Get your copy of “Messiah: Biblical Retellings” here, or download a free chapter here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
Today’s podcast comes from John 11, a meditation on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
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This is my retelling, though I read the text and discuss at the beginning.
Jesus and his disciples were in Bethabara, the place where John the Baptist first baptized the Jews into repentance. It was twenty miles east of Jerusalem, and he was making his slow, last journey to Jerusalem. But he’d stopped there for awhile, and the people came to him for healing and to hear him teach. Many came to believe in him as the Messiah.
While he was teaching and ministering, a messenger reached him from Bethany, two miles outside of Jerusalem, from his friends Mary and Martha.
“Lord, he whom you love is ill,” the messenger reported. Jesus knew this meant their brother, Lazarus. He also was a dear friend to Jesus, and Jesus knew that the sisters emphasized this as a means of gentle manipulation. You love him, they implied, so drop what you’re doing and prioritize him over these strangers! The messenger pressed Jesus, “May I tell them you are on your way?”
But Jesus knew what the messenger did not—in the time since the messenger had left Bethany, nearly a day ago on foot, Lazarus had already died. Even now, they were preparing his body for burial. Knowing this, and knowing that when the messenger returned to Bethany he would find Lazarus already in the grave, Jesus looked at the messenger and replied, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
The messenger blinked, looking a little uncertain. “Very well,” he replied, “I will… relay your response to Mary and Martha.”
When he had turned to go, John asked him, “So, are we planning to go then?”
“Soon,” was Jesus’ reply.
Every moment, the disciples expected him to send the people away and start on the journey, yet every moment they were surprised. Silently they exchanged looks with one another, wondering what Jesus was about. They knew very well how dear Lazarus and Mary and Martha were to the Lord; so why wouldn’t he have set out the moment he received the sisters’ message? Among themselves, they wondered if the reason might have been because the last time he was in Judea, the Jews had sought to stone him. He had evaded them deftly enough and without the slightest hint of alarm, and it didn’t seem like Jesus to make decisions based upon fear for his personal safety. But as Jesus lingered in Bethabara for two more days, they finally concluded that this must be the cause of his delay.
Yet after the second day, Jesus announced, “Let us go to Judea again.” Not Bethany; Judea. Exactly the place they thought he was trying to avoid. But Bethany of course was on the way. This perplexed the disciples, and Thomas finally voiced what they were all wondering: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”
Jesus replied, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” And with that enigmatic response, he set out on their journey, leaving the disciples to follow.
The disciples looked at each other, trying to puzzle out the meaning of his metaphor. They whispered among themselves, none of them wanting to ask Jesus directly and thus admit that they hadn’t understood him. Somehow Jesus thought this was an answer to Thomas’s question regarding his danger in Judea; that was the first clue. Light and darkness were common metaphors for good and evil, so much so that light often represented God himself, and David wrote in the Psalms that scripture was a “lamp to my feet and a light to my path”. Scripture made known the will of God. So perhaps Jesus was saying that if he walked in the known will of God, “in the light,” the Jews couldn’t touch him, though they sought to stone him? That would make sense, wouldn’t it, considering the number of times Jesus had made statements such as “my time has not yet come”? He seemed to have a very clear idea of what was supposed to happen and when.
“And yet,” Andrew hissed, “remember when he said ‘I lay my life down that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority—“
“—to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again,” chorused Peter and James with him, recalling Jesus’ recent words with a frown.
“What is that about?” Andrew asked. “He keeps talking about being killed, and being raised, and I don’t know what he means. I’m sure it’s a metaphor too, but–of what? Why won’t he tell us?”
Up ahead of them, Jesus overheard this conversation, and sighed. Then, to clarify his purpose, he called out behind him, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”
The disciples hurried to close the slight gap that had fallen between them and the Lord to better converse with him, but John said, confused, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep he will recover.”
They misunderstood again. Jesus meant to choose faith-filled words to illustrate the temporary nature of Lazarus’s condition, but the disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So he told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” He turned and continued on his way. The disciples hesitated, though. They had seen Jesus raise the dead before, but they were daunted by the prospect of the murderous Jews in Judea.
It was Thomas who at last rallied them. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Not particularly comforting, but it is what they all feared. Jesus was walking right into danger, and if he was stoned, wouldn’t the disciples be stoned along with him?
Eighteen miles on foot gave them the better part of a day to ponder what awaited them ahead. When they approached the village of Bethany, Jesus could tell by the way the villagers stared and then ran back in excitement that he’d been recognized. Of course he’d be recognized—by now, everyone had heard his name, and of his great deeds. Some villagers came out to see them.
“Rabbi, I suppose you have come to see Martha and Mary?” asked one young man who had seen him there before, eating at the sisters’ home.
“I have. What news of Lazarus?” Jesus replied.
The young man’s countenance fell. “He has been in the tomb these four days.”
The disciples behind Jesus began to whisper. Four days? That changed things, didn’t it? When Jesus had raised Jairus’s daughter or the widow of Nain’s son, they had only just died. The Jewish belief was that the spirit of the dead lingered near the body of the deceased for up to three days before departing for Abraham’s bosom, seeking an opportunity to reenter. But it had been four days. Wasn’t Lazarus’s spirit already long gone, then? Not only that, but his body would already have begun to decompose.
Jesus looked beyond the young man who had delivered the news to see a young woman hurrying out of the village to where he stood with his disciples. She broke into a run, desperate to get to Jesus. But he stayed where he was, until Martha had reached him.
Without greeting, Martha burst out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It was an accusation. Even Martha, ever in emotional control, had a hard time disguising her hurt. Jesus noticed that Mary was not with her, though surely they had been together. Could it be that Mary was so wounded by his presumed neglect that she did not even wish to come to him? That would be like Mary. Far more likely to indulge her feelings than her more practical sister Martha.
Martha was not finished, though. “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Her words were probing, with an unmistakeable tinge of hope.
Several of the disciples’ eyebrows shot up at this, and they exchanged looks amongst themselves. Wow, the looks said. She thinks after four days, Jesus can still raise Lazarus? But Martha’s faith made them start to wonder as well. He could calm the storm, couldn’t he? The very elements obeyed him. He could walk on water. They had never yet seen Jesus attempt a miracle that he could not perform. So, why not?
Jesus replied to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”
A flicker of uncertainty crossed Martha’s face, and she said cautiously, as if being tested, “I… know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day…” Her original statement had meant, You can raise Lazarus now. But Jesus’ reply did not specify a timeline. It could have been a theological platitude, rather than an immediate promise. Martha was asking, When, Lord?
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Even this reply could have been taken many ways, but Martha’s face flooded with hope. She chose to believe he meant now. Her next words burst out of her: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world!” Then she held up a finger as if to say, wait right there! and hurried back into the village.
“She is calling her sister, I’ll bet,” the disciples whispered amongst themselves. Sure enough, Martha returned with Mary, behind whom trailed a small procession of Jews from Jerusalem who must have come for the funeral and to mourn with them. Mary daubed at her face as she went, clearly still weeping. She broke away from Martha when she was close enough to Jesus, and ran to him, falling at his feet. Behind her, though, Martha’s face still shone with expectation.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” she cried out, just like her sister had done. Then she dissolved into sobs, burying her face in her hands. She was not expecting a happy ending today. Behind her, many of the Jews who had followed her out of the house were also weeping, perhaps moved by Mary’s tears. Even Martha’s eyes sparkled, and she pursed her lips together tightly, as if to keep her emotions at bay. Jesus observed all this, and groaned in unintelligible words. The disciples had asked him about this before, and he’d called it “groaning in the Spirit”—the Holy Spirit was helping him to pray to the Father, he said. They’d noticed that this happened not when he had to perform a monumental miracle, but when confronted with human opposition. Their eyes scanned the crowd of the Jews. It was a likely a mixed bunch—some who believed in him as Mary and Martha did, but others who would love to help the Pharisees bring him down. Jesus had remained outside of the village of Bethany to avoid a crowd, yet he had one anyway.
“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asked.
Mary stood, wiping her face, but could not speak for tears. So the Jews said for her, “Lord, come and see.”
They led the way, and Jesus and the disciples followed behind. As he went, several of the Jews who had come with Mary kept glancing back at Jesus, astonished. That was when the disciples realized that Jesus was weeping too. The Jews whispered among themselves. “See how he loved him!” But others replied, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
The disciples too exchanged confused looks at Jesus’ response. He’d said that Lazarus’s illness would not end in death. They had a pretty good idea what was about to happen, as did Martha, it seemed. So why weep?
The unintelligible groan came from Jesus again, as he walked among these mourners. What he could not explain to any of them was the way this one up close and personal tragedy struck him as a stark representation of all the evil that the Enemy had wrought upon the earth. He had ravaged humanity, stealing, killing, and destroying—but this was not the way it was supposed to be from the beginning. Yes, he knew that this day would turn ashes into a crown of beauty, mourning to the oil of joy, and the spirit of despair into a garment of praise, as the prophet Isaiah had written. But this was one among millions, billions of such stories played out from the beginning of time until the end. He wept not for Lazarus, not for Mary and Martha and the Jews, but for all of creation–for how far the mighty had fallen.
They came to the tomb of a wealthy man: it was a cave, with a large stone blocking its entrance.
“Take away the stone,” Jesus commanded.
Nobody moved at first. They looked to Martha, as the authoritative sister of the dead man. At last Martha said, a bit hesitant, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”
Jesus turned to Martha, his gaze penetrating. “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
The disciples tried to recall when they had heard him say this to Martha, since they had been with him the whole time. “The message,” whispered James. “From the messenger, remember? The Master told him to report, ‘this illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God’.”
“Oh yes!” whispered the others, nodding. They turned back to Martha, to see if she would agree and believe.
Martha’s expression cleared, apparently remembering this too. She looked at a few of the young men who had come with them, nodding her consent to roll away the stone. When they had done so, there was indeed an odor that made everybody wince. A few of the Jews waved their hands in front of their noses.
Jesus, though, looked up to heaven and prayed aloud. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” Then he turned to the tomb, and cried in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
Nothing happened for a few seconds. Everyone waited, holding their breaths. Then, from inside the tomb came a shuffling sound. The shuffling grew louder, until at last a man emerged from the depths of the cave, unable to walk properly because his hands and feet were still bound with linen strips. Gasps rippled around the crowd, and Mary and Martha let out cries of joy. Yet nobody moved toward Lazarus, as if unwilling to trust their eyes.
“Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus commanded. His word mobilized the sisters, who ran toward their brother, first to obey. Many of the Jews who had come with them remained stupefied, grinning and staring at the reunion of the siblings before them, then turning back to gaze upon Jesus in awe. But the disciples noticed the darkening countenances of some of the others before they turned to leave, not bothering to hide their displeasure. They actually seemed offended.
“They are going to the Pharisees to tell what they have seen,” Jesus explained as the disciples whispered about this among themselves.
Peter grew alarmed at this. “Rabbi, they will try to put you to death! The Pharisees are already concerned that so many of the Jews are coming to believe in you.”
Jesus nodded his agreement, though he looked neither surprised nor concerned. “My time is growing short, but it has not yet come,” he said. “Let us leave this place for Ephraim until the preparation for the Passover. Then we will return for the last time.”