4 August 2017

John 11:1-16

“For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (v. 15)

Psalm: Psalm 49


Today's passage begins a section of John's Gospel which is the culmination of Jesus' public ministry. It leads to the seventh sign where Jesus brings life out of death in the raising of Lazarus: a foretaste of his own death and resurrection, a cementing of his identity as the Son of God and a manifestation of God's glory. But that is jumping ahead! In this passage Jesus hears that his friend, Lazarus, is ill. His response is not what we expect. Jesus does nothing. He waits for two days and only then declares his intention of going to "awaken" Lazarus (v. 11).

We are not told why Jesus waited. One view is that this ensures that by the time that Jesus gets to Bethany there is no doubt that Lazarus is dead for he has been in the tomb for four days (John 11:17). This is understood to be the period of time after which there can be no legal or physical doubt that someone is dead. Another view is that there were real dangers to be faced on the journey and time was needed, or that Jesus was occupied with other matters; but we do not know.

Whatever the reasons, there are the implications that, had Jesus responded more quickly, Lazarus would not have died and Martha and Mary would have been spared their deep distress. In the face of human grief and pain Jesus' actions are not always easy to understand. It perhaps serves as a reminder that we do not always see things as God sees them. For example, Jesus is clear that Lazarus has died and yet also says that the illness does not lead to death but is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. His words are contradictory, unless they are pointing to the limitations of our understanding of life and death and encouraging us to perceive them differently.

Whilst it becomes clear that through Jesus' actions a deeper truth is revealed, this does not always make it any easier for us to emotionally understand. Why did he wait? What of the pain caused that could have been avoided? Perhaps the questions that this part of the story can prompt reveal something about our own expectations and frameworks as we seek to understand the salvation that Jesus brings?

To Ponder

  • How do you make sense of the times when you long for God to act but it feels as if God is not there?
  • One way of reading this story suggests that human pain and suffering (and death) are secondary to God's purposes. How do you respond to this suggestion?
  • How is your understanding of God affected through reflecting on this passage?

Bible notes author

The Revd Nicola Price-Tebbutt

Nicola Price-Tebbutt is a presbyter in the Methodist Church. She has previously served in circuit in Sheffield and as a tutor at Hartley Victoria College in Manchester.