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
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).
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.
“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
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
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
Understand what the Lord wants of
you (Ac 22:1 0).
Glorify the Lord (1 Cor 6:20).