1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “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.”
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “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. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” – John 11:1-16 ESV
Chapter 11 marks a major point of transition in John’s gospel account. Jesus has left Jerusalem and returned to the area near the Jordan where His ministry began. His face-to-face confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders have come to an end, but not their quest to see Him put to death. And with the opening lines of chapter 11, it is clear that death, including His own, will become the primary theme of the second half of the book.
Jesus has already broached the topic of death before, insisting that He was the key to victory over death and the source of eternal life.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” – John 5:24 ESV
“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” – John 8:54 ESV
Back in chapter four, John records the occasion when Jesus healed the official’s son who had been “at the point of death” (John 4:47 ESV). The young man had been restored to health – in an instant and from a distance. Whatever his illness had been, it had come close to taking the young man’s life. But at the father’s impassioned plea for help, Jesus had interceded and provided an instantaneous and full recovery. That story is important to consider when reading the details of all that takes place in chapter 11.
John records that Jesus received a report that His good friend, Lazarus, was sick. Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, had sent word to Jesus informing them of their brother’s illness. Unlike the official from Capernaum, Mary and Martha make no mention of the severity of their brother’s condition. Their message to Jesus, while urgent, does not suggest that their brother is near death. Even Jesus seems unconcerned, suggesting that Lazarus’ condition is not life-threatening.
“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.” – John 11:4 ESV
But there is far more to this statement than the disciples of Jesus understood. Perhaps they recognized something familiar in Jesus’ words. On an earlier occasion while still in Jerusalem, they had come across a blind man and had asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2 ESV). And Jesus had responded, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3 ESV).
Here we have Jesus making a similar statement regarding the illness of Lazarus. Once again, He seems to be indicating that there is a sovereign plan unfolding right before their eyes. A divinely ordained encounter was about to take place that would reveal the glory of the Son of God like never before. While giving the gift of sight to the beggar who had been born blind was proof that Jesus was doing the works of His Father, something even more glorious was about to take place.
The next verses create a rather strange image of Jesus. John reveals that Jesus had a great love for Lazarus and his two sisters. And yet, rather than drop everything and head to their home in Bethany, Jesus chose to delay His departure for two days. This was clearly a conscious decision on Jesus’ part – a premeditated plan designed to allow the events to unfold “so that the Son may be glorified.”
After the two-day delay, Jesus informed His disciples that it was time to go. But they resist, questioning the wisdom of making the trip to Bethany, which was just two miles east of Jerusalem. With respect and a bit of poorly veiled incredulity, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” (John 11:8 ESV). Jesus’ decision to return to the vicinity of Jerusalem so soon after His less-than-pleasant run-in with the religious leaders made no sense to them. It was risky at best and potentially deadly at worst.
But Jesus, in His inimitable way, answered their question with a cryptic response that had to have left them staring at one another in confusion.
“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.” – John 11:9-10 ESV
Jesus’ disciples were clearly concerned for His safety. They knew that Jewish religious leaders were out to kill Him, and they were simply trying to protect Him. But Jesus was indicating that as long as He was acting in accordance with His Father’s will (walking in the light of the day), He was perfectly safe. And as long as they remained in step with Him, they would not stumble.
Jesus’ words are in keeping with what He said concerning the man who had been blind since birth.
“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” – John 9:4-5 ESV
He had repeatedly told His disciples that He was the light of the world and that as long as they walked with Him, they would be safe.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12 ESV
Jesus knew that their fear of the religious leaders was justifiable. But He also knew that His fate was securely in the hands of His Heavenly Father. The time was quickly coming when the light of the world would be extinguished but until then, He had work to do. And the illness of Lazarus was part of God’s divine plan that would jump-start the final days of Jesus’ ministry and life.
The disciples were works in process. Their understanding of Jesus was incomplete and not always accurate. In their hearts, they truly believed Him to be the Messiah, but their comprehension of what that meant was clouded by their preconceived and somewhat selfish preconceptions. They were expecting Jesus to be a conquering hero, a warrior-king like David had been, who would deliver the nation of Israel from the oppression of Rome and restore God’s people to power and prominence. But Jesus was slowly exposing their misconceptions and preparing them to embrace the true purpose behind His mission and their calling.
Jesus, knowing exactly how His disciples would understand His words, informed them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him” (John 11:11 ESV). And they didn’t disappoint Him. They responded, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover” (John 11:12 ESV). In their minds, there was no longer any reason to risk a trip to Bethany. If Lazarus was sleeping soundly, that was good sign that he was on his way to a full recovery. But, as usual, Jesus was saying far more than they realized, and John points out the gap between Jesus’ meaning and the disciples’ understanding.
Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. – John 11:13 ESV
But Jesus, refusing to leave them in the dark, explained exactly what He meant.
“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.” – John 11:14-15 ESV
It is so easy to read this statement and miss the impact it must have had on Jesus’ disciples. We know how the story ends, but they did not. In their minds, Jesus’ words must have sounded callous and confusing. How in the world could He be expressing joy at the news that His friend has died? Now, rather than going to Bethany to witness the healing of a sick man, they would be attending a funeral. And one that could have easily been prevented.
But Jesus informs them that there was a purpose behind His delay and Lazarus’ death: Their belief. Jesus was preparing them for what was to come. This entire scenario was intended as a precursor for an even more significant event that would soon be taking place. What they were about to witness would establish Jesus as the Son of God in a way that would have been unimaginable and impossible.
Yet, after informing the disciples that Lazarus had died, Jesus told them, “let us go to him” (John 11:15 ESV). And Thomas, aiming his words at his fellow disciples, responded with what appears to be pessimism and sarcasm: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16 ESV). There are those who believe Thomas was expressing his expectation that Jesus was headed to His own death at the hands of the religious leaders, and was declaring his willingness to die alongside Him. But it seems much more likely that Thomas was expressing his belief that, if they followed Jesus’ plan, they would all end up dead, just like Lazarus. In other words, in Thomas’ mind, this trip was a suicide mission. But his fears were unjustified because the light of the world was still shining, and as long as they walked in the light, they would remain safe and be witnesses to the glory of God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.