The raising of Lazarus is one of the pivotal miracles of Jesus and certainly is the sign of greatest significance in the Gospel of John, the only place where it’s recorded. It’s been called “the raising that leads to death,” because it’s the final one of the seven signs in John and it immediately precedes Holy Week, which is of course why it’s the Gospel reading for this Sunday, a day that used to be known in the Church as “Passion Sunday” in an anticipatory sort of way.
Only days later Jesus makes the very short journey from Bethany down to Jerusalem by way of the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, entering the city to great acclaim on what we know as Palm Sunday. Those who greeted His arrival already had heard about the raising of Lazarus. John writes in the next chapter, “So the people who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead, continued to testify about Him. For this reason also the people went and met Him, because they heard that He had performed this sign” (12:17, 18).
We’ve noted before that John calls all of the miracles of Jesus “signs,” things that point beyond themselves to the Person and work of Jesus:
- The first sign, changing water to wine in chapter 2, speaks sacramentally of what Jesus does here each Sunday, when His Real Presence is among us at His table, His supper, as we commune with Him in the bread and wine. The wine also points to Jesus as the One Who satisfies our every need, both physically and spiritually, if we see Him through the eye of faith.
- The second sign, the healing from a distance of the royal official’s son in chapter 4, speaks of Jesus as the Rewarder of faith and the One Whose healing power is not restricted by time or space. Jesus simply tells the official to go home, and that he will find his son well. When he does so and asks at what hour his son’s fever left him, he finds that it was at the very hour that Jesus had promised his healing. Jesus always keeps His promise.
- The third sign is the healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda in chapter 5. Its significance is explained by Jesus when He says, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (vs. 17), and when He adds a few verses later, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” (vss. 19-21). Here is a peek ahead to what will happen with Lazarus. But for the moment the point is that Jesus is doing His Father’s work, just as the child Jesus told Mary and Joseph when they came looking for Him in the temple. We will see again this same synergy in the work of the Father and the Son just a bit later.
- The 4th sign, the Feeding of the 5,000 in chapter 6, also speaks of our communion with Jesus as the Bread of Life. Explaining this, Jesus added, "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh" (vs. 51). The sacramental foreshadowing is clear.
- The 5th sign occurs when Jesus walks on the water, also related in chapter 6. This sign, like all the others, points beyond itself to Jesus as the One Whose power and authority transcend both the forces of nature and the limitations of humans. The water on which Jesus was walking was so rough that these disciples, among whom were professional fishermen who had sailed this very sea for a living, were frightened. But when they let Jesus into the boat, they came to shore immediately, right at their destination, Capernaum on the far north shore of the lake. And so we have a sign within the sign.
- The 6th sign is the one we looked at last Sunday in chapter 9: the giving of sight to a man who was blind from birth. It was the sign that pointed to Jesus as the Light of the World. And in that context He once again affirmed His doing God’s work, saying, “We must work the works of Him Who sent Me, as long as it is day” (vss. 4, 5). Jesus also dismissed the notion that this man was born blind because of either his sin or the sin of his parents. He simply stated that “it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
This sign certainly is the most amazing one of the 7, one that eclipses the others in terms of demonstrating supernatural authority. It’s evidentiary value was so great that in John 12:10 we read that the chief priests were plotting to kill Lazarus in order to do away with the evidence. Apparently they gave no thought to the utter futility of trying to kill Lazarus as long as Jesus was still living! John tells us that that a large crowd came to Bethany, presumably from Jerusalem, “not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He raised from the dead.” And John also writes that from the very day that Jesus raised Lazarus, the chief priests began plotting to kill Him (11:53).
We often ask the same question that was on the lips of both Martha and Mary: if Jesus loved all three of them so much, why did He delay in coming to Bethany until four days after Lazarus had died? Just as in the case of the man born blind, Jesus Himself explained the whole event with these words: “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it” (11:4).
Before they began the journey to Bethany, Jesus told His disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” Martha got it mostly right in her confession when she said, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He Who comes into the world” (11:27). Then before He had even called Lazarus forth from the grave, “Jesus raised His eyes, and said, ‘Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me’” (11:41, 42). And John records that “many of the Jews who came to Mary, and saw what (Jesus) had done, believed in Him” (11:45).
Who are we in this story? Are we the disciples, following Jesus even though one of them, Thomas, spoke up and said, “Let us go (with Him to Jerusalem) so that we may die with Him”? Yet Jesus said that the death of Lazarus was so that his own disciples might believe. Apparently their faith needed to grow deeper. Remarkably, after Martha identifies Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God Who comes into the world,” Jesus asks her, “Do you believe?” Her faith needed to grow deeper until she could see Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life. Mary’s devotion to Jesus is clear from the Gospel accounts. She said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” But now she came weeping and, in response, “Jesus wept.” Even Mary’s faith needed to grow. Others who had come to console Mary saw what Jesus had done, and they believed. Apparently there are many degrees of faith, and Jesus always tries to open our eyes of faith to see more. It took the man born blind a bit more time before he could say to Jesus, “Lord I believe.” But to the Pharisees who said, “We see,” Jesus said, “Your sin remains.” They saw through the eyes of unbelief. Who are we in these stories?
The raising of Lazarus was the greatest sign of the 7, the definitive sign, the sign that most clearly pointed to Jesus as “the Resurrection and the Life.” That’s why this sign has been called “the raising that leads to death:” it leads to the death and Resurrection of Jesus Himself, the One Whom death could not hold in its grip. All that was left after this was for the events of Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday to unfold according to God’s perfect plan, according to God’s perfect will but also according to the Son’s own volition.
Jesus had made this synergy clear in chapter 10, the Good Shepherd chapter, when He said, “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father” (10:17, 18). He did this for us, for all who would come to believe in His Name, to believe that He was the Christ, to believe that the Father had sent Him. As John had written in the Prologue to his Gospel, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men” (1:4).
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace... He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household... built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:13, 14a, 17-19, 22b).
This is the message of the Passion, a message we’ve heard so many times that it may have lost some of its impact and freshness, its real power. We tend not to hear it or to experience it in the way we once did. But the reality is undiminished: Jesus willingly laid down His own life for you and for me so that we might live in Him forever.
Paul writes in Romans, “One will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7, 8). The very thing that is so contrary to human nature, so against our fierce sense of self-preservation, is the thing that Jesus did for us when we were strangers, sinners and even enemies. He gave His life.
This is the message that underlies the account of the raising of Lazarus. It was indeed a sign. It points us to the One in Whom is life, our life, eternal life. It takes us to the Cross of Jesus and to His triumph not only over the grave of Lazarus but, in the Resurrection, His triumph over His Own grave and ultimately over ours. This is the real story, the great story, the story that often is called “the greatest story ever told.” It’s so because it becomes our own story, the story of all persons who accept its reality and appropriate it for themselves. And for those who already have done so, the days ahead provide for us the perfect occasion to appropriate it once again: to walk with Him in the Way of the Cross, and to rejoice with thanksgiving for our eternal life in Him Who, on our behalf, conquered sin and death once for all.
And so, with the author of Hebrews, “Let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). He’s waiting to hear us and to give to us all that we need in Him. To Him be all honor and glory and praise both now and forever. Amen
When faith is scorned and love grows cold,
then, God of hosts, rebuild your Church
on lives of thankfulness and patient prayer;
through Christ your eternal Son. Amen