A Bible Lesson on John 11:1-44

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is a lesson on another of the signs John records that point us to who Jesus is and bring us to faith in Him.  It brings us to believe on, trust in, rely upon, cleave to, abandon ourselves to Him.  In Chapter 9 Jesus brought sight to the beggar blind from birth.  That was a public demonstration that Jesus is indeed the light of the world.  It is because of Him that the beggar could see and it is because of Him that we can see truly.  In this passage we’re looking at a public demonstration that Jesus is life itself.  Recall the first few verses of John and John’s purpose statement given in Chapter 20.

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 He was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Verse 4 says that Jesus is life and light.  The story of the man born blind in Chapter 9 is a graphic demonstration that he is light.  This text is graphic demonstration that He is life.

John 20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;

31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

The miracles in Chapters 9 and 11 are “signs.”  They are important because they point to something.  They point to who Jesus is, and in that we know who He is, we are brought to belief in Him.

This passage is not far in time from Passion Week, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.  One of the points that Ryle makes about the account is that what happens here leaves without excuse those in Jerusalem who will soon hear that Jesus is raised from the dead.  They only have to walk out to Bethany to see evidence of the resurrection power of Christ.

John 11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

Bethany was 2 miles from Jerusalem, and it seems that Jesus probably stayed with these folks when visiting Jerusalem.  These were good friends.  At the moment Jesus is on the other side of the Jordan river out in the boondocks, at the place where John the Baptist ministered.  It is at least a day’s journey from Jerusalem (and no more than 4 away).  In John 10:39-42 we can read that the officials in Jerusalem had tried to seize and kill Jesus, and that He and the disciples had retired across the Jordan to minister.

2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.

3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

So the sisters sent word to Jesus.  Ryle said, “This is an example of what all Christians should do in trouble.”  The message is a most beautiful little thing.  It is humble, respectful, and full of confidence in Jesus.  The sisters demand nothing, but take the situation to Christ and trust His good intentions and power.  Jesus loved Lazarus.  He loves us as well.  We know nothing remarkable about this man.  But he’s loved of the Lord and that’s what matters.

4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

We’d often rather not hear this.  Jesus knows that Lazarus is either already dead or soon will be.  We’d like for Him to intervene right now and see that the pain and grief connected with the death of His friend is avoided.  But that’s not what Jesus does, and in fact He says here that the real issue in the situation is that God be glorified.  Ultimately, death will not reign and ultimately Jesus will be glorified through the situation.  We’d like a guarantee that we’ll never face hardship, but that’s not in the deal.

“The Son of God will be glorified through it.”  In some hearts there will come belief and praise to God.  And the raising of Lazarus is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and drives the Jewish officials to see that Jesus is killed.  The real glorification of Jesus refers to the crucifixion and resurrection.  See John 12:16-19.

5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Jesus is not indifferent to the real pain and suffering that His friends are enduring, but for their sakes, ours, and that of the Father, He stays put for 2 more days.  It’s not the way we would have written the script, but we are frail human beings.  God is God.  Ryle quoting Poole said, “We must not judge of Christ’s love to us by His mere external dispensations of providence, nor judge that He doth not love us because He doth not presently come in to our help at our time, and in such ways and methods as we think reasonable.”

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”

The disciples are not anxious to return.  In their minds, friendship is friendship, but this is serious danger that’s being discussed here.  Jesus, as always, knows the timing is ordained by the Father, and the Father is in control of when and how He’s going to die.  It’s not quite time for His death and He’s not in any way reluctant to return to Bethany.

9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.

10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

It’s still time for Him to be traveling and ministering.  So He does so.

11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”

Literally, this is “I am going there to ‘unsleep him’.”

12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”

The disciples think that Jesus has just told them that the crisis point of Lazarus’s sickness has passed and that he’s now resting quietly.  They’re relieved.  He’s going to get better without any real necessity of return to Jerusalem.

13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.

14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died,

15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Again, we must not think that Jesus is indifferent to the suffering of His friends in Bethany.  But the bigger purpose (that will be served for them and the rest of us as well) dictates that Jesus not be there to prevent the death of Lazarus, or even come onto the scene soon after his death.

16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

There is an admirable loyalty in Thomas.  He may think that what Jesus is about to do is unnecessary and even foolish, but he’s ready to go with him and die with Him if he must.

17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.

This fixes the length of the journey as from 1 to 4 days.  If it’s on the short end of the range, Lazarus died just after the messenger was sent.  If it’s on the long end, he died just before Jesus and disciples started out for Bethany.

The importance of the four days is that the guy is really dead.  The Jews believed that one’s spirit hovered near the corpse for 3 days, hoping for resuscitation.  But after that, it left.  The physical reality that Martha refers to is that decomposition was well under way by this time.  The Jews didn’t embalm and this is hot country.

18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off,

19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother.

The Jewish practice of the time was to get the body into a tomb and then mourn most intensely for 3 days, intensely for another 4 days, and to continue morning for 30 days.  Folks have come by to join in the mourning.

20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.

21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”

Is Martha complaining here that Jesus didn’t come sooner?  It’s impossible to know without hearing the tone of voice used, but she does show the funny human mix of real faith and human frailty.  On one hand, she knows that Jesus could have healed Lazarus.  But then again, she loses sight of the fact that Jesus certainly didn’t have to be there in person to heal.  He had demonstrated otherwise for the centurion’s servant.  She loses sight of the fact that this whole situation surely hasn’t caught Jesus by surprise.  On the other hand, she testifies that death or no, God will give Jesus whatever He asks.

At this point Martha’s understands Jesus to be a special intermediary to God.  Likely she thinks of Him as a prophet, perhaps like Moses, one to whom the people took their problems, knowing that he would approach God for them.  She does NOT, at this point understand what John told us in the prologue.  She doesn’t understand that Jesus is life itself, God in the flesh.

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

This may initially sound like polite funeral parlor talk, words expressing sympathy and offering long term hope.  At least that’s how Martha hears what Jesus is saying.  She hears “resurrection” as something for the last day.  But that’s not what Jesus meant.  He is, as we see Him doing again and again in John, drawing faith out of His people by degrees.  We don’t get the whole picture at once in perfectly plain terms.  That wouldn’t be good for us.  Rather, He gives us exercise in grace.  Martha’s expectation regarding a resurrection is at this point a vague and future kind of thing.  He’s going to show her (as Ryle put it) that “He’s not simply some human teacher about resurrection, but is instead the Divine author of all resurrection.”  Jesus says “I AM”!

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,

26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Jesus says that Martha’s hope is much more immediate than she dared to dream.  She has correctly professed a belief in a resurrection.  Jesus says that He’s the source of that resurrection.  He’s the “I AM.”  The person that believes in, trusts in, cleaves to Jesus will have eternal life in spite of physical death.  The person who believes in, relies upon, cleaves to Jesus in this physical life will not face eternal, spiritual death.

27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

“I believe” says Martha.  The sense of it is really “I have believed and do believe.”  Martha makes the good confession.  She gets it straight!  At this point for this moment, Martha seems to understand exactly who Jesus is.  He’s Messiah.  He’s the Son of God.  He’s the promised Redeemer.  She probably doesn’t comprehend the implications of Christ being the resurrection and life, but note that she has nothing more to say regarding Lazarus.  It’s as if she says to herself “If this truly is the Son of God, He can be trusted with the situation.”

28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”

29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him.

30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him.

31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there.

It sounds as if Martha comes in and whispers to Mary, who tries to go out without raising much of a ruckus.  The well-intentioned visitors go to comfort Mary.

32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Mary’s first words to Jesus are the same as Martha’s.

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.

This is compassion for Mary, but it’s more than that.  It’s a deep indignation at the work of Satan and the consequences of the fall.  God is grieved that His creation has been subjected to pain, sorrow, futility through the work of the evil one and man’s choice to rebel.

34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

35 Jesus wept.

This is not the word for the extravagant public mourning, but rather a picture of someone being choked up with genuine emotion.

36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

Note that there was no doubt in even these antagonists’ minds about the reality of the miracles that Jesus had been doing.  They knew that these were not just some kind of slight-of-hand.  So they set about attacking His motives.  Here they are accusing Him of really being indifferent to the plight of a friend.

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it.

Once again, there is considerable indignation at the consequences of the fall here.  The purposeful blindness of the people is now also probably part of what Jesus is reacting to.

39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”

The God of the Universe is going to raise the dead, and He has humans roll the stone away.  He’ll give us a part to play in His work.

Martha is a real person.  The Bible is always real and honest in the way it portrays people.  She has just made her magnificent confession of who Jesus is.  Now she’s afraid of Him not being able to come through in the clutch.  What a mess if He opens the grave and doesn’t come through for her regarding Lazarus!  Better that He not get into the situation!  How human she is.

40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”

That invitation is to Martha and all of us.  Jesus invites us to believe in, rely upon, cleave to, trust in Himself.  As we do that, God will be glorified.  The form it takes is up to Him, but the promise stands that He will be glorified.

41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.

42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”

Prayer is communion with God.  For Jesus that was a constant reality.  The out-loud expression here is just as part of the sign that He is providing for us.  It is not needed in order to establish contact with the Father!

44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Jesus has given us a visual aid.  He’s shown us a sign that indeed, just as John said in the prologue, in Him is life.  The sign has the same effect that all of the others do in John.  Tender hearts are drawn to Jesus.  The others refuse to accept the revelation and end up choosing judgment for themselves.  In fact, the sign seems to galvanize opposition to Jesus and make His execution necessary in the minds of the Jewish officials.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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