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The Life of Jesus - Series 9: Episode 9

The tragic death of Lazarus

| Martin Charlesworth
John 11:1-37

Jesus' friend Lazarus was ill and then died. Martha and Mary had sent for Jesus but he did not arrive before he died. Jesus weeps for him.

Jesus' friend Lazarus was ill and then died. Martha and Mary had sent for Jesus but he did not arrive before he died. Jesus weeps for him.


Hello, and welcome to Series 9 and Episode 9, the Tragic Death of Lazarus. We'll be studying in John 11: 1 - 37.

Introduction and Recap

If you've been following Series 9, you'll be aware that we've been following Luke's Gospel for several episodes, and in fact, Luke provides much of the material for this part of Jesus' life, and in the slightly earlier period. It's between Luke and John that we get most of the story of the events that took place as Jesus left Galilee and headed to Jerusalem.

We now switch from Luke to John, and we're going to focus on a very well-known and important story that John tells in great detail, concerning a man called Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha. Mary and Martha have appeared in the story already. Let's introduce the story by reading John 11: 1 - 3,

‘Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2(This Mary, whose brother Lazarus was now sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”’

John 11:1-3, NIV

The Family in Bethany

Here we have a family - two sisters and a brother. We don't know much about the rest of the family, or their relatives, or whether they were married or single. We'll comment on that perhaps in a moment. We have three members of the family mentioned, and we have a location, which is Bethany, a village that's just outside Jerusalem, which features significantly in our story later on. Jesus is summoned, and he's elsewhere in the country at the time, but a message is sent to him by Mary and Martha, because they're very worried about Lazarus. This isn't a virus or a cold or a throat infection or something small. This is obviously a serious illness. We don't know what it is, but they are worried that he is going to die. This Mary, of Mary and Martha, is mentioned here by John as also being the Mary who poured perfume on Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. This refers to an event later on in John's Gospel (John 12: 1-18), during the last week of Jesus' life when in Bethany at a meal, where Jesus was a guest, Mary poured perfume on Jesus, and it was symbolic of preparing him for his death in Jewish culture. That's another well-known incident about Mary which we'll come to later on in our studies, but which John just refers to briefly here.

The message comes to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’ This immediately indicates to us a significant relationship between Jesus and this family. The wonderful thing of studying the Gospels together is that they provide information that help us to understand the other accounts. You gather the information together, and you get a fuller picture. This is a very good example. Bearing in mind that John was the last one to write his Gospel, he tended to assume that people had a working knowledge of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and he added in significant details and stories such as this one, but didn't always refer back to material that related to them. This is an example of that, but in fact we know from an earlier episode, that Jesus has already, once before, been to the home of Mary and Martha. It would be good to refresh our memories and go back to this brief description which appears in Luke 10: 38 - 42. Let's read that because this gives us the background that helps us to understand the relationships between this family and Jesus.

‘As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, they came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”’

Luke 10:38-42, NIV

This is the famous story of Mary and Martha, which is used in Christian thinking to characterise different personalities, and we'll leave that story aside for the moment. Let's think about Mary and Martha as a family unit. It's Martha's home we're talking about. Jesus comes to a village that Luke doesn't name, but we know it's Bethany, because John tells us that in John 11, Bethany near Jerusalem. They're near Jerusalem at this point. He comes to this home. She offers hospitality, and her sister appears to be living with her at home. There's no reference to husbands, children, parents or any other relatives, which suggests possibly that these are two single women living in the family home. Maybe their parents are there too, maybe their parents have died. We don't know, but Mary and Martha are introduced to us.  Martha is generous in her hospitality, because when Jesus came to stay, many people came with him, and there was a lot of work to be done, as Martha found out. Mary had a particular sense of devotion to Jesus. She was unable to really focus on the domestic duties. She just wanted to listen to Jesus and to learn from him. We have that story in the background, and this suggests that some kind of relationship of friendship developed between Jesus, Mary and Martha.

Lazarus their brother is not mentioned in Luke's account, but is mentioned in John's account, and the implication is that Jesus knows Lazarus as well as he knows Mary and Martha, which suggests either Lazarus was present in the account in Luke 10, or Jesus visited on other occasions that are not recorded in the Gospels. What we see here is a particular affection between Jesus and the three named members of this family, the brother and sisters Lazarus, Martha and Mary. When they sent word to Jesus, John 11: 3, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick’, that implies a significant relationship, that Jesus has real affection for Lazarus and will be concerned for him on the grounds of friendship, as well as on the grounds of sheer human compassion. Let's read the story further.

Jesus' Reaction to the News

Let's read John 11: 4 - 16,

‘When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it.” 5Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days, 7and then he said to his disciples, “Let's go back to Judea.” 8“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they will see by this world's light. 10It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.” 11After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” 12His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. 14So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John 11:4-16, NIV

This is quite an intriguing story unfolding here. Jesus believes and understands that God is going to be glorified through this seeming tragedy that is taking place. We see very clearly his friendship for the family. Verse 5, it says that he ‘loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus’. There's a human component here that's very strong. Jesus had a number of close personal friends, and John identifies these three as being amongst them. Notice Jesus didn't rush. Whenever we hear that someone's in trouble or critically sick, the very first tendency we have is to move quickly, to rush, to get to the bedside, to get to the place, to get to the house, to get to the hospital as quickly as we can but Jesus stayed where he was and waited for two more days.

He was busy in his ministry. If we follow the chronology of John's Gospel, he was on the other side of the River Jordan, John 10: 40. He was outside Judea in a neighbouring district, called Perea, in the southern area of the country, but the other side of the River Jordan, which was the main dividing point, east of the River Jordan. That was a different jurisdiction that was ruled over by Herod Antipas, or Herod the Tetrarch, rather than directly by the Romans under Pontius Pilate in Judea. In order to go back, he had to make a reasonably long journey.

A Dangerous Journey

One of the interesting things about this journey is that going back into Judea at this point would cause the disciples to be anxious. They're worried. They remember what happened when Jesus was previously in that district. Jerusalem is at the centre of Judea. He'd been in Jerusalem recently, and faced some real hostility with a threat upon his life through a spontaneous act of stoning him. We see this in John 10: 31, and referred to in John 11: 8, ‘But Rabbi,’ … ’a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?’ They know where Jesus is going. He's going to Bethany. It's only about 3 km outside Jerusalem. He's going right back to that place of danger. Towards the end of Jesus' life, Jerusalem and the surrounding area became a dangerous place. The influence of the religious leaders was strongest in those areas. Their headquarters were in Jerusalem. They were already intent on killing him. For Jesus to go back to Bethany involves an actual risk of physical attack, or arrest, or some other form of harassment, possibly even his life would be in danger. Such was the conflict with the religious authorities.

That explains why Thomas says in verse 16 ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ He's acknowledging the risk that this could be the end of their ministry, and interestingly enough, Thomas shows real courage here. This is the same Thomas we call ‘doubting Thomas’ because in the time of Jesus' resurrection, he wasn't present at the time when Jesus came to the house in Jerusalem, where the disciples were present behind locked doors, for fear of the Jewish leaders (John 20:24). Jesus revealed himself to them, and Thomas, for some reason, wasn't there. He said ‘I'm not going to believe until I actually see Jesus, I've placed my hands in his side and actually touch him and feel his physical presence.’ We call him Doubting Thomas, but it was a fairly legitimate doubt in the context. His bravery here suggests a man of real character. We know that from Early Church history, the traditional records tell us that Thomas travelled far and wide, far to the east of Israel, into the Middle East and towards India to preach the Gospel. So here's a courageous man. Here's an act of courage from Thomas; he thinks there's danger, but we need to go because Jesus needs to respond to this need. Thomas probably had faith that Jesus was going to do something miraculous. There had been people raised from the dead in the past that the disciples had seen. Thomas seemed to take a view that Jesus was going to do something significant, even though there's a real risk.

Jesus Meets Martha and Then Mary

Verses 17 - 37 tells us the poignant and emotional story of Jesus' arrival in Bethany and his meeting with Martha and Mary after Lazarus' death:

‘On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was less than two miles (or 3 Kilometres) from Jerusalem, 19and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha answered, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” 28After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and he is asking for you.” 29When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. 32When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you'd been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who'd come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34“Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35Jesus wept. 36Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”’

John 11:17-37, NIV

Lazarus was dead by the time Jesus arrived. It was the Jewish custom to place the body of the deceased in the tomb very quickly, and then the whole community joined in showing their respects in public mourning. The crowd would go to the tomb side at the time of burial, and then the community would be in a state of mourning for some time. People would come to the house of the family to show respect, people would go to the tomb side, and many would weep in public for the person who has been lost. We see a similar scene earlier in the gospels, in Luke 7, when Jesus raised the son, the only son of a widow, in a place called Nain. I'm going to read that account very briefly, to remind us of the sort of atmosphere that existed around this situation. Luke 7: 12 - 13,

‘As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her.13When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don't cry.”’

Luke 7:12-13, NIV

In this particular case, the funeral party was heading to the site of the tomb, and a large crowd from the town was with her. This is indicative of the sort of mourning. People in the whole community will engage in an act of mourning in a small village, like Nain, and for that matter like Bethany. We can imagine large crowds being on the street, by the side of the tomb, talking amongst each other, coming to the family home, bringing gifts. This is the context in which Jesus arrives. Public mourning is already taking place.

Jesus talks to Martha first of all. She is so regretful that Jesus had not come in time. What she anticipated was Jesus performing a healing miracle on a sick man. That was the sort of thing Jesus did hundreds and thousands of times, and Martha knew about that and would have seen some of those healing miracles. But no, it was not to be. She had faith in Lazarus being raised again from the dead at the last day, that is the day of God's judgement, and the day of the end of this age, that the Jews believed in. She generally had the right understanding of what would happen - that he would be raised again at the last day. Most Jews, at this time, believed in a physical resurrection. Not all Jews though - the Sadducees didn't believe in a physical resurrection, but most of the Jews did. They didn't have a very clear idea how this whole process was going to happen.

Jesus comes in and declares,

‘“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha says “Yes, ….I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”’

John 11: 25-27, NIV

She has a very strong faith in Jesus. It's not just a friendship; it's not just sentiment; it's not just because Jesus has been to the home and he knows the family and she's expressed hospitality towards him and his disciples. No, she believes. She has a living faith but she doesn't know how to apply her faith to this tragic circumstance that her brother has died. We can assume he's probably relatively young, and so that makes the death that much more tragic. It's a premature death that we are talking about.

Then Mary comes. She's distressed. She wanted Jesus to come earlier. She doesn't understand why Jesus took so long to travel over, and during the time between the message being sent to Jesus and his arrival in Bethany, Lazarus had died and breathed his last. Jesus asked to be shown the tomb. The tombs, generally speaking, were outside the area of the village, just nearby on the outskirts, or just beyond the outskirts of the village. They took him to the place of the tomb.

As he was going to the tomb, or perhaps when he got to the tomb, Jesus' emotions became very intense, and we have this amazing, powerful and unique biblical verse in the gospels, of the shortest verse of the gospels, in John 11 verse 35, ‘Jesus wept.’ He wept in identification with the suffering of Mary and Martha principally. Maybe you know that feeling where other people's distress is so powerful in your consciousness that you cry with them. You're crying more for them than you are for yourself. Jesus identified with the family in a profound way. John is telling this story in very considerable detail, and in the next episode we will see how amazingly Lazarus is raised again from the dead, miraculously.

Three Resurrections in the Gospels

There are only three clear-cut examples of resurrection in the Gospels, where Jesus actually raises people from the dead. This is the third and the last one. The first one is in Galilee. Jairus' daughter, a young girl who died prematurely, and was lying on a bed at her home. Jesus comes to the house and raises the child up after she's stopped breathing and died, and people are mourning, crying outside the house. That's the first time - Mark 5: 21 - 24. The second one is the widow of Nain's son that we saw in Luke 7: 11 -17, in southern Galilee, where Jesus came to this town called Nain. Just as he's approaching, to come and preach and teach and heal, this funeral party is coming out, and this widow comes. She has no husband, she has no other sons, she is destitute, she is bereft of help, she's lost her son. He's died prematurely, and Jesus raises him from the dead. This is now the third directly stated resurrection. And again, this is a premature death, almost certainly. The circumstances suggest that Lazarus is not an old man, and he is raised also from the dead.


As we conclude this episode, we're looking forward to the next one, because we want to see how the story ends. So I'd encourage you to get onto the next episode as quickly as you can. Keep all we said in mind as you go, and hear the story. Let's reflect on where we've got to so far. In this story, we see a clear demonstration that Jesus had profound human friendships, certainly with this family Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Also, for example, with the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, John 13: 23. Towards the end of John's Gospel, we see that expression used. Probably, it refers to John himself, the disciple with whom Jesus had a particular close friendship.

The second thing we should reflect on here is that Jesus took a risk going to Bethany. This was now hostile territory, just outside the city of Jerusalem, where he'd nearly been stoned to death not so long ago. He was taking a risk, but also the resurrection that is going to take place in the next episode is a prophetic sign to the people of Jerusalem. Jesus is going to eventually come to Jerusalem, and eventually die there, and be raised again from the dead himself, in the city area.

We all weep and mourn like Jesus did on this occasion. But the mourning, the weeping and the crying of Christians who lose loved ones and face bereavement is not the same as the sense of loss experienced by those who are not believers. Paul makes this clear. We weep, we feel for those who are left, we feel our own sense of loss, and that's important, but it's not utterly hopeless. 1 Corinthians 15: 19,

‘If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.’

1 Corinthians 15:19, NIV

Our faith isn't only for this life, it's for eternal life. 1 Corinthians 15: 22 to 25,

‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all authority, dominion and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.’

1 Corinthians 15:22-25, NIV

We have a hope for eternal life, and for resurrection life. Jesus proclaims here unambiguously that he is the resurrection and the life. The physical resurrection of people like Lazarus and the widow of Nain's son and Jairus' daughter are prophetic indicators that life goes beyond the grave, and there will be eternal life for those who believe and an eternal physical life in a resurrected body. We're going to study that in much more detail when we get to Series 14, and we look at Jesus' own resurrection.

This is a powerful and very human story, but it's only part one. Part two comes in the next episode, and I hope you join us and so we can share it together.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Martha had a ‘living faith’. What does this mean?
    2. How do you cope with God not doing things your way?
  • Discipleship
    1. How does the story of Lazarus encourage you?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. How is the mourning of Christians for Christians different from other people?
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