The raising of Lazarus

The resurrection of Lazarus was a phenomenal miracle that shook Israel to its roots and convinced the Jewish religious leaders that Jesus had to die.  Why?  For three and a half years Jesus has taught and performed fantastic miracles.  Why was this miracle, spectacular as it was, so different?   Because, this was the turning point in Jesus' ministry.  During this last six months of His ministry, Jesus begins to predict that He is going to die!

First: Mark 8:31-33, Matthew 16:21–28, Luke 9:22–27

Second: Mark 9:30–32

Third: Matthew 20:17–19 specifically mentioning crucifixion:

"Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!"

By this time the apostles are starting to get just a little nervous.  Jesus' conflict with the religious leaders had reached an all time high.  Rumors were flying that the religious leaders wanted to arrest and kill Jesus.  Months earlier Jesus had performed a miracle that was beyond belief.  He had  healed a man born blind! (John 9).  That miracle set the religious leaders on edge.  Why?  Because the rabbi's taught that the one only true way to recognize the Messiah was that only the Messiah could perform four impossible miracles!  

Jesus had already performed three of the four impossible miracles of the Messiah and the religious leaders were getting very nervous. If Jesus performed the fourth miracle there was no way they could deny he was the Messiah!  This is what makes the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus such an important event.

John 11:11-45

11 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (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.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

The scene: Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had become gravely ill.  The bible never mentions what his sickness was.  However, his condition must have been life threatening.  The problem: Jesus and His disciples were over twenty miles away (a day's travel) somewhere in the area around Bethany by the Jordan (where John the Baptist preached).  In desperation Mary and Martha sent a messenger, probably a close relative, to find Jesus saying, "Lord, the one you love is sick!"

It's thought that it was at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha's that Jesus stayed whenever He visited Jerusalem over the last three years.  What's interesting is that there are no parentswife or husbands mentioned in any of the accounts mentioning this brother and his sisters. Nor does it mention if Lazarus is the oldest, middle or youngest of the siblings.

The family seemed to be at least moderately affluent since they owned a home big enough to host Jesus and his disciples.  And, as we shall see, Mary owned at least one very expensive jar of perfume.  Whatever their circumstance, Lazarus is sick and the sisters are very worried. They believe that if they can reach Jesus, He could heal Lazarus!  All that day and by the light of candles the sisters tended their brother, who is tossing and turning on his bed cooling his fevered brow with cold cloths.  Wringing their hands in worry, praying and hoping that Jesus will come in time.  Did the sisters know of Jesus miracles of healing from a distance?  After all the miracles and teachings of Jesus were the talk of Israel.  Every time Jesus healed someone the new spread through the land like wildfire.  Had the sisters heard the stories how:

  •  John 4:46-54 Jesus healed the nobleman's son from a distance
  • Mathew 8:5-13 Jesus healed centurions servant from a distance

Did Mary and Martha hope, that even if Jesus could not come, in time that He might heal Lazarus from where He was like He'd done with the nobleman's son and the centurion’s servant?   You can almost see the two women bowed in prayer by candle light fervently praying that the messenger would find Jesus in time.  However, shortly after the messenger leaves, Lazarus shudders, breaths his last and dies.  The messenger, not knowing Lazarus has already died, continues to search until he finds Jesus (day 1). 

Finally, he finds the camp of Jesus and delivers his news (John 11:4).  Jesus turns to His disciples and said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it's for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” But to the disciples surprise, they stayed  in that place for two more days (days 2 and 3).  The disciples must have been relieved; they weren't going back into danger yet.  However, on the fourth day Jesus said, "Let’s go back to Judea."  That sent a ripple through the little group.  The twelve looked at each other quickly, till one blurted out,  “But Rabbi, a few weeks ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and you want to go back?”

Jesus smiled and answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight?" As He gestured around them He added, "Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It's when a person walks at night that they stumble, because they have no light.”

Seeing the confusion on their faces He sighed and said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”  Again they were puzzled, and one exclaimed,  “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” After all, sleep was the great healer.  Jesus smiled grimly then said,  “Lazarus is deadand for your sake I'm glad I wasn't  there, so that you may believe. Let us go to him.” As Jesus turned to walk away, one of the disciples Thomas sighed, looked at the other and said with resignation, “Let's go, we might as well die with him.”


The burial of Lazarus

Back in Bethany, Martha and Mary began the process of preparing their brother for burial.  When a Jewish person died, the body was prepared for burial and it was placed in the grave soon after death. It was the custom to bury the body within 24 hours in the Middle East for several reasons.  Mainly, Middle Easterners did not embalm their dead.  Therefore, because of the high temperatures of the Middle East a body began to decompose rapidly after death. 

Two lighted candles were place by the body, one at the feet and one at the head.

  •  The body was washed and rinsed
  • The hair and beard were trimmed
  • The body was oiled with spices
  • The body was  then dressed in a clean robe or linen or robe

Shortly before the time of burial, the body was finally prepared.  Here is where historical accounts differ; some would suggest that the body was wrapped with linen like a mummy with spices tucked into each layer. Others suggest that the body was wrapped in a long linen cloth such as the shroud of Turin.  Spices tucked inside the shroud and the feet and arms bound

(Sometimes bodies contracted after death and this held them in place).  And a cloth was then  tied around the head to keep the mouth closed.  Others suggest the body was laid out in its dress clothes.  The arms, legs and mouth tied closed and spice packed around it.  Maybe this was just for the period when people paid their respects.  John 11:34 says that Lazarus was bound head and foot with grave clothes and that his face was bound with a napkin.   Why spice?   The spice helped mask the odor of decay.

When the hour came for burial the body was placed on a bier or wagon, in a woven casket (open) or a wooden coffin (also open).  A funeral procession walked before and behind the body to the burial site with mourners wailing and crying loudly for the deceased.  Wealthier, middle easterners often paid professional mourners to play flutes, wail and cry along for the victims.

The deceased was lovingly buried or placed in a rock tomb.  From the biblical accounts, Lazarus was placed in a cave tomb cut out of limestone with a stone to block its entrance, also an indication of the families potential wealth?  Once Lazarus's body was laid to rest in its tomb, the stone doorway was rolled or wedged in place to seal it, the family walked home where they would mourn, receiving the condolences of friends and neighbors for one week, this was called Shiva.  

The seven days of Shiva was observed for the death of a father, mother, wife/husband, son, daughter, brother or sister.  The rabbis and the Pharisees had strict guidelines concerning Shiva:

  •  No work was done by the mourners during any of the seven days.
  • No greetings were answered in the street.
  • Mourners could only sit on chairs or low stools.
  • Phylacteries were not worn during prayer (men).
  • No shoes made of leather could be worn.
  • No shaving or hair cutting was allowed.
  • No sexual relations were allowed
  • Clothe were to remain dirty and sometimes sprinkled with ashes or dust.

Mary and Martha were practicing this custom when Jesus finally arrived.

Historical note.  In large families that owned a family tomb, it was often customary to allow the body to decompose in its grave for one year allowing the flesh to waste away.  At the end of the year, the family members would return, open the grave and place the bones of the deceased in a stone ossuary, and set beside other family members, freeing up the tomb for the next family member. 

Here is an interesting piece of ancient Jewish customs visiting the tomb.  Tractate Semahot (Mourning') says: 'One may go out to the cemetery for three days to inspect the dead for a sign of life, without fear that this smacks of heathen practice. For it happened that a man was inspected after three days, and he went on to live twenty-five years; still another went on to have five children and died later. (8:1). 

Mourning was at its height on the third day. Why three days!  A Jewish text from the early third century A.D. says the mourners should continue to come to the tomb for three days because the dead person continues to be present. Mourning is at its height on the third day, presumably because it is the last time the dead person will be present there. Rabbi Bar Kappara taught: Until three days [after death] the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking that it will go back [into the body]; but when it sees that the facial features have become disfigured, it departs and abandons it [the body]" (Genesis Rabbah 100:7; cf. Leviticus Rabbah 18:1; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 12:6).

Here is an interesting question.  Did the sisters know the stories of how  Jesus raising two people from the dead; Luke 7:1117; 8:40-56?  Did they fret for three long days anxiously looking down the road, hoping beyond hope, that Jesus would arrive and raise Lazarus from the dead before it was too late?  As the sun set on the third and final day, did they dejectedly give up sighing, "It's too late!" and go home to begin life without their brother.

By the end of the fourth day, Martha and Mary were emotionally, mentally and spiritually wrung out.  Lazarus was dead.  Their last four days had been spent in deep mourning of their brother.  Their world had been completely turned upside down.  Single girls or women in Biblical times didn't have a whole lot of options for life without a husband, father or brother to take care of them.  To say their lives had changed instantly with Lazarus's death would be an understatement.   The potential options they faced included:

  • Surviving on their families inheritance,
  • Marriage - probably arranged by the next closest male relation in the family
  • Living with other relatives

If they were a part of the Essene community as some has suggested,  life may not have changed much.  They could remain separated from society and rigidly keep the schedules, prayers, fasts, etc., of the Essene society.  Possibly marrying an Essene husband, or segregating themselves with other Essene women.  Single women of Biblical times were extremely limited as far as employment opportunities existed.  So, needless to say, their world had changed dramatically.

 Jesus Comforts the Sisters of Lazarus (John 11:17-36).

 17On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.


One of the relatives or friends of Mary and Martha saw Jesus and His disciples in the distance coming down the dusty road to Bethany and ran to tell the two sisters.  When Martha heard the news she ran down the road to meet Him.  When Martha knelt at the feet of Jesus He saw she was still wearing her mourning clothes, and that her eyes were red and bloodshot with dark circles under eyes.   With a forlorn look Martha looked up at Jesus and sobbed, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”


It had been four days, and custom taught that Lazarus soul had departed.  But even now Martha had faith in her Lord.  Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.”   Martha nodded and whispered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”  Jesus smiled, gently shook His head and said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”  Martha looked up quickly into Jesus eyes and whispered, “Yes, Lord I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”  Then rising quickly Martha rushed back to the house and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.”


Jesus had remained at the place where Martha met him.  When Mary heard that Jesus was there and was asking for her she quickly got up and ran to him.  Those family and friends who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, saw her get up quickly and rush out.  As one they got up and followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn again. When Mary reached Jesus, she fell at his feet and like Martha tearfully sobbed, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus looked down at Mary weeping and was deeply moved in spirit by her anguish.    Where have you laid him?” He asked.   Mary looked up teary eyed and whispered, “I will take you there Lord.”  Seeing the distress and hurt in Mary’s eyes, Jesus began to weep.  In the crowd that had followed Mary some whispered, “Look how much he loved Lazarus!”  While others whispered, “Couldn’t this man who had healed the man born blind man and so many other have kept this man from dying in the first place?


Jesus Raises Lazarus from the Dead (John 11:38-44)


When they came to the tomb Jesus gestured toward the tomb and said, “Take away the stone.”   The crowd gasped and Martha exclaimed, “But, Lord but by now there is a bad odor, for he has been dead for four days.”   Jesus looked Martha in the eye and said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” The crowd looked at Martha who shrugged and gestured toward the tomb.  Two husky men stepped up and strained with all their might to roll the stone back.  As the stone cracked open the dank putrid smell of death quickly seeped out.  The men gagged, covered their noses and mouth with a grimace and quickly stepped back.


Jesus looked skyward holding his hands up in prayer and said , “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”  Then He pointed toward the door of the tomb and commanded in a booming voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”  


In the dark recesses of the tomb Lazarus mind struggled to swim up out of the deep gloom as if coming out of a deep sleep.  He heard Jesus as if from a great distance commanding, "Lazarus, come Forth!"  His body seemed to tingle with some kind of energy.  Deep in his soul Lazarus knew beyond anything else  that he had to obey that command!  Finally when he opened his eyes everything was dark and blurry.  Gradually he realized he couldn't see because there was some kind of cloth over his face.  He tried to lift his hand to remove the cloth, but his hands were tied to his sides.  That’s strange he thought and struggled to sit up.  He shook his head from side to side to free his face from the cloth and that’s when he noticed  another cloth binding his mouth closed.  Fully awake now he looked down in disbelief and saw that his arms, legs and lower body had been wrapped in a burial cloths.  At that same time his nostrils were suddenly stung by the strong smell of spices and something rotten!  He thought, "What in the world is going on?”  Then he  felt again that irresistible command resonating in his soul "Lazarus come forth!"  He hunched, turned, twisted until he could sit up and swing his legs off the stone shelf, and shakily stand to his feet.  Then in obedience to Jesus compelling command he began to shuffled and  hop through the darkness toward the door.

When Lazarus suddenly appeared in the door of his tomb wrapped in stained, soiled grave cloths a gasp went up from the crowd.  Men dropped to their knees, women fainted, others gasped or cried out in disbelief.  It was unbelievable; this was a miracle beyond comprehension.  Jesus had resurrected a dead man after four days in the grave.   Men rubbed their eyes, and then looked away and back again.  Yet there was Lazarus, plain as day struggling against his bond trying to hobble forward.  Jesus smiled and said, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”


The Plot to Kill Jesus (John 11:45-52)


45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 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 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 temple and our nation.” 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.


The raising of Lazarus from the dead was like a spiritual nuclear bomb going off!  Many of those who were there instantly believed in Jesus as Lord and Messiah.  Others however, rapidly ran the two miles to Jerusalem to deliver the incredible news to the Pharisees.  Jesus had done the impossible, He had raised a man from the dead after four days.  The Pharisee's immediately dispatched runners to the high priest.  The high priest instantly sent out a call to all the members of the Sanhedrin present in Jerusalem to come to an emergency meeting. 

That meeting must have been highly charged, crackling with alarm, apprehension, dissention and argument.  The issue of Jesus of Nazareth had finally reached the critical boiling point.  Jesus had successfully performed all the signs of Messiah: 


Suddenly, the Sanhedrin faced an explosive issue.  What should they do about Jesus of Nazareth?  Acknowledge Him as Messiah or continue to oppose Him?  That must have been an explosive, loud, argumentative assembly.  For one ,the Sadducees did not believe in life after death and thereforeto them there was  no such thing as a resurrection.   This was a definite blow to their theology.   The Pharisee's, on the other hand, did believe in life after death and in the resurrection.  The main issue however, was Jesus and what to do with Him?  He was a threat to these ruling parties of the Sanhedrin in multiple ways.  For example:

  • The Pharisee's did not accept Him because He did not fit their interpretations of the prophecies concerning who, what and where the Messiah would do and be like. 
  • The Sadducees Hated Him because He had driven out the sacrificial animals and money changers from the temple (their corrupt money making scheme).  Which meant  Jesus was a threat to the high priest who was also a Sadducee and a member of the family who had a strangle hold on the temple.
  • If Jesus were crowned King, it was highly possible He would replace the corrupt high priests (which were mainly Sadducees) and they would lose all power and authority.
  • The people were rallying to Jesus by the thousands
  • When the people heard of the miracle there would be rumblings of rebellion against Rome.
  • How would Rome react?

 It was public knowledge that all the ruling sects, Pharisee, Sadducees and Herodian's had clashed with Jesus for the last three years and more.  With this miracle, the people would begin to ask, "Why are you opposing Him?"  But their biggest fear was Rome!  These men, these elite spiritual leaders of Israel did not have faith in the power of God or His Messiah.  They did not believe the Messiah could win a war with the seemingly unconquerable Romans (John 11:48).  "If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”  Most of the men in the Sanhedrin had personally witnessed the power of Rome's legions and their destructive capabilities in their nation.   They believed that Roman legions would plow over the forces of Israel and then they would destroy the temple (to them unthinkable).  Which incidentally, did happen around 40 years later because they did deny and kill the Messiah.

Even more, they also knew that "If" they somehow survived the slaughter,  Rome would replace the high priest and all other high ranking priests as they had done in the recent past.


* Annas, or Ananias, or Ananus, son of Seth, was appointed high priest by Quirinius, the governor of Syria in AD 6. Annas was finally deposed by the Roman governor Valerius Gratus in AD 15. The next two high priests, including one of his sons, were both deposed after about a year, before Joseph Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas, was appointed (Josephus Ant 18:2:2).


The members of the Sanhedrin thought, we either lose our positions to Jesus as Messiah, or lose our positions to the Romans and be destroyed in the process. 

The senate chamber was rumbling with argument when one man jumped and shouted, "What are we accomplishing?  This man is performing many signs."  He paused for effect and looked around the assembly looking each man in the eye as he paused for dramatic affect then continued, "If we let this go on  everyone will believe in him!  And, you know what that means? The Romans will come and destroy our temple and our nation."  Caiaphas, who was high priest that year jumped up from his throne, and bellowed, “You know nothing at all!"  He had another option in mind hissing, "Don't you  realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”  The muttering in the great hall abruptly stopped as each man present considered Caiaphas' declaration.  His idea, his solution, "kill Jesus" would effectively  remove the other two issues and allow them to retain their positions and save the temple and the nation.  Caiaphas had no way of knowing he was speaking prophecy and that one man would die for the people.  But, not just the people of Jerusalem, but also the people of the world.

The scriptures do not record the reactions of the men of the Sanhedrin.  It does record that from that day the great Sanhedrin plotted to kill Jesus.  Jesus, knowing this, withdrew to a village in the wilderness called Ephraim where He stayed with His disciples till Passover.


"But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him John 11:57."

The contest was set, the battle lines drawn and Passover would set the time, date and place for Jesus to offer Himself as the sacrificial Lamb of God.


Refecting Christ's Light



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