1.  Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha.

In this chapter, we have an exceedingly simple story, and yet one whose consequences are extremely profound.  This is the seventh and greatest of all the signs that our Lord committed.  It corresponds with the second sign in being of the greatest magnitude and the most unusual character.  In the second sign, the Lord healed a boy in another city, a boy whom He had never seen, by merely declaring him to be healed.  Yet even that sign pales in comparison with this one.  This sign is the climax of all the signs, and should prove to us more than any other that He was indeed Who this book is setting Him forth as and Who He claimed to be: the Christ, the Son of God.

The story starts out by introducing us to this man Lazarus, a well-known man and inhabitant of the town of Bethany, a town near Jerusalem in the land of Judea.  This town is where Mary and Martha, the Lord’s friends, lived, we also learn, and in the next verse we will learn that these two women were the sisters of this man Lazarus.  The name “Lazarus” is the same as the name “Eleazar” in the Old Testament, and means “God helps.”  We will see from this chapter that God did indeed help this man!  And he needed help, for we find him in this verse sick.  This word in Greek indicates not just that he was ill, but that his strength was worn out and he was exhausted by his illness.  A bad situation to be in, and one that meant he was close to death.

2.  It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.

This statement seems strange to us here, especially since this event has not yet been recorded.  It will, in fact, not be mentioned until the next chapter, chapter 12, and will come about as a result of the miracle the Lord works in this chapter.  John seems to mention it, however, trusting that we will cross-reference what he says here to what is said later in chapter 12 so that we can make the connection.

3.  Therefore the sisters sent to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.”

These sisters, Mary and Martha, respond to this illness by sending messengers to the Lord.  “Sent” here is the Greek apostello, and means they sent them with the authority to petition the Lord on their behalf.  Who better to turn to in a difficulty than the Lord?

They send with their messengers this appeal: that he whom the Lord loves is sick.  This word for “love” is the Greek phileo, and means a friendship love.  From this verse we learn that the Lord was not just friends with Mary and Martha, but also with their brother Lazarus.  How this friendship came about or what it entailed it is hard to say, but it seems obvious that this was something that developed before our Lord began His ministry.  How He, the son of a carpenter from Galilee, had become friends with these three siblings, some of the leading people in the town of Bethany in Judea, it is hard to say.  We can certainly compliment these three on their choice of friends, however!  And that the Lord would become friends with them is the most positive recommendation we could receive on their behalf.  Extra-Biblical information tells us that this was a friendship that had lasted for many years, that the Lord spent a large amount of time with His friend Lazarus, that He would teach His friends many things and that especially Mary loved to listen to Him speak, and that the people around the country generally agreed that the Lord would probably marry one of these sisters someday.  Although all these suggestions seem logical enough, there is no way to prove or disprove them.  But what we can establish from Scripture is that these people were friends of our Lord’s from before His ministry.  He loved Lazarus, and now the one He loved was sick.

What an appeal this was, based on the Lord’s love for this man!  This is perhaps our best appeal as well when we wish to intercede for someone to the Lord in prayer: that this person is someone the Lord loves!

4.  When Jesus heard that, He said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

When the Lord hears of Lazarus’ sickness, He makes this declaration about it.  It is not to result ultimately in death, but in the glory of God.  He meant that the final result of this sickness would not be death, as might be expected from the condition Lazarus was in, but that it would have a far different result altogether.  This does not mean that this is true of all sickness and death.  Death is the ultimate victory of sin, and it does not glorify God.  What does glorify God is resurrection and the swallowing up of death in victory, as we will see later in the chapter.

Did Christ mean that God Himself had caused Lazarus to become sick so that He could be glorified by it?  Not necessarily.  Christ’s point wasn’t what caused Lazarus’ illness, but rather what was going to be the result of it.  That result was going to be glory to God, and the glorification of the Son of God.  This was to be the result of Lazarus’ illness, but it was not necessarily the cause.  Moreover, again, we cannot spread this out to all sickness that anyone might have.  God can work through situations to His Own glory, but sickness and death in themselves are not glorifying to God.

Notice that again in this passage, God and the Son of God are spoken of as equals.  This sickness is going to bring glory to God, and it is going to cause the Son of God to be glorified.  In this, as in all other things, they are together, and what brings good to One will bring good to the Other.  There is no division ever between God and His Son!

5.  Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

What a simple statement this is, and yet how far-reaching!  The Lord Jesus loved these three siblings.  This time the Greek word for “loved” is agapao, and indicates the truest and highest form of love possible, a love that is totally unselfish and is always giving, and a love that comes only from God.  The Lord loved these people!  Of that we should have no doubt.  Yet what a glorious truth it is to know that He loves us in the same way, even enough to die for us!

6.  So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.

Probably it was the expectation of Mary and Martha’s messengers, and perhaps even His disciples, that the moment the Lord heard this news that He would pack up His things and come with them immediately to help His friend.  We might imagine that the disciples were already starting to anticipate and plan for the trip they thought would immediately come when they heard this news.  Yet the Lord did not act as we might expect.  He did not immediately come running to help His dear friend.  Instead, He waited two days in the place where He was, calmly waiting on God’s timetable before making any move.

7.  Then after this He said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

It may be that after two days of no action, the disciples had decided that our Lord was not going to go to Lazarus, but was going to remain right where He was.  If so, they were surprised again, for after two days He declared to them that they were now going to return to Judea.

8.  The disciples said to Him, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You, and are You going there again?”

Remember, we read about this event of the Jews trying to stone Him in John 10:31, and before that in John 8:59.  The Lord had left Judea and went away beyond Jordan (John 10:40) to escape these men and their attempts at slaying Him.  Therefore, the disciples are surprised and reluctant when their Lord tells them they are going to Judea again.  They knew that when they went there, the Jews would renew their attempts to slay the Lord.  Thus, in their surprise, they reminded the Lord of this.  He, of course, had not forgotten, but He had a plan He had to follow that was given to Him by His Father.  His actions may not have made sense to His disciples, but they were the right actions, since they were the actions God had for Him to do.

9.  Jesus 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.

The Israelites reckoned days from sunrise to sunset.  Being far nearer the equator than I am writing this in Minnesota, their days were approximately twelve hours of light.  The Lord points out here that one who walks in the day does not stumble because the light of day clearly shows him where he is going.

10.  “But if one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

In the same way, one who journeys at night will stumble.  We can imagine the darkness that would have often covered the night in Israel in the days long before electric lights were invented.  To try to walk in the darkness of night would have been difficult indeed, and one would have been likely to stumble, not having light in himself to see by.

The Lord’s point here seems to be that He has the light.  He does have the light in Himself, and the light of God is lighting His way.  He knows exactly where He is going because the light is showing Him His path.  He will not stumble.  They can trust that He is taking the right path.  Again, this is because He is following the plan God had for Him.

11.  These things He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.”

After assuring His disciples that He knows what He is doing by going again to Judea, He reminds them of the reason He was going back to Judea: because of Lazarus’ illness.  At the same time, He reveals this sad truth to them: Lazarus is dead.  However, He couches this announcement in a figure of speech.  In Greek, there are two words for “sleep.”  The first is katheudo, and means to go to sleep voluntarily after composing yourself for sleep.  This word is always used for literal sleep.  The second word for sleep, however, is koimaomai, and means to fall asleep unintentionally.  Anyone who has fallen asleep in a class or a meeting knows what this is like.  This could also have to do with being knocked unconscious, fainting, or going into a coma.  Yet, since it speaks of falling asleep against your will, it can therefore be used as a figure of speech for death, since death is ultimately falling asleep against your will and never waking up.  Thus, our Lord used this figure of speech to state the sad truth that His friend Lazarus was dead.  However, He assured the disciples that He was going to Lazarus now, and that He would wake him up.

12.  Then His disciples said, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.”

It may be that the disciples were familiar with the symptoms of the disease that Lazarus had.  Apparently the inability to sleep was one of the symptoms, and so they concluded that if he was sleeping, then he would get well.  They did not take proper note of the figure of speech, however, and so their conclusion was wrong.  They were taking the Lord’s statement the wrong way.  It may be that they did this purposely.  They probably didn’t want to believe that the Lord would have stayed where He was for two days and done nothing to help the one whom He loved if the situation had indeed been that serious.  Thus they mistook His meaning and came to this wrong conclusion.

13.  However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep.

John makes it plain for us what the Lord was actually saying.  He was speaking of Lazarus’ death.  The disciples, however, thought He was talking about the taking of rest in sleep.  Again, we cannot tell why exactly they misunderstood Him in this way, but it probably had to do with their not wanting to believe that Lazarus was dead.

14.  Then Jesus said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.

When the disciples misunderstand His statement, the Lord repeats it literally and makes it very clear what He means.  Lazarus is not just sleeping.  He is dead, and the verb He used indicated that he had already been dead for some time.  He probably died, in fact, soon after the sisters sent the messengers to Him.

15.  “And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe.  Nevertheless let us go to him.”

The Lord now makes what to the disciples must have been a rather surprising statement.  He tells them that He is glad that He was not there.  Since the disciples knew of His healing power, this must have seemed a most strange thing to say indeed!  Wouldn’t He have wanted to help and heal His friend from this terrible illness?  Yet He reveals to them why He is glad: because this will result in them believing.  The Lord knew that when they saw what He was going to do to Lazarus, that this would greatly increase their faith.  And this is why John recorded this event in his book as well: so that we too might believe.  I pray that as we continue this story, that it will produce faith in us as well.

Having said this, our Lord now reiterates His announcement that they will be traveling to Judea.  They are going to go to Lazarus in spite of the fact that it is too late for him to recover from his illness and he is now dead.

16.  Then Thomas, who is called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”

Thomas speaks up here.  He is the disciple usually known as “doubting Thomas,” yet this label is in a way unfair, as he doubted no less than his fellow disciples before they saw the resurrected Lord.

Thomas is called “the Twin” or Didymus in Greek, a word that means “twin.”  In fact, “Thomas” also means “twin.”  Since at that time they tended to name people after their characteristics, it is likely that Thomas was actually a twin, although who his twin was we do not know.

Thomas speaks up here and says something that is almost fatalistic.  Thomas, being somewhat of a pessimist, is certain that the Lord will die if He returns to Judea.  He knows that the religious leaders want to kill Him, and he probably realizes that with all the power in Israel at their command, they are likely to succeed.  In spite of this, though, he urges his fellow disciples to go with the Lord.  Yet he does not do this because of faith in the Lord.  Rather, he promotes the idea that if the Lord is going to die, they might as well all die with Him.  This statement is fatalistic, but we also have to credit Thomas with loyalty.  He may not have agreed with the Lord’s decision to return to Judea, and he may have believed that His return there would result in the death of them all, but he had made up his mind to follow the Lord and now he was going to do that even if it meant death.  His dedication was impressive, and we have to give him credit for it.  Yet at the same time, how little trust he had in the plans and purposes of the Lord!  Only after the resurrection would Thomas come to see the truth of how perfect Christ’s plan really was.

17.  So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days.

It is said that some of the Jews had a theory about death.  They believed that after a person died, his soul (or his spirit) would remain around his body seeking entrance back into it.  Thus, if anything were to happen to heal the body of the person who had died, his spirit would naturally return to him and he would come back to life.  After forty-eight hours, however, it was believed that the spirit gave up and left the body, returning to God.  From that point on, only God Himself could call it back and raise the person from the dead.  This was how they explained the resurrections performed by Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament.  Now when the Lord had raised people from the dead up to this point, He had always done so within that first forty-eight hours, and so these people would have believed that He did the same thing that Elijah and Elisha did: healing the body and allowing the spirit to return.  Now, however, when He comes to Lazarus’ grave, he had already been dead four days.  According to this belief, then, Lazarus was beyond any hope of resurrection, and only God Himself could bring him back to life.  Now this idea was not one we find recorded in the Bible, and so we cannot say that it was correct (although we cannot necessarily prove it was incorrect either.)  However, this was a belief held by many people of that day, and so we can understand why the Lord waited two days before journeying to Bethany.  He wanted to arrive there not just after Lazarus died, but more than forty-eight hours after he died, when the wisdom of the day said that he was beyond all hope of recovery.