In John 11, Lazarus dies. It’s a story so common that no day in the history of the (post-Edenic) world has passed without this headline. Death is tragic, heart-wrenching, unbearable—but also entirely ordinary.
And yet there is something odd about the death story of John 11. Jesus, who had been making quite a stir with his healings, was given advance warning about Lazarus’ condition. Everyone knew Jesus could have done something about it. When Jesus arrives at the scene—four days late—he repeatedly hears the same greeting: “If you had been here he wouldn’t have died” (v. 21, 32, 37).
But Jesus made a conscious decision to show up after Lazarus’ death. Oddly, John even tells us that Jesus delayed because “he loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (v. 5). Jesus loved this family and had every intention of exerting his inexhaustible power to resolve their situation in the best way possible. True to form, Jesus’ plan simply failed to align with what everyone was hoping and praying for.
As he relays the story, John keeps us in the know. There was a theological reason for this delay: “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” (v. 4). In John 11, death is not presented as an ominous foe. It is almost tamed. Degraded to a mere plot device. A foil for the glory of God. Jesus even speaks of Lazarus having “fallen asleep” and of his own resurrecting power as simply “awakening him” (v.11), which evokes a humorous response from the disciples who basically say, “Well, if he fell asleep, he’ll probably be alright” (cf. v. 12).
And so it happened that Jesus peacefully strolled into town to minister to a man who had been four days in the tomb. Everyone seemed to be convinced of Jesus’ power to keep the living from death. But no one expected Jesus’ clever plot device, the simple words he would utter that would call death’s bluff—except maybe Mary, who wished Jesus had arrived earlier, but still acknowledged, “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (v. 22).
And of course, it wasn’t too late. Jesus came for Lazarus. Even after death. He was gone, removed from the face of the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But Jesus came back for him. In response to a simple command to emerge, the decaying Lazarus reanimated and returned to his daily life.
If we could see beyond our Sunday school memories of this story, we would realize how shocking it is. And yet, like death itself, resurrection from the dead is also one of the most common things in the world. Or at least, it will be.
The Lazarus story stands out because he beat Jesus to the grave. What Jesus enacted with Lazarus foreshadows what Jesus himself would soon accomplish—not in obedience to the word of a stranger standing in the world of the living, but from the life-giving depths of his own being. Jesus entered the grave having already called death’s bluff (a few times). The world’s surprise at Jesus’ resurrection largely reveals humanity’s inability to understand what Jesus was up to.
Like Lazarus, we are all heading inexorably closer to the grave. But don’t worry, this illness does not lead to death. Yes, death is involved. But it doesn’t lead to death. Perhaps we should say it leads through death. Unlike Lazarus, who beat Jesus to the grave, Jesus has gone to the grave before us—and emerged on the other side. Jesus will come for us as well. Death does not get the last word. Resurrection—recreation—has always been God’s plan. Death is terrifying, yes. But when we view the world through the lens of Christ, we recognize it as a simple plot device. A mere foil to the glory of God.
We must be careful not to make light of what is serious. Even Jesus, who knew what he would do in a few moments’ time, saw the grief-inflicting impact of death on the people around him and wept (v. 35). There is a real place for grief in response to death, in response to a world gone berserk through the ravages of sin. But death does not get the last word. Jesus called Lazarus out of death. And he will call for us as well. “Behold, I am making all things new; I am coming soon” (Rev. 21:5 and 22:20).