We have in these verses,
I. A particular account of the parties principally concerned in this story, John 11:1, 2. 1. They lived at Bethany, a village nor far from Jerusalem, where Christ usually lodged when he came up to the feasts. It is here called the town of Mary and Martha, that is, the town where they dwelt, as Bethsaida is called the city of Andrew and Peter, John 1:44. For I see no reason to think, as some do, that Martha and Mary were owners of the town, and the rest were their tenants. 2. Here was a brother named Lazarus; his Hebrew name probably was Eleazar, which being contracted, and a Greek termination put to it, is made Lazarus. Perhaps in prospect of this history our Saviour made use of the name of Lazarus in that parable wherein he designed to set forth the blessedness of the righteous in the bosom of Abraham immediately after death, Luke 16:22. 3. Here were two sisters, Martha and Mary, who seem to have been the housekeepers, and to have managed the affairs of the family, while perhaps Lazarus lived a retired life, and gave himself to study and contemplation. Here was a decent, happy, well-ordered family, and a family that Christ was very much conversant with, where yet there was neither husband nor wife (for aught that appears), but the house kept by a brother, and his sisters dwelling together in unity. 4. One of the sisters is particularly described to be that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, John 11:2. Some think she was that woman that we read of, Luke 7:37, 38, who had been a sinner, a bad woman. I rather think it refers to that anointing of Christ which this evangelist relates (John 12:3); for the evangelists do never refer one to another, but John frequently refers in one place of his gospel to another. Extraordinary acts of piety and devotion, that come from an honest principle of love to Christ, will not only find acceptance with him, but gain reputation in the church, Matt. 26:13. This was she whose brother Lazarus was sick; and the sickness of those we love is our affliction. The more friends we have the more frequently we are thus afflicted by sympathy; and the dearer they are the more grievous it is. The multiplying of our comforts is but the multiplying of our cares and crosses.
II. The tidings that were sent to our Lord Jesus of the sickness of Lazarus, John 11:3. His sisters knew where Jesus was, a great way off beyond Jordan, and they sent a special messenger to him, to acquaint him with the affliction of their family, in which they manifest, 1. The affection and concern they had for their brother. Though, it is likely, his estate would come to them after his death, yet they earnestly desired his life, as they ought to do. They showed their love to him now that he was sick, for a brother is born for adversity, and so is a sister too. We must weep with our friends when they weep, as well as rejoice with them when they rejoice. 2. The regard they had to the Lord Jesus, whom they were willing to make acquainted with all their concerns, and, like Jephthah, to utter all their words before him. Though God knows all our wants, and griefs, and cares, he will know them from us, and is honoured by our laying them before him. The message they sent was very short, not petitioning, much less prescribing or pressing, but barely relating the case with the tender insinuation of a powerful plea, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick. They do not say, He whom we love, but he whom thou lovest. Our greatest encouragements in prayer are fetched from God himself and from his grace. They do not say, Lord, behold, he who loveth thee, but he whom thou lovest; for herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us. Our love to him is not worth speaking of, but his to us can never be enough spoken of. Note, (1.) There are some of the friends and followers of the Lord Jesus for whom he has a special kindness above others. Among the twelve there was one whom Jesus loved. (2.) It is no new thing for those whom Christ loves to be sick: all things come alike to all. Bodily distempers correct the corruption, and try the graces, of God’s people. (3.) It is a great comfort to us, when we are sick, to have those about us that will pray for us. (4.) We have great encouragement in our prayers for those who are sick, if we have ground to hope that they are such as Christ loves; and we have reason to love and pray for those whom we have reason to think Christ loves and cares for.
III. An account how Christ entertained the tidings brought him of the illness of his friend.
1. He prognosticated the event and issue of the sickness, and probably sent it as a message to the sisters of Lazarus by the express, to support them while he delayed to come to them. Two things he prognosticates:—
(1.) This sickness is not unto death. It was mortal, proved fatal, and no doubt but Lazarus was truly dead for four days. But, [1.] That was not the errand upon which this sickness was sent; it came not, as in a common case, to be a summons to the grave, but there was a further intention in it. Had it been sent on that errand, his rising from the dead would have defeated it. [2.] That was not the final effect of this sickness. He died, and yet it might be said he did not die, for factum non dicitur quod non perseverat—That is not said to be done which is not done for a perpetuity. Death is an everlasting farewell to this world; it is the way whence we shall not return; and in this sense it was not unto death. The grave was his long home, his house of eternity. Thus Christ said of the maid whom he proposed to restore to life, She is not dead. The sickness of good people, how threatening soever, is nor unto death, for it is not unto eternal death. The body’s death to this world is the soul’s birth into another world; when we or our friends are sick, we make it our principal support that there is hope of a recovery, but in that we may be disappointed; therefore it is our wisdom to build upon that in which we cannot be disappointed; if they belong to Christ, let the worst come to the worst, they cannot be hurt of the second death, and then not much hurt of the first.
(2.) But it is for the glory of God, that an opportunity may be given for the manifesting of God’s glorious power. The afflictions of the saints are designed for the glory of God, that he may have opportunity of showing them favour; for the sweetest mercies, and the most effecting, are those which are occasioned by trouble. Let this reconcile us to the darkest dispensations of Providence, they are all for the glory of God, this sickness, this loss, or this disappointment, is so; and, if God be glorified, we ought to be satisfied, Lev. 10:3. It was for the glory of God, for it was that the Son of God might be glorified thereby, as it gave him occasion to work that glorious miracle, the raising of him from the dead. As, before, the man was born blind that Christ might have the honour of curing him (John 9:3), so Lazarus must be sick and die, that Christ may be glorified as the Lord of life. Let this comfort those whom Christ loves under all their grievances that the design of them all is that the Son of God may be glorified thereby, his wisdom, power, and goodness, glorified in supporting and relieving them; see 2 Cor. 12:9, 10.
2. He deferred visiting his patient, John 11:5, 6. They had pleaded, Lord, it is he whom thou lovest, and the plea is allowed (John 11:5): Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. Thus the claims of faith are ratified in the court of heaven. Now one would think it should follow, When he heard therefore that he was sick he made all the haste that he could to him; if he loved them, now was a time to show it by hastening to them, for he knew they impatiently expected him. But he took the contrary way to show his love: it is not said, He loved them and yet he lingered; but he loved them and therefore he lingered; when he heard that his friend was sick, instead of coming post to him, he abode two days still in the same place where he was. (1.) He loved them, that is, had a great opinion of Martha and Mary, of their wisdom and grace, of their faith and patience, above others of his disciples, and therefore he deferred coming to them, that he might try them, that their trial might at last be found to praise and honour. (2.) He loved them, that is, he designed to do something great and extraordinary for them, to work such a miracle for their relief as he had not wrought for any of his friends; and therefore he delayed coming to them, that Lazarus might be dead and buried before he came. If Christ had come presently, and cured the sickness of Lazarus, he had done no more than he did for many; if he had raised him to life when newly dead, no more than he had done for some: but, deferring his relief so long, he had an opportunity of doing more for him than for any. Note, God hath gracious intentions even in seeming delays, Isa. 54:7, 8; 49:14 Christ’s friends at Bethany were not out of his thoughts, though, when he heard of their distress, he made no haste to them. When the work of deliverance, temporal or spiritual, public or personal, stands at a stay, it does but stay the time, and every thing is beautiful in its season.
IV. The discourse he had with his disciples when he was about to visit his friends at Bethany, John 11:7-16. The conference is so very free and familiar as to make out what Christ saith, I have called you friends. Two things he discourses about—his own danger and Lazarus’s death.
1. His own danger in going into Judea, John 11:7-10.
(1.) Here is the notice which Christ gave his disciples of his purpose to go into Judea towards Jerusalem. His disciples were the men of his counsel, and to them he saith (John 11:7), “Let us go into Judea again, though those of Judea are unworthy of such a favour.” Thus Christ repeats the tenders of his mercy to those who have often rejected them. Now this may be considered, [1.] As a purpose of his kindness to his friends at Bethany, whose affliction, and all the aggravating circumstances of it, he knew very well, though no more expresses were sent to him; for he was present in spirit, though absent in body. When he knew they were brought to the last extremity, when the brother and sisters had given and taken a final farewell, “Now,” saith he, “let us go to Judea.” Christ will arise in favour of his people when the time to favour them, yea, the set time, is come; and the worst time is commonly the set time—when our hope is lost, and we are cut off for our parts; then they shall know that I am the Lord when I have opened the graves, Ezek. 37:11, 13. In the depths of affliction, let this therefore keep us out of the depths of despair, that man’s extremity is God’s opportunity, Jehovah-jireh. Or, [2.] As a trial of the courage of the disciples, whether they would venture to follow him thither, where they had so lately been frightened by an attempt upon their Master’s life, which they looked upon as an attempt upon theirs too. To go to Judea, which was so lately made too hot for them, was a saying that proved them. But Christ did not say, “Go you into Judea, and I will stay and take shelter here;” no, Let us go. Note, Christ never brings his people into any peril but he accompanies them in it, and is with them even when they walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
(2.) Their objection against this journey (John 11:8): Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee, and goest thou thither again? Here, [1.] They remind him of the danger he had been in there not long since. Christ’s disciples are apt to make a greater matter of sufferings than their Master does, and to remember injuries longer. He had put up with the affront, it was over and gone, and forgotten, but his disciples could not forget it; of late, nyn—now, as if it were this very day, they sought to stone thee. Though it was at least two months ago, the remembrance of the fright was fresh in their minds. [2.] They marvel that he will go thither again. “Wilt thou favour those with thy presence that have expelled thee out of their coasts?” Christ’s ways in passing by offences are above our ways. “Wilt thou expose thyself among a people that are so desperately enraged against thee? Goest thou thither again, where thou hast been so ill used?” Here they showed great care for their Master’s safety, as Peter did, when he said, Master, spare thyself; had Christ been inclined to shift off suffering, he did not want friends to persuade him to it, but he had opened his mouth to the Lord, and he would not, he could not, go back. Yet, while the disciples show a concern for his safety, they discover at the same time, First, A distrust of his power; as if he could not secure both himself and them now in Judea as well as he had done formerly. Isa. his arm shortened? When we are solicitous for the interests of Christ’s church and kingdom in the world, we must yet rest satisfied in the wisdom and power of the Lord Jesus, who knows how to secure a flock of sheep in the midst of a herd of wolves. Secondly, A secret fear of suffering themselves; for they count upon this if he suffer. When our own private interests happen to run in the same channel with those of the public, we are apt to think ourselves zealous for the Lord of hosts, when really we are only zealous for our own wealth, credit, ease, and safety, and seek our own things, under colour of seeking the things of Christ; we have therefore need to distinguish upon our principles.
(3.) Christ’s answer to this objection (John 11:9, 10): Are there not twelve hours in the day? The Jews divided every day into twelve hours, and made their hours longer or shorter according as the days were, so that an hour with them was the twelfth part of the time between sun and sun; so some. Or, lying much more south than we, their days were nearer twelve hours long than ours. The divine Providence has given us day-light to work by, and lengthens it out to a competent time; and, reckoning the year round, every country has just as much daylight as night, and so much more as the twilights amount to. Man’s life is a day; this day is divided into divers ages, states, and opportunities, as into hours shorter or longer, as God has appointed; the consideration of this should make us not only very busy, as to the work of life (if there were twelve hours in the day, each of them ought to be filled up with duty, and none of them trifled away), but also very easy as to the perils of life; our day shall be lengthened out till our work be done, and our testimony finished. This Christ applies to his case, and shows why he must go to Judea, because he had a clear call to go. For the opening of this, [1.] He shows the comfort and satisfaction which a man has in his own mind while he keeps in the way of his duty, as it is in general prescribed by the word of God, and particularly determined by the providence of God: If any man walk in the day, he stumbles not; that is, If a man keep close to his duty, and mind that, and set the will of God before him as his rule, with an impartial respect to all God’s commandments, he does not hesitate in his own mind, but, walking uprightly, walks surely, and with a holy confidence. As he that walks in the day stumbles not, but goes on steadily and cheerfully in his way, because he sees the light of this world, and by it sees his way before him; so a good man, without any collateral security or sinister aims, relies upon the word of God as his rule, and regards the glory of God as his end, because he sees those two great lights, and keeps his eye upon them; thus he is furnished with a faithful guide in all his doubts, and a powerful guard in all his dangers, Gal. 6:4; Ps. 119:6. Christ, wherever he went, walked in the day, and so shall we, if we follow his steps. [2.] He shows the pain and peril a man is in who walks not according to this rule (John 11:10): If a man walk in the night, he stumbles; that is, If a man walk in the way of his heart, and the sight of his eyes, and according to the course of this world,—if he consult his own carnal reasonings more than the will and glory of God,—he falls into temptations and snares, is liable to great uneasiness and frightful apprehensions, trembles at the shaking of a leaf, and flees when none pursues; while an upright man laughs at the shaking of the spear, and stands undaunted when ten thousand invade. See Isa. 33:14-16, he stumbles, because there is no light in him, for light in us is that to our moral actions which light about us is to our natural actions. He has not a good principle within; he is not sincere; his eye is evil. Thus Christ not only justifies his purpose of going into Judea, but encourages his disciples to go along with him, and fear no evil.
2. The death of Lazarus is here discoursed of between Christ and his disciples, John 11:11-16, where we have,
(1.) The notice Christ gave his disciples of death of Lazarus, and an intimation that his business into Judea was to look after him, John 11:11. After he had prepared his disciples for this dangerous march into an enemy’s country, he then gives them,
[1.] Plain intelligence of the death of Lazarus, though he had received no advice of it: Our friend Lazarus sleepeth. See here how Christ calls a believer and a believer’s death.
First, He calls a believer his friend: Our friend Lazarus. Note, 1. There is a covenant of friendship between Christ and believers, and a friendly affection and communion pursuant to it, which our Lord Jesus will own and not be ashamed of. His secret is with the righteous. 2. Those whom Christ is pleased to own as his friends all his disciples should take for theirs. Christ speaks of Lazarus as their common friend: Our friend. 3. Death itself does not break the bond of friendship between Christ and a believer. Lazarus is dead, and yet he is still our friend.
Secondly, He calls the death of a believer a sleep: he sleepeth. It is good to call death by such names and titles as will help to make it more familiar and less formidable to us. The death of Lazarus was in a peculiar sense a sleep, as that of Jairus’s daughter, because he was to be raised again speedily; and, since we are sure to rise again at last, why should that make any great difference? And why should not the believing hope of that resurrection to eternal life make it as easy to us to put off the body and die as it is to put off our clothes and go to sleep? A good Christian, when he dies, does but sleep: he rests from the labours of the day past, and is refreshing himself for the next morning. Nay, herein death has the advantage of sleep, that sleep is only the parenthesis, but death is the period, of our cares and toils. The soul does not sleep, but becomes more active; but the body sleeps without any toss, without any terror; not distempered nor disturbed. The grave to the wicked is a prison, and its grave-clothes as the shackles of a criminal reserved for execution; but to the godly it is a bed, and all its bands as the soft and downy fetters of an easy quiet sleep. Though the body corrupt, it will rise in the morning as if it had never seen corruption; it is but putting off our clothes to be mended and trimmed up for the marriage day, the coronation day, to which we must rise. See Isa. 57:2; 1 Thess. 4:14. The Greeks called their burying-places dormitories—koimeteria.
[2.] Particular intimations of his favourable intentions concerning Lazarus: but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. He could have done it, and yet have staid where he was: he that restored at a distance one that was dying (John 4:50) could have raised at a distance one that was dead; but he would put this honour upon the miracle, to work it by the grave side: I go, to awake him. As sleep is a resemblance of death, so a man’s awaking out of sleep when he is called, especially when he is called by his own name, is an emblem of the resurrection (Job 14:15): Then shalt thou call. Christ had no sooner said, Our friend sleeps, but presently he adds, I go, that I may awake him. When Christ tells his people at any time how bad the case is he lets them know in the same breath how easily, how quickly, he can mend it. Christ’s telling his disciples that this was his business to Judea might help to take off their fear of going with him thither; he did not go up on a public errand to the temple, but a private visit, which would not so much expose him and them; and, besides, it was to do a kindness to a family to which they were all obliged.
(2.) Their mistake of the meaning of this notice, and the blunder they made about it (John 11:12, 13): They said, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. This intimates, [1.] Some concern they had for their friend Lazarus; they hoped he would recover; sothesetai—he shall be saved from dying at this time. Probably they had understood, by the messenger who brought news of his illness, that one of the most threatening symptoms he was under was that he was restless, and could get no sleep; and now that they heard he slept they concluded the fever was going off, and the worst was past. Sleep is often nature’s physic, and reviving to its weak and weary powers. This is true of the sleep of death; if a good Christian so sleep, he shall do well, better than he did here. [2.] A greater concern for themselves; for hereby they insinuate that it was now needless for Christ to go to him, and expose himself and them. “If he sleep, he will be quickly well, and we may stay where we are.” Thus we are willing to hope that the good work which we are called to do will do itself, or will be done by some other hand, if there be peril in the doing of it.
(3.) This mistake of theirs rectified (John 11:13): Jesus spoke of his death. See here, [1.] How dull of understanding Christ’s disciples as yet were. Let us not therefore condemn all those as heretics who mistake the sense of some of Christ’s sayings. It is not good to aggravate our brethren’s mistakes; yet this was a gross one, for it had easily been prevented if they had remembered how frequently death is called a sleep in the Old Testament. They should have understood Christ when he spoke scripture language. Besides, it would sound oddly for their Master to undertake a journey of two or three days only to awake a friend out of a natural sleep, which any one else might do. What Christ undertakes to do, we may be sure, is something great and uncommon, and a work worthy of himself. [2.] How carefully the evangelist corrects this error: Jesus spoke of his death. Those that speak in an unknown tongue, or use similitudes, should learn hence to explain themselves, and pray that they may interpret, to prevent mistakes.
(4.) The plain and express declaration which Jesus made to them of the death of Lazarus, and his resolution to go to Bethany, John 11:14, 15. [1.] He gives them notice of the death of Lazarus; what he had before said darkly he now says plainly, and without a figure: Lazarus is dead, John 11:14. Christ takes cognizance of the death of his saints, for it is precious in his sight (Ps. 116:15), and he is not pleased if we do not consider it, and lay it to heart. See what a compassionate teacher Christ is, and how he condescends to those that are out of the way, and by his subsequent sayings and doings explains the difficulties of what went before. [2.] He gives them the reason why he had delayed so long to go and see him: I am glad for your sakes that I was not there. If he had been there time enough, he would have healed his disease and prevented his death, which would have been much for the comfort of Lazarus’s friends, but then his disciples would have seen no further proof of his power than what they had often seen, and, consequently, their faith had received no improvement; but now that he went and raised him from the dead, as there were many brought to believe on him who before did no (John 11:45), so there was much done towards the perfecting of what was lacking in the faith of those that did, which Christ aimed at: To the intent that you may believe. [3.] He resolves now to go to Bethany, and take his disciples along with him: Let us go unto him. Not, “Let us go to his sisters, to comfort them” (which is the utmost we can do), but, Let us go to him; for Christ can show wonders to the dead. Death, which will separate us from all our other friends, and cut us off from correspondence with them, cannot separate us from the love of Christ, nor put us out of the reach of his calls; as he will maintain his covenant with the dust, so he can make visits to the dust. Lazarus is dead, but let us go to him; though perhaps those who said, If he sleep there is no need to go, were ready to say, If he be dead it is to no purpose to go.
(5.) Thomas exciting his fellow-disciples cheerfully to attend their Master’s motions (John 11:16): Thomas, who is called Didymus. Thomas in Hebrew and Didymus in Greek signify a twin; it is said of Rebekah (Gen. 25:24) that there were twins in her womb; the word is Thomim. Probably Thomas was a twin. He said to his fellow-disciples (who probably looked with fear and concern upon one another when Christ had said so positively, Let us go to him), very courageously, Let us also go that we may die with him; with him, that is,
[1.] With Lazarus, who was now dead; so some take it. Lazarus was a dear and loving friend both to Christ and his disciples, and perhaps Thomas had a particular intimacy with him. Now if he be dead, saith he, let us even go and die with him. For, First, “If we survive, we know not how to live without him.” Probably Lazarus had done them many good offices, sheltered them, and provided for them, and been to them instead of eyes; and now that he was gone they had no man like-minded, and “Therefore,” saith he, “we had as good die with him.” Thus we are sometimes ready to think our lives bound up in the lives of some that were dear to us: but God will teach us to live, and to live comfortably, upon himself, when those are gone without whom we thought we could not live. But this is not all. Secondly, “If we die, we hope to be happy with him.” Such a firm belief he has of a happiness on the other side death, and such good hope through grace of their own and Lazarus’s interest in it, that he is willing they should all go and die with him. It is better to die, and go along with our Christian friends to that world which is enriched by their removal to it, than stay behind in a world that is impoverished by their departure out of it. The more of our friends are translated hence, the fewer cords we have to bind us to this earth, and the more to draw our hearts heavenwards. How pleasantly does the good man speak of dying, as if it were but undressing and going to bed!
[2.] “Let us go and die with our Master, who is now exposing himself to death by venturing into Judea;” and so I rather think it is meant. “If he will go into danger, let us also go and take our lot with him, according to the command we received, Follow me.” Thomas knew so much of the malice of the Jews against Christ, and the counsels of God concerning him, which he had often told them of, that it was no foreign supposition that he was now going to die. And now Thomas manifests, First, A gracious readiness to die with Christ himself, flowing from strong affections to him, though his faith was weak, as appeared afterwards, John 14:5; 20:25. Where thou diest I will die, Ruth 1:17. Secondly, A zealous desire to help his fellow-disciples into the same frame: “Let us go, one and all, and die with him; if they stone him, let them stone us; who would desire to survive such a Master?” Thus, in difficult times, Christians should animate one another. We may each of us say, Let us die with him. Note, The consideration of the dying of the Lord Jesus should make us willing to die whenever God calls for us.