Jesus Waited Until Lazarus Died
Right at the beginning of the story we read: "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go into Judea again” (John 11:5-7).
The logic doesn't really seem to follow here. Jesus loved Lazarus and so when he heard he was ill he remained where he was. He did not immediately rush to his side. It seems that Jesus deliberately waits until Lazarus dies, knowing what he is about to do. And he does this out of love for him.
Sometimes we may face certain crises and we wonder why it seems divine intervention is delayed. What we need to remember is that God does not delay because he does not love us--in fact, sometimes it is to the contrary. Even if we seem to think God must act "right now", we know that the Lord may have other plans--and his plans are always better than ours!
"Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover."
I have to highlight another element in the story which really is quite humorous. Indeed, people who have heard me speak on John know that I think it is one of the funniest books in the New Testament.
The apostles clearly do not get what is going on when Jesus explains why they are headed to Bethany:
[Jesus said,] “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead; 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him" (John 11:11-15).
Resurrection and Restoration in Jewish Hopes
Why is the miracle of raising the dead such an important sign. Well, clearly raising the dead would have been impressive; it's not something you see every day.
However, even more importantly, ancient Jews apparently linked the rising of the dead with the coming of the future eschatological age, the age of the Messiah. In fact, the image of raising the dead was especially closely linked to Jewish hopes for the restoration of Israel. Let me explain.
In Israel's history there are two major exiles. In the eighth century B.C. most of the northern tribes were taken off into captivity by the Assyrians. They were never heard from again (=the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel). Later, in the sixth century B.C., the southern tribes were taken off into exile, however, they returned.
Yet, God promised that one day the northern tribes would return from exile. This is evident in a number of prophetic texts:
The famous prophecy which tells of the “new covenant”, the only one in the Old Testament, explicitly states this: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31). This idea of a reunited Israel is found throughout the Old Testament. Here are some examples.
In fact, it’s hard to find a prophet who doesn’t express this hope!
“In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant which is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. The jealousy of E'phraim shall depart, and those who harass Judah shall be cut off; E'phraim shall not be jealous of Judah, and Judah shall not harass E'phraim” (Isaiah 11:11-13).
“For behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of the my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land which I gave to their fathers. . .” (Jeremiah 30:3).
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel!. . . They shall go after the Lord, he will roar like a lion; yea, he will roar, and his sons shall come trembling from the west; they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord” (Hosea 11:8, 10-11).
This "scattering" of Israel was seen as a kind of "death". Hence, it is not surprising, the hoped-for return of Israel was linked with resurrection language. A clear example of this is found in the first reading this Sunday, Ezekiel's prophecy of the dry bones. There "resurrection" imagery is clearly linked to the restoration of Israel:
"Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel" (Ezek 37:11-12).Interesting, the term used to describe the "scattering" of Israel throughout the world was diaspora. Most scholars know the term, but do not know its origin. James Scott explains that the word was most frequently used to describe "decomposition", i.e., of a body. It is no suprise then resurrection was clearly linked to the hope of the restoration of Israel (cf. Hosea 6:2; Daniel 12:1–2; Bar 2:14–18; 4Q521 2, II, 1–13; 7, 5; 4Q385 II, 2–9).
The Restoration of Israel and the Raising of Lazarus
That restoration from exile is in the backdrop of the leaing of Lazarus story is also clear from what follows in the chapter. In response to Jesus' miracle of raising Lazarus we read that the high priest said something which was in fact prophetic.
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; 50 you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.Jesus' death would bring about the future restoration of Israel--Lazarus' resurrection was a kind of anticipation of that event. If you want to learn more about this theme in John's Gospel I highly recommend John A. Dennis, Jesus' Death and the Gathering of the True Israel (WUNT 217; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2006).
What Practical Lesson Are We Left With?
Again, much could be said about the story of the raising of Lazarus. The scene famously tells us that Jesus "wept" (John 11:35--the shortest verse in the Bible). This of course highlights the humanity of Jesus and underscores the way he stands in solidarity with us.
Another theme, however, which flows out of our reading above is this: God is faithful to his promise and can reconcile us no matter how far we have wondered away from him. The Israelites had been scattered--carried off to the far corners of the world in captivity. The Old Testament makes it clear why this happened: sin.
But God reveals that he bring us back to him no matter how unlikely that might seem. To bring back together the northern tribes and unite them to the southern tribes--to restore the twelve tribes of Israel--that would take a miracle. But that was what Jesus expected (e.g., he named twelve apostles). God would bring about a resurrection--and, in fact, he accomplished his plan through just that, i.e., the resurrection of his Son.
The Tie-In to the Prodigal Son Story
If you're thinking that this sounds like the prodigal son story which we heard last week, you're right. In fact, the story of the prodigal son seems, on a deeper level, to evoke traditions about Israel. As readers of the Old Testament know, God describes Israel as his “son” (e.g., Exod 4:22). As we have explained, the twelve tribes were separated into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom eventually rejected the temple in Jerusalem and turned to idolatry, leading to the exile of most of the northern Israelites (=the lost ten tribes of Israel). The southern kingdom, Judah, remained attached to the temple in Jerusalem.
Read in this light the story of the prodigal son could be seen as a kind of lesson about Israel. The northern Israelites defiled themselves―even worshipping golden calves upon splitting with the southern kingdom (1 Kgs 12:25–33). They have therefore been taken away to a foreign land, brought away in captivity (and servitude). Yet the prophets predicted that one day God would once again call his son back to him (cf. Hosea 11).
The Judeans oftentimes looked down on their northern brothers. They had rejected God, they had defiled themselves―in a sense, they got what was coming to them. The Judeans had remained at the temple, serving the Lord. That Jesus takes his ministry to Galilee, seems to be a clear indication that he has the salvation of the northern kingdom clearly at the forefront of his eschatological program. That the father kills the fatted calf may be a kind of allusion to the hope of reconciliation of the northern Israelite brothers who separated from the Lord and tuned to golden calves.
In Christ we have redemption from sin and restoration--we truly have new life. The raising of Lazarus reveals that even if it seems lilke death has conquered, there is still hope. Let us hope in the Lord!
 See Ezekiel 37; Hosea 13-14; Daniel 12. Indeed, the word diaspora was used most frequently to describe “decomposition”. See Scott, James. “Exile and the Self-Understanding of Diaspora Jews.” Exile: Old Testament, Jewish and Christian Conceptions (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 178-179.