While Jesus was teaching in the region of Perea, he received an urgent message from two of his closes friends—Mary and Martha of Bethany—“Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3).
These two sisters had previously opened their home to Jesus and his traveling companions, suggesting Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were quite wealthy. Mary had broken societal norms by sitting and listening at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:38–42). Later, Mary would become known for anointing Jesus’s feet with expensive oil (John 12:1–8).
Now their brother Lazarus faced a life-threatening illness, and they desired the presence of their friend and miracle worker.
Jesus replied that this illness would bring glory to God, but he didn’t go to Lazarus right away. He waited two days! Delaying one’s response to another’s need was not the expected cultural response, and “even if Lazarus would have died before his arrival, the family was counting on his rapid arrival.”
John, however, made a point of telling his readers that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. The delay did not indicate a lack of affection on Jesus’s part, nor fear over the Judean Jewish leaders who sought his life.
We—like Mary and Martha—may not understand the reason for divine delays, but our momentary suffering always translates into manifold glory bestowed upon God.
When Jesus finally reached the sisters’ home in Bethany in Judea, Lazarus had been dead for four days and many had come to mourn with the family. According to Jewish lore, the spirit of the deceased remained near the body for three days hoping for a chance of reentering. On the third day, however, they believed “the body lost its color and the spirit was locked out” and would then journey to Sheol, the abode of the dead.2 Any fragment of hope the mourners had was gone by day four.
Martha, upon learning that Jesus drew near, went to meet him. Her words demonstrated palpable grief but suggested that she looked forward to a future resurrection: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (11:21–22).
Yet, even as Martha talked with the hope of eternity in mind, Jesus promised, “Your brother will rise again” (11:23).
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” Martha replied (11:24), unable to comprehend the possibility of any sort of resurrection in the here and now.
Jesus responded in a way that acknowledged her eschatological beliefs and offered some of the most comforting words in Scripture: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (11:25–26).
Martha affirmed Jesus’s words and added, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (11:27). Afterward, Martha called her sister Mary, who quickly went to meet him, echoing Martha’s earlier words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32).
In response, Jesus did two things. First, he asked them to show him the grave of Lazarus. Second, “Jesus wept”—two simple words with great impact (11:35). The Lord of the universe meets us in our sorrow and shows us we never grieve alone. He mourns with us.
As Jesus approached the cave, he commanded the stone be taken away. Moments later he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out” (11:43).
Covered with linen strips, Lazarus exited the cave—he was alive! The same God who had created the world and healed the blind had just breathed life into his creation.
Not long after, Jesus would be buried in a similar tomb with a stone rolled in front. And again, another marvelous resurrection would occur, demonstrating once and for all the words of Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). Once again, God’s glory shown forth through the death and life of the very Son of God.