The story of raising Lazarus is the last and most climactic in a series of stories about signs John used to identify Jesus as the Logos, God’s supreme gift to humanity. His account is breathtaking and remarkable in ways not approached by the writers of the synoptic Gospels when they present Jesus as one who raises the dead. In this account, Jesus expands, intensifies, and heightens the potency of Lazarus’ rising by deliberately not acting until Lazarus has been dead four days. Lazarus’ resurrection points to Jesus’ resurrection. It demands one to decide who Jesus is. In John’s previous sign stories, Jesus is portrayed as the fountain of living water, the light of the world, and the good shepherd. These stories now culminate in a crescendo in which Jesus is portrayed as the resurrection and the life.
What is the motivation for this sign? Is it compassion? Will Lazarus have a special mission to fulfill once restored to life? The text has more to share.
Because of the special relationship between Jesus and Lazarus’ family, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus when their brother became ill. They hoped Jesus would quickly come to Bethany. When Jesus heard about Lazarus (whose name means “God is my help”), however, he delayed and repeated what he said previously about the blind man, whose story is in John 9:3: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” He continued with some enigmatic sayings that his hearers misunderstood: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it…Lazarus has fallen asleep… Lazarus is dead” and “for your sake, I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (John 11:4, 12–15).
“This illness does not lead to death” refers to the final resolution, not to the immediate result. In the same way, a deeper meaning lies behind the words “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The theme of glorification of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus is announced, and will be elaborated further in the passion accounts that follow. In this Gospel, the “glorification” of Jesus is achieved by his being “lifted up” on the cross.
The “weeping” of Jesus shows a God whose heart is wrought with anguish for his people. Unlike the image of the Greek gods who are without passion, compassion, or emotion, Jesus brings to us the news of a God who cares, loves, and is compassionate.
Jewish history is a history of disasters, captivity, slavery, and defeat. Yet Jewish people have the utterly unshakable conviction that they are God’s own people. Lazarus represents every believer who loves Jesus and is loved by him, and whom the Lord will raise up at the last day. Jesus’ command to take away the stone from the tomb and unbind Lazarus also goes beyond the immediate historical event. It suggests that resurrection speaks to release from the stony heart in sin and release into the freedom God provides in Christ.
This lays a responsibility on the individual disciple of Jesus Christ. God designs that every one of us should be a living proof of Christ’s power. Our task is to show in the most obvious way what God can do in us. For us, every crisis should be an opportunity. When we are raised to new life, we are called to be fearless. Real courage means being perfectly aware of the worst that can happen, being sickeningly afraid of it, and yet doing what is right.