As I mentioned in my post on the woman at the well, I’ve been doing a class on John’s Gospel the past couple of months. It’s probably been my favourite class of this year, which is no small feat! John is such a rich gospel, and it’s been a real privilege to spend some time in it this year.
Today we reached John 11, which is all about the raising of Lazarus. This is a key chapter in John’s gospel: it seems to mark some kind of a shift. Some people talk about the ‘Book of Signs’, which culminates with the sign of Lazarus, and the ‘Book of Glory’ which talks about Jesus’ glorification as he is lifted high on the cross. Others talk about his public and private ministry (after this point Jesus’ ministry and teaching seems to move to just his disciples). It seems there there aren’t hard and fast distinctions, but however you look at it this chapter is the catalyst for the changes.
What I’d like to do in this blog post is just draw out a few thoughts on various aspects of the chapter. I’m going to skip over a lot – there’s so much here, I don’t want the blog post to become massive! – but I hope to draw out one or two key or even surprising aspects.
Firstly, let’s look at context. I believe it’s particularly important to this chapter. In chapter 10:1-21, Jesus talks to the Pharisees and says to them: “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.” (v1). In other words, he is accusing the Pharisees – those who would claim to be guardians of the law in Israel – to be false shepherds, to be akin to thieves and robbers. He goes on: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (vv10-11). In other words, Jesus is the good shepherd where the Pharisees and the Jewish authorities of the day have failed. In contrast to them – thieves and even murderers – he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
Jesus then goes on to say, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (vv17-18). Note that Jesus is claiming here authority over life and death – even over his own life and death.
There are one or two more things I want to note but will reference those later on. Let’s move on now to the story itself.
The first thing to note is the ‘intentionality‘ of the sign. Jesus purposefully stays around for another couple of days when he receives the message that Lazarus was ill – and he says in 11:4, “This illness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” What is interesting here is the usage of ‘glory’: in John, the whole book builds up towards the hour where Jesus will be glorified, until it climaxes in John 17:1: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” What happens after that? John 18 and following – Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. In other words, Jesus’ glory is to do with his death and resurrection, the completion of the mission his Father had given him to do. We’ll come back to that idea.
The second thing to note is the parallels in this passage with Jesus’ resurrection. We have another stone being rolled away, another description of grave clothes, and another period of days before resurrection. There are of course differences, but I would suggest we are supposed to see in this passage an enacted demonstration of what Jesus had been talking about in chapter 10: Jesus is the one who has power over life and death. More than that, but he has power over his own life and death. Again, we’ll come back to that idea.
The third thing to note is small but I like it: in v43, Jesus cries “Lazarus, come out!” If you look back to chapter 10, Jesus says in v3 “He [the good shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out”. That’s interesting, isn’t it? I think it’s more evidence that this chapter demonstrates what Jesus is talking about in 10:1-21.
Finally, let’s think about how all this fits together. We’ve looked at Jesus having authority over his own life and death. We’ve looked at Jesus’ glory being the cross and resurrection. How do these things fit together?
As I mentioned at the start, the last section of chapter 11 sees the Sanhedrin (Jewish authorities) meeting together to officially sanction Jesus’ death. Whereas before some of them had tried to kill Jesus, this time it was definitely going to happen. In other words by raising Lazarus from the dead, ironically Jesus had sealed his own fate. The chief priests and Pharisees prove Jesus’ words from 10:10 to be absolutely true: “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy…” Here, they are killing the author of life.
And yet, at the same time, even with this they are simply instruments in God’s hands. This is what Lincoln says in his commentary:
In the light of what the preceding scenes have demonstrated about Jesus’ identity, there is a sense of profound irony about the decision-making of the agents of death, a sense of their ultimate impotence before the force of life that is operative in Jesus. Their scheming can only contribute to the life that will flow from Jesus’ death and to the vindication of that death in his resurrection
Jesus, in raising Lazarus, has proved that he has authority over life and death. The Jewish authorities, in plotting to kill Jesus, in a supreme irony actually bring about God’s plan to bring eternal life.
In his summary of this chapter, Lincoln says:
As a result of the initial overcoming of death for Lazarus, the one who is the resurrection and the life is himself put under the sentence of death. Only in his own death and resurrection to life will the decisive defeat of the great enemy, death, take place. Lazarus’ resurrection, then, is a sign that points ahead to the final resurrection [my emphasis], precipitates the death of Jesus – life for Lazarus means death for Jesus – but also anticipates the vindication of that death[my emphasis] in Jesus’ own resurrection
Jesus bringing life causes the plot to kill him – but the very plot to kill him will bring about eternal life.