Bible New Testament

Commentary: John 11:1-16

This is part one of the text (John 11:1-53) for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Series A, which the ESV/NKJV/NIV all end at verse 16. Below is a very basic commentary on this text.

Jesus had just left Jerusalem because the Jews wanted to stone him (10:31) for saying, I and the Father are one (10:30), but unable to act upon this they instead sought to arrest him (10:39). However, Jesus somehow escapes and travels across the Jordan to where John had been baptizing and there he stayed (10:40).

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

The scene now shifts location to the village of Bethany, situated two miles (3 km) east of Jerusalem. It is given significance in that it is the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) records an event involving these two women where Martha opens their home to Jesus and His disciples. The story also portrays Martha as a doer” and Mary as the listener, the one who has chosen the good portion (10:42). It appears that John’s note highlights the depth of their relationship, however, Luke makes no mention of the Lazarus of John’s Gospel, although in Luke Jesus doe make reference to a man named Lazarus in a parable (Luke 16:19-31). John introduces us to this Lazarus as one who is ill. The name Lazarus means “God is my help.”

It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.

John does not mention Martha here, but connects Lazarus to Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, an event that occurs later in John’s Gospel (John 12:1-8). Luke (7:36-50) also records this anointing but without mentioning Mary by name.

So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

Concerned for the brother’s well-being, Mary and Martha send a messenger to Jesus telling Him that His close friend is very ill. Implied in this fact is the request to come back.

But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

It is unclear as to whom Jesus is speaking here. Is it the messenger? The disciples? Martha and Mary? In any case, Jesus is telling them that Lazarus’ illness will not lead to permanent death, although it may be understood by those around him as death period. Just as Jesus did in John 9 (2-3)  in response to the disciples’ question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus also sees in this situation an opportunity for people to see God through the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

The relationship between Jesus, Martha, Mary and Lazarus is defined by Jesus’ love for them; a love that will express the person and will of God. We will see the nature of this love as this story unfolds.

So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

John’s comment on Jesus’ love for this family in 9:5 seems to be at odds with His decision to stay two days longer in the place where he was. A pastor would be in great trouble if upon hearing of his parishioner’s illness, waited for two days before going to see him. However, it is only with eyes of faith, trusting in the goodness of God, that we can wait patiently and see the will of God.

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

After delaying two days, Jesus shepherds his disciples to head back into Judea and toward Bethany.

The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”

The disciples express concern about this decision since the Jewish leadership had wanted to just recently arrest and stone him (10:31,39).

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.

Jesus’ rhetorical reference to twelve hours of daylight is His way of indicating that His passion is not yet. Using also the image of light to refer to Himself, Jesus assures His disciples that they will be safe. God is in control, not those who appear to threaten His life.

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

In contrast to the previous verse highlighting the “light,” Jesus notes that those who walk in the night will stumble because the light is not in them. Walking in the light of Christ and with that Light shining from within will make walking on the darkness of this world eternally safe.

11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”

Jesus then tells His disciples that our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. What would they make of such a statement? This allusion to death as sleep is a common one in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15: 6, 20; 1Thessalonians 4: 13) and with Jesus, death is no more a threat than is sleep. That Jesus goes to awaken him also points to the resurrection that will occur in this story, but do the disciples understand?

12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”

The disciples’ comment to Jesus expresses their misunderstanding of Him. They must be thinking, “Why then go?”

13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.

John steps in to explain the disciples’ misinterpretation. They didn’t think Jesus was talking about death, but the rest of sleep. Such misunderstandings often characterize how many Christians hear God’s Word.

14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Jesus has to bluntly tell the disciples “Lazarus has died.” He then goes on to explain that this is why He is glad He didn’t go to Lazarus immediately. Jesus needs to reveal the truth that He is the resurrection and the life so that the faith of these disciples will be nurtured. It is sometimes this was for us too. God allows certain things need to happen so that we can grow in faith.

16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Thomas is only mentioned as part of a list of disciples in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but in John’s Gospel Thomas has a bigger role. He is first identified as the Twin, implying that he has a brother or sister who is like him. Thomas’ statement, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” seems to have been interpreted in two very different ways. Since he later becomes the skeptic or doubter upon hearing of Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:24-29) this statement may also include a note of sarcasm or fatalism if this is his temperament. On the other hand, it may also be an expression of the courage of faith whereby Thomas trusts His Lord to keep them safe.

In Summary
This section sets up Jesus, the Son of God, to go and raise Lazarus from the dead so that He might be glorified for who He truly is.

When we encounter death and tragedy it can overwhelm us, causing us to become afraid, confused, sarcastic or just denying it all together. Even as Christians we can have difficulty accepting God’s promise to strengthen our faith through the adversity of such challenges and threats. However, Jesus says to us “Let us go…” and even before we go with Him, He has already gone for us and before us: suffering and dying for us on the cross to fulfull God’s gracious purpose of forgiveness of sin. And then, Christ rises from death, defeating even the sting of death (1 Corinthians 15: 55– 57) that we may carry with us the assurance of life and salvation.

The Lutheran Study Bible

By PT Graff

A baptized child of God's, called to be a son, husband, father, citizen of Canada and heaven and a pastor.