Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?” (John 11:17-26)
In studying the familiar story of Jesus raising His friend Lazarus from the dead, John 11 can be divided into four major categories. The first category is the preparation for the miracle (11:1–16). The second is the arrival of Jesus prior to the miracle (vv. 17–36). The third is the miracle itself (vs. 38-44). The fourth and final category is the results of the miracles (vs. 45-57).
When John mentions that Lazarus had been dead for four days, he wants us to understand that Lazarus was indeed dead. With a tip of the hat to Charles Dickens and his announcement of the reality of Jacob Marley being surely dead at the beginning of The Christmas Carol, it can also be said that “Lazarus was dead. There is no doubt whatever about that. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come from the story I am going to relate.”
Dr. R. C. Sproul explains that, “The ancient Jewish rabbis believed that when a person dies, his soul hovers near his body for three days, which meant it was theoretically possible for the soul to reenter the body during that period and bring it back to life. After day three, the soul would depart and death was irreversible. The body would remain in the grave until the resurrection at the end of the age. Given that belief, John’s mention that four days have passed since Lazarus’ death when Jesus arrives at Bethany is an important detail (John 11:17). All hope of a natural explanation for Lazarus’ resurrection has passed, so when our Lord raises Him, it will be a particularly clear proof of His supernatural power and authority. When He calls Lazarus forth from the grave, it will prove that He possesses life in Himself (vv. 43–44; see 5:25–29).”
Lazarus was in a tomb. Dr. John MacArthur provides historical and cultural insight regarding what Lazarus’ tomb would have been like.
“The term “tomb” means a stone sepulcher. In first-century Israel such a grave was common. Either a cave or rock area would be hewn out, the floor inside leveled and graded to make a shallow descent. Shelves were cut out or constructed inside the area in order to bury additional family members. A rock was rolled in front to prevent wild animals or grave robbers from entering (see also v. 38). The evangelist made special mention of the fourth day (see note on v. 3) in order to stress the magnitude of the miracle, for the Jews did not embalm and by then the body would have been in a state of rapid decomposition.”
There is a possibility that Mary, Martha and Lazarus belonged to a prominent family. Many came to console the sisters. As one commentator explains, “Bethany was near Jerusalem and many of these Jews would have come from there. That Mary owned such an expensive bottle of perfume would seem to support the idea that the family had some wealth and would have been well known (12:1–8). If this is true, Jesus’ miracle takes on some additional significance. By raising a well-known person to life, Jesus is ensuring that many people will hear of this act and see who He is. The fact the Jews were there, an identifying title for the Pharisees and Sadducees, only heightens the suspense of what will happen when Jesus arrives on the scene.
When Martha heard that Jesus had arrived, she went and met Him. The text says Mary remained seated in the house. This perhaps is an indication that Martha was a woman of action while Mary was a person of contemplation (See Luke 10:38-42). John does not make a judgment as to which sister acted more appropriately but only to reveal their consistent contrast of personalities.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Martha is not rebuking Jesus but only affirming her absolute trust in Jesus. Her statement is a confession of a sincere faith in Jesus. However, she attributes any resurrection of her brother to be from God the Father at his point in the conversation.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha is not expecting an immediate resurrection of her brother but that is what she is going to get.
Was Martha placing a limit upon Jesus? Perhaps! Perhaps we do the same.
More to come.
Soli deo Gloria!