the power of death in all its horror at the tomb of Lazarus. At the same time, a major difference between mankind and God becomes apparent. The people are only able to see the earthly death and the sorrow caused by mourning. When Jesus bursts into tears at the tomb, the people think that he is helplessly mourning the death of Lazarus. In reality, Jesus weeps for the power of death and darkness in people’s hearts and for the unbelief of the crowd milling around. He himself has no need to witness a miracle of resurrection. It is necessary for the surrounding people who, contrary to what they may think, know nothing about life and death.

When the dead man comes out of his tomb, everyone has a chance to comprehend a truth revealed by God: the power of death is broken in the presence of Christ, because he was sent by God to give life to the world.

That Jesus wept and is deeply moved is an important detail. Even at the time when John’s Gospel was written, many people found it offensive that Jesus was crucified – that he should suffer and die like a human being. They sought to explain away these offensive things by making Jesus into a mere spiritual being who could not suffer pain, let alone die.

There is no sign of this tendency in the Gospel of John or in the Synoptics. In these texts, Jesus is militant and distressed, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. A beautiful feature in this picture is John’s account of Jesus weeping, as he saw the power of death over the ignorant people.

The plot to kill Jesus 11:45-57

The greatest miracle of Jesus, the raising of a dead man, did not cause only amazement and faith. It was this miracle that mobilized a group of strong-willed men. The council, the highest decision-making body of the Jews, is convened. Jesus must be stopped, whatever the cost.

In all this darkness, God’s Spirit is at work. Hidden in the darkest and the most ungodly statement, lies the plan of God, and the godlessness of Caiaphas is no obstacle for God to use him as his voice; it is better that one man should die so that no one else will have to perish. And this death will not touch only Israel but the whole world.

The decision has now been made, and everything will soon be ready for the grand finale. The plan is complete. The next chapter is about Christ’s Passion.