V. The Resurrection of Lazarus and the Approaching Death of Jesus (John 11:1–12:50)
V. The Resurrection of Lazarus and the Approaching Death of Jesus (11:1–12:50)
11:1-3 A certain man named Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, were followers of Jesus. They appear several times in the Gospels (11:1-2; see Luke 10:38-42; John 12:1-8). But on this occasion, there was a problem. Lazarus was sick and dying (11:2). Knowing that Jesus had power to heal their brother, Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus, urging him to come (11:3).
11:4 When he received the message, Jesus vowed that the sickness [would] not end in death but would end in the glory of God. As in the case of the blind man (see 9:1-3), these negative circumstances were not the result of sin; they were for the purpose of glorifying Jesus. If someone says that a Christian walking with the Lord can’t become ill or contract a disease, that person is simply wrong. Lazarus’s sickness was not a means of punishment, not a sign of rebellion. Rather, it had a spiritual purpose.
11:5-6 John tells us that Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus (11:5), and they knew of his love for them (see 11:3). They shared an intimate relationship with him. But, in spite of this, Jesus stayed two more days in the place where he was (11:6). His delay appeared to contradict his promise of healing. However, it was because he loved them that he delayed his arrival.
This passage demonstrates an important theological truth regarding prayer. In our times of struggle, we want God to respond immediately. When he doesn’t, we’re tempted to assume he doesn’t care. But the reality is that we don’t understand his timing or his purposes because his ways are not our ways (see Isa 55:8-9). There’s a method to his (apparent) contradictions. He responds as he does because he loves us and because he’s seeking his glory. Trust him in his delays.
11:7-8 Finally, Jesus said, Let’s go to Judea again (11:7). His disciples looked at one another and wondered if their Rabbi was losing it. Judea was where people had wanted to kill him (11:8). But, though one can understand their concern, the disciples apparently hadn’t noticed that a lot of folks were having trouble seizing Jesus (see 7:30-32, 44-46; 8:20; 10:39). The Son of God—not the angry religious leaders—was sovereign over his ministry timetable.
11:9-10 Jesus told them that the day—the time of his public, earthly ministry—was the opportunity for action. While Jesus, the light of this world, was with them, they could walk and not stumble (11:9). Later, they would have the light of the Holy Spirit’s presence. But to function apart from Jesus is like walking around at night (11:10). Operating without his illumination will cause you to trip and wind up on your face.
11:11 The reason they needed to return to Judea was because Lazarus [had] fallen asleep and needed waking. For those who trust in the Lord, the Bible describes death as sleep (i.e., a new level of spiritual consciousness), from which we will one day be physically raised (see 1 Thess 4:13).
11:12-15 The disciples were confused, thinking that Jesus was speaking about natural sleep (11:12-13). So he said, Lazarus has died (11:14). But the most startling thing he said was that he was glad (11:15)! However, Jesus was not glad concerning Lazarus’s death but glad concerning what he was about to do. Sometimes God will let things get worse before they get better. That’s often because he has something in mind that’s even better than what we requested.
11:16 Later, Thomas would express doubt over Jesus’s resurrection (20:24-29). But for now, he was ready to die with [Jesus]. Those who are spiritually confident today may find themselves in the depths of despair and doubt tomorrow.
11:17-22 When Jesus and his disciples arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days. Though the funeral was over, many friends were present who had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them (11:17-19). Martha met Jesus and said, Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died (11:21-22). Translation: “This is all your fault, Jesus! I called you, but you didn’t come. If you had listened to me, none of this would have happened.” Yet this doesn’t mean she had lost all hope, because she adds, Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you (11:22). Thus, Martha was filled with both faith and doubt. She is like the man who cried out to Jesus in desperation, “I do believe; help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24).
Sometimes doubt comes when we least expect it. When it does, bring your doubts to God in prayer (he’s omniscient and knows about them anyway!). Believe that he can deal with your disappointment and spiritual struggle.
11:23-26 Jesus responded to Martha’s faith in spite of her doubts: Your brother will rise again (11:23). Martha’s theology was sound. She knew that her brother would be raised in the resurrection at the last day (11:24). But Jesus wanted her to know that the resurrection isn’t just an event; the resurrection is a person. He told her, I am the resurrection and the life (11:25). The Son of God has “life in himself” (5:26) and can give life so that a person may “live forever” (6:51). He himself is the basis of eternal life. That’s how he can say that the one who believes in me will never die (11:26)—that is, he will pass from physical life immediately into eternal life (see Phil 1:23). The present tense (“lives and believes in me”) also shows that Jesus is a right now deliverer, not just a future one.
11:27-31 Though she still didn’t comprehend everything or know what exactly was going to happen, Martha trusted Jesus and confessed him as the Messiah, the Son of God (11:27). Then she went to call her sister Mary (11:28). Whereas Martha’s sorrow and disappointment had driven her to Jesus, Mary’s had kept her from him. But when she heard that Jesus was calling for [her], she immediately went to him (11:28-29).
11:31-35 The first words out of Mary’s mouth were the same as her sister’s: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died! (11:32; see 11:21). Jesus was deeply moved by her crying and asked to see the tomb (11:33-34). Then, we read the shortest, yet one of the most profound, verses in all of the Bible: Jesus wept (11:35).
Jesus is fully God, but he is also fully human. Two natures in one person, unmixed forever. Even though he knew he was about to perform the miracle, he grieved with the pain and sorrow as well as the death-dealing effects of sin on those he loves. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). Jesus was agitated as he stirred up the work of the Spirit within him for the miracle he was about to perform.
11:36-37 Those with Mary and Martha could see how much Jesus loved Lazarus (11:36). But some were confused, wondering why a man who could give sight to the blind couldn’t keep a sick man from dying (11:37). If they thought keeping a man from dying would be spectacular, they were in for the shock of their lives.
11:38-40 Jesus commanded them to remove the stone from the mouth of the burial cave (11:38-39). At this, Martha objected. After all, Lazarus had been dead four days. She no doubt appreciated Jesus’s desire to pay his last respects to her deceased brother, but the stench of decay would be awful (11:39). Jesus replied by telling her that she hadn’t been paying attention: Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? (11:40). He called her to demonstrate her faith in him by her action—allowing the stone to be removed. Jesus didn’t want her explanations about bodily decay; he wanted her to walk by faith, putting one foot in front of the other. Faith is acting like God is telling the truth. Then, demonstrating the “glory of God” would be up to Jesus. Faith must precede sight if we want to see God’s supernatural intervention in our circumstances. We can never know what God plans to do in secret until we obey what he has clearly revealed.
11:41-42 When the stone was removed, Jesus looked to heaven and prayed. He thanked the Father that he always hears him (11:41). He acknowledged the reason that the Son had delayed coming to see Lazarus in the first place: so that the crowd standing there might believe that the Father had sent Jesus (11:42).
He could’ve showed up on time and conducted a private miracle to heal Lazarus. Instead, he arrived late to put on a public, supernatural display, validating his messianic identity and sparking faith in a mass gathering of people. The latter, though it resulted in temporary grief, would produce tremendous spiritual impact and bring God greater glory. Jesus’s prayer for his Father’s supernatural intervention also illustrates his current intercessory work of deliverance for believers when we respond in faith and obedience (see Heb 7:25). This is why we pray to the Father in the name of Jesus. The Father responds to what the Son endorses.
11:43-44 Jesus addressed the dead man and called, Lazarus, come out! (11:43). Then, from out of the tomb, a living man walked, still bound and wrapped in burial cloths (11:44). The dead had been raised to life! This is a foretaste of what is to come. One day, Lazarus would physically die again. But those who believe in Jesus will take part in the everlasting resurrection and live forever.
11:45-48 As a result, many of the Jews . . . believed in him (11:45). One would think that there couldn’t possibly be any other response! But, unfortunately, some of them went and tattled to the Pharisees (11:46). When the news reached them, the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin, the council of the Jewish religious leaders. Notice that they didn’t deny his miraculous signs (11:47). Rather, they lamented them. Instead of cheering his raising of the dead, they worried that his winning of followers would cause the Romans to think there was an insurrection, thus bringing the Roman hammer down on their nation (11:48).
11:49-53 Caiaphas the high priest had a solution. He said it was better that one man should die than that the whole nation perish (11:50). In other words, he wanted to ensure that Jesus was silenced once and for all. That would solve their problem. But John tells us that, unknown to Caiaphas, he had actually prophesied. This wicked high priest was merely thinking on the physical level, but his words providentially foretold a spiritual reality. Indeed, the one man would die for the sins of the many. Jesus was going to die for the nation (11:51). And not only for Israel, but for Gentiles too (11:52). So they plotted to kill him (11:53). But what they planned for evil, God planned for good (see Gen 50:20).
11:54-57 Since the religious leaders were conspiring to kill him, Jesus stopped walking openly among the Jews (11:54). The chief priests and Pharisees had given orders to arrest him if anyone spotted him (11:57). But everything would happen according to God’s sovereign timing. Jerusalem began filling with people because it was time for the Passover celebrating God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery (11:55; see Exod 12:1-28). Soon God would provide a new and ultimate means of deliverance from slavery to sin.
12:1-3 Less than a week before the Passover, Jesus and his disciples were in Bethany again, having dinner with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, who had recently been raised from the dead. While Martha served, Mary anointed Jesus’s feet with costly perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. This was an act of amazing devotion and love. But, as we’ll see, some didn’t appreciate such extravagant sacrifice for Jesus. The same is true today.
12:4-6 Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would betray Jesus (12:4), was indignant regarding Mary’s gift. He chastised her for wasting perfume that could have been sold for three hundred denarii (about a year’s wages) and donated to the poor (12:5). But John tells his readers the truth, something that the disciples apparently didn’t know until after the fact: Judas didn’t care about the poor. He was a thief. He was in charge of the disciples’ money-bag and used to steal from it (12:6). Adding three hundred denarii to the piggybank would’ve meant more cash in Judas’s pocket.
12:7-8 Jesus rebuked Judas, telling him to leave Mary alone. Her actions had prepared his body for burial (12:7), which was only a few days away. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. Providing for the poor is a biblical mandate for God’s people (see Lev 19:9-10; Deut 15:10; Prov 14:31; 19:17; 28:27; 2 Cor 9:7; Eph 4:28). (Of course, the Bible is talking about those who are legitimately poor, not those who are poor through their own laziness; see 2 Thess 3:10.) But Jesus reminded them that dealing with poverty is an unending reality in this sinful, fallen world. And this reality was not to prevent them from honoring their long-awaited Lord and Messiah who would only be with them a short while longer.
12:9-11 When they learned that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, crowds of people wanted to get a glimpse of the ex-corpse (12:9). Because of Jesus’s miraculous deed, many of the Jews were deserting the Jewish religious leaders and believing in Jesus (12:11). How did the chief priests respond to this? They decided to kill Lazarus too (12:10)! Their wickedness knew no bounds.
12:12-13 A large crowd . . . heard that Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem (12:12). With palm branches in hand, they met him, shouting in language from Psalm 118:25-26: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel! (12:13). Hosanna is Hebrew for “save us”—it’s a cry of deliverance. By applying the psalm to Jesus and identifying him as their King, they were hailing Jesus as the Messiah who would deliver them from Roman domination.
12:14-16 In fulfillment of the messianic prophecy written hundreds of years before in Zechariah 9:9, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey (12:14). The prophet “saw” Zion’s King . . . coming . . . on a donkey’s colt (12:15). Jesus fulfilled Scripture and entered Jerusalem in exactly the manner foretold. His disciples did not understand what he was doing. But after he was glorified, they remembered and understood (12:16).
Fulfilled prophecies like this one testify to the divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. The many Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah were written hundreds of years before his birth, yet they were fulfilled in his life accurately and in detail. This should encourage all believers to trust that the Bible is indeed the authoritative Word of God.
12:17-19 Those who had witnessed Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead were testifying to the rest of the crowds, so Jesus’s following grew even larger (12:17-18). All of this made the Pharisees furious (12:19). More followers for Jesus meant fewer followers for them! The Gospels make clear that the religious leaders in Jerusalem were motivated in their hatred of Jesus by jealousy (see Matt 27:18; Mark 15:10).
12:20-21 Also in Jerusalem for the Passover were some Greeks—that is, Gentile proselytes who worshiped the God of Israel (12:20). Earlier Jesus had said, “I have other sheep that are not from this sheep pen; I must bring them also” (10:16). By “other sheep” he meant Gentiles. Jesus came to be the Savior of the world (see 3:16). And now the world was starting to come to him, saying, We want to see Jesus (12:21).
12:22-23 We’ve seen repeatedly in John’s Gospel that it was not Jesus’s time or that his hour had not yet come (see 2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20). Jesus operated on a divine clock. But when his disciples told him that these Greeks wanted to see him, Jesus finally said, “It’s time”—the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified (12:23). The Son’s glorification involves his death, resurrection, and ascension back to the Father.
12:24 Jesus used an agricultural illustration to teach a spiritual principle: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. Jesus had come into the world to die, to give his life as a substitutionary atonement for sinners. In the same way that a single grain produces much wheat, Jesus’s death would yield much spiritual fruit—salvation and eternal life for all who will trust him.
12:25 The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Thus, if you live a self-centered existence, you will lose the very thing you are trying to hold on to. If your life is all about you and finding yourself, you will not find the “you” that you’re looking for. To hate your life means not living in a self-centered way but being a servant of others. The one who lives a life of service in the name of the Lord Jesus will be rewarded in this life and in the life to come.
12:26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me. . . . If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. To serve the King, we must follow the King. If he serves, we must serve (see Mark 10:45). The first responsibility of a follower of Christ is to his people. We are to love those whom he loves and gave himself for. And if we love and serve sacrificially, the Father promises to honor us with a reward—some of which may come in this life, though most will come in eternity.
12:27-28 Jesus’s soul was troubled because he knew the suffering that would be required. He would die for the sins of the world, enduring separation from his Father. Nevertheless, his grief didn’t cause him to flee from his task. To suffer and die for sinners is why [Jesus] came (12:27). He was committed to the will of God, so he prayed aloud: Father, glorify your name. After this, a voice responded from heaven: I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again (12:28). Throughout the Son’s ministry, the Father had been glorified through the miraculous signs. But the ultimate glorification was coming in the cross and resurrection.
12:29-30 The crowds had been divided over Jesus before (7:25-27, 40-43). Now they were even divided over the voice from heaven. Some thought it was an angel; others claimed it was only thunder (12:29). Jesus told them that this voice was for their sake, not his (12:30). The Father validated the Son so that they might believe.
12:31 Jesus’s death on the cross would be an act of judgment on the devil, the ruler of this world. In the garden, Adam and Eve were given the responsibility to rule the world on God’s behalf. Instead, they chose to sin against God and thereby granted rule of the world to Satan (see 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2; 1 John 5:19). So the Son of God became a man to defeat the devil. The cross guarantees the enemy’s defeat because Satan achieves victory through accusing sinners. But through the cross, Jesus Christ would deal with sin once and for all (see Heb 7:26-27; 9:12; 10:10).
12:32-33 The cross drew all judgment for all people to Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world (1 John 2:2). The death of Christ saved all humankind from the consequences of original sin (Rom 5:18) and made all people savable for their personal sin when they place personal faith in him. This is why we are to share the gospel with everyone in the world.
12:34-36 Still the crowd was confused (12:34). Their minds needed enlightening. So Jesus encouraged them to receive the light and walk in the light while it was still with them (12:35), for Jesus himself is the light (see 1:9; 8:12). If you reject him, your life will consist of darkness (12:35). This, in fact, is why we live in such a dark and sin-scarred world. But if you believe in the light (that is, trust in Jesus Christ), you will become a child of light (12:36). God will grant you understanding so that you may walk in his ways.
12:37-41 In spite of all the miraculous signs Jesus performed, many people did not believe in him (12:37). This fulfilled the words spoken by Isaiah the prophet, which John quotes in 12:38 (see Isa 53:1) and 12:40 (see Isa 6:10). Isaiah said that God blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts (12:40). Why? Because they had rejected the light (see 12:35-36). When Pharaoh repeatedly and willfully hardened his heart against God, the Lord eventually cooperated with Pharaoh and hardened his heart further (see commentary on Exod 4:21). If a person persists in pursuing darkness, eventually God will confirm his desire. Be careful what you wish for.
12:42-43 Nevertheless, many did believe in him even among the rulers. However, these rulers did not confess Jesus because the Pharisees had threatened to kick Jesus’s followers out of the synagogue (12:42). They were unwilling to go public with their belief in Jesus because they loved human praise more than praise from God (12:43). We must not remain silent about our faith (see commentary on Matt 10:32-33).
12:44-50 In these verses, Jesus summarizes why he came into the world. He did not come to judge the world but to save it (12:47). Those who reject him will experience judgment on the last day (12:48). To reject Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is to reject the Father who sent him. And the opposite is also true: The one who believes in [him] believes in the one who sent [him] (12:44). It’s a package deal. You cannot say you believe in God while simultaneously rejecting Jesus. We only truly come to God through the Son, for he has truly spoken the words of the Father, words that lead to eternal life (12:49-50).