The scene now shifts to Bethany, near Jerusalem, as Jesus arrives and finds that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Burials normally took place on the day of the death (cf. Acts 5:6-10), so he has been dead for four days. For Jews this probably signifies that Lazarus is clearly dead and beginning to decay (cf. m. Yebamot 16:3). A later Jewish text that cites an authority from the early third century A.D. says the mourners should continue to come to the tomb for three days because the dead person continues to be present. Mourning is at its height on the third day, presumably because it is the last time the dead person will be present there. "Bar Kappara taught: Until three days [after death] the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking that it will go back [into the body]; but when it sees that the facial features have become disfigured, it departs and abandons it [the body]" (Genesis Rabbah 100:7; cf. Leviticus Rabbah 18:1; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 12:6). Thus, the reference to the fourth day may be quite significant for setting the scene for another dramatic miracle. The healings in this Gospel have taken place in response to desperate needs (cf. Talbert 1992:172) from the son of the royal official who was close to death (4:49), to the man who was paralyzed for thirty-eight years (5:5), to the man born blind (9:1). Now we come to the climax of this sequence.
John spells out that Bethany is quite near Jerusalem (v. 18). This note heightens the drama. Jesus had said he was returning to Judea (v. 7), which the disciples recognized as the place of hostility. Now John makes sure we understand that Jesus has come back to the region of Jerusalem itself, the very heart of the opposition. Jerusalem is also the key place for revelation, and the greatest of all revelations is now starting to unfold.
As Jesus approaches, Martha comes out to meet him. It is unclear why Jesus halted and met her in this way. Some have suggested the desire for relative privacy, but perhaps more likely this reflects the danger he is in by returning to the suburbs of Jerusalem. The crowd of mourners may well contain those who would inform the authorities of Jesus' presence, as indeed does happen after the raising of Lazarus (v. 46).
Martha says, Lord, . . . if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask (v. 21). It is difficult to know how to understand this statement. It is possible to find in her first sentence a rebuke of Jesus (Wallace 1996:703) and in her second sentence a very defective view of Jesus: "She regards Jesus as an intermediary who is heard by God (22), but she does not understand that he is life itself (25)" (Brown 1966:433; cf. Chrysostom In John 62.3). The fact that she says, literally, "I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you" suggests a distance between Jesus and God through the repetition of the word God (not evident in the NIV). Also, the word she uses for ask (aiteo) is not the word used by Jesus for his own prayer to the Father but the word he uses of the disciples' prayer (Westcott 1908:2:89). Thus, there is no doubt that her view of Jesus is defective. Indeed, in this very interchange Jesus is revealing himself more perfectly to her, as he revealed himself to the Samaritan woman, despite her defective views.
But we should also see here a genuine, though defective, faith. Her initial statement (v. 21) need not imply a rebuke. It could simply be a lament (see, for example, Beasley-Murray 1987:190). And although her knowledge of Jesus is defective, nevertheless, she does believe Jesus could have healed Lazarus. And her belief that Jesus' prayers are answered does pick up on the truth of Jesus' dependence upon the Father, as will be illustrated later in this story (vv. 41-42). So there is more here than simple unbelief or defective belief.
Indeed, her statement in verse 22 is actually a profound statement of faith: But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask. It might be that she believed Jesus even now could ask God to raise Lazarus, but her reaction when he actually does raise Lazarus indicates that is not part of her thinking (v. 39). Rather, the greatness of her faith is seen in the words even now (kai nyn). She continues to believe in him even though Lazarus' death seems to call into question the messengers' report that Jesus had said, This sickness will not end in death (v. 4). Moreover, even though Jesus has delayed coming to help, she continues to believe that Jesus is the agent of the gracious God—despite the fact that this graciousness was not present to heal her brother. Her trust in God's love for one that Christ clearly loved (v. 3) is not shaken by what seems like indifference or disregard (cf. Job 13:15; Hab 3:16-19). In this way Martha is an example of stellar faith, which should encourage all believers who face situations in which God seems to be absent or uncaring. The hard parts of life are occasions for learning about God and drawing closer to him.
Jesus' response, Your brother will rise again (v. 23), comes across as a common consolation among those Jews who believed in the future resurrection. That is how Martha takes it (v. 24), which is another case of misunderstanding. Not that her belief in the future resurrection is wrong—indeed, it is confirmed by what takes place. But Jesus is speaking of something more profound, the very foundation upon which the future resurrection itself rests. As almost always in John's Gospel, the key to unlocking Jesus' cryptic sayings is Jesus' own identity.
Martha has expressed her faith in the future resurrection and her brother's place in it (v. 24). Jesus responds to this statement of faith by challenging her with a deeper revelation of himself: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (vv. 25-26). All of the "I am" sayings have to do with Christ as the life-giver, as is clearly the case here where we see that he does not just give life, but is life itself. As is made evident in some of the other "I am" sayings, he gives life by becoming our life (for example, 6:51; 15:1).
The main point is that Jesus' own identity spans the gap between the already and the not yet: "The resurrection because the life" (Augustine In John 49.14). Life is the more basic term, and the life Jesus is talking about even encompasses the resurrection life of the world to come (cf. Howard 1943:106-28; Beasley-Murray 1991:1-14). This "already" and "not yet" was met earlier (6:54; cf. 5:24-29). So we have in the raising of Lazarus a revelation of Jesus' authority and his identity as life-giver because he is life itself. Jesus' role goes far beyond our earthly existence.
The two terms Jesus uses, resurrection and life, are unpacked in the statements that follow (Dodd 1953:365). "I am the resurrection": He who believes in me will live, even though he dies (v. 25). This statement addresses Martha directly in the situation she is experiencing with the death of her brother. Jesus' claim is mind-boggling. He says it is faith in him that brings one back to life at the resurrection at the last day. He is the ground of eschatological hope. But then he goes even further. "I am the life": and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (v. 26). The life that comes through believing in Jesus is not interrupted by physical death. "The topic is the nature of the life that the believer has, namely one that death cannot destroy since the believer is in union with him who is the Life" (Beasley-Murray 1987:191). "By taking humanity into Himself He has revealed the permanence of man's individuality and being. But this permanence can be found only in union with Him. Thus two main thoughts are laid down: Life (resurrection) is present, and this Life is in a Person" (Westcott 1908:2:90).
Martha has confessed her faith in the resurrection (v. 24), and now Jesus has revealed himself to be the source of resurrection and life itself. He asks her, Do you believe this? (v. 26). She, like the former blind man (9:35-38), is given the opportunity to make a confession of faith. She does so in a statement that "echoes earlier confessions in the Gospel (1:42, 49) and anticipates the statement of its purpose in 20:30-31" (Beasley-Murray 1987:192). She responds, Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world (v. 27). She does not repeat the terms Jesus has used, but she combines two of the most common titles used for Jesus in this Gospel. It would seem that she does not really grasp what Jesus is saying, as will be clear from her response when he does raise Lazarus (v. 39). So her use of more common titles may be a sign that she has not understood him. But her faith is still genuine and solid, for it is in Jesus himself. She is not grasping all that he is saying about himself, but she is sticking with him and confessing as much as she knows, which is what faith is all about. As the events of the raising of Lazarus unfold Jesus will instruct her in what he has just claimed, thus bringing her step by step in her knowledge of who he is and what he is offering so she may respond in faith. "The relevance of faith lies not in the power of faith as such, but in the fact that faith creates communion with Jesus and that through Jesus believers receive the gift of life" (Schnackenburg 1980b:332). This example of patient progress in our Lord's dealing with Martha should be a great encouragement to those of us who are not always quick on the uptake when it comes to God's revelation of himself to us.
While Martha's use of terms may suggest her lack of comprehension, the effect her statement has in the unfolding revelation in this Gospel is more positive. Jesus' language of resurrection and life is combined with a common Jewish term, Christ, and John's favorite title for Jesus, Son (of God). This combination brings together several strands of thought and makes them interpret one another. The most fundamental category in John is life. At this point, when Jesus most clearly speaks of himself as life, other major terms are brought in, thus suggesting that they should be interpreted in the light of this theme of life as well. Thus, Martha's confession and Jesus' claim provide a major point of revelation in this Gospel.