17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. – John 11:17-29 ESV
Jesus delayed. Lazarus died.
Those two statements sum up the first 16 verses of this chapter. After having received the news that His good friend Lazarus was ill, Jesus had chosen to delay His departure for two days. When He had finally decided to leave Bethany beyond the Jordan for Bethany near Jerusalem, it took another whole day to make the journey. So, by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days.
This entire scene is intended to create an emotional disconnect in the mind of the reader. The mental picture John paints is meant to elicit feelings of pity, confusion, and even frustration. And these emotions are given voice by the two sisters who had sent word to Jesus about their brother’s desperate condition. Martha was the first to become aware of Jesus’ arrival, and she rushed out to greet Him, immediately expressing to Him her despair.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” – John 11:21 ESV
Martha’s if-then statement to Jesus reveals her firm belief that had He arrived sooner, He could have healed her brother. But He was too late. There are some who read a hint of anger in her words and assume that she is berating Jesus for His late arrival. While that reaction would be understandable considering the circumstances, it seems unlikely based on the rest of Martha’s statement to Jesus.
“But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” – John 11:21 ESV
She is not angry and she has not lost faith in Jesus. In spite of what has happened, she still believes that Jesus has the ear of His Heavenly Father and is able to ask and receive whatever He requests. With this statement, Martha is not suggesting that Jesus could ask God to raise her brother from the dead. She is simply expressing her continued belief in Jesus despite her devastating disappointment. That Martha harbored no expectations of resurrection is made evident when Jesus later commanded the stone to be moved from the tomb. Martha immediately responded, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days” (John 11:39 ESV). Her brother’s resuscitation was the last thing Martha expected.
This scene is filled with contradictions and contrasts. Mary and Martha are accompanied by mourners and friends who have gathered to console them. There is an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness because of the death of Lazarus. But for the reader, there should be a sense of eager expectation because the light of the world has just arrived on the scene. The words that Jesus spoke to His disciples take on a special significance at this point in the story.
“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 the 12 men who had accompanied Jesus to Bethany would have wrestled with the meaning behind those words because they had just heard the same news that Jesus had: Lazarus was dead. How would God receive glory now? How did Jesus intend to be glorified through the death of His friend? It all made no sense. The entire situation seemed hopeless and maddeningly pointless.
Yet the reader has been provided with 10 chapters of information that should act as a corrective filter through which to view this unfolding scene. John had opened his gospel with the declaration that Jesus, the Word of God, had taken part in the creation of all things.
“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” – John 1:3-4 ESV
He was the original giver of life. And His incarnation had not diminished His capacity to bestow life. In fact, Jesus had told Nicodemus that He had come to earth so that He might provide eternal life.
“…whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV
“The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life…” – John 3:35-36 ESV
Yes, Lazarus had died. But in spite of what Martha, Mary, their friends, and the disciples of Jesus believed, Lazarus’ death was not the end of the story. Yet when Jesus informed Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23 ESV), the full import of His words escaped her. From her limited perspective, Lazarus’ death had been final, but she believed that she would one day see him again at the final resurrection. Her belief in the future bodily resurrection of the dead was based on several Old Testament passages.
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead. – Isaiah 26:19 ESV
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. – Daniel 12:2 ESV
That Martha was thinking of this future form of resurrection is made clear by her response to Jesus.
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” – John 11:24 ESV
And rather than refute her belief in that future reality, Jesus provides her with additional information intended to clarify the nature of that future resurrection.
“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.” – John 11:25-26 ESV
While Martha’s mind was focused on a future event, Jesus was redirecting her attention to a present reality: Him. The very one who was life and had the power to give life was standing right in front of her. And He declared Himself to be the resurrection and the life. There was no present life or future resurrection apart from Him. His power had not been impacted by the death of Lazarus. And while physical death was an inevitable and unavoidable reality for every human being, it was not the end. The death of Lazarus was not final. It was not the end of the story. And Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, though Lazarus had died, he would live again. It was just as Jesus had told the religious leaders.
“For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” – John 5:29 ESV
But the key to resurrection and eternal life was belief. Jesus had made that point perfectly clear: “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26 ESV). And when Jesus asked Martha whether she believed, she responded, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27 ESV).
Martha responded affirmatively. She verbally confessed to her belief that He was the Son of God and the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. He was the fulfillment of all the prophets had promised. But it seems clear that Martha had not fully comprehended all that Jesus had said to her. His declaration that He was the resurrection and the life had gone over her head. And the way she describes Jesus to her sister seems to verify that little had changed regarding her assessment of Jesus and His identity. John describes Martha as running to get her sister Mary and telling her, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you” (John 11:28 ESV).
Martha says nothing about Jesus being the resurrection and the life. There is no hint in her words that she anticipated something supernatural was about to happen. She simply informed her sister that “the Teacher” had arrived.
But little did Martha know that Jesus was about to back up His words with action. He was going to put on a never-before-seen display of power that would not only defy their limited expectations but the laws of nature. The Teacher was about to give them a lesson they would never forget.
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.