John (Part 39): Teaching the Truth – To Disciples; To Martha (ch 11)
The next few verses drive home the point that this is not just for Lazarus although it is for Lazarus as well. Verse 5 is a pivotal verse. We are told in it that Jesus loved this family. But it is a love that goes far deeper than they may have realized. In verse 3, Martha may have tried to manipulate Jesus based on his care for Lazarus as a friend. The word she used in saying, “The one You love” is phileo, a care for or brotherly love. In verse 5, we are told that Jesus loved the three. That is the Greek agapao. It is a deep, thorough, all-encompassing love. And it is that love basis, not simply his brotherly care, that forces the action to come.
I think the point of John in telling us this is actually two-pronged. The first is that the movement of Jesus in this scene is to emphasize that it is not merely by personal friendship that he moves. He is going to go to Lazarus and his sisters, not simply because they are friends, but because he loves on a deeper level so as to give his own life in exchange. The pericope of the raising of Lazarus does show Jesus giving of himself for the world. But because this is not merely a story but a metaphor for the whole mission of Jesus, I think we can see, in this love pronounced, the realized purpose of Jesus mission—the everlasting love relationship. That love relationship is characterized by love—reflecting God’s truth, goodness, and beauty for the benefit of those you love. As a relationship, this is a reciprocal activity in which we as the Zion community imitate the Trinity. So verse 5 is more than the John 3:16 love of God to the world for the chance at this Zion relationship, but it is a reverse look starting from that Zion relationship, seeing that end as the settled purpose for which Christ performs his mission. In other words, verse 5, I think, tells us that Jesus has this relationship with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. They already believe that Jesus is from God, that he is the Messiah, that he is Lord. This does not mean that they know everything about what their salvation would necessitate. But they knew that Jesus was come from God to accomplish it. Again, in other words, they are presented to us as examples of those who trusted in Part 1 of this Gospel—Jesus is the Way. They believed this. They believed Jesus was the fulfillment of the OT revelation that God would send his appointed one to bring about salvation. So, understand the progression of the revelation. The OT revealed that God would save. It further revealed that God would save by sending the Messiah—the Son of God (Daniel 7)—to accomplish that salvation. Now in John’s Gospel so far we have seen Jesus proclaimed as that Messiah, Son of God, who would bring salvation. The next progressive step in the revelation of God’s plan is that Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior, must die in order to save. That’s the Truth that is proclaimed in this section. We will see that revelation presented to and accepted by these two sisters. So, at the start of our story John is giving us indication that these two women already have come to that faith-filled position of understanding and accepting all the revelation presented to them so far. They do believe God would save. They do believe God would save by sending his appointed one, Messiah. And they do believe that Jesus is that Messiah, the Son of God. They are now ready for that next revelation—Jesus must give his life for theirs.
For the immediate context, Jesus wants to ensure everyone involved in this event (including the readers of this Gospel) that it is not merely that Jesus goes to Lazarus because he’s a friend. And he does this by waiting two days. It is not for mere phileo that Jesus will rush off to Judea; he waits two more days. But he is also not merely waiting for Lazarus to die so he can perform a miracle. If it had taken the messenger only a day to get to Jesus, and Jesus waited two days then reached Bethany in a day, that would have covered 4 days. We know that when Jesus arrives, Lazarus had been dead for four days (11:39), which means that Lazarus would have died the same day that the messenger took off, which means that Jesus would have been too late even if he had hurried to Bethany immediately. No matter how you do the math, there is no way possible that waiting 2 days can make a difference considering that when he arrives Lazarus has already been dead 4 days. Jesus could not physically have made it back to Bethany in time to heal him before he died.
But Jesus does want to go. He wants to go because, as verse 4 says, the purpose for the whole incident is God’s glory in revealing the details of the gospel. So, Jesus tells his disciples that they will go to Judea.
We can imagine that when they first heard the news of Lazarus’s sickness, the disciples would have been a bit nervous that Jesus was going to hurry to Bethany to heal him. Judea was a dangerous place for Jesus. The authorities clearly wanted him dead.
The disciples were probably a bit relieved both by Jesus responding to the messenger that this sickness would not end in death and by Jesus not rushing off immediately. Two days had gone by. Jesus had not talked about going to Bethany. Okay, good, they may have thought. Jesus won’t go back there.
But then Jesus suggests what they had feared. He wants to go to Bethany. The disciples immediately argue the obvious, “You can’t go back there. They want to kill you! Just now the Jews tried to stone you!” The “just now” tells us that this can’t be too far from the events of chapter 10 at the Feast of Dedication. Remember that that festival is in December. Passover comes up in late March – early April. So they are sometime in between—January or February.
Jesus responds to their concern by telling them to walk by God’s leading. He uses the analogy of light. He starts by saying that there are 12 hours of day or daylight. He is not generalizing here. The Jewish daytime (time of daylight) was always twelve hours long. They always calculated their hours by the length of daylight. So in the summers, hours were not slavishly 60 minutes; they were longer than that. And in the winter, hours were shorter because they still divided the shortened time of daylight into 12 segments. This made sense. They lived by the sun. Flocks would stay out in the field during daylight hours. But they would bring the flocks back at the same time no matter what season it was, based on how much time was left before sunset. So they may bring the flocks in at the 10th hour in summer or winter because the 10th hour gave them enough time before sunset to bring them in. That’s why the day started at 6 PM in the summer or winter because 6 PM always corresponded exactly to when the sun went down. That must have driven the Romans nuts constantly having to try to calculate what the Jewish time was in relation to their constant-length hours.
But Jesus’ point is that people walk around during daylight because they can see—they can see direction and path; they move efficiently and purposefully. In the dark, they have none of that. They stumble over things. He is speaking of the light of revelation from God. If you walk according to it, you will not stumble and fall and come to disastrous results. Therefore, if God says to go to Judea, it is time to go to Judea. You follow. God’s revelation, the light, will direct your path.
Then Jesus said that Lazarus was sleeping. Jesus was going to waken him. Now, if it takes at least a day, maybe more, for Jesus to get to Bethany, the disciples surely couldn’t be thinking that Lazarus was going to sleep that entire time until Jesus got there to awaken him. But they respond anyway as if it were regular sleep that Jesus is talking about. Sleep is good for someone who is sick. They urge that Jesus does not need to go now to waken (heal) him. The rest will do him good, and he may get better on his own.
But Jesus clears the confusion by saying that Lazarus died. First, why did Jesus say he was sleeping if he meant Lazarus was dead? Why did he not just say that in the first place? Jesus’ intent here reveals an important factor in coming to understand the Truth to be presented. Death, in the minds of most people, is the ultimate power. We have a saying that we use somewhat in jest that there are only two sure things: death and taxes. The jest part of that statement is the “and taxes” part. Everyone knows that death is an absolute, sure thing. But it is this very settled absolute in people’s minds that Jesus is coming to undo. Death is not the ultimate force. God is. And so death is as impotent as sleep when Jesus comes to waken.
Thomas speaks up, then, and says to the others, “If Jesus wants to go, then let’s go with him. Let’s go die with him.” This could be interpreted as an Eeyore-type resignation, expecting the worst. But I don’t think that’s Thomas’s attitude.
John says that Thomas is also called Twin. Many commentators take this to mean he has some unmentioned twin brother. But that is not, I think, what is going on here. The name Hebrew/Aramaic name Thomas means twin. Some translations read, “also called Didymus.” Didymus means twin in Greek. In the four stories in which Thomas is involved in this Gospel, John mentions three times that Thomas is also called Twin. John seems insistent on getting this point across. Why? And why do the others call him Twin?
If we look at the Aramaic, we find that the name Thomas is tauma. The word for twin is taama. But because the Gospel was written originally in Greek, we lose the wordplay. Because the words are so similar, it seems the others simply substituted taama at times for the name tauma. But why? A reasonable explanation, that happens to fit John’s insistence on telling us, is that Thomas was intent on imitating Jesus—doing everything Jesus said immediately without question. I believe we will see that every time John insists on repeating this dual name. We see that here at the first presentation. Thomas, called Twin because he readily wants to imitate/follow Jesus, urges the disciples to change their minds—to stop their hesitancy about going to Judea and simply follow Jesus.
So they return to Judea arriving at Bethany, a village just a couple of miles from Jerusalem. It appears that John mentions the proximity of Bethany to Jerusalem (11:18) in explanation of the next statement that many Jews came to comfort Martha and Mary (11:19). Apparently, these Jews came from Jerusalem. Who were these Jews from Jerusalem? Well, what would be the reason for Jews in Jerusalem to cross the Kidron valley and climb over Mt. Olivet to arrive at Bethany to offer comfort (only 2 miles but on foot). We could ask what would motivate us to drive to a nearby city for a funeral. We would do it most likely for a relative or perhaps a close friend. But the text does not mention any relatives or friends or even paid mourners as was custom at the time. Could there be another reason?
We had earlier discussed the likely ministries of Mary and Martha in reference to their Luke 10 story. We had suggested that perhaps Mary traveled with Jesus and Martha’s objection that Mary had left her to do their local ministry on her own. But what if Mary’s ministry was not in traveling with Jesus, but rather simply that she had lifted her vision to the needy in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital, a city the sisters would have visited often for festivals and other reasons, and was the center of Jewish worship. Perhaps Mary was drawn to the needy there, and Martha’s objection was that Mary had gone off to Jerusalem to help people there and even tell them about Jesus the Messiah, leaving Martha alone to the work in Bethany.
In Mary’s ministry, perhaps she comforted and consoled many who lost loved ones in Jerusalem. Perhaps many of them, when hearing of Mary’s loss, decided to make the short journey over to Bethany to help comfort the one who had brought them so much comfort in the past. This explanation seems to fit with the text. These Jerusalem Jews did come to comfort Mary and Martha, but especially Mary—perhaps the one they knew better because of her ministry. Although both sisters are mentioned in 11:19, only Mary is mentioned in verse 45 as the focus of these Jews. Further, we see something in the somewhat parallel activity of the two sisters. When hearing that Jesus is there, Martha gets up and goes to him at the outskirts of town alone and talks with him privately. Later, when hearing that Jesus is there, Mary gets up and goes to him at the outskirts of town—with an entourage of comforters (11:31). Why did they follow Mary but not Martha? Mary seems the focus of the comfort givers, perhaps for the ministry relationship.
As Martha approaches Jesus, she says, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” She is not scolding him for not coming sooner. Martha knows very well the impossibility for Jesus to have time to return before Lazarus died. She is just voicing her heartfelt desire for her brother and the knowledge that Jesus can heal. But then she adds another statement, really showing even greater confidence in Jesus. Martha must have been thinking of Jesus’ return message after they had sent word that the one he loved was sick (11:3). Jesus had said, “This sickness will not end in death.” Martha must have pondered these words in light of the fact that Lazarus did die. Perhaps she came to the conclusion that “not ending in death” must mean that Jesus could raise him from the dead. Perhaps in almost uncontained hope she had rushed to Jesus to say those following words, “Yet even now I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give You.” Clearly, without voicing the request, she communicates that wonderful possibility—“Could you, Lord, would you bring Lazarus back to us?” It is, after all, a practical solution for this practical woman. She sees a problem; she considers possibilities; she settles on the best (in this case, the only solution); and she pursues it.
And Jesus understands exactly what she is asking. He responds, “Your brother will rise again” (11:23). Perhaps she grew excited, but then realized that Jesus may not have meant what she thought. So she replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (11:24). Left unsaid but what she may have thought is “Is that what you meant, Lord, at the resurrection event with everybody else on the last day? … or did you mean you’d do it now?”
But Martha’s interpretation is off center. Her practical, close-quarters focus sees only the possibility of Lazarus coming back to them through the magical power of Jesus. It is the same earnest focus that we often have when calamity or urgency hits our lives, and we cry out to God to fix it the way we believe is best. Yes, our God does care. But our God also wants us to lean on his understanding of the way. “Walk in the light of revelation,” Jesus had just told his disciples, “not in conniving for your own self-serving purpose.”
Jesus gives her revelation in his response. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He does not mean only that he is the cause of resurrection. If he meant only that, Martha could have said, “Yes, I know you are the cause of resurrection. That’s the whole reason I’m asking you and no one else to perform this miracle.” And while it is true that Jesus is the cause of resurrection, that is not his intent here. By saying, “I am the resurrection,” he is saying that for Lazarus to be resurrected, Jesus himself must be resurrected. This act is not the same as healing the blind or calming the winds. For life to return from the dead, the cause of death must be removed. And for that cause of death to be removed, Jesus himself must die and be resurrected. He is the resurrection because he himself must be resurrected. If he must be resurrected, he must die. In essence, then, Jesus is telling Martha that her desire for Lazarus’s resurrection is essentially a call for the death of Jesus.
Jesus is not at all reprimanding Martha for this call. This is what he came to do. But it is revelation of what must ensue. This is the truth that Martha just now at this exact point learns. She had believed that God would save. She had believed that God would save through his appointed one, his Son. She had believed that Jesus was that Messiah. Now she learns that the salvation the Messiah would bring meant he must die.