Jesus and his disciples have previously left Jerusalem to escape the hostility Jesus was facing there. Many scholars believe that they are staying in the region of Batanea, which is about one hundred miles northeast of Jerusalem. Jesus receives word that his friend, Lazarus, is ill. Lazarus lives with his two sisters, Mary and Martha, in a town called Bethany, which is about two miles east of Jerusalem. When Jesus hears about Lazarus, he assures his disciples that through Lazarus’ illness, God will be glorified.
Two days later, Jesus announces that he is going back to Judea, the province in which Jerusalem and Bethany are located. His disciples, fearful for his safety, ask him why he is returning. He answers that Lazarus is dead and Jesus wants to go to him. Jesus adds, mysteriously, that he is glad he wasn’t there with Lazarus before he died, so that his disciples might believe. Thomas (one of Jesus’ disciples), not understanding what Jesus is talking about, resigns himself to go with Jesus, even though he fears that all the disciples may be killed by the Jewish authorities.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, he learns that Lazarus has been dead for four days. The fourth day after death is an important milestone for Jews at this time. Jews believed a person’s soul would hover over the dead body for three days, trying to return to the body. After three days, when decomposition had set in, the soul would depart. In other words, there was no question that Lazarus was dead four days after he was buried. If it had been one to three days, there would have been some doubt as to whether he was actually deceased.
Martha, one of Lazarus’ sisters comes to meet Jesus and bemoans the fact that Jesus did not arrive before Lazarus died. She has presumably seen Jesus heal sick people and she assumes he would have done the same for Lazarus.
Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again, but she thinks he is referring to the future resurrection of all believers when the messianic kingdom begins. Jesus responds by saying, “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.” Jesus asks Martha if she believes what he just said, and she replies, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” Martha affirms her belief in Jesus as the promised Messiah, and as a man who has a unique relationship with God.
What does Jesus mean by saying he is the resurrection and the life? D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, writes:
Jesus has repeatedly mentioned resurrection on the last day (5:21, 25–29; 6:39–40). In this he has been in line with mainstream Judaism. But these references have also insisted that he alone, under the express sanction of the Father, would raise the dead on the last day. The same truth is now repeated in the pithy claim, I am the resurrection and the life. Jesus’ concern is to divert Martha’s focus from an abstract belief in what takes place on the last day, to a personalized belief in him who alone can provide it. Just as he not only gives the bread from heaven (6:27) but is himself the bread of life (6:35), so also he not only raises the dead on the last day (5:21, 25ff.) but is himself the resurrection and the life. There is neither resurrection nor eternal life outside of him.
Note that as soon as a person believes in Jesus, eternal life begins. That is why Jesus can refer to a person physically dying, but yet still living. Eternal life does not start after death, but immediately upon believing in Jesus. The person who has eternal life will never experience a permanent death.
Martha then returns to her home to get Mary, her sister, and bring her to Jesus. The mourners who are comforting Mary rise and follow them. Apparently Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were wealthy because quite a few people had come from Jerusalem to mourn with Mary and Martha.
Mary repeats what Martha had said to Jesus, that Jesus could have healed Lazarus if Jesus had arrived while Lazarus was alive. This time, however, Jesus reacts to her weeping, and the weeping of the mourners, with indignation and then weeping of his own. Why did Jesus react with anger and indignation, and then weeping?
Carson offers two interpretations:
Some think that Jesus is moved by their grief, and is consequently angry with the sin, sickness and death in this fallen world that wreaks so much havoc and generates so much sorrow. Others think that the anger is directed at the unbelief itself. The men and women before him were grieving like pagans, like ‘the rest of men, who have no hope’ (1 Thes. 4:13). Profound grief at such bereavement is natural enough; grief that degenerates to despair, that pours out its loss as if there were no resurrection, is an implicit denial of that resurrection.
Notice that nobody, including Jesus’ disciples, Martha, Mary, or the Jewish mourners understand who Jesus is and what his mission is. They accept that he can heal, but they do not even consider that he can raise a man from the dead. They do not fully understand that he has been sent by God to conquer sin and death. Gerald Borchert, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary, agrees:
The other places in the Gospels where such a depth of Jesus’ emotions were expressed are specifically places related to his mission: the places where he groaned over the failure of Jerusalem to come to him (cf. Matt 23:37–39; Luke 13:34–35), where he prayed for his disciples’ safety and future (cf. John 17:9–26), and where he wrestled with his death and the disciples’ weaknesses (cf. Matt 26:37–41; Mark 13:33–37; Luke 22:40–46; John 12:27–28). Accordingly, I would maintain that Jesus’ weeping here is directly related to the failure of his followers to recognize his mission as the agent of God. God’s Son was in their midst. They really missed the point.
Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus and instructs the crowd to remove the stone which is covering the entrance to the tomb. Martha, not understanding what Jesus is about to do, warns Jesus that removing the stone is a mistake because Lazarus’ decaying body will stink.
Jesus reminds her that because she believes in him, she will see the glory of God. Jesus speaks a short prayer to God the Father, thanking Him for hearing Jesus. He then yells at the tomb, “Lazarus, come out.” Lazarus comes out of the tomb, and the onlookers unbind him from his graveclothes.
Carson explains that the
corpse was customarily laid on a sheet of linen, wide enough to envelop the body completely and more than twice the length of the corpse. The body was so placed on the sheet that the feet were at one end, and then the sheet was drawn over the head and back down to the feet. The feet were bound at the ankles, and the arms were tied to the body with linen strips. The face was bound with another cloth (soudarion, a loan-word from the Latin sudarium, ‘sweat-cloth’, often worn in life around the neck). Jesus’ body was apparently prepared for burial in the same way (cf. 19:40; 20:5, 7). A person so bound could hop and shuffle, but scarcely walk. Therefore when Jesus commanded Lazarus to come forth, and the dead man came out, Jesus promptly gave the order, Take off the grave clothes and let him go.
The Chronological Study Bible explains the significance of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead:
The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is the turning point in John’s Gospel. Not only is this miracle the last of the ‘signs’ emphasized by John . . . , it is also the climax of Jesus’ public ministry. Repeatedly John mentions how this miracle revealed Jesus and led people to believe (11: 4, 15, 25– 27, 40, 42, 45). Raising Lazarus from the dead dramatically concluded Jesus’ public ministry among the Jews (11: 54). While some came to believe in Him because of this great miracle, His opponents, alarmed at Jesus’ growing popularity, resolved ‘to put Him to death’ (11: 53). A threat of execution had already hung over Jesus (11: 8, 16), but now the religious authorities decided that His popularity threatened to provoke intervention by the Roman military. The priest Caiaphas advised that Jesus must die so that the Romans would not take away the privileges of the Jewish nation (11: 48). But John interprets the priest’s political calculation as an indirect prophecy that Jesus would die for the salvation of the Jews and of people everywhere who would believe in Him (11: 51, 52).