John does not say exactly when this event took place, only that it was sometime during the four months, roughly, between the Feast of Dedication and Passover. John is, however, careful to describe the place. This Bethany is a little less than two miles southeast of Jerusalem on the road to Jericho (cf. v. 18). It is to be distinguished from the Bethany where John had been baptizing (1:28) and to which Jesus had just returned (10:40), which is either in Perea at the Jordan a few miles north of the Dead Sea, about a day's journey from Jerusalem, or up north in Batanea, several days journey away (Riesner 1992; cf. Carson 1991:147, 407).
The sisters send a message to Jesus: Lord, the one you love is sick (v. 3). Clearly, Jesus had a special relationship with this man and his sisters (v. 5). Yet chapters 11 and 12 are the only reference to Lazarus in the New Testament. We are alerted, once again, to how little we know of the life of our Lord (cf. 21:25).
This request is very similar to Jesus' mother's request at the wedding of Cana (2:4). It presents a need but does not dictate to the Lord how he should respond. In these requests we have a model of intercession that makes a need known to the Lord with humility and a recognition that it is his will that should be done. Such humility and submission are key characteristics of true disciples.
Jesus had responded to his mother by saying it was not yet his hour, a reference to the cross (2:4). Now, however, his hour is fast approaching. Mary and Martha must have known how dangerous it had become for Jesus to be in the vicinity of Jerusalem. They might have known that Jesus could heal at a distance (cf. 4:49-53), yet they seem to want him to come to heal Lazarus (11:21, 32). Perhaps their anxiety for their brother led them to summon Jesus. But love is the laying down of life (cf. 1 Jn 3:16), and the sisters seem to think that Jesus would be willing to risk his life for the sake of their brother, whom he loves. Whatever they may have been thinking, we see that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was indeed willing to risk his life for his friend (cf. 10:11, 15), though he was under no real danger since he was doing the Father's will and under his protection (10:39; cf. 10:29).
Jesus' love for Lazarus and his sisters teaches us that our faith in God's love, even in the midst of adversity, is well grounded. Even those especially dear to God must endure such things (cf. Chrysostom In John 62.1). "The one sick, the others sad, all of them beloved: but He who loved them was both the Savior of the sick, nay more, the Raiser of the dead and the Comforter of the sad" (Augustine In John 49.7).
When Jesus heard the message he said, This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it (v. 4). This response sets the agenda and provides the approach to what will take place. Just as the man's blindness in chapter 9 was an opportunity for the work of God to be manifested (9:3), so the purpose here is the glorification of God and his Son through this sickness. In both cases we see a revelation of the divine activities of life-giving and judgment, though here they are more intense for we are close to the cross and resurrection, the ultimate glorification (12:23; 13:31).
In all that Jesus does we see the glory of God (1:14), for we see God's love and life-giving power. Now, in the raising of Lazarus, we will have the most spectacular manifestation of this glory. God is the one who brings life to the dead out of his love for those in such need. This is the heart of the Gospel. God's glory is thus seen in his victory over death—indeed, it is "possible only through death—first the death of Lazarus, and then the death of Jesus himself!" (Michaels 1989:195).
The close connection between Jesus and the Father clearly presented in chapter 5 and chapters 8—10 is evident here as well. This is one of the few times Jesus refers to himself explicitly as God's Son (cf. 5:25; 10:36, perhaps 3:18). The Son of God will be glorified through this illness and thereby the glory of God himself will be manifested. The Father will be glorified as the source of life, and the Son will be glorified as the one who acts in obedience to the Father and shares in his identity as the source of life (cf. 1:3-4, 10; 5:21, 26; cf. Michaels 1989:195).
When Jesus' mother appealed for help in Cana he put her off with a statement that seemed abrupt or even harsh (2:4). Now, when the most powerful sign is about to be performed, Jesus behaves in an especially shocking manner. John prepares us for this by emphasizing Jesus' love for Lazarus and his sisters (v. 5). Jesus loved them and "therefore" (oun, translated in the NIV as yet) when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days (v. 6). Jesus acts only in accordance with his Father's will (2:4; 7:3-9), not the will of his family or, as we see now, his closest friends. His activity is scandalous, as Mary and Martha will show by their responses (11:21, 32), because he is concerned with God's glory (v. 4), with doing God's will and, as "therefore" indicates, with love for these friends. His love does not feel like love but it is love, and it is for the best in their lives. His delay leads to a greater blessing.There are two possible ways to understand the sequence of events that follow, depending on whether one believes the Bethany where Jesus is staying is in the south or the north. If Bethany is in the south, as most scholars believe, then it would take the messengers one day to reach Jesus and one day for Jesus to reach Lazarus. Since Jesus stayed put for two days and Lazarus has been dead for four days when Jesus does arrive, that means Lazarus must have died on the same day as the messengers set out (cf. Barrett 1978:391). If Bethany is a reference to Batanea in the north the timing would be different. It takes four days to travel from Batanea to where Lazarus is. Since Jesus arrives when Lazarus has been dead for four days, Jesus had waited until Lazarus died before he set out. In either case the two-day delay does not cause the death of Lazarus, since Jesus could not have gotten to him before he died, either because he was dead before the messengers arrived with their message (southern view) or because Jesus would only be halfway there (northern view). In either case the two-day delay does, however, insure that Lazarus will have been dead for four days when Jesus arrives.
When Jesus announces that they are to return to Judea (v. 7), his disciples remind him that the Jewish opponents had just been trying to stone him there (v. 8). The disciples are taking their cues from their circumstances rather than from the Father. They are very aware of the danger their opponents present, but they are not in tune with the voice of the Father. Jesus responds with a cryptic saying, which, as usual, directly addresses the issue at hand but is not able to be understood (vv. 9-10). He uses the imagery of light to put things into perspective for them. In the natural realm one is able to walk without stumbling while there is light, and there is light for a set period of time. One need not worry about stumbling while it is day. The point is that they need not worry about what will happen to them for they have the Light of the World with them (8:12), for with him they are able to get on with the work of the Father (9:4). With the psalmist they can say, "The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?" (Ps 27:1). They should stick with Jesus even when he seems to lead them into danger, for no matter what happens it will work out for the best, even as Lazarus's illness will work for the glory of God. Here is a word of assurance and a call to all believers to take their bearings from God and not from their circumstances.
From this cryptic saying, which goes over their heads, as Thomas' response will soon indicate (v. 16), Jesus spells out why they must now return to Judea: Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up (v. 11; cf. Mt 9:24). The use of the metaphor of sleep to refer to death is common in the ancient world, including ancient Jewish thought (Balz 1972:548-53), but the disciples nevertheless misunderstand and think Jesus is referring to natural sleep (v. 13). This misunderstanding is quite amazing. Who could think that Jesus was concerned about Lazarus's merely falling asleep? And even if this were an acceptable concern—perhaps they think Jesus means Lazarus is now sleeping peacefully after his illness—who could think Jesus would need to be informed that Lazarus would wake up, especially since it would take Jesus up to four days to get to Lazarus, depending on where one thinks Jesus was when he received the news about Lazarus? So it appears the disciples are thinking that Jesus had preternatural knowledge that Lazarus had fallen asleep and that he wanted to go wake him up! There must have been no dull moments with Jesus. He was doing incredible miracles, he was a marked man in the eyes of the authorities, and one never knew what he would say next. The disciples are very disoriented, which should be of some encouragement to us when we feel the same way. Jesus' patience with them is a manifestation of God's grace for which we can only be thankful. "Christ's kindness in putting up with such stupidity in the disciples was remarkable" (Calvin 1959:5).
Jesus has spoken of death as a sleep from which he will awaken the sleeper. Such language has profound implications concerning our Lord's power over death and the continuity of the person in death. Even in death Lazarus is still our friend (v. 11; cf. Westcott 1908:2:84), and he is able to be restored even after his body has begun to decay, which happens by the fourth day. He may have died (v. 14), but they are still going to him (v. 15), that is, "He speaks of the body `sleeping' in the tomb as the man himself" (Westcott 1908:2:86).
It is no wonder, then, that sleep becomes the main way of referring to death in Christian thought beginning with the postapostolic fathers (cf. Balz 1972:555-56). Indeed, our word cemetery comes from the Greek word koimeterion, a place of sleep. Chrysostom says that since Christ died for the life of the world, we no longer call death thanatos (death) but hyptos kai koimesis (two words for sleep) (Chrysostom On the Cemetery and the Cross 1; cf. Balz 1972:556). As he says elsewhere, "What is death at most? It is a journey for a season; a sleep longer than usual! So that if you fear death, you should also fear sleep!" (Chrysostom Concerning the Statues 5.11; cf. 7.1).
Since the disciples do not understand that Jesus is speaking of Lazarus' death, he has to explain it to them (v. 14) and thereby give them his perspective on this opportunity: for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe (v. 15). He has no doubt that he could have cured Lazarus if he had been there, but something even more helpful for their faith is now going to take place. "It is sometimes expedient for disciples that Jesus should be absent from them; cf. 16.7" (Barrett 1978:393). To have faith in the Son of God is far more important than to have health and comfort in this life. Such faith leads to eternal life (20:31), as this miracle will symbolize. This faith is a progressive thing, for here Jesus is talking to those who have believed in him already, and yet he says this miracle is so that you may believe. Faith must be exercised in the face of each new revelation, and each new revelation is taking the disciples nearer to the ultimate revelation in the most extremely scandalous event, the cross—the ultimate revelation of God's light and life and love and thus the ultimate manifestation of God that faith must grasp hold of. As God reveals more of himself and his ways to us we must likewise have a faith that both grasps firmly onto him as he is revealed in Jesus and also is able to be stretched and deepened. Faith enables us to rest in God, but God himself also keeps us on the move as we continue to grow closer to him for ever.
Jesus may be rejoicing, but Thomas, and presumably the other disciples, is not. We usually think of Thomas as "doubting Thomas" from his reactions after the resurrection of the Lord (20:24-28). In the present story we see another facet of Thomas—his loyalty. This is the response of a true disciple. Just as Peter sticks with Jesus even though he does not understand what Jesus is talking about regarding eating his flesh and drinking his blood (6:68), so Thomas is willing to go with Jesus to death (v. 16). He is still fixated with the evident danger (v. 8), and he does not understand the encouraging words Jesus has just spoken (vv. 9-10), but he is attached to Jesus and is going to stay with him, even though he does not see how Jesus' decision makes any sense. Here is an incredible picture of faith. He is not following because he sees how it all fits; he is following out of loyalty to Jesus himself. He is a model disciple at this point. As Thomas follows Jesus into what he thinks is death he is answering the call, expressed in the Synoptics, that "if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it" (Mk 8:34-35).