Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” (John 11:1-6).
During the next several days we will be studying the familiar story of Jesus raising His friend Lazarus from the dead. The chapter can be divided into three major categories. The first category is the preparation for the miracle (11:1–16).
Let’s begin by looking at the facts as John presents them. To begin with, a certain man was ill. We do not know what particular illness plagued the man. The word ill, and illness, is from the Greek word ἀσθενέω (astheneo) meaning to be sick, disabled and weak. This leads us to believe that the man in question was suffering from some kind of disease as opposed to an injury.
John also informs us that the man in particular was Lazarus of Bethany. Bethany was a small town located on the east side of the Mount of Olives and the City of Jerusalem. Bethany is about two miles from Jerusalem (John 11:18) along the road leading to Jericho.
Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha. This is the first mention of this family in this Gospel. John comments to his readers that this particular woman named Mary, since there were several Mary’s in Jesus’ life, was the one who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair (John 12:1-8). At this time of this writing, the church was already familiar with the story of Mary’s anointing of Jesus prior to His death and resurrection. Luke records that Mary and Martha ministered to Jesus by their hospitality (Luke 10:38).
In light of Lazarus’ illness, his sisters sent word to Jesus that their brother was ill. This is a possible indication that the illness was serious and life threatening. As the text unfolds, we will see that this was true.
John adds the sisters saying “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” While the message was direct and to the point, so also was its intent. The sisters communicate their distress over their brother’s condition and they desire some alleviation for the brother from the illness. Their hope in healing is because Jesus loves Lazarus.
One commentator writes, “Since Jesus was in the Transjordan and Lazarus was near Jerusalem, the message to Jesus would most likely have taken one whole day to reach him. Surely by omniscience, Jesus already knew of Lazarus’s condition (see v. 6; 1:47). He may have died before the messenger reached Jesus, since he was dead four days (11:17) when Jesus arrived, after a two-day delay (v. 6) and a one-day journey.”
Upon receiving the news, Jesus announces to His disciples “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Jesus is not being ambivalent about Lazarus’ situation but wants His disciples to know that the illness is not deadly and will glorify God.
Almost as a coda, or an addendum, John again states that Jesus not only loved Lazarus but also Mary and Martha. This statement will set the reader up for verse 6 which states that Jesus delayed in coming to the scene. Why the delay?
John Calvin explains that, “As Christ is the only mirror of the grace of God, we are taught by this delay on His part that we ought not to judge the love of God from the condition which we see before our eyes. When we have often prayed to Him He often delays His assistance, either that He may increase still more our ardor in prayer or that He may exercise our patience and at the same time accustom us to obedience. Let believers then implore the assistance of God, but let them also learn to suspend their desires if He does not stretch out His hand for their assistance as soon as they may think that necessity requires; for whatever may be His delay, He never sleeps and never forgets His people.”
As Pastor Burk Parsons concludes, “At times, God might seem to delay in responding to our prayers and our needs. God’s timing is not our timing, and His timing is always perfect. If we are tempted to believe God has forgotten us, let us remember that what seems to be a delay is actually His working out His perfectly timed plan for us and for His creation.”
More to come!
Soli deo Gloria!