Yeshua, having raged against death itself is again speaking to death with final resolve, His voice brimming with fierce power, 'Unbind my dearly loved friend and let him go!' He demands it. Yeshua speaks these same words on our behalf.
An examination of Yochanan/John 11:1-44
The Death and Resurrection of Lazarus: 11:1-2 “Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Miryam and her sister Martha. 2 It was this Miryam who anointed the Lord with scented oil, and wiped Yeshua’s feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.”
Why did John, the author of this gospel, feel the need to identify Miryam with such precise detail? It’s true that there may have been several, if not hundreds of women named after the great woman of Israel--Miryam, Moses sister—among the residents of Judea, however it is unlikely that many, if any, had both a sister named Marta and a brother named Lazarus. We can be fairly sure John’s audience were almost a generation hence from the events being recorded, so it is most likely that he was using the now famous event of Miryam’s having anointed Yeshua as a way of illuminating both Miryam’s character and her relationship to the Messiah. It is interesting to note that the event John uses to clarify which Miryam he is speaking of is yet to occur in the chronology of his gospel (John 12:1-11.)
11:3-6 “So the sisters sent word to Yeshua, saying, ‘Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.’ 4 But when Yeshua heard this, He said, ‘This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.’ 5 Now Yeshua loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.”
John only uses the terminology, “whom You—Yeshua—love,” here and in relationship to himself as, “the disciple “whom Yeshua loved.”(This is a reoccurring chorus, sung throughout John’s gospel.) Primarily this indicates a special intimacy between Yeshua and those in question, a relationship which is set apart, different from the relationships He had with other disciples and family members. The point being that Lazarus was no schmo from Yeshua’s perspective, both his death and the grief of his sisters would surely have been of paramount importance to Yeshua. The text tells us that it is because He loved them that He stayed two more days in the place where He was. For most of us this seems counterintuitive but unlike Yeshua, most of us have very little idea of our own purpose or what we are capable of.
Yeshua says, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” Firstly, Yeshua is indicating foreknowledge, secondly He is expressing knowledge of purpose. He’s speaking not only of physical death—as alluded to in the following verses—but also of eternal death. This is why He goes on to speak in metaphor, likening physical death to a temporary sleep state. This event is intended to be a platform, not only for Lazarus’s physical resurrection but also for the resurrection of Messiah and the filling of G-d’s promise for a final resurrection of all humanity: some to eternal life and some to eternal death. It is this glory that Yeshua is ultimately alluding to. This is the glory of G-d the Father and Yeshua’s glory is born of it.
11:7-8 “Then after this Yeshua said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8 The disciples said to Him, ‘Rabbi, the Judeans’ were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?’”
This decision of Yeshua’s is probably best likened to a situation where any Israeli-Jew today were to suggest that he and his friends make a trip to Bethlehem—currently controlled by the Palestinian authority. In other words, “let’s go to a place where the authorities hate me and everything I represent and are willing to at very least attempt my murder.” Understanding it this way makes the disciples response seem more than justified. The Judean’s had only just attempted to stone Yeshua after His claim to deity in Jerusalem following the Chanukah celebrations recorded in John 10:22-42. From the disciples perspective there was a clear and present danger awaiting them throughout Judea. Not even the love of a dear friend would have ordinarily compelled them to go into that region given the religious-political situation.
It is important to note the use of the Greek word hra-bee for Rabbi, Later in this account Martha refers to Yeshua as the Teacher using a different Greek word didaskalos.
11:9-10 “ Yeshua answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.’”
There are several meanings that can be gleaned from this statement. Relative to Yeshua’s own ministry He is insisting here that He has a mission to complete and it will be completed in the appropriate amount of time regardless of any attempts to thwart it. In other words, “They will not be allowed to kill me until I say so—I being I AM, I and the Father are echad.”
We could also observe in this an allusion to Messiah as light of the world. He will soon be gone, returned to heaven leaving behind His Spirit--Ruach ha-Kodesh—and a choice we all must make, choosing either to walk in His light or to stumble in the darkness of this fallen world. The key here is that the day He is speaking of doesn’t shine upon us, rather it shines from within us. Yeshua is that day, that light. Notice that the text says, “But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” This is true of those who don’t accept their position as purchased children of G-d. They are said to have the night—darkness--in them, just as Yeshua has said elsewhere, “If the light inside you is darkness, how great is the darkness?” Mattitiyahu/Matthew 6:23. May His light dwell in you richly as you choose to accept His atoning death and resurrection life, thus taking your place as a chosen child of G-d.
11:11 “This Yeshua said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.”
Yeshua now uses sleep as a metaphor for physical death. This is not without Scriptural precedence, the patriarchs of Israel are said to have, “slept with their fathers.” (1 Melakhim/Kings 2:10.) However it was probably not a colloquial expression in common use at the time. What is important to understand is that Yeshua is not saying that Lazarus is sleeping because of the knowledge that He will soon raise him from the dead, rather He is saying that all physical death—that is death prior to the Judgment—is sleep, that is, temporary.
It is interesting to note that Yeshua begins by saying, “Our friends Lazarus,” but ends by saying, “I will awaken him from sleep.” Yeshua is obviously emphasizing the fact that only He is able to raise Lazarus; He may also be giving the disciples’ permission to stay behind: as disciples’ of Messiah we all find ourselves in situations where we are given a choice to remain safe or to follow Him into a terrifying situation, perhaps even at the risk of our very lives. It is important to remember that He is not giving us an ultimatum: He remains our Lord and redeemer regardless of whether we stay or go. However, if we go we may see His glory now in ways we might have missed if we had stayed.
11:12 “The disciples then said to Him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.’ 13 Now Yeshua had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. 14 So Yeshua then said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead,15 and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.’ 16 Therefore Thomas, who is called Didymus—which means twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.’”
How did Yeshua know Lazarus was dead? When the messenger was sent he brought news of grave illness, not death. Clearly, despite the many commentaries to the contrary, Yeshua knew many things outside of time, either by intimate conversation with the Father or simply because He is G-d with us.
Yeshua is glad He did not rush to the aid of Lazarus because the coming miracle will be a catalyst for the disciples belief, both in the witnessing of it and in the recollection of it, post resurrection. His comment may seem harsh at first but as we read on we can understand why Yeshua was glad. How often it has been that I have wondered at the harshness of G-d, only to discover at a later date that what looked like cruelty within my situational experience is beheld as glory outside of time. Knowing this we can only ask that G-d grant us an unnatural ability in trusting Him beyond the grave, for there are some harsh realities for which we will not see a glorious end in this life.
T’oma—Thomas—speaks from the heart here, the guy has some chuztpa that’s for sure and he’s not the doubting Thomas we all remember—take note, we’ve all doubted, there is no faith without doubt. Many have supposed a number of options for the, “him,” Thomas is referring to: some say he is referring to Lazarus but I find that highly unlikely given that the context of this conversation relates to the danger threatening Yeshua upon His return to Judea. The only realistic interpretation is that Yeshua is perceived to be throwing His life away by returning to Judea to comfort the mourning sisters and family of Lazarus. If this is the correct interpretation then Thomas, far from doubting, has become a Yeshua zealot and—perhaps caught up in the emotion of the moment—has decided to lay his life on the line alongside his Lord. Thomas doesn’t keep his passion to himself either, he excitedly invites all the disciples’ to do the same. Boo yah! Personally I don’t know what the guy was thinking, I would have stayed where I was safe on the other side of the Jordan.
11:17 “So when Yeshua came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days.”
It seems that based on this time frame that Lazarus had died soon after Yeshua and the disciples received the news of his illness. This is also significant due to the fact that there is a known first century Jewish belief that the spirit of a person stayed near the body for three days after death. After four days it was believed there was no chance of resuscitation or resurrection (Leviticus Rabbah a. 18:1.)
11:18-19 “Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about 3 kilometers away; 19 and many of the Judeans’ had come to Martha and Miryam, to console them concerning their brother.”
This gives a pretty clear indication that the family was well loved or at very least well respected by many in Judea including religious leaders and that the funeral was well attended. Some also suggest that this is a sign of the families wealthy status.
11:20 “Martha therefore, when she heard that Yeshua was coming, went to meet Him, but Miryam stayed at the house.”
The, “Therefore,” here refers to the fact that because there were some present who might seek to take hold of Yeshua, Martha would leave quickly and avoid being seen.
Why did Miryam stay in the house? The most probable answer is that she hadn’t heard that Yeshua had arrived, after all, the text says that “Martha heard,” and later we read that when Martha secretly told Miryam that the Teacher was there, Miryam got up in a rush to go to Him. Obviously Martha had heard of Yeshua’s arrival in secret, due to the fact that to tell of it openly might have endangered Yeshua.
11:21 “Martha then said to Yeshua, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.’”
This seems a reasonable observation from a grieving family member upon the arrival of the physician who could have saved her beloved brother had He been on time—that is our time. Some read malice into this, I do not. At best I hear incredulity and desperation in Martha’s voice, perhaps confusion, not anger. I think the following line affirms this.
11:22 “Even now I know that whatever You ask of G-d, G-d will give You.”
Wow, what faith, this is not the Martha we have been told about, she is not the control freak of church tradition—perhaps we all have our weaknesses nu! Whatever her understanding was, and it clearly wasn’t full by any means, she believes in her Messiah, she desperately cleaves to what she knows her friend Yeshua can do, why? Because she has faith that G-d—whom she worships—will give Yeshua—perhaps, in her current estimation merely a prophet but a much loved one—whatever He asks. I suspect that at very least she saw her friend and Rabbi Yeshua as a prophet like Moses and believed in His ability to do mighty acts for the sake of Israel.
11:23-24 “Yeshua said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24 Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’”
In hindsight we say, “How could she not know He was referring to the imminent resurrection of Lazarus?” We are all about the instant miracle in the Church today, “Now Lord,” we demand. Perhaps we need to learn the opposite lesson to Martha, perhaps we need to learn to believe again in the Olam Haba—world to come—and the physical, yes I said physical, resurrection of the dead. We will not float in the ether friends, we will be raised to life and given new physical bodies for the purpose of living on a new physical earth in the presence of G-d eternally.
In fact Martha’s answer is a very good Jewish answer for the time. Other than the Sadducees, almost every Jewish sect believed in the Olam Habba—world to come, the last day (Judgment day)—and the physical resurrection of the dead. Martha merely responded with the then current Jewish theological understanding—which was not a wrong understanding, it was just incomplete. It was missing the Haf-tarah—filling/completing of the Torah. Again, her proclamation shows great faith even though it lacks a full understanding. Go Martha, you’re awesome.
11:25-26 “Yeshua said to her, ‘I AM the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’”
John is again using the Greek language to affirm a living title for HaShem, “I AM that I AM.” This is an unmistakable reference to the Holy One of Israel. Yeshua is claiming to be G-d with us. In addition He is identifying Himself to Martha as the past, present and future Resurrection. He is aware that the miracle He is about to perform in the physical world will echo in eternity. The raising of Lazarus and the subsequent affect it has on the people of Judea will become the catalyst for the religious leaders plan to put Yeshua to death. This in turn will produce His resurrection, a resurrection than will take hold of the keys of hades and death and consume them with victory and life.
When Yeshua says, “and the life,” He is speaking of eternal life: this is the juxtaposition to the temporary sleep of the present physical death—this is not to say that eternal life will not be physical, it will simply be a new kind of physical devoid of the effects of sin. Those who believe in Him then, even when they die in this present life are assured of eternal life beyond the grave, and those who believe in Him and live until His return will simply be transformed. As it is written elsewhere, “We will not all sleep but we will all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51.)
11:27 “She said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Messiah, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.’”
Martha doesn’t really answer the question. Yeshua is asking if she believes He is the Resurrection, Martha clearly doesn’t understand what He’s asking—and neither would we—so she answers with what she does know, that He is the Messiah, the Son of G-d, the One Moses and the prophets had promised to Israel. Again, this shows great faith however she is yet to understand the all-encompassing reality of what it means for Yeshua to be the Messiah.
11:28 “When she had said this, she went away and called Miryam her sister, saying secretly, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’”
Martha probably says this secretly so as to protect Yeshua from danger. It seems obvious that Miryam had not been aware that Yeshua had come. While Yeshua’s personal request for Miryam is not stated it is inferred by the text. Martha calls Yeshua, “The Teacher,” using the Greek word didaskalos rather than the more common colloquial reference hra-bee—rabbi. Martha is making a confession of her belief that Yeshua is not merely a Jewish Rabbi, He is The Teacher, the One above all others; she leaves no room for confusion here. Perhaps, like Miryam, The Teacher is calling you, drawing you near in your hour of deep grief.
11:29-32 “And when she heard it, she got up quickly and was coming to Him.30 Now Yeshua had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha met Him. 31 Then the Judeans’ who were with her in the house, and consoling her, when they saw that Miryam got up quickly and went out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Therefore, when Miryam came where Yeshua was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.’”
Miryam rushed to see Yeshua and in turn the other Judean mourners rushed to pursue her, thinking they were going to the grave site. The, “therefore,” in the text tells us that it was as a result of Miryam’s rushing that she fell at Yeshua’s feet: exhausted from grief and abrupt exercise Miryam sees her close friend and Teacher Yeshua and falls at His feet, utterly spent. Miryam then repeats Martha’s question, probably for the same reasons but Yeshua, seeing her exhaustion from passionate grief does not enter into the same teaching dialogue He had shared previously with Martha, why? Because He connects with each person in the appropriate way for their personality and position.
11:33-36 “When Yeshua therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He snorted with anger, moved in spirit and was troubled, 34 and said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to Him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35 Yeshua wept. 36 So the Jews were saying, ‘See how He loved him!’”
Some have suggested that Yeshua was angry due to the disbelief of Miryam and those with her, that He was also angered by the professional mourners present—something that is presumed by scholars but not stated in the Scripture account. This seems ludicrous at best, an idea perpetuated by scholars who have never met the merciful and compassionate Messiah of our faith. How could Yeshua be angry at Miryam, who had merely implored Him with the appropriate question of grief? A women whom the Scripture says, “He loved,” grieving with her friends for the tragic loss of her brother. Some refer to the conversation with Martha saying that Martha angered Yeshua with her failure to understand: what nonsense, Yeshua is not angered by our inability to understand but rather by our arrogant resistance in the face of understanding. Even if this was the case, Martha is not mentioned here directly.
In fact the text tells us what Yeshua is angry toward. It says, “Therefore,” that is, having seen what had come before, Miryam’s desperate rushing toward Him in hope of a miracle and “seeing her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He snorted with anger, moved in spirit and was troubled.” Yeshua was angry at the work of death itself, at the resulting suffering that death—born of sin, that is of the evil one—had brought to G-d’s children, and subsequently to Yeshua Himself, He would soon subject Himself to death on a cross for all our sakes.
The Greek word used to describe the weeping of the Judeans means a loud wailing however the word used to denote Yeshua’s weeping refers to a quiet, intimate and intense form of weeping. It was this contrasting and authentic grief that those around Yeshua witnessed, therefore causing them to say, “See how He loved him.”
11:37 “But some of them said, ‘Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?’”
It is important to note that this statement does not have to be interpreted with malice. This is simply the valid public expression of the same question both Miryam and Martha had already asked. In addition, this was only spoken by some of those present.
11:38 “So Yeshua, again snorting with anger from within, came to the tomb.”
Note the fact that there is no, “Therefore,” here. Yeshua is not snorting with anger because of what has been said, the narrative simply proceeds to the next movement of the account. Again, Yeshua is angry at death itself and He is about to speak forth from the power of His own future resurrection—although, outside of time He has effectively already been crucified and resurrected from G-d’s perspective, therefore predestination and freewill are here working together.
11:38-39 “Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.39 Yeshua said, ‘remove the stone.’”
Here the stone is removed by human beings, this stands in stark contrast to the stone removed by angels at the mouth of Yeshua’s own tomb.
11:39 “Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.’”
After four days a body is already aggressively decaying, the skin takes on a grey pallor and is devoid of the natural oils that would normally moisten it. In addition the stench of decaying biological matter can cause those around the body to reach—vomit. This is compounded by that fact that modern techniques for preserving bodies were not available to the people of first century A.D. Therefore Martha’s statement is perfectly valid—something that was on the mind of all who heard Yeshua. There is no reason to read anything more than incredulity and confusion into her query, those who do are looking to place blame and missing the point entirely.
11:40 “Yeshua said to her, ‘Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’”
What is the glory of G-d? Certainly the miracle He is about to perform will bring glory to G-d and to Yeshua, but is this the ultimate form of the glory that will result from this event? Given that this event is the cause for the inception of the plan to put Yeshua to death I believe that Yeshua is looking past this event to His own death and resurrection. This is the fulfilling of the plan and glory of G-d relative to humanity.
11:41-42 “So they removed the stone. Then Yeshua raised His eyes, and said, ‘Father, I thank You that You have heard Me.42 I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.’”
Simply put, “I could simply think this into being without any outward representation of power, but I want all these present to understand the relationship You and I have, so I’m going to say it all out loud for their sake.” Yeshua and the Father have probably been taking about this from before the birth of Moses, this whole event is a performance of grace and redemption, witnessed by the people of Judea.
11:43-44 “When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ 44 The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Yeshua said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”
I see Yeshua here fierce with love for Lazarus, screaming to His friend, ignoring death—who is desperately trying to hang on to Lazarus—and with the power of His own coming resurrection His words reach into sheol—which refers to a holding place and not to the grave, the Hebrew word for grave is Kever—like a hand wrenching Lazarus up into His light. Lazarus, having been disturbed from the bosom of Abraham—the holding place of the righteous—stumbles out of the tomb pulling at the grave cloth around his eyes, trying to see what’s going on, maybe a little dazed from the whole experience?
It’s here that I see the culmination of this wonderful miracle. Practically speaking Yeshua is asking that those present help Lazarus out of his grave clothes but there’s more: Yeshua, having raged against death itself is again speaking to death with final resolve, His voice brimming with fierce power, “Unbind my dearly loved friend and let him go!” He demands it. Yeshua speaks these same words on our behalf.
I am reminded of the words of the now famous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953):
“And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
From the poem “Do not go Gentle into that Good Night,” written for his dying father.
© 2014 Yaakov Brown
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.