18.  Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles away.

Bethany was very near Jerusalem.  In Greek, this distance is given as fifteen furlongs, which is about 1.75 miles.  This isn’t far at all, and even in a day when walking was the primary mode of transportation, this trip would take less than an hour.  We might call Bethany a suburb of Jerusalem in our modern terminology.

19.  And many of the Jews had joined the women around Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother.

It is obvious from this verse again that the family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus was very prominent.  They were doubtlessly part of the rich class that received all the privileges and power in Israel.  Some have even speculated that their family might have owned the town of Bethany, for it was very small, and would hardly have been worth mentioning were it not for this significant event that took place there.  At any rate, it is clear that they were very important people, and so many of the Jews had come out to comfort them concerning the death of their brother.  We might say that “everybody who was anybody” in the area would come to the mourning of such an important individual.

This gathering of people days after a person was buried might seem strange to us, for we traditionally gather before the burial.  At that time, though, they didn’t have the embalming techniques we have today, and dead bodies would tend to start stinking very quickly in the warm climate of Israel.  Thus, they would bury almost immediately after death, and the relatives and friends would gather afterwards to comfort the grieving.  That is what was happening here.

20.  Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house.

Martha receives this report that the Lord is coming and hurries to meet Him.  Perhaps Martha was outside when she received the report, and, since she hurried to meet the Lord, the message did not get carried back to her sister Mary in the house.  Some have suggested that Mary was upset with the Lord and refused to meet Him until He called for her.  There is no suggestion of such a thing in the text, however.  More than likely, she simply didn’t receive the report that He was coming.

21.  Then Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.

I do not believe that Martha’s statement here is a rebuke of the Lord for not having been there or for not having come sooner.  Even if the Lord did come with the messengers immediately, He still would have arrived after Lazarus’ death.  Rather than a rebuke, Martha’s statement here shows her absolute faith in the power of the Lord to heal.  In her mind, there is no question that if the Lord Jesus had been present, her brother would not have died.  In that, I believe she was correct. 

22.  “But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.”

Martha believes that the Lord has arrived too late.  Yet does her statement here imply some faint hope of resurrection?  Perhaps.  Yet it seems that, though wanting to hope, Martha cannot quite bring herself to openly suggest that the Lord do something that no one previous to Him had ever done: raise someone who had been dead for such a length of time.

23.  Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

The Lord’s response to Martha was to point her to the fact that her brother will rise again.  This is the truest word of comfort that anyone could ever speak at the funeral of one who has died trusting in the Lord.

24.  Martha said to Him, “”I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Martha believes in the resurrection, and she says so.  She knows her brother will rise again in the resurrection in (not “at”) the last day.  The last day is not a twenty-four hour day, as if it was the last day before the world is destroyed or something like that.  Rather, it is a period of time that will be Israel’s greatest day.  In Isaiah 60:19-22 we read of it.

19.  “The sun shall no longer be your light by day,
Nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you;
But the LORD will be to you an everlasting light,
And your God your glory.
20.  “Your sun shall no longer go down,
Nor shall your moon withdraw itself;
For the LORD will be your everlasting light,
And the days of your mourning shall be ended.
21.  Also your people shall all be righteous;
They shall inherit the land forever,
The branch of My planting,
The work of My hands,
That I may be glorified.
22.  “A little one shall become a thousand,
And a small one a strong nation.
I, the LORD, will hasten it in its time.”

If the sun for Israel goes down no more, then that is the last day for Israel.  This is a great and glorious day indeed, and one in which all God’s promises to that nation will be fulfilled.  It was the hope of every Israelite to be raised from the dead to see that day, and Martha here states her faith that her brother will be one who will be raised from the dead to live in that wonderful time of God’s kingdom on earth.

25.  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.

Martha spoke in very general terms of the resurrection.  She was willing to believe that Lazarus her brother would rise again at the last day.  Yet the Lord now takes her to the particular.  Many in our day also like to generalize.  They are willing to believe that Christ died for the sins of the world, yet when it comes to the particular, they seem to have great difficulty believing that Christ died for their own sins.  We should always try to help people to move from the general to the particular, and to realize that Christ not only died for the sins of the world, but that He also died for MY sins, and believing this is all-important.

The Lord proclaims to Martha most emphatically that He is the resurrection and the life.  These two things are personified in Him.  Those who partake both in the resurrection and the future eonian life will do so through Jesus Christ, for resurrection and life are found in Him.  Who are they who will partake of these things?  He reveals that it is those who believe in Him.  This belief, of course, would have to take place in a person’s lifetime.  Then, those who believe in Him, though they may die, they shall live.  The reference here is not to sudden death, sudden glory, but rather to life in the last day.  The Lord is expanding on what Martha said and telling her that those who live in that last day she spoke of are those who believe in Him.  He is not saying anything about immediately going to heaven when you die.
26.  “And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Now this statement is more difficult.  We can understand verse 25, where those who die shall live in resurrection.  But now He seems to say something different, that those who live and believe shall never die.  Yet we know many who have lived and believed and yet have died.  What did Christ mean by this?

There are several things that cause this difficulty here.  First of all is the fact that the word “never” is a translation of not one but five words in Greek!  It hardly seems that “never” can be an adequate translation of five words.  The first two of these words, ou me, are the two Greek words for “no.”  When put back-to-back like this, they form the most emphatic negative, perhaps put best in English as “by no means.”  The next three words of the five represented by “never” are eis ton aionaEis means “in” or “into,” or in this case perhaps more accurately “in respect to.”  Ton is just a form of the definite article “the.”  Aiona is a form of the noun aion, which we turn into the English word “eon,” the word meaning God’s great future flow to the earth: the Kingdom of God.  Thus what Christ said here is that whoever lives and believes in Him shall by no means die in respect to the eon.  The idea is that the one who is living and believing in Him when that great eon begins will by no means die for the duration of it.  Since we have no record of God’s great future flow ever ending, we can say that the one who is living and believing when it begins will indeed never die.  Those who are not believing when it begins, though, might well die by God’s judgment power basically bringing capital punishment to them to remove them from His Kingdom.

This truth that Christ is setting forth here is similar to that set forth by the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15:51-52.  There we learn that those who are living at the sounding of the last trump will not die, but will be changed instantaneously into their resurrection bodies.  Christ is teaching much the same thing here, although He does not give the details that Paul does.  Yet if we did not know Paul, we could assume that He merely meant that those who live again in resurrection at that time will not die.  As Paul said, what he revealed about men who are alive at that time not dying was a truth that was a mystery and had not been revealed as such before that time.  Although we might be able to see this in what Christ said, it is not plainly stated, and can only be seen by looking back at it through the light of the teaching of Paul.

Now Christ challenges Martha with what He has just said.  Does she believe this?  Can she dare to believe that He is both the resurrection and the life, and that belief in Him is what will determine whether one gets eonian life?

27.  She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, Who is to come into the world.”

Martha responds to the Lord’s challenge with faith.  She does believe, and she tells Him so.  She believes that He is the Christ, the Son of God, the One Who was to come into the world according to the Old Testament Scriptures.  And remember, this is the purpose for which this book was written: that we too might believe this truth.  Martha is set forth for us as an example of one who believed these truths.  She believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the One Who represents God, and Who was to come into the world.  Do we too believe this?  Or is this too much for our faith?  Let the Lord’s challenge speak to each of us, and let us all decide to believe, as Martha did, in Jesus Christ.  Then we, too, will receive the resurrection and the life that He gives.

28.  And when she had said these things, she went her way and secretly called Mary her sister, saying, “The Teacher has come and is calling for you.”

Martha, finishing her conversation with the Lord, goes her way.  This was a figure of speech meaning the same as our English figure “to go about your business.”  She had probably been busy doing something when she received word that the Lord was coming, and now she returns to that task.  Yet she does do something else, and that is to send word to her sister, Mary.  She lets Mary know that the Teacher (of course, she meant the Lord Jesus,) had come and was calling for her.  We have no record of the Lord Jesus doing this, but assume that Martha was not making things up, and that the Lord did indeed desire to see Mary.

29.  As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly and came to Him.

Again let me point out that we have no evidence that Mary heard the same report about the Lord’s coming that Martha did and chose to remain behind out of some sort of anger or resentment at the Lord.  This idea is without any merit in the text.  Mary arose quickly as soon as she heard this news and went to the Lord.  She had no different attitude towards the Lord than did Martha, and it is not fair to her to blame her for a bad attitude towards the Lord that she did not have.

30.  Now Jesus had not yet come into the town, but was in the place where Martha met Him.

For some reason, the Lord had not continued on into Bethany, but had remained at the place where Martha had met Him.  He was waiting for Mary there, and so she went there to meet Him.

31.  Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and comforting her, when they saw that Mary rose up quickly and went out, followed her, saying, “She is going to the tomb to weep there.”

These Jews, the important and influential people of the region who were there comforting Mary, see her rising up quickly and going out.  Not knowing the secret message that she had received that the Lord had come, they assume that she had suddenly had the urge to go to Lazarus’ tomb, and was going to weep for him there.  This might be a most natural thing for one who was still in mourning to do, as it is often hard for them to let go of the person who has died, and they seem to get some comfort from being near the body of their dead loved one, even though that person is gone and, being dead, can no longer respond to them or appreciate their nearness.  So this was a reasonable assumption for these Jews to make, yet it was not what was actually going on.

We might pause for a moment here to deal with the issue of why Martha and Mary were acting so secretly.  Why did Martha send word secretly to Mary that the Lord was there?  Why had she not sent word to her immediately to come and see the Lord when she first heard about His coming and Mary was sitting in the house?  Why did Mary not tell the Jews where she was going?  The answer to this is clear if we remember that there were many among the Jews who were still seeking to put the Lord to death.  They were still irate at Him about the healing of the lame man on the Sabbath day, and had rejected His claims to be equal with God.  Mary and Martha, being among the important and influential themselves, would have known very well the opinion that their fellow Jews had of the Lord, and, caring for Him greatly, would not have wanted to let any of them know that this wanted man had come to visit them.  They would not have wanted to bring trouble upon the Lord or to risk His being arrested by the religious leaders because they had tipped off where He was.  Thus, they were so careful to act in secrecy and not to announce His presence to those around them.

32.  Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Mary comes to the Lord Jesus in the same place where Martha met Him.  When she sees Him, she falls down at His feet.  Notice her devotion to Him!  There is no hint of any bitterness or resentment on her part.  Rather, she voices the same regret that her sister had, confidently asserting that if the Lord had been present, her brother would not have died.  She well knew and believed in the Lord’s power to heal.  Yet notice that she does not add Martha’s second statement: that “even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.”  It seems she has no hope that Lazarus can be raised, and so does not express any in speaking to the Lord.

33.  Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled.

The Lord saw her weeping, for she had loved her brother dearly.  He also saw the weeping of the Jews who came with her.  Remember, these were those who thought she was going to the tomb to weep, and had followed to try to comfort her.  Then it says that He groaned in His spirit.  This word for “groaned” in Greek is actually to snort like a horse.  It usually indicates not sorrow, but rather anger or indignation.  We might imagine that He saw how insincere their traditional mourning and wailing was compared to Mary’s heartbroken sobbing.  Many of these Jews were probably only there because the family of Mary and Martha were important and influential, and so they wanted to be there to show their status.  Yet at the same time, they were acting in a traditional manner, and He could hardly fault them for doing what was proper according to their customs.  Moreover, they had followed Mary thinking to comfort her, so it hardly seems that He could fault their attitude.  More than likely, He was not angry at the mourners at all, but rather at the terrible reality of death and sorrow and separation that it brings.  Death is the enemy of life, and the Lord was seeing the consequences of it first-hand in the sorrow of those He loved.  Thus, He snorted at death in indignation.  I know I would not like to have the Lord snort at me in such a manner!  And death did not do so well in the light of His anger either, for not long after this it was defeated once and for all when He rose from the dead.

34.  And He said, “Where have you laid him?”  They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.”

The Lord does not challenge Mary to faith in this case, and with these many Jews present.  Rather, He asks this simple question: where have they laid him?  They respond that He should come and see, meaning that they will take Him there and point out to Him Lazarus’ tomb.