30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 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.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” – John 11:30-44 ESV
After confessing that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27 ESV), Martha ran to tell her sister Mary that He had come to Bethany. And Mary, filled with emotion, ran to meet Him and fell to her knees in front of Him. Likely through tears, Mary greeted Jesus with the same words that her sister had used.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” – John 11:32 ESV
And like her sister, Mary was not expressing anger at Jesus for arriving too late. She was simply expressing her firm belief that He could have prevented the death of Lazarus. Had Jesus been able to come just four days earlier, her brother would still be alive.
Upon seeing the tears of Mary and her companions, Jesus was “deeply moved.” This somewhat cryptic phrase is used two different times in this passage. The Greek verb is embrimaomai, and, according to the NET Bible Study Notes, it “indicates a strong display of emotion, somewhat difficult to translate—‘shuddered, moved with the deepest emotions.’”
John will use the very same phrase to describe Jesus’ emotional state when seeing the tomb of Lazarus. But why would Jesus be indignant or angry at the tears of the weeping women or the sight of Lazarus’ grave? It is because He is witnessing the devastating impact that sin and death have brought upon creation. This was not the way it was meant to be. Jesus, the Word of God, had been with His Father “in the beginning” and “All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created” (John 1:2-3 ESV). Jesus had created life. In fact, John writes that “In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind” (John 1:4 ESV).
So as Jesus, the giver of life, stood watching the tears of Mary and her friends, He was filled with indignation and anger at having to witness the pain and suffering caused by death. And He knew that death was the result of sin. He also knew that death brought delight to Satan, whom Jesus earlier described as “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44 ESV).
At that moment, Jesus must have been filled with a range of emotions. Of anyone, He knew that He could have prevented Lazarus’ death, but to do so would have been out of His Father’s will. The death of Lazarus was part of God’s plan to display His glory and “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4 ESV). Jesus was fully aware of how this was all going to turn out, but it still grieved Him to witness the despair that sin brought upon a helpless humanity. He stood before them as the answer to their problem, but many refused to believe in Him. Unlike Martha, who confessed Him to be “the Christ, the Son of God,” the majority of the Jews could not bring themselves to embrace Jesus as their Messiah.
Jesus had told Nicodemus, “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18 NLT). The women who stood before Jesus, weeping with Mary over the loss of her brother, would one day face the same fate. They too would die and, if they Jesus knew that if they refused to believe in Him, the would be condemned by their unbelief and be destined to face an eternity separated from Him and His Father. All of this angered Jesus because He had come to offer Himself as the one and only solution to the problem.
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” – John 3:16-17 NLT
Jesus was moved to tears. His anger was mixed with sorrow, empathy, and compassion. It is interesting to note that Jesus had begun His public ministry at a wedding feast, a joyous occasion marked by celebration over that start of a new chapter of life. Now, here He was, nearing the end of His ministry and attending a funeral, a somber event marked by sorrow and despair over the end of life.
And as Jesus made His way to the tomb of Lazarus, there were those who expressed their confusion as to why He had not intervened. They had heard about His other miracles and couldn’t help but wonder why, if He loved Lazarus so much, He had not healed him. Their question seems to convey speculation that, perhaps, Lazarus’ condition was somehow out of His league.
“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” – John 11:37 ESV
But their doubt was about to be replaced with utter disbelief. They were going to be eye-witnesses to an amazing display of God’s glory.
Upon coming to the tomb, Jesus demanded that they roll away the stone blocking its entrance. At this point, the readers of John’s gospel should be recognizing the similarities between this story and the one they had heard about Jesus Himself. The tomb, the stone, the mourners. It all sounds familiar. The darkness, the despair, the overwhelming sense of hopelessness. It is eerily similar. But they have a sense of how this is going to turn out because they know the rest of the story.
And despite Martha’s protests, Jesus commands that the stone be rolled away, and He gently reminds her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40 ESV). Jesus had told Martha, “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). And while Martha had boldly proclaimed her belief, she had not envisioned what was about to take place. Even though Jesus had told her, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23 ESV), she had not gone to the tomb expecting to see it happen.
But it did. After a brief prayer to His Father, Jesus proclaimed with a loud, triumphant shout, “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43 ESV). And John, somewhat matter-of-factly and anticlimactically, writes, “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth” (John 11:44 ESV).
Don’t miss this moment. Up until this point in time, the atmosphere has been filled with doom and despair. The mood has been dark and doubtful. Both Mary and Martha had greeted Jesus with words of disappointment: “If only you had…”. The crowds had expressed their speculation as to whether Jesus could have done anything to help Lazarus. The whole scene has been marked by tears, mourning, resignation, and regret. And then, suddenly, “the man who died came out.” Lazarus was alive. And not only had he been restored to life, but any decay his body had experienced had also been miraculously reversed.
It is fascinating and a bit frustrating to consider that John provides no details concerning the response of Mary and Martha to this incredible event. He gives no indication as to how the crowd reacted when the heavily wrapped body of Lazarus hobbled from the tomb. John simply records the words of Jesus that must have broken the stunned silence of the moment.
“Unbind him, and let him go.” – John 11:44 ESV
There is so much wrapped up in these words. They bring to mind what Jesus had said to the religious leaders.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” – John 8:34-36 ESV
The apostle Paul would echo these words when he wrote to the believers in Rome.
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. – Romans 8:32 ESV
He would write virtually the same thing to the believers in Galatia.
So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. – Galatians 5:1 NLT
Jesus had just set Lazarus free from the bonds of death. He came out of the tomb alive and well, but he was still wrapped in the vestiges of death, in the form of the cumbersome grave cloths. To be truly free, Jesus demanded that Lazarus be untied and released to enjoy his newly restored life. In a sense, Jesus was communicating an aspect of the Gospel that would become a reality when He had offered His life as an atonement for the sins of mankind.
For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. – Galatians 5:4 NLT
The restoration of Lazarus to life was meant to be a precursor of something greater to come: The resurrection of Jesus Himself. And with Jesus’ death and resurrection, all those who place their faith in Him would find themselves permanently freed from slavery to sin and the condemnation of death. And they would no longer have to try to live up to God’s holy standards in their own strength. They would be free indeed.
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.