The events in John 11-12 involve a dynamic interaction between Jesus, his friends, a curious crowd[i] and some very concerned authorities.
We read of spies, intrigue, assassination plots and a mutinous disciple.
The text tells us that Jesus’ friends had serious concerns for his safety in a crowd[ii]. This is emphasised by John when he tells us that Jesus is warned against returning to Bethany (11:8).
In 10:31, John states that the reason for this is due to a previous clash, between offended stone throwers and their intention to arrest Jesus, who only after pushing them back with verbal rebuttals manages to avoid any further unnecessary contact.
We see this danger also exemplified by the assassination plots first laid out against Jesus and then Lazarus. We are later told of Caiaphas, the chief priest[iii], and his appeasement not just of 1st Century Jewish law, but also that of the ‘Pax Romana’; a 1st and 2nd century status quo enforced by Rome’s well disciplined, and heavily equipped legions.
The text then shows the true extent of Iscariot’s character, as Mary, in front of the risen Lazarus and his sister Martha, pours ointment, made of an expensive Indian perfume, onto the ‘feet of Jesus, wiping his feet with her hair.’
In John’s reflection we are unable to escape the tension as he writes:
‘Judas did not care for the poor. He was a thief. Having charge of the moneybag, which he used to help himself to’ (12:6)
The situation appears to have been a mix of grief, anger, joy, faith, reason and fear.
But, who, when tempted would struggle to disagree with Iscariot or the crowd today?
Jesus, this so-called ‘’preacher of love”; the so-called ‘Son of Man’; a man presumed to be one of absolute peace and tolerance, so easily managed to incite the anger of the authorities.
If he is about grace, why is he so divisive?
Look at how Jesus treated his friend Lazarus and see how he is absent when Lazarus’ sisters are in need?
Why did he place his own security over the healing of his friend?
How is that not selfish betrayal?
Did his intolerance know no bounds? Perhaps the whispers and accusations spoken against him are true?
These questions might not be so unjustified, that is of course if it were not for this key event:
In front of the people gathered to console the grieving sisters, Jesus returns, prays, speaks, and then raises Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus is first met by Martha.
Possibly indicating prior conversations of lament and confusion between Lazarus’ sisters, who speak separately with Jesus and say:
“Lord, if you had been here…” (11:21 / 11:32, ESV)
He tells Martha that ‘your brother will rise again…I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?’ (11:23). Martha’s response is retold in the form of confession: ‘she believes he is the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world’ (11:27)
Yet, it’s a curious thing that following this John observing Jesus’ body language, describes him as being moved to ‘anger[iv] and indignation’[v] – better described as a ‘snarl, snort or growl’ (Carson).
With such a response and what we know of Jesus Christ, it is not beyond reason to suggest that:
Here He is, with the power of the life-giver moving through his human veins standing before the tomb of his friend.
Here, Jesus recognizes the lingering effects of death which has passed through Lazarus and still torments those gathered.
The life of Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, now silenced by the ‘total peril’[vi]; the ‘nothingness’, which is a ‘stubborn element and alien factor’[vii] that ‘opposes and resists God’s world-dominion’[viii], yet passes its devastating blow throughout all humanity.
It is here that Jesus’ ‘quiet outrage flares up again[ix]‘, yet he responds with an uncharacteristic public prayer, beginning with thanksgiving saying:
‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe you sent me’ (11:41-42, ESV)
Although ‘two interpretations are possible’[x], there is little doubt that at this point:
‘Christ does not approach the tomb of Lazarus as an idle spectator, but as a champion who prepares for a contest; He groans; for the violent tyranny of death, which he had to conquer…and contemplates the transaction itself’ (Calvin, 361)
Here ‘Christ shows that he is the commencement of life and that the continuance of life is also a work of his grace’ (Calvin, 356), commanding bystanders to:
“Remove the stone.” (38-39, The Message)
And then he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out”.
The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (11:43-44, ESV)
Three things stand out to the modern-era hearers.
First, the text confronts us with three things Jesus does when he is angered and deeply disturbed by the events around him: he asserts himself, turns to prayer and gratitude, and then acts.
Second, is that we do well to understand ‘that grief and outrage are right responses held together, in tension, but grief and compassion without outrage reduces both to mere sentiment, while outrage without grief hardens into self-righteous arrogance and rage’[xi]
Finally, from this we can understand that the consequence of Christ’s victory is the right for us to exist. It is no longer a hopeless existence, merely surviving in the shadow of a destructive vacuum of that which has no right to exist.
The events surrounding Lazarus show us that Jesus is opposed to death as much as he is opposed to sin.
In this, His “yes” to life resonates as the preamble for the grace-conclusion found in the scarred Christ standing outside his own tomb, where permission to live, not just for now, but forever in fellowship with God, is granted by grace to the responsive sinner.
[i] Carson: ‘They were puzzled and confused.’
[ii] John Calvin rightly noted that: ‘the rage of his enemies had not subsided’ ; Commentary of John Sourced from CCEL.org (p.355)
[iii] John 11:49-50
[iv] ἐμβριμάομαι: rebuke; warning; deeply moved; groan. Not ὀργή: wrath; hostility.
[v] ‘His inward reaction was anger or outrage or indignation’ (Carson, 1991)
[vi] Barth, K. 1960 God and Nothingness CD.III.3 Hendrickson Publishers (p.289-290)
[ix] Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 416). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.
Image: “Stairs In A Cave” courtesy of papaija2008 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net