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 (Manna 8)
On the Way to Bethany
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On the Way to Bethany

The raising of Lazarus in John 11 is one of the most vivid and dramatic accounts in the Gospels. A careful study of this Chapter will enable one to see two themes standing side by side: the “cognitive dislocation” on the part of the disciples and Jesus’s weeping at the tomb of Lazarus. Before analysing the chapter itself, a few questions must be asked: Why do the disciples often fail to understand the true intention of the Lord Jesus Christ? Is it because they must wait for Jesus’s resurrection and receive the Holy Spirit to comprehend Jesus’ words and deeds? Or is there a special theological purpose in showing that the knowledge and faith of the disciples did not conform with the divine measurements? In addition, one must ask: Is Jesus’s weeping due to His deep affection for the dead, or are there some other underlying reasons for His grief? In this chapter one sees how the Lord Jesus Christ demonstrates His work ethic and gives timely teaching to His disciples. And what is more important, the way to Bethany is a journey into the manifestation of the Heavenly Father’s glory and into a world of unbelief to which Jesus emotively reacts.

1.       LET US GO INTO JUDEA AGAIN (JN 11:7).

Jesus has learned of Lazarus’s serious illness, but continues to stay beyond the Jordan for a few more days (Jn 11:6). As a rule, one would normally expect Jesus, the great physician, to have hurried to Lazarus’ bedside. From the fact that many people have come to Him (Jn 10:41-42), one infers that Jesus is busy about preaching the gospel and tending to the sick. In response to the news of Lazarus’ illness He immediately predicts that Lazarus will not die (Jn 11:4). Just as God’s higher purpose often baffles human comprehension (cf. Is 55:8-9), Jesus has his own timing. He has already seen from the beginning what will come to be, and so He continues His work east of the Jordan. One recalls how the suffering of Joseph and Job was an ironic fulfillment of God’s ultimate deliverance. Just as the Scripture states, the end of a thing is better than its beginning (Ecc 7:8) and God lets everything in the world work good for those who love Him (Rom 8:28). So far as Job is concerned, suffering submitted the spiritually hubristic man to the almighty God (Job 42:5-6), whereas the falsely accused Joseph saw the final deliverance not only for the Egyptians but also for the Hebrews in the time of famine (Gen 50:19-21). Now, not until His ‘hour” has come does Jesus begin to move from the eastern Jordan. There in a humble village He will perform an amazing grace, to prove that He is the Lord of life and resurrection, and glorify the Heavenly Father.

While He is about to set off, His disciples try to dissuade Him from going to Bethany, the reason being that the Jews might stone Him. Not long ago, Jesus already had a controversy with the Jews about His personality and authority (Jn 8). The Jews claimed descent from Abraham, but belied their claim by their evil works. As a contrast, Jesus is not a mere true descendant of Abraham; He is greater than the Old Testament worthies (Jn 8:53). The Christological significance in the entire debate lies in the fact that Jesus is ‘from above” (cf. Jn 3:13) and that even Abraham rejoiced to see Him (Jn 8:56). Apparently, Jesus refers this statement to His divine origin and eternal power as the Father Himself in the Old Testament whom Abraham received at the tent of Mamre (cf. the use of the Spirit of Christ who moved the Old Testament prophets in 1 Pet 1:11, Christ with whom Moses would share suffering in Heb 11:26, and the Spirit of Christ who motivated Noah to preach the message of righteousness to the spiritually bound people in 1 Pet 3:19-20). After hearing Jesus say all this, the Jews were outraged and tried to stone Him for blasphemy. The disciples’ concern for His safety reminds one of how Simon Peter, from the human standpoint, tried to hinder Jesus from going to Jerusalem to be crucified and fulfill the goal of God’s redemption (Mt 16:21-23, Mk 8:32-33). Now Jesus must go into Judea. There the death of Lazarus is for the glory of God and that the son of God may be glorified by means of it (Jn 11:4). As is His custom to give a timely instruction to the disciples when circumstances arise (cf. Mt 12:46-48; 10:10-23, 36-43; 16:13-21; Jn 6:66-70), Jesus teaches the disciples that one must work while it is daytime. During the hours of daylight movement is free and uninhibited, but darkness brings an inevitable cessation of activity. Likewise, Jesus’s ministry is of limited duration, and thus He must make use of His time to do God’s work regardless of any persecution (cf. Jn 9:4). He further teaches that while in daylight (in the image of daytime as life and dark night as death), a figurative expression for the days of acceptance (2 Cor 6:2), every one must do the will of the Heavenly Father. No one can work when his life comes to an end or when the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus has rendered impossible work for the Lord. Jesus in this verse gives a clear and positive answer to the question of v.8. One must be aware that the “hour” and ‘light” provided by the Lord Jesus presses us to work for H is glory (cf. Ac 4:29-30; 26:18; 2 Tim 4:2: Php 2:1 5; 1 Thess 5:5-8; 1 Cor 15:58).

Thus, the disciples of Jesus Christ must not be hindered by any circumstances from preaching the Gospel, for suffering is a divine necessity (1 Thess 3:3). But they must have wisdom and courage to face the challenge. Jesus has promised that He will be with them and send the Comforter to teach and to guide them (Cf. Mt 10:16-20: Jn 16:33; 17:12). Defying the danger of persecution and death. Jesus resolutely journeys toward Jerusalem to carry out the will of the Heavenly Father (cf. Lk 9:51; 13:22, 31-35; 17:11: 18:31: 19:11). Now at Bethany, a village near Jerusalem, the raising of Lazarus anticipates His own resurrection and the possibility of eternal life for His believers.

To Paul, a valiant Christian soldier, imprisonment and affliction are always at side threatening, but he is prepared to accept the challenge for Christ (Rom 8:35-39: 2 Cor 5:14-1 5; 2 Tm 4:7-8). His comment on his imminent journey to Jerusalem and martyrdom aptly states his feelings:

            “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Ac 20:22-24).

2.       THE DISCIPLES THOUGHT...(Jn 11:11-13).

The disparity of thought between Jesus and the disciples begins to emerge in their conversation and interaction. Jesus’ comment on the death of Lazarus as being sleep (Jn 11:11) is taken by the disciples to be ordinary rest in sleep. Perhaps the euphemistic expression for death is beyond the immediate grasp of the disciples, but the misinterpretation of Jesus’ words shows their not being sensitive to the Master’s intention. Elsewhere in the Bible one comes upon several occasions in which the disciples’ ‘cognitive dislocation” is apparent in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. The examples are as follows:

Firstly, when the villagers in the region of Samaria refuse to receive Jesus, James and John react strongly. They demand a retaliation and presumptively wish to invoke fire from heaven to consume the hostile Samaritans. .Jesus rebukes them and states that He comes not to destroy but to save life (Lk 9:51 -56). The Lord Jesus is full of compassion (Mt 9;36; 12:17-21), loves His enemy (Mt 5:38-44; Lk 23:34; Rom 12:17-21), and humbles Himself to serve all men (Mt 20:28; Php 2:5-11). Unfortunately, the disciples are short-sighted, impetuous, and lacking in love (cf. Jas 1:20; Jn 18:1 0-1 1).

Secondly, Jesus tells many parables about the mystery of the Kingdom: the sower, the weeds, the sheepfold, and others (Mt 13:2-9, 24-30; Jn 10:1-4). The disciples, however, fail to comprehend their meaning (Mt 13:10, 36; Jn 10:6). One finds the secrecy motif in Mark, in particular. But this secrecy motif is concerned with how Jesus reveals Himself to the disciples, not to the crowd. Even for them He remains incomprehensible in His revelations, including Jesus’ Passion (Lk 9:43-45; 18:31-34). Receiving the Holy Spirit is the key to the disciples’ understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ ministry, but the disciples’ lack of spiritual understanding serves as a warning to all Christians today (cf. Php 1:9-10;Col2:10-14; Eph 5:17).

Thirdly, on one occasion Jesus warns His disciples of the danger of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The disciples take it as a ground of murmuring (Mt 16:5-1 2). In this particular incident the Lord reminds them of the multiplying of bread and fish as the evidence of His inexhuastible power and compassion. Furthermore, He corrects their misgiving by explaining that the leaven does not refer to bread, but hypocricy, teachings based on human precepts, and all kinds of bitterness.

3.        “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE” (Jn 11:25).

Jesus plainly points out that Lazarus has already died. He is glad that He was not there with Lazarus, for through the approach to Bethany and the miracle (or in Johannine terms, the sign) the Lord Jesus Christ wants to make them believe His identity, authority, and power. Now at the outskirts of the village, Martha, Lazarus’ sister, has three rounds of dialogue with the Lord Jesus. Each of them repeats the same cognitive deviation already shown by the disciples prior to their entry into Bethany.

The first thing Martha says to Jesus is: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:21). Martha is well aware of the fact that Jeses has the power of healing, and there is reproach in her words, because she wanted Jesus to come earlier. But Martha’s faith in Jesus is seen through her request for Jesus to pray to the Father.

In reply to Martha’s, Jesus states, “Your brother will rise again” (Jn 11:23), meaning that Lazarus will be resurrected now, in Bethany. However, her cognition takes a turn when she speaks from a historical, mortal perspective; “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (Jn 11:24). Martha, unfortunately, does not expect Jesus to awaken Lazarus at this moment (Jn 11:4, 11). Thus Martha receives little comfort from Jesus’ words, for her thoughts are far away in the supramundane realm and an indefinite future. She has overlooked a vital truth in Jesus’ promise: He is able to give life, just as He did in the case of Jairus’ daughter (Lk 8:49-56) and the widow’s son (Lk 7:11-17).

Immediately following Martha’s second saying, Jesus utters what is perhaps the greatest saying in the Bible, certainly the most soul-stirring statement of the “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John: “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25). To quicken the fallen world, Jesus the Incarnated Word must come and be Himself “the Resurrection and the Life”, the source and the first cause of living existence. His presence in Bethany and His promised blessing pinpoints not only the Last Day but also the present moment. After having affirmed this truth, Jesus tells Martha: “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn 11:26). In the first part of this statement He refers specifically to Lazarus, and the second, the people including Martha, Mary, and His followers, who are still living and believe Jesus Christ, will never see eternal death in the Kingdom of the Father (Jn 5:28-29; 14:1-3; 1 Jn 2:25; 5:1 1-12). Jesus concludes His second saying to Martha with a question: ‘Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:26). He is asking whether Martha believes the dual aspects of the resurrection: the case of Lazarus at hand and the eternal life of the righteous in the future.

Insensitive to Jesus’ intended meaning, Martha directs her faith not to His immediate presence and His reviving power, but to His already-acknowledged status and authority and what He will do in the future as the Judge (Jn 11:27). To the dismay of the Lord. Martha has totally missed the point. The gap between the Lord’s revelation and the recipient’s slowness to seize its truth has widened.

Martha returns to the village. Mary rushes to Jesus, repeating her sister’s very words (Jn 11:32, 22), reverently prostrating herself before Him. Seeing Mary and all the people weeping, Jesus is deeply touched by their deep love for Lazarus, but at the same time, He is grieved at the failure of the faith and knowledge on the part of His disciples and the two sisters, Jesus is deeply moved and, according to the Greek language of John 11:33, is “indignant”, in the sense that He is disappointed at how the Jews have fallen short of what Jesus rightly feels they should by now have attained, seeing the many great works that have been done before their eyes. it is partially correct when someone, seeing Jesus’ deep emotional arousal, comments that Jesus loves Lazarus (Jn 11:34). But Jesus is truly frustrated and anguished in His spirit. The Jews neither see nor believe the historical moment - the presence of Jesus Christ who expects His own world to accept Him (cf. Jn 1:11). Here in Bethany, not far from Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus is performing His last sign for the glory of the Father and for revelation that Jesus is the Father.

As Jesus approaches the tomb, someone in the crowd says, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (Jn 11:37). Judging from the context, this man is mocking, but does not know what he is saying. Upon hearing this, Jesus is again deeply troubled in spirit, for it never occurs to the crowd that they are witnessing a prelude to the great historical mission of the Messiah!

Jesus stops outside Lazarus’ tomb and orders that the stone which blocks the tomb be removed. Martha comes forward and unwittingly hinders Him, saying, “Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days” (Jn 11:39). Jesus turns impatiently and chides her, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (Jn 11:40). Martha, completely engulfed in her grief and her own thoughts, has forgotten that the Lord of life (cf. Lk 7 11-1 7: 8:49-56), who created the universe out of nothing and stilled the storm, can easily call Lazarus to life. Martha, a good elder sister and housekeeper, who has been “anxious with many things” (cf. Lk 10:20-41), is not yet enlightened. Out of her folly, she obstructs Jesus at this most meaningful moment in which He is about to reveal Himself as the Son is performing the work of the Father (Jn 11:41-42). With His remonstration, the story comes to an emotional and narrative climax.


In conclusion, one sees that on the way to Bethany, the disciples, Martha, and the Jews have failed in their faith and knowledge of the divine will. Behind the emotionally charged narrative, one can sense the grief and disappointment which move Jesus to tears. In a parable, Jesus has compared His generation to a number of children playing at the city gate (Lk 7:31-35). One group of children plays the flute and bid their companions to mourn. But neither group is willing to follow the others choice. Jesus uses this parable to show how the Jews refuse to respond to any kind of message brought to them by John the Baptist and Jesus, who tell them to mourn and repent. The Jews tell the ascetic John to eat and drink and the joyful Jesus to mourn. Neither Jesus nor John will satisfy them. The world and the messengers of God do not go together, for this is a generation of perversity of faith and hardness of hearts. Even Martha in the company of the faithful professes that she believes Christ and His power, but at the crucial moment even she falls short of a genuine faith.

Take the following points as a summary of the teachings in John 11:

Never project your will and thinking as if it were the will of God (Ac 21:14). Think about the Lord’s prayer (Mt 6:10) and Jesus’ prayer and submission to the will of the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:42).

Build your faith upon the foundation of the true word of God (Mt 7:24-26), and truly know Him (Mt 16:16; 24:32-33; Eph 4:13; 5:18; Php 1:9-11; Col 1:9-12; Jas 1:22; Jude 20-21).

Do not grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30).

Understand what the Lord wants of you (Ac 22:1 0).

Glorify the Lord (1 Cor 6:20).

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