20. I Am the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:1-54)

Audio (41:19)

'The Raising of Lazarus' (6th century), mosaic, Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.
'The Raising of Lazarus' (6th century), mosaic, Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.
The early portion of John's Gospel can be construed as a "Book of Signs" pointing to and revealing that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. The account of the raising of Lazarus is the seventh and final sign that John tells us about.[164]

Moreover, this sign serves as a kind of transition. John portrays it as both the greatest of Jesus' signs, and the one that propels him to his death in Jerusalem, since it serves to harden the resolve of the Jewish religious leaders that Jesus must be killed. One way to analyze John's Gospel demonstrates the pivotal nature of the sign of the raising of Lazarus in John 11.

  1. Prologue (1:1-18)
  2. Book of Signs, demonstrating that Jesus is the Son of God (1:19-12:50)
  3. Book of Glory, explaining how Jesus is glorified with the Father in his death and resurrection (13:1-20:31)[165]
  4. Epilogue (22:1-25).[166]

Lazarus Is Sick (11:1-3)

In the Synoptic Gospels we read about Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus has stayed in their home. Martha resents having to do all the work of entertaining guests while Mary sits at Jesus' feet and listens to his teaching. Now we learn more about these sisters. They live in the village of Bethany, just two miles outside of Jerusalem, either with or close by their brother, who is a special friend of Jesus and his disciples. He is described in verse 3 as "the one you love," using the verb phileō, "to have a special interest in someone or something, frequently with focus on close association, have affection for, like, consider someone a friend."[167]

 "1  Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2  This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. 3  So the sisters sent word to Jesus, 'Lord, the one you love is sick.'" (11:1-3)

Locations of Bethany and the Halijah ford where John may have baptized.
Locations of Bethany and the Halijah ford where John may have baptized. Larger map.

Lazarus is from the Hebrew laʿzār, a rabbinic abbreviation of ʾelʿāzār, (Eleazar), meaning, "God has helped." Lazarus is sick.[168] We don't know what was wrong with him, but his sisters are worried enough to send a messenger to Jesus, who is ministering east of the Jordan River -- about a day's journey away -- to let him know that his friend Lazarus is deathly ill.

Jesus Delays Coming (11:4-6)

But Jesus doesn't come immediately.

"4  When he heard this, Jesus said, 'This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it.' 5  Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6  Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days." (11:4-6)

Jesus hears from the messenger, and then from his Father, and announces:

"This sickness will not end in death.[169] No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified[170] through it." (11:4)

Jesus reveals that the purpose of this sickness will be to glorify God.[171] Similarly, the man born blind was so that "the work of God might be displayed in his life" (9:3). Is all sickness for this purpose? No. The Scriptures show that some sickness is a result of sin (5:14; 1 Corinthians 11:28-30), some for other purposes God has for us (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7).

Nevertheless, Jesus doesn't immediately rush to Lazarus's bedside, in spite of the fact that John assures us that Jesus loves Lazarus and his family (11:5). Jesus is listening to the Father regarding the timing of his trip. It becomes apparent, when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, that Lazarus would have already died even if Jesus had left the moment he heard.

The Dangers of Judea (11:7-16)

Finally, after two additional days on the east side of Jordan, Jesus announces his intention to return to Judea. Bethany, the home of Lazarus, is a mere two miles from the center of Judaism in Jerusalem, the center of the enemy camp. So Jesus' statement causes protests from his disciples.

"7  Then he said to his disciples, 'Let us go back to Judea.'
8  'But Rabbi,' they said, 'a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?'
9  Jesus answered, 'Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. 10  It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.'" (11:7-10)

Jesus' response about twelve hours of daylight is curious. Twelve hours is another way of saying "a full day." "This world's light" is the sun. You have to get your work done when there's light to see. In other words, we must do what we have to do when we have opportunity, as Jesus also seems to say in 9:4. There is probably a spiritual allusion here too, but we shouldn't make too much out of it.

Now he explains that Lazarus is dead, using the common Jewish euphemism for death as sleep. But the disciples are confused, so Jesus spells it out for them.

"11  After he had said this, he went on to tell them, 'Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.' 12  His disciples replied, 'Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.' 13  Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. 14  So then he told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead, 15  and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.'" (11:11-15)

Thomas, called "the Twin," responds with a kind of fatalistic pessimism.

"Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, 'Let us also go, that we may die with him.'" (11:16)

Thomas is usually remembered as "doubting Thomas" (20:25). But this statement shows both loyalty and courage. Later in his life, church tradition tells us that Thomas went to Iraq and India to preach the gospel, landed in Kerala, southwest India, in 52 AD, founded what is known today as the Mar Thoma church, and was martyred in Mylapore, Madras, India.  Thomas may have had a rocky start, but he finished well!

Q1. (John 11:16) What does verse 16 teach us about Thomas's character? About his faith?

Jesus Arrives in Bethany (11:17-19)

Jesus and his disciples probably take nearly a day's journey trudging up the Jerusalem-Jericho road, rising 3,300 feet from the Jordan Valley to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem.

"17  On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18  Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19  and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort[172] them in the loss of their brother." (11:17-19)

Jewish custom was to bury the body immediately, the same day as the death, if possible.[173] So, as we trace back the time -- one day for the messenger to get to Jesus, two extra days before leaving, and one day's travel to get to Bethany -- Lazarus was probably dead by the time the messenger arrived to tell the news of his illness to Jesus.

Lazarus's burial for four days had implications as well. Edersheim notes,

"It was the common Jewish idea that corruption commenced on the fourth day, that the drop of gall, which had fallen from the sword of the Angel and caused death, was then working its effect, and that, as the face changed, the soul took its final leave from the resting-place of the body."[174]

If Jesus had raised Lazarus earlier than four days, it would not be thought to have been as great a miracle as when corruption had begun.

John tells us that "many Jews"[175] had come to comfort Mary and Martha. To visit and sit with the bereaved was considered an extremely important obligation in Judaism.

 The fact that many Jews were visiting probably indicates that Lazarus is a prominent person with many friends in Jerusalem. He seems to be a person of some wealth. This explains Mary and Martha's ability to entertain Jesus and his disciples on several occasions, as well as Mary's access to the expensive perfume with which she anointed Jesus (12:3). In addition, his burial in a cave rather than the common burial ground is another sign of means.

The presence of these "many Jews" guarantee that the resurrection to follow will have many prominent witnesses -- and that news of it will spread like wildfire in nearby Jerusalem.

Jesus Meets with Martha (11:20-22)

Word travels fast in small towns, too. The house is full of mourners, so Martha comes out to meet Jesus at the edge of town (11:30), a place with more privacy.

"20  When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21  'Lord,' Martha said to Jesus, 'if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.'" (11:20-22)

Martha voices what everyone must be saying -- "If Jesus had been here, he wouldn't have died!" This sentiment is repeated by Mary (11:32) and the crowds (11:37). I don't think Martha or Mary mean it as a criticism, just an observation. They don't blame Jesus, they are only playing the "if only" game that is common when tragedies come. It is an ironic faith statement about Jesus' power to heal. And Martha is undeterred in her faith, despite her brother's death. She has not lost confidence in Jesus.

"I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." (11:22)

Her faith is strong, but Martha isn't imagining that Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead.

I Am the Resurrection and the Life (11:23-27)

Now Jesus mentions resurrection to her.

"23  Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.'
24  Martha answered, 'I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.'" (11:23-24)

Jesus speaks to her about resurrection, with the veiled hint that Lazarus' resurrection may be immediate. But Martha misses it, and sees it as a word of encouragement much like that which friends had spoken to her again and again over the four days since Lazarus' death.

Many Jews in Jesus' day believed in the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day. The Pharisees dogmatically affirmed resurrection in opposition to the Sadducees, who emphatically denied that there was a resurrection to come. Jesus publicly took the Pharisees' position on the fact of the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-34; Luke 14:14). Earlier he had declared:

"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." (5:28-29)

Indeed, Jesus affirmed that he personally would raise believers up on the Last Day (6:39-40). This expectation of the resurrection on the Last Day is the understanding of the early church as well (Acts 24:15; 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; etc.).

But now, in his fifth of seven "I Am" declarations,[176] Jesus reveals his own central role in resurrection:

"25  Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26  and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." (11:25-26a)

What is Jesus claiming here?

Jesus himself is the resurrection and the life. The Father has bestowed on him the power to have life in himself, and to bestow resurrection life on whomever he will. We saw this previously in his discourse on the divine Son (5:19-47).

"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.... For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself." (5:21, 26)

But Jesus doesn't just say that he gives resurrection and life! He is so closely associated with resurrection and life that he says he is the resurrection and life in his own person. The power that will grant resurrection and life on the Last Day is resident within Jesus' person now! (Theologians call this "realized eschatology.")  When we believe in Jesus, we are united with him; we are "in him." And so his resurrection power and life power become ours as well. The results are eternal, spelled out in 11:25b-26a.

Resurrection (11:25b)

"He who believes in me will live, even though he dies." (11:25b)

People who believe in him will live -- even though they die (like Lazarus has done). Jesus will raise them from death on the Last Day.

Life (11:26a)

 "... and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." (11:26a)

People who are alive (spiritually) and believe in him will never die (spiritually) -- that is, death will not introduce a break into their relationship with God and their experience of eternal life.

In a few moments, Jesus will demonstrate that he is indeed the Resurrection and the Life as he calls Lazarus from the dead.

Q2. (John 11:25-26) In what sense does Jesus embody resurrection? In what sense does he embody life? What is the great promise that he offers us in verses 25 and 26?

Martha's Great Confession (11:26b-27)

Jesus prompts Martha to respond to what he has just said. Her response shows that she may not understand it completely, but she fully believes that Jesus is the Messiah!

"26b 'Do you believe this?'
27  'Yes, Lord,' she told him, 'I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.'" (11:26b-27)

Sometimes, based on the account of Martha's busyness in Luke 10:38-42, Martha is seen as less "spiritual" than her sister. But her great confession -- given immediately after her brother's death -- shows that she is a woman of remarkable faith.

Her confession is similar to the confessions of others that demonstrate what John seeks to show us, "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (20:31).

John the Baptist: "I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God." (1:34)

Nathanael: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel." (1:49)

Samaritans: "This man really is the Savior of the world." (4:42)

Peter: "We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." (6:69)

Thomas: "My Lord and my God!" (20:28)

Martha's confession ranks beside Peter's great confession: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16).

It's interesting to see that in John's Gospel, Mary and Martha seem to have a similar portrait as they do in Luke.[177]


Luke 10:38-42

John 11:20-32


Activist and busybody.

Rushes to meet Jesus


Sits at the Lord's feet listening.

Sits quietly at home, then comes and falls at his feet.

Q3. (John 11:27) Based on Luke 10:38-42, what is Martha's reputation compared to that of her sister Mary? What is so amazing about Martha's confession? What does this tell us about her? Which of the sisters seems more spiritual on this day -- Martha or Mary?

Mary Goes to Meet with Jesus (11:28-31)

After Martha returns to the house, she speaks to her sister privately.[178]

28  And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. 'The Teacher[179] is here,' she said, 'and is asking for you.'
29  When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30  Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31  When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn (klaiō) there." (11:28-31)

Now Mary comes -- along with the crowd of mourners that has been at the house. They come along to comfort her, thinking that she is going to mourn at the tomb. While Jesus' words to Martha have been private, his words to Mary are heard by all.

Jesus' Anger (11:32-37)

Mary comes to Jesus weeping (11:33), along with her friends. There are strong emotions in Jesus also, but it is difficult to know how to interpret them.

"32  When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'

33  When Jesus saw her weeping (klaiō), and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping (klaiō), he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34  'Where have you laid him?' he asked. 'Come and see, Lord,' they replied.

35  Jesus wept (dakryō). 36  Then the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!' 37  But some of them said, 'Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?'
38  Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb...." (11:32-38a)

It's not hard to understand the emotions of Mary and the other mourners. Though the burial had probably taken place on the day of Lazarus' death four days prior, the period of mourning was 30 days, with intense mourning for the first three days and first week.[180] The verb used in verses 31 and 33 is klaiō, "to cry, wail, lament," of any loud expression of pain or sorrow.[181] While some cultures are quite restrained in their mourning, in the Middle East the norm is loud, unrestrained crying and wailing. Luke's account of the mourning at Jairus' house at the death of his daughter uses an additional word to describe mourning practices, koptō, "to beat one's breast as an act of mourning, mourn greatly."[182] There the crowd of mourners was described as "aroused, in disorder."[183] Jewish funeral custom dictated that even a poor family was to hire flute players (Matthew 9:23) and a professional wailing woman[184] -- and neither Jairus' or Lazarus' family was poor!

All this wailing and clamor of mourning followed Mary from her house to the tomb. Indeed, Mary seemed to be immersed in it herself (11:33). As Jesus had been upset with this sound of unbelief at Jairus' home, so he seems to be here as well.

Two expressions are given in verse 34b that express Jesus' deep feeling:

First, the we see the verb embrimaomai with pneuma (referring to Jesus' human spirit[185]). Our English versions translate the verb (in verses 33 and 38) as "deeply moved in spirit" (NIV, ESV), "greatly disturbed in spirit" (NRSV), "groaned in the spirit" (KJV),[186] suggesting that Jesus' was feeling compassion and empathy for Mary. However, when embrimaomai is used elsewhere in the New Testament and in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, it is nearly always in the context of anger.[187] The verb is derived from en, "on" + brimomai, "snort with anger, to be indignant."[188] It seems clear to me that a better translation of the verb would include the idea of Jesus' anger, such as the ESV's alternate translation, "was indignant."[189]

Second, we see the word "troubled" (NIV, KJV), "deeply moved" (NRSV), "greatly troubled" (ESV), tarassō, which means "to shake, stir up," here, by extension, "to cause inward turmoil, stir up, disturb, unsettle, throw into confusion." It is used in our literature of mental and spiritual agitation and confusion.[190] The word is also used when Jesus is speaking of his betrayal: "Jesus was troubled in spirit" (13:21).

Carson suggests the last part of verse 33 should be translated, "he was outraged in spirit, and troubled."[191] I think he's on the right track. The only reason to translate embrimaomai as "deeply moved," rather than angry is the difficulty in understanding Jesus' anger here, not the lexical evidence for the word's meaning.

So if Jesus is indignant when Mary and the mourners came to him outside the city, rather than moved with compassion, we wonder: Why is Jesus angry? Several possibilities have been suggested.

  1. That Jesus is angry because a miracle was being forced on him by the grief of the sisters,[192] but Jesus had already stated his intention to perform a miracle in verse 11.
  2. That Jesus is angry at the hypocritical mourning of the Jews, but there's no evidence here to support this.[193]
  3. That Jesus is angry with himself for not coming sooner, but this can't be so in light of verses 4-7.
  4. That Jesus is angry with the sin, sickness, and death that bring so much sorrow. This is possible, but lacks strong evidence.
  5. That Jesus is angry at the unbelief he sees around him (as at Jairus' home, Mark 5:39-40). Despair, "like the rest of men, who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13), can't be reconciled with faith in the resurrection.

There is a lot of evidence that Jesus is angry at the unbelief of his followers -- and the unbelief of the Jewish people in general.[194]  When his disciples fail to heal an epileptic boy, Jesus says,

"O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me." (Matthew 17:17)

On the other occasion when Jesus wept (Luke 19:41) his tears were over the obstinate unbelief of the Jews, and the dire consequences thereof. He wanted to gather them to him like a mother gathers her chicks, "but you were not willing" (Luke 13:34b). In John's Gospel we often see Jesus' frustration with unbelief.[195]

"Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe." (4:48)

 Jesus Wept (11:35-37)

"35  Jesus wept (dakryō). 36  Then the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!' 37  But some of them said, 'Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?'" (11:35-37)

Now we come to the shortest verse in the English Bible, "Jesus wept." It's interesting that while the mourners' weeping is expressed by the verb klaiō, "weep, wail," Jesus' weeping uses another verb, dakryō, "to shed tears, weep," from dakryon, "tear."[196] Jesus shed tears. Why?

He isn't weeping because he misses his departed friend Lazarus, as the Jews think (11:36), because he knows that he will momentarily raise him from the dead. If we're correct about the meaning of embrimaomai as "to be indignant," then these probably weren't tears of compassion or empathy for the bereaved. They are probably tears at the unbelief he sees around him. Jesus also wept over Jerusalem, when he thought of the devastation that would come to it because of the unbelief of its leaders (Luke 19:41).[197]

As Beasley-Murray comments,

"The contrast between the Revealer who brought the word of God and lived by it, and the recipients of it is startlingly exemplified here."[198]

 If Jesus weeps over the unbelief of Mary, who sits at his feet and later anoints him with perfume, does he also weep over your unbelief and mine? Does my unbelief move him to tears of grief?[199]

Q4. (John 11:32-38) Different writers interpret Jesus' emotions on this occasion differently. Why do you think Jesus was "deeply moved"? Why did he weep?

At the Tomb (11:38)

"Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance." (11:38)

Each town would have its own common burial ground or cemetery where bodies would be buried, wrapped but without coffins. Edersheim tells us that the cemetery would never be closer to the town than 50 cubits, with graves at least a foot and a half apart. But Lazarus is interred in his own private tomb in a cave, perhaps in a garden, protected from depredation by wild animals by a stone across the entrance. It is probably whitewashed as a warning to passers-by that it is a tomb, so they could prevent uncleanness by contact with the dead.

Such a burial cave would have been hollowed out with niches along the sides where bodies of family members would be laid. After a time, the bones would be collected and put into a bone box or chest.[200]

The Raising of Lazarus (11:39-44)

"39  'Take away the stone,' he said. 'But, Lord,' said Martha, the sister of the dead man, 'by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.' 40  Then Jesus said, 'Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?[201]' 41  So they took away the stone." (11:39-41a)

When Jesus commands the stone to be moved away, one voice is raised in protest, that of Martha, the "practical" sister. "By this time he stinketh" (KJV). By the fourth day, the person was well and truly dead; decomposition had set in.[202] Jesus has said nothing about raising Lazarus as yet. He has only asked where they had laid him. Perhaps Martha thinks Jesus wants to view the corpse of his friend.

It's fascinating how our unbelief is so quick to correct Jesus' commands. We know better. We have to tell Jesus why he shouldn't do this or that! But if we will trust him, we can "see the glory of God." Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)

Now Jesus prays. Notice that it's not a petition, but a public glimpse into a running conversation between the Son and the Father. Like the great high-priestly prayer of John 17, it gives us insight into the intimate relationship between them.

"41b Then Jesus looked up and said, 'Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.'

43  When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out!' 44  The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, 'Take off the grave clothes and let him go.'" (11:41b-44)

After praying, Jesus speaks a word of command -- to a dead man! "Lazarus, come out!" The command consists of a single word in Greek, an adverb of place, deuro, functioning as an interjection here, "over here, (come) here, come!"[203] We see the word used as "almost a verb" also in Jesus' call to the rich young ruler, "Come, follow me!"[204]

Lazarus had been accorded Jewish burial customs similar to Jesus' burial by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus:

"Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in [strips of] linen.[205]" (19:40a)

The spices were to lessen the odor of decomposition for a few days. "Strips of linen" in 11:44 is keiria, elsewhere used of webbing, belts, mattress suspension, etc. Here, in reference to the preparation of bodies for burial, it means, "binding material."[206] This is the only use of this word in the New Testament. Edersheim calls these bands Takhrikhin. Whether this designates a shroud or strips of linen in New Testament times isn't certain.[207]

Imagine the scene, this smelly corpse wrapped in white linen, shuffles and stumbles out of the tomb, hobbled, blind -- his face wrapped with a cloth and his hands still tied to his sides by grave wraps. It almost sounds like a horror movie! The crowd is stunned, afraid. No one makes a move to help him. So Jesus has to command them to come forward and assist him: "Unbind[208] him and let[209] him go[210]!"

Finally, some people come forward tentatively to help him. One removes the cloth covering his face. Someone else begins to unwind the linen that has been wrapped around him. And as they do so, this resurrected man appears alive and well. Where there was once inconsolable grief that gave way to fear, now joy and excitement overtakes the crowd. They begin to embrace Lazarus and laugh, leading him back into the town where he is reunited with the rest of his friends. Hallelujah! What a wonderful day!

Brown concludes his comments with the observation, "Thus, in many details, chapter 11 acts out the promise of chapter 5"  -- "A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice...." (5:28)[211]

Lazarus' resurrection is a precursor of Jesus' resurrection, who is called "the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:20). Finally, comes the great resurrection when Christ returns:

"... In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed." (1 Corinthians 15:51b-52)


Faith and Unbelief (11:45-46)

 "45  Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. 46  But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done." (11:45-46)

Now, as we have seen before, in the face of a great miracle, many believe, but others are hardened in their unbelief.[212] The same miracle had opposite effects depending upon the heart of the observer.

The Chief Priests and Pharisees Plot to Kill Jesus (11:47-48)

"47  Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. 'What are we accomplishing?' they asked. 'Here is this man performing many miraculous signs.
48  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.'" (11:47-48)

The raising of Lazarus, being so spectacular and taking place so close to Jerusalem, forces the authorities to take some action against Jesus. The high ranking priests[213] tended to be Sadducees, opposed by the Pharisees. But in the face of an impending power shift, they are united and call a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the ruling group for the Jews, consisting of 70 members.[214] They say, "If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him" (11:48a). Jesus' ministry is having a significant effect in the area.

Notice their reasoning.

  1. Power shifts to Jesus, as he rapidly gains popularity with the people.
  2. The Romans will view this as a popular unrest or rebellion, and take away the power they had granted to the Sanhedrin and the chief priests to rule under their authority.
  3. The Romans will take away "our place," that is, the temple.
  4. The Romans will take away "our nation," that is, bring a crackdown where the Romans will rule Palestine directly, not through vassal kings (such as Herod) and the Sanhedrin.

If these leaders believed Jesus were the Messiah, they would have been glad to see him gain power. But they obviously did not. They exaggerated the threat to the temple and the nation, and moved to protect their own positions of power and authority -- even if it meant killing a miracle-worker.

Caiaphas Prophesies Jesus' Death on behalf of Israel (11:49-53)

Joseph Caiaphas, son-in-law of Annas, a former high priest, filled the office of high priest from 18 to 36 AD. He had been placed in office by Pontius Pilate's predecessor as Roman procurator of Judea, demonstrating that the high priesthood was a political office, not controlled by the Jews themselves during this period, but essentially appointed by the Roman rulers.[215] No wonder the high priestly class felt insecure. The chief priest chaired the meetings of the Sanhedrin.

"49  Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, 'You know nothing at all! 50  You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.' 51  He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52  and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53  So from that day on they plotted to take his life." (11:49-53)

The discussion of what to do seems to be deadlocked. Some acknowledge that Jesus is working miraculous signs. But they're not sure how to stop him. Arrest had been attempted in the past, and failed.

Caiaphas, as chairman, rebukes those who are vacillating. He calls for a desperate measure, the rational and ruthless action to taking Jesus' life. However, to persuade the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas couches his move in terms of sacrificing the lesser ("one man") for the greater ("the whole nation") -- one man perishing, rather than the Jewish nation. He makes it sound like their patriotic duty! They agree. The die is cast. The Sanhedrin has resolved to take Jesus' life.[216]

Notice John's observation about the prophetic nature of Caiaphas's words:

"51  He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52  and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one." (11:51-52)

Caiaphas saw this as a necessary action to protect the Jewish people. But since he was in the holy office of high priest, John says that he speaks prophetically on this occasion. What he proposes is, in reality, Jesus dying as a sacrifice for the sins of the nation and the Diaspora ("the scattered children of God").[217] The result will be to unite the believers around the world and make them one. But John is looking beyond the Jewish Diaspora here, to the Gentiles around the world who will become believers. In John's writings, Jesus is clearly depicted as a world Savior:

"We know that this man really is the Savior of the world." (4:42)

"I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd." (10:16)

"And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." (12:32, ESV)

"He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2)

"With your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation." (Revelation 5:9)

We see hints of this in Paul's Letter to the Ephesians of Jesus' mission "to bring them together and make them one" (11:52b):

"For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility." (Ephesians 2:14-16)

Q5. (John 11:49-53). What did Caiaphas intend to say to the Sanhedrin? What is the prophetic meaning of his statement?

Jesus Withdraws to Ephraim (11:54)

Locations of Bethany and the Halijah ford where John may have baptized.
Locations of Bethany and the Halijah ford where John may have baptized. Larger map.

Though the Apostle John probably had sources within priestly circles, the Sanhedrin's decision couldn't be kept a secret for long. The word was put out: report Jesus' whereabouts so he can be arrested (11:57)

"Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the Jews. Instead he withdrew to a region near the desert, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples." (11:54)

If Jesus' disciples were afraid to come to Jerusalem before the raising of Lazarus (11:7-8, 16), now they are doubly afraid, since this astounding miracle has triggered what amounts to an official warrant for Jesus' arrest (11:57). Prior to this, Jesus and his disciples had been east of the Jordan (10:40), far from Jesus' enemies in Jerusalem. Now, they retire to the village of Ephraim, near the Judean desert. Ephraim is generally identified with the village of et-Taiyibeh, about 13 miles north-northeast of Jerusalem.[218]

Q6. (John 11:54) Why did Jesus withdraw to Ephraim? Does this show fear? What does this teach us about strategic retreat?

Lessons for Disciples

John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Entire study is available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.
  1. We must do the work God gives us when we have the opportunity, rather than put it off because of our fears (11:9-10).

  2. We must have courage to follow Jesus even when it is dangerous or costly to do so. "Doubting" Thomas sets the standard for us here: "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (11:16). We may experience fear, but courage is doing what is needed in spite of our fears.

  3. Jesus embodies in his person both Resurrection and Life, and he is the only one who has authority to bring them. Raising Lazarus was an indication of this authority and a precursor of Jesus' resurrection and our own (11:25).

  4. Eternal life that Jesus gives begins now and survives physical death (11:26). Those who are alive spiritually and believe will never suffer spiritual death (11:27).

  5. Though Martha has a reputation for being less "spiritual" than her sister Mary, she is the one who makes the outstanding confession: "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world" (11:27). Though we are "wired" differently from one another, we can all express faith in the ways God gives us to.

  6. Jesus is angry at and weeps concerning the unbelief of his followers, many of whom have already seen him do marvelous things (11:33-38). We must not give ourselves permission for unbelief or mental reservations if we are to please him.

  7. Like Martha, trying to prevent Jesus from removing the stone for practical reasons, we often explain to God why we shouldn't obey his "obviously" unpractical directions (11:39). Rather, we should obey without complaint. In the words of an old hymn:

    "Trust and obey,
    for there's no other way
    to be happy in Jesus,
    but to trust and obey."[219]

  8. God can speak through the most unlikely people when he wants to, in this case, Caiaphas. He might have been an unbelieving and politically appointed high priest, but God used him in spite of himself (11:49-53).

  9. It is okay to retreat strategically, so long as we are willing to obey at danger to our lives when it is time to do so (11:54)


Father, thank you for giving us this glimpse of Jesus' glory in raising Lazarus. We so want your glory to be seen in our world today. Give us faith to believe so that your glory can peek out often. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Jesus said to her, '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. Do you believe this?' 'Yes, Lord,' she told him, 'I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.'" (John 11:25-27, NIV)

"Jesus wept." (John 11:35, NIV)

"Then Jesus said, 'Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?'" (John 11:40, NIV)

"Jesus called in a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out!' The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, 'Take off the grave clothes and let him go.'" (John 11:43-44, NIV)

"[Caiaphas] did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one." (John 11:51-52, NIV)


[166] See Brown, John, 1:cxxxviii-cxliv.

[167] Phileō, BDAG 1056, 1a. The word in 12:11 is philos, "friend" (BDAG 1059, 2aα).

[168] Astheneō, "be weak," here, "to suffer a debilitating illness, be sick" (BDAG 142, 1).

[169] The phrase "sickness ... unto death" (KJV), "end in death" (NIV), "lead to death" (NRSV, ESV) uses the preposition pros, of goal, "(aiming) at or (striving) toward," here, of the result that follows a set of circumstances  (BDAG 874, 3cγ). The phrase also occurs in 1 John 5:16: "If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life..." (1 John 5:16). In 1 John, the sin that leads to death seems to be the brazen and steadfast denial by John's opponents that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

[172] "Comfort" in verses 19 and 31 is paramytheomai, "console, cheer up." In connection with death and tragic events it carries the idea, "console, comfort" (BDAG 769), from para-, "near, beside" + a derivative of mythos, "to share a speech, word, saying," then, "to relate a story."

[173] Edersheim, Life and Times, 4:983, cites Moed K. 28 a; comp Sanh. 46 b.

[174] Edersheim, Life and Times, 4:993, citing Abh. Z. 20 b; Ber. R. 100; Vayyik. R. 18.

[175] The term "the Jews" usually refers to Jesus' enemies, but here it probably has its natural meaning, "Judeans," people from Judea. See Appendix 2. 'The Jews' in John's Gospel.

[177] Brown, John 1:433.

[178] "Called aside" (NIV), "privately" (NRSV, cf. ESV), "secretly" (KJV) is the adverb lathra, "(to do something) without others being aware, secretly"  (BDAG 581, 1).

[179] Didaskalos, probably "rabbi" in Aramaic.

[180] Edersheim, Life and Times, 4:989.

[181] Liddell Scott, Greek-English Lexicon; cf. BDAG 545, 1; K.H. Rengstorf, TDNT 3:722-726.

[182] Koptō, BDAG 559.

[183] "Noisy" (NIV), "making a commotion" (NRSV, ESV), "making a noise" (KJV) is thorybeō, "disturb, agitate," here, aroused, in disorder" (BDAG 458, 2).

[184] Carson, John, p. 415, citing Mishnah Ketuboth 4:4.

[185] Pneuma, "human spirit, inner emotions, as the source and seat of insight, feeling, and will, generally as the representative part of human inner life" (BDAG 833, 3b).

[186] A recent Greek-English Lexicon softens it to, "feel strongly about something, be deeply moved" (BDAG 322, 3).

[187] Matthew 9:30; Mark 1:43; Mark 14:5; Psalm 7:11; Isaiah 17:13; Lamentation 2:6; Daniel 11:30.

[188] Liddell Scott, Lexicon.

[189] So Beasley-Murray, John, pp. 192-193; Carson, John, p. 415; Barrett, John; Kruse, John, pp. 253-254; and the early Greek Fathers. Morris (John, pp. 555-557) states the evidence for the anger translation, but is ambivalent. Brown (John 1:425) sees the basic meaning of embrimaomai as implying "an articulate expression of anger."

[190] Tarassō, BDAG 991, 2.

[191] Carson, John, p. 415.

[192] Barrett, John, p. 399, citing John 2:4; 4:48; 6:26.

[193] Criticisms of the Jews hypocrisy are a focus in the Synoptics, not much in John's Gospel (Carson, John, p. 416).

[194] Matthew 6:30 = Luke 12:28; 8:26; 16:8; 17:20; Luke 24:25.

[195] Examples are: John 2:18; 6:36; 12:37-40; 15:24.

[196] Dakryon is used only here in the New Testament (BDAG 211).

[197] In Luke 19:41, the verb klaiō, "weep, cry, mourn, wail," is used.

[198] Beasley-Murray, John, p. 193.

[199] Beasley-Murray (John, p. 193) cites G. Sass (Der Auferweckung des Lazarus, p. 53): "So seen, the anger of Jesus becomes a question to our own faith."

[200] Edersheim, Life and Times, 4:987.

[202] Kruse, John, p. 255.

[203] Deuro, BDAG 220, 1.

[204] Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22.

[205] Othonion, "(linen), cloth, cloth wrapping" is found in John 19:40; 20:5, 6, 7; Luke 24:12. BDAG says, "The applicability of the sense 'bandage' to our literature is questionable" (BDAG 693).

[206] Keiria, BDAG 538.

[207] Edersheim (Life and Times, 3:552) describes the preparation of a body for burial in describing the raising of the son of the widow of Nain. "The last sad offices have been rendered to the dead. The body has been laid on the ground; hair and nails have been cut, and the body washed, anointed, and wrapped in the best the widow could procure; for, the ordinance which directed that the dead should be buried in 'wrappings' (Takhrikhin), or as they significantly called it, the 'provision for the journey' (Zevadatha), of the most inexpensive, linen, is of later date than our period. It is impossible to say, whether the later practice already prevailed, of covering the body with metal, glass, or salt, and laying it either upon earth or salt."

[208] "Take off the grave clothes" (NIV), "unbind" (NRSV, ESV), "loose" (KJV) is lyō, literally, "to undo something that is used to tie up or constrain something, loose, untie bonds," then, by extension, "to set free something tied or similarly constrained, set free, loose, untie" (BDAG 606, 2a).

[209] "Let" is aphiēmi, to convey a sense of distancing through an allowable margin of freedom, leave it to someone to do something, "let, let go, allow, tolerate" (BDAG 157, 5a).

[210] "Go" is hypagō, "go away, withdraw, go," here, "to leave someone's presence, go away," probably here it means, "go home" (BDAG 1028, 1).

[211] Brown, John, 1:437.

[212] John 2:23; 7:30-31; 8:30, 59; 10:39, 42; 12:10-11, 42; etc.

[213] "Chief priests" is archiereus. In the singular it might refer to the high priest himself (as in 11:49), but here in the plural, it refers to "a priest of high rank, chief priest," denoting members of the Sanhedrin who belonged to high priestly families, that is,  ruling high priests, those who had been deposed, and adult male members of the most prominent priestly families.

[214] For more on the Sanhedrin, see Appendix 3. Religious Leaders in Jesus' Day.

[215] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18, 2, 2. For more on Annas see John 18:13 below (Lesson 29)

[216] "Plotted" (NIV), "planned" (NRSV), "took counsel together" (KJV) is bouleuō, "to reach a decision about a course of action, resolve, decide." Bouleuō, BDAG 181, 2.

[217] The verb is diaskorpizō, "scatter, disperse," seed, a flock, a people, etc. (BDAG 236, 1). A synonym, diaspeirō, "scatter," has a noun form, diaspora, from which we get our English word "Diapora." Peter uses the noun to refer to Gentiles: "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia..." (1 Peter 1:1). James uses it to refer to the "twelve tribes scattered abroad," which probably also refers to the Gentiles (James 1:1).

[218] William Ewing and Robert J. Hughes III, "Ephraim," ISBE 2:119; Urban C. Von Wahlde, "Archaeology and John's Gospel," in Jesus & Archaeology, p. 571.

[219] Words by John H. Sammis, 1887; music by Daniel B. Towner.

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