John’s story of the raising of Lazarus is the pivotal event of the fourth gospel. The raising of Lazarus brings the so-called book of signs to its climax. In Lazarus emerging from the tomb we get the clearest glimpse yet of who Jesus is. Repeatedly Jesus has spoken of eternal life. Now his actions demonstrate his climatic announcement:
I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. John 11:25-26
The story is itself filled with pathos and humor. The pathos is obvious. Mary wept. The mourners wept. Even Jesus wept. The 2000 year old scene is not that different from the ones I’ve encountered in grieving families (including my own) over the years. Death’s destructive power is not to be underestimated or dismissed lightly. The scriptures rarely take the view, “Well, he lived a good life and now it’s at its natural end. On with life we go.” Death brings tears, not stoic resignation or a stiff upper lip. The mourners ask the questions that we ponder but seldom voice. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?
At the end of the story, God turns tears into joy and laughter. Well, at least it’s laughter for me. I find the image of Lazarus waddling penguin-like from the tomb with his feet bound by strips of cloth to be humorous.
Resurrection and Life
Jesus does not dispute Mary’s belief that her brother “will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” The belief in resurrection at the last day is one that Jesus shared with the Pharisees and a large segment of Judaism. Jesus rather claims that he is the agent of resurrection and the embodiment of eternal life.
For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. John 5:21
Eternal life (or, perhaps, “life of the age to come”) is given to those who believe in the son who will be lifted up (John 3:14-16). It comes from drinking the water of life which springs up in those to whom Jesus gives it (John 4:14) It is given to the sheep of Jesus’ flock (John 10:27-28). The one who “eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54). An element of “last days” thinking, then, remains in Jesus’ understanding of eternal life.
Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. John 5:28-29
Still, it is hard to miss the “right now” dimension of Jesus’ teaching.
I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. John 5:24
The Rest of the Story
Lazarus’ story does not end with the miracle of his revivification. Rather, it sets in motion a sequence of events that leads to Jesus’ crucifixion. John is quite clear about this matter. In John 12:1-19 we read that Lazarus’ sister was so overwhelmed with gratitude that she poured out a bottle of perfume worth over $20,000 (well, a year’s wages for a laborer) on Jesus’ feet. Judas Isacariot becomes incensed at the extravagance (although John also tells us that Judas had himself been stealing from the common purse). Judas’ anger is the reason, John implies, that Judas will betray Jesus in chapter 13.
Furthermore, Lazarus became something of a tourist attraction (John 12:9). Crowds came from Jerusalem to gawk at the risen one. When Jesus left Bethany for Jerusalem, large crowds followed him. Still others who had heard about Lazarus joined the throng. Together, they lined the route with palm branches and shouted “Hosanna. Blessed is he comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel.” As a result, those opposed to Jesus decided to kill not only Jesus, but Lazarus as well. John is quite explicit about these connections as he tells the story.
The One Whom Jesus Loved
Even this might not be the end of Lazarus’ story. In John 11:3, the disciples call Lazarus “the one whom you [Jesus] love.”
Ben Witherington asks, “Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?” This fascinating article is a “must read.”
Was Lazarus that unnamed disciple that we meet repeatedly through the rest of John’s gospel? Was he the one dining at Jesus’ side in John 13:13? (Witherington says that is where the host would sit.) Is he the unnamed disciple that we see with Jesus’ mother at the cross in John 19:26? Is he the one with Peter at the empty tomb in John 20:2? Is he the one with fishing with Peter in John 21:7? If Lazarus is the beloved disciple, then his recollections are at the heart of John’s gospel (John 21:24).
The identification of Lazarus makes sense of the rumor addressed in John 21:21-24. A belief had arisen that the beloved disciple would not die before Jesus returned. That would make perfect sense for one whom Jesus had already raised. Lazarus, John would be reminding us, continued to live in this mortal world even though Jesus had given new life to his mortal body.
Whether or not Witherington is correct, there is an important difference between Lazarus’ resuscitation and and Jesus’ resurrection. Lazarus remained mortal. Jesus revived him, but he eventually died as all mortals do. The risen Jesus appeared in locked rooms (John 20:19). He was sometimes unrecognizable (John 21:4). To use words from other New Testament authors, Jesus’ body had been glorified and he now lived as the first fruits of the resurrection from the dead. In this age, even the miracle of resuscitation has a temporary and local effect. Lazarus, Mary, Martha, you and I all wait for the final transformation that Jesus has already experienced. In the meantime, those who believe in the one who proclaimed himself “the resurrection and the life” indeed share his kingdom life even now.