Commentary on John 11:1-45
The story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus is a climactic one in the Gospel of John, in several aspects. First, it is an emotional and relational climax for Jesus. If you were to peruse the story for emotional and relational terms (which is good interpretive practice to do with any passage), you would find the following descriptions: “he whom you love” (the sisters write to Jesus in 11:3), “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5), “our friend” (Jesus says about Lazarus in 11:11), console/consoling (11:19 and 11:31), weeping (the Jews, Mary, and Jesus in 11:31-35, “[Jesus] was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (11:33), and “See, how he loved him!” (The Jews say of Jesus in 11:36). The whole passage is saturated with emotional responses and although such expression would not be uncommon in Jewish funeral practices, the fact that John uses the affective demonstrations from the beginning of the chapter (well before the scene at the tomb) is significant.
Thus far in the narrative, Jesus has been characterized in a more aloof way, affected only minimally by those around him (see, for example, 2:24—“Jesus would not entrust himself to them…”). But here, Jesus loves his dear friends, is deeply moved, and even weeps. There is arguably no other scene in the Gospels where Jesus is as relationally and emotionally connected to people as in John 11. As the story moves on from here, Jesus’ interactions with his disciples show increasingly more relationality and affection (specifically in the foot washing scene in chapter 13 and in Jesus’ farewell address). This chapter seems to serve as a catalyst for Jesus opening himself up more to humanity.
This passage represents another climax—it is a climactic moment for Jesus’ self-revelation. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus has uttered statements of divine self-identity (known as the “I am” statements) and these metaphors connect Jesus to the work of God in the world and solidify his unity with the Father. In Jesus’ conversation with Martha before his resuscitation1 of Lazarus, he declares that he is the resurrection and the life (the fifth metaphorical “I am” statement):
- I am the bread of life (6:35, 48, 51)
- I am the light of the world (8:12; 9:5)
- I am the door of the sheep (10:7, 9)
- I am the good shepherd (10:11, 14)
- I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)
- I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:6)
- I am the true vine (15:1)
This “I am” statement is a watershed moment of self-identification for Jesus. It occurs at a midway point in the chapters that contain “I am” metaphors and it precedes a climactic confession and Jesus’ ultimate sign in John (see below). The concepts in the statement point backward and forward in the narrative: there is a reflection on the theme of life (already seen with Jesus as the “life” in the Prologue and with Jesus offering eternal life in 3:15-16; 6:47; 6:54, and 6:68) and a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection on the horizon.
In addition to the climactic emotion and identity claims, there is one more pinnacle in John 11—a climax of confession or belief. After Jesus and Martha converse about how Lazarus will rise again and Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he continues with, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha’s reply is the Christological confession that serves as the key to John’s narrative: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” The narrator of John tells us in 20:31, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. Although it is Peter who gives the Christological confession in the Synoptic Gospels, Martha provides the climax of confession here, using the Johannine vocabulary of belief. This detail should not be overlooked or swept to the side. That a woman is a model of belief in John points to the existence (and importance) of women disciples in early Christian communities.
As an astute reader of literature might expect, the climaxes in this story serve to initiate transition in the plot as well. The raising of Lazarus is a pivot point in John’s narrative, moving the reader (or original hearer) from the first section of John, often called the Book of Signs, to the second section, the Book of Glory. The pivot happens in two ways. First, the miracle at the tomb is Jesus’ last and seventh sign in a series that began with the water to wine sign in chapter two. Second, the talk of “glory” begins to amp up here. The first ten chapters of John contain a handful of references to God’s glory (1:14, 2:11, and 8:54). Chapter eleven begins with a significant reference to glory—“This illness does not lead to death; rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4)—and John later provides a bookend with Jesus’ question to Martha, ““Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” After the raising of Lazarus, John focuses his language much more concertedly on Jesus’ glorification and God’s glory, a central theme for the Gospel. Chapter 12 alone has six mentions of glory/glorification, including a crucial verse explaining the trajectory of the rest of the Gospel: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23).
- For the most part, scholars describe Jesus’ raising miracles as resuscitations because the people he gave life to would die again. This distinguishes such miracles from the resurrection of Jesus, which was permanent. It could, however, be argued that since the raising of Lazarus prefigures Jesus’ resurrection in several ways that it can be called a resurrection. I have retained the language of resuscitation in order to preserve the uniqueness of Jesus’ resurrection.