In the previous section of the Gospel of John, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the big Hanukah celebration. He gets into an argument with the people there essentially telling them that he’s the fulfillment of this celebration. They want to stone him for blasphemy, because even though he’s a man, he makes himself to be God. He gives them a witty response—doubling down, after which they try to arrest him. He escapes and makes it across the Jordan to where John the Baptist was at the very beginning of the gospel account. What unfolds next is really the culmination of Jesus’ whole earthly ministry. The Lazarus event takes us directly to the triumphal entry.
Lazarus gets sick
Just as Jesus has escaped for the last time, Lazarus gets sick. He’s a man living in Bethany—very close to Jerusalem, the same village of Mary and Martha; he’s their brother. John recounts that this is the same Mary “who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair.” John continues, “So the sisters sent to [Jesus], saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it he said, ‘This illness doesn’t lead to death. It’s for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’” Jesus had just healed a man during the Hanukah celebration. At this point, it’s not really clear to anyone what Jesus is up to upon hearing about Lazarus’ illness. It’s not clear that they even know what he’s capable of doing. Which is important, because there’s a certain level of trust that Jesus demands from everyone here. He’s still claiming that God will be glorified—that he himself will be glorified.
Jesus waits it out
John writes, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” He doesn’t go back to Bethany, but he doesn’t go anywhere else either. While Bethany is near Jerusalem, Jesus is across the Jordan at this point—safe from the people in Jerusalem who want to stone him. Mary, Martha, Lazarus—they’re all waiting on Jesus. While they wait on him, he seems to be waiting on something too.
Then Jesus tells his disciples that they’re turning back around—back across the Jordan to Judea—to the Jerusalem area—and they’re understandably scared. They respond—they’re going to stone you; they’re going to stone all of us!
He begins to use a metaphor that has been carried through the Gospel of John. He says, don’t shortchange the light. It’s not as if the day is always dark; the light has its own 12 hours! When you acknowledge how powerful the light really is and you walk in it, you’ll be ok. You’ll know where you’re going. When your focus is on the light, it’s on the right thing. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is already established as the Light of the world. You don’t need to be afraid. In fact, even when you face danger for it, it’s better to be in the light. Only then can you see things for what they really are. Those in the dark don’t even realize how blind they are.
Finally, Jesus tells them that they’re turning back, because their friend Lazarus has “gone to sleep.” Jesus says, “but I’m going to go wake him up.” The disciples reply, “Lord, if he’s asleep he’ll get up on his own.” We don’t need to go back. He’s fine. Which is good, Jesus, because those people want to kill us. We don’t need to take that risk. They didn’t realize that Lazarus himself was dead.
So, Jesus just tells them, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I’m glad that I wasn’t there, so that you may believe. Let’s go see him.” Thomas’ response here is classic. It echoes their previously expressed fears: “Great, Jesus, we’ll go with you, and now we’re all going to die…” Jesus’ disciples don’t see the whole picture yet, but Jesus is going to show them. He’s going to show them the light. As he faces the threat of death that’s been placed on his own life, Jesus is going to save the life of his friend. It’s not going to be some healing—something that might be confused for a parlor trick; Jesus is going to bring the dead back to life—something they haven’t seen yet.
The love of Jesus
The love that Jesus has for Lazarus, the love that Jesus has for Martha and Mary, which will become increasingly more evident as the story unfolds—this selfless, unending, unconquerable love—is something so valuable that Jesus will risk his own life for it. Later in the story, he will give his own life for it—that God might be glorified. It’s no accident that in John’s account of the Last Supper—on the eve of his death, Jesus doesn’t say the words of institution. He tells them, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. … A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The loving act of Jesus’ risking his own life to raise Lazarus is also for the glory of God. God’s love and his glory are truly valuable in this world. The only way to know that, the only way to see that or to experience it for yourself, is to be in the light, is to follow Jesus. And when you experience it, when you know the love of Christ in such a personal way, the world around you is different. Even during hard times, you can actually see how the light has conquered the darkness. It’s a light worth dying for. Even Jesus thought so. It’s a light worth suffering for. It’s a light worth an uncomfortable or awkward situation. How often do little things keep us from loving those around us? But maybe I’ve waited too long and lost my chance! Nope. No such thing. There’s always time to share the love of Christ and to tell others of his kingdom.
Sometimes, I think we ourselves are waiting to receive God’s love. In Jesus we’ve already received it, but we need that constant reminder, because so often, the darkness does seem to overshadow the light. And though we’ve already received God’s love, we are still waiting for the day that Jesus returns to us, to make all things new, to bring us a new reality in which there’s no darkness at all. In God’s hands, we wait with Lazarus.