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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Jesus Calls Lazarus Back from the Dead (11:33-44)
Jesus Calls Lazarus Back from the Dead (11:33-44)

The wailing of Mary and those with her provokes a strong emotional reaction in Jesus. The NIV translation, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled (v. 33), is common among English translations, but it does not do justice to the language. The word for deeply moved (embrimaomai) can be used of snorting in animals (for example, Aeschylus Seven Against Thebes 461) and in humans refers to anger (Beasley-Murray 1987:192-93). The second word, troubled (tarasso), is literally "troubled himself" (etaraxen heauton). So a better translation would be, "became angry in spirit and very agitated" (Beasley-Murray 1987:192-93).

Clearly the wailing provokes his response, but there are two very different ways to understand the nature of this reaction. Some would see Jesus as upset over their obtuseness and lack of faith, which is evident in their wailing (Schnackenburg 1980b:336; Beasley-Murray 1987:193). In this case we would have an occasion similar to his upbraiding of the disciples for their little faith at the stilling of the storm in the Synoptics. As Matthew tells that story, Jesus upbraids them before he stills the storm, while they are still being tossed about (Mt 8:26; contrast Mk 4:39-40; Lk 8:24-25)! There is not, however, a clear note of anger in those stories such as we find here (though see Mt 17:17 par. Mk 9:19 par. Lk 9:41).

Others suggest Jesus is angry at death itself and the pain and sadness it causes evident in the wailing (Westcott 1908:2:96; Brown 1966:435; Michaels 1989:203). This could be a parallel with the emotion Jesus felt in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mk 14:33), "prompted by the imminence of death and the struggle with Satan" (Brown 1966:435; cf. Chrysostom In John 63.2), though there it is more like sadness.

Either interpretation gets at a truth. Since the focus of this chapter is the theme of life, death is the more likely object of his anger. In a Gospel in which life is one of the primary themes, death is clearly the great enemy. Also, anger at their lack of faith would not be appropriate since they have not been faithless, though theirs is an imperfect faith. And he has no reason to expect the Jews present to trust in him, especially since they did not hear his revelation to Martha. Thus, his anger is most likely not at their imperfect faith, but at death itself and the reign of terror it exercises.

Jesus asks where they have laid Lazarus, and they reply, come and see, Lord (v. 34). Their wailing had triggered anger; now their invitation triggers weeping (v. 35). Jesus has not yet come to the tomb (v. 38), so he is not weeping over Lazarus. There would be no reason to do so anyway, at least on his part. It is their invitation that wrings his heart. He does not wail (klaio) like them. Rather, he weeps (dakryo), that is, sheds tears. He is not in anguish over the death of Lazarus, but rather saddened by the pain and sadness they feel. He is weeping with those who weep (Rom 12:15) because he loves them. The grief caused by death is one facet of death's evil that caused his anger. He is angry at death and saddened at grief. In both cases the reason is the same, namely, his love for his friends. The love of God for us and his wrath toward that which corrupts and destroys us are two sides of a single coin.

Though Jesus' weeping was not over the death of Lazarus itself, his weeping—not wailing—has rightly been taken as a model of Christian mourning. Paul says we should not "grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (1 Thess 4:13). "He wept over Lazarus. So should you; weep, but gently, but with decency, but with the fear of God. If you weep thus, you do so not as disbelieving the resurrection, but as not enduring the separation. Since even over those who are leaving us, and departing to foreign lands, we weep, yet we do this not as despairing" (Chrysostom In John 62.4). But for believers, the separation is only for a while. Jesus' raising of Lazarus shows that his death was not final and that Jesus has the power over death. We may miss the one who has died and thus be saddened, but perfect love casts out wailing.

The Jewish mourners take note of how much Jesus loved Lazarus. They have interpreted his tears correctly. But then some of them go on to say, Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying? (v. 37). This is often taken as a statement of unbelief, which then provokes Jesus' anger again (v. 38; for example, Schnackenburg 1980b:337). But something much more profound is going on. This link back to the healing of the blind man is relevant, for that miracle was unheard of and actually bore witness to Jesus as the agent of creation (see comment on 9:6). If one has such powers, then it is reasonable to ask whether he could have prevented this death. This is not so much unbelief as it is puzzlement. It looks like death is stronger than Jesus despite the implications of his healing the man born blind.

So Jesus' anger in verse 38 is not at their lack of faith as such, but again at death and its challenge to him as life-giver. Jesus came to the tomb in this state of anger (embrimomenos, present participle; see comment on 11:33), ready to exercise his power over death and thereby initiating the process that will lead to his own death and decisive victory over death. "Christ does not come to the sepulchre as an idle spectator, but like a wrestler preparing for the contest. Therefore no wonder that He groans again, for the violent tyranny of death which He had to overcome stands before His eyes" (Calvin 1959:13).

Jesus orders the mourners to take the stone away from the entrance of the tomb (v. 39). Martha's objection that there would be a stench due to decomposition highlights the greatness of this sign. Jesus is raising someone who should already have begun to decay. There is no indication in the story that Lazarus comes out bearing marks of decay. Here we should see, as we saw with the giving of sight to the blind man, a revelation of Jesus' power and authority as the agent of creation. He does not just bring the person back to life by reuniting soul and body, he also restores the body itself. Thus, not only is the raising of Lazarus a sign of Jesus' identity and authority as life-giver, it also reflects the reality of the resurrection of the body. God is able to restore physical bodies after decay. The analogy is not complete, since Lazarus is not raised as an imperishable, spiritual body, as will be the case at the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15:42-44). But there is a continuity between the spiritual body and the physical body: it is a bodily resurrection. The overcoming of corruption in the raising of Lazarus thus provides, in part, a sign of the future resurrection.

The messengers had reported that Jesus said this illness is for God's glory (v. 4), and when Jesus met with Martha he presented himself to her as the object of faith. Now Jesus refers back to that conversation, though not in exactly the same words, at least as reported by John (cf. also 6:36, Schnackenburg 1980b:338). Jesus does not say that his ability to raise Lazarus is dependent on her faith. Rather, seeing God's glory depends upon her faith. Since she does indeed benefit from this sign it seems that her faith, defective as it may be, is nevertheless sufficient at this stage in God's eyes for her to see his glory. The repetition of the theme of God's glory at this point, just before the raising, keeps our focus on what is most significant. Here is the most powerful sign of Jesus' power and authority, but it does not point to him except as evidence that he is doing what he sees the Father doing. He is here to glorify God, not himself.

This dependency upon the Father is further emphasized in Jesus' prayer. Indeed, prayer itself is the form of speech that directly corresponds to the most significant thing about Jesus—his relationship with God, his Father. Each part of this prayer reveals something about that relationship. He looked up, or, more literally, he "lifted up his eyes" (v. 41; cf. Ps 123:1; Lam 3:41; 1 Esdras 4:58; 4 Maccabees 6:26; Mt 14:19 par. Mk 6:41 par. Lk 9:16; Jn 17:1), a gesture of looking away from self and toward God. It implies otherness and transcendence. But this gesture of transcendence is immediately juxtaposed with a word of intimacy, Father, the main title for God in this Gospel. Indeed, for Christians, God is now known primarily as the Father of Jesus. Our language for God as Father has its source in Jesus' own revelation of God. It is his relationship with God that a Christian enters into and thus comes to know God as Jesus knows him, within the limitations of human nature.

We do not hear an actual petition but rather Jesus' thanksgiving that the Father heard him (v. 41). The communication between the Father and the Son regarding Lazarus had taken place much earlier, since he already announced what would take place when the messengers arrived with the news (v. 4). We here see the Son as subordinate to the Father, bringing a request to the Father. But far more is involved, for he goes on to say, I knew that you always hear me (v. 42). The clear teaching of the Old Testament is that God listens to the righteous, not the unrighteous, except for prayers of repentance (see note on 9:31). Thus, Jesus is claiming to be righteous before God and in unbroken fellowship with him. He knows he is heard; he has utter confidence in this relationship. "Jesus lives in constant prayer and communication with his Father. When he engages in vocal prayer, he is not entering, as we do, from a state of non-praying into prayer. He is only giving overt expression to what is the ground and base of his life all along. He emerges from non-vocal to vocal prayer here in order to show that the power he needs . . . for the raising of Lazarus . . . depends on the gift of God. It is through that prayer and communion and constant obedience to his Father's will that he is the channel of the Father's saving action. That is why the prayer is a thanksgiving rather than a petition" (Fuller 1963:107).

He vocalizes his prayer for the sake of the crowd: I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me (v. 42). In other words, it is not enough for people to be impressed with Jesus. They must believe in him as the one sent from God. It is precisely because Jesus is sent from God and does as God directs him that he is heard by God. The Father as the sender is primary. Jesus is not a wonderworker who is able to get God to do what he wants him to do. He is the obedient Son sent by the Father to do the Father's will. The Father's will and the Son's petition coincide exactly. Later Jesus will say that his followers are to share in this same relationship through their union with him, and thereby they will also be heard by the Father (14:11-14; 15:7, 16; 16:24). In such prayer, as also in the case of Jesus' prayer, "It is not the setting up of the will of self, but the apprehension and taking to self of the divine will, which corresponds with the highest good of the individual" (Westcott 1908:2:101).

In saying the purpose of this prayer is that they might believe, Jesus is again acting with divine graciousness and mercy. Such belief brings eternal life. Thus, this miracle is not just for the sake of Lazarus and his sisters, who already do have such faith and the life it brings, but for others that they may have life. The miracle reveals Jesus as the life-giver sent from the Father, and one receives life from him as one has faith in him. We see the grace of God evident in several ways in this story. This last miraculous sign continues to reveal the glory of God as have all the others.

After the prayer comes the deed: Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" (v. 43). Jesus could have healed Lazarus when he was still sick with a word of command, even across the miles. But now he utters a mightier word across a much greater distance—that between the living and the dead. The voice at the end of the age is heard here ahead of time (cf. 5:28; 1 Thess 4:16). The Word through whom all was made (1:1-3) here speaks forth life. Those standing around were given tasks to do, such as taking away the stone and unbinding Lazarus. The physical contact helped drive home the reality of what was happening. But for Jesus, his work is his word.

Perhaps, as is often suggested, he had to include Lazarus' name or all the dead would have come forth! The dead man still existed as Lazarus and could be called by name, for those who believe in Christ never die (v. 26). Jesus does not actually say something like "Rise" (contrast Mk 5:41 par. Lk 8:54; Lk 7:14). Rather, it seems the very calling of his name brought Lazarus back, and the call to come out that followed was "the command to use the new-given life" (Westcott 1908:2:102).

Lazarus came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face (v. 44), presumably hopping or perhaps shuffling. It is unclear what was involved in burial in the first century (Brown 1994:2:1243-44; Green 1992:89). The NIV assumes we should picture Lazarus as a mummy, with strips of cloth passing around and around his body. This interpretation may be correct (cf. Brown 1994:2:1264), but there is evidence for the use of a single large sheet as the main covering (Brown 1994:2:1244-45). So it has been suggested that the Jewish custom was not to wind the corpse like a mummy, but rather to use a cloth like that of the Shroud of Turin. "The corpse would have been placed on a strip of linen, wide and long enough to envelop it completely. The feet would be placed at one end, and the cloth would then be drawn over the head to the feet, the feet would be bound at the ankles, and the arms secured to the body with linen bandages, and the face bound round with another cloth to keep the jaw in place" (Sanders 1968:276). The separate cloth used to bind up the jaw is mentioned in later sources (m. shabbat 23:5; cf. Safrai and Stern 1974-1976:2:773), though this cloth in verse 44 may refer rather to a covering for the face (Beasley-Murray 1987:195).

Jesus gives yet another command, Take off the grave clothes and let him go (v. 44). This is a cry of victory. The grave has been defeated and liberty achieved. It is only a partial sign of the coming victory of Jesus' resurrection, since Lazarus will need to die again and enter the grave until the final resurrection. But it is a great sign of the life that is stronger than death, which those who believe in Jesus share. And it is a graphic sign of Jesus' own power and authority.

The call to loose Lazarus and let him go picks up "the biblical imagery of `loosing' for victory over death and the powers of evil (for example, Matt. 16:19; Luke 13:16; Acts 2:24; cf. John 8:32-36)" (Michaels 1989:207). As such, this story speaks to all Christians bound by the fear of death and, on another level, bound by various sins. The Christian is in union with the one who himself is resurrection and life. As Christ offers freedom from the power of sin (8:32-36), so faith in Christ as resurrection and life brings freedom from the fear of death (cf. Heb 2:14-15).

Few would deny the theological and spiritual power of this story, but many would question whether the raising of Lazarus ever in fact took place. Some would say miracles do not happen, so therefore this could not have happened. This perspective derives more from prejudice than scientific observation and seems to be on the wane. But even those who believe such a thing could happen are suspicious of this story since it is not recounted in the Synoptics. If this event is so climactic, as John suggests, then this omission is striking. But neither John nor the Synoptics are trying to tell the whole story. John leaves out similar miracles in the Synoptics: the raising of Jairus's' daughter (Mt 9:18-19, 23-26 par. Mk 5:21-24, 35-43 par. Lk 8:40-42, 49-56) and the raising of the widow's son at Nain (Lk 7:11-17). So the omission is not that unusual. John includes this story because he sees in it the theological climax of Jesus' public ministry. It is also, from John's perspective, the key factor in the Jewish leaders' decision to have Jesus eliminated (11:53). John is fitting the pieces together to highlight the truth of what takes place in Jesus' ministry. That is very different from saying he is making up stories to illustrate his theology. "He who wrote the Gospel of the Word made flesh viewed history as of first importance; he would never have related a story of Jesus, still less created one, that he did not have reason to believe took place" (Beasley-Murray 1987:199). Thus, while the story of Lazarus looks suspicious to some, its historicity can be accounted for (cf. further Westcott 1908:2:77-79; Beasley-Murray 1987:199-201; Harris 1986:310-17).

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