One commentator has said that “The raising of Lazarus is the Gospel in miniature.”
I think that is right, because this miracle, unique to John, fulfills his Gospel’s intent for the reader, encapsulates all John’s major themes, and occupies a crucial place in his telling of the story of Christ.
The raising of Lazarus is the last and most dramatic of the miraculous signs done by Jesus in John’s Gospel, and yet like all signs as important as the event itself is, just as important is how people respond to it.
More than once John tells his reader that the Gospel is written that those who read it might believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It is for the same reason that Jesus performs this miracle, to demonstrate his divine origin. At the same time, I think he performs this miracle for entirely understandable reasons that emanate from not just his divinity but his perfect humanity.
First we must speak of Martha, who takes the initiative to meet Jesus on his way to her house. Her faith is strong already, surely as a result of her family’s deep friendship with Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha is 100 percent confident that Jesus has power to heal the sick.
And yet Jesus will deepen her faith in him yet further. “And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Notice the open-endedness of Martha’s faith: She does not know how God will empower Jesus the Son, but she does believe that God will empower Jesus the Son with whatever he asks no matter how daring or unexpected.
Her faith is already open to the possibility that not only can Jesus heal; he can raise the dead, and to prove that he can raise the dead, he raises just one dead man now, his dear friend Lazarus.
Much as he provided literal bread to thousands of hungry people to prove that he is the true spiritual bread that comes down from heaven, and much as he opened the eyes of a blind man to the literal light of the sun to prove that he is the spiritual light that enlightens all people, so now he raises a man from literal death to prove the truth of his resounding words: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Now we know that believers in Christ will face the end of their mortal lives; even Lazarus dies after having been raised. When Jesus speaks of himself as the resurrection and the life he means that mortal death is not the end of our lives, and that anyone who believes in him will never die in the sense that their life is indestructible, though of course in this world that life comes to a temporary end as it did for Lazarus.
Jesus then sharpens this extraordinary teaching and promise by putting the question directly to Martha: “Do you believe this?” It is not enough to think this might be true or to believe it in the abstract, and her answer proves that her already strong faith in Jesus is now even more profound and personally appropriated: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
There is in John’s Gospel no more perfect confession of faith, nor a more complete realization of John’s intention in writing this Gospel. It is John too who will quote Jesus as saying blessed are those who believe without seeing. Martha has not yet even seen the miracle, but she already believes in Jesus’s words of promise.
The faith of Martha is precisely what John’s Gospel is for, and what this miracle is for: to demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of God.
But we must also speak of the faith of Mary. Notice she says the exact same thing as Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She too, like her sister, is 100 percent confident that Jesus can heal the sick.
Yet we can learn something distinctive from her experience with Jesus too.
Mary’s companions think she is going to the tomb of her brother to mourn him with weeping; she falls at Jesus’s feet weeping; she is joined by others in the shedding of tears.
And Jesus is deeply disturbed by her pain as he will be again in the next chapter when John uses the same words to describe Jesus’s being deeply disturbed by the contemplation of his own imminent death.
Their shared grief precipitates the shortest and most emotionally poignant verse in the NT: “Jesus wept.”
Here we see I think another perfectly valid reason why Jesus performs this miracle: He is the perfect human, and like all of us he has friends, and Lazarus is a dear one.
Martha and Mary’s neighbors can see from his pain that Jesus loved his friend, so it’s not surprising that they wonder whether he could have kept Lazarus from dying in the first place.
Of course we know he could have, but this sign, like all signs, is for the glory of God, as Jesus himself says in verse 40.
Christian faith is not in denial about sickness, suffering, and death.
These are unavoidable realities for the human condition.
And when faced with sickness, suffering, and death Christian faith does not require stoicism.
Jesus was not stoical. Jesus wept. He wept because his friend is dead. He wept because death is our enemy and there is no good in it.
But Jesus did not just weep. He knew Martha was right: God would give him anything he asked, even the favor of raising his friend from the dead. He did not deny death—he used it as proof that he had been sent by God, and he used it to turn tears into joy.
He did not stand mourning by the grave, he broke it open and in a loud voice commanded the impossible: “Lazarus,” my friend, “come out.”
For the Christian death is not the last word. The last word is the glory of God, which bursts forth even from death as surely as Lazarus burst forth from his own grave, by the victorious power of Jesus Christ.
Like Martha, we have not seen what we believe. Like Mary, we shed tears of grief at all that has been lost to us in these trying times. Like their friends, we are puzzled why it could not have been different.
Like them both, may we use even this moment—may we use every moment—to build up within us the saving faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God that alone conquers death and secures for us all the resurrected life that he promised.