Friday, April 08, 2011

Lazarus, Resurrection & Restoration: Thoughts on John 11 (Sunday's Gospel)

Sunday's Gospel reading is taken from John 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus. Much could be said about it. A while back I ran some thoughts on the story. I thought I'd revisit them here.

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 loves Lazarus and so when he hears he is ill . . . he remains where he is. He did not immediately rush to his side! It seems that Jesus, knowing what he is about to do, deliberately lags behind so that he will arrive after Lazarus has died.

But here's the amazing thing: John suggests that he does this out of love for Lazarus.

"Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover."

I have to highlight another element in the story which, to my mind, is really is quite humorous. Indeed, if you've heard me speak on John you know that I think it is one of the funniest books in the New Testament. Here's just another example of John's sense of humor.
Specifically, the humor involves Jesus' frustration with the apostles.  
[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).
Here we get a further explanation of Jesus' delay. Not only has he waited for Lazarus to die because he loves him, Jesus also suggests another reason why he needs to raise him from the dead: his miracle is going to be a sign for the disciples.

But we should point out that the whole section is dripping with Johannine humor. Jesus says that Lazarus has "fallen asleep". The apostles don't see the problem: "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." Jesus then has to back away from the symbolic language for a moment to help the thick-headed apostles: "Then Jesus told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead'". Jesus' exasperation at the apostles' density is obvious. It's almost like John says, "Then Jesus told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead, you numbsculls."

But it is also interesting to note that Jesus' actually accommodates himself to disciples' lack of understanding. He doesn't do this with non-disciples typically: he who has ears to hear. That Jesus explains the situation clearly demonstrates his willingness to work with the apostles' inability to understand.

Resurrection and Restoration in Jewish Hopes

Of course, raising the dead is an impressive sign. However, we might also add that raising the dead signaled more than just Jesus' unique power, it pointed to the fulfillment of Jewish eschatological hopes. 

Ancient Jews linked the rising of the dead with the coming of the future eschatological age, i.e., 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. 
The "scattering" of Israel was seen as a kind of "death".

This is evident, for example, in the terminology used to describe the scattering of Israel throughout the world. The term used to describe the way Israelites were scattered around the world was diaspora. Most scholars know the term, but do not know its origin. Actually, as James Scott explains, the term was most frequently used to describe not exile but "decomposition", i.e., of a body after death.[1] It is no suprise then that resurrection was frequently 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).

A clear example of this is found in Ezekiel's prophecy of the dry bones--which, not surprisingly, is the first reading this Sunday. 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).
The Restoration of Israel and the Raising of Lazarus

That the raising of Lazarus, i.e., the raising of the dead, is linked to the Jewish hopes for restoration is clear from what follows in the chapter. In response to Jesus' miracle, the high priest explains.
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 can bring us back to him no matter how unlikely that might seem. To restore the northern tribes and unite them to the southern tribes after the exile--to restore the twelve tribes of Israel--that would take a miracle, but that was precisely what Jesus had in mind (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 story reveals that God allows suffering not because he has stopped loving us but precisely because he never stops loving us. That is of course hard to understand. Indeed, we often cannot grasp the deeper meaning of God's plan for us--like the disciples we can be pretty dense. But the Lord doesn't give up on us.

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. It may have seemed impossible for God to fulfill his promise of restoration for Israel. Yet with him, nothing is impossible.

[1] 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.


Micah said...

Is the connection between Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel perhaps one reason that Israel, in a corporate sense, will not convert until the fullness of the Gentiles have been brought in, just in time for the Resurrection of all?

Michael Barber said...


Interesting thought. I'll have to ponder that.