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Raising Lazarus: How Jesus Reveals the Depth of Our Faith

Bible Reflections series of Bible Studies on Faith Forward

This morning, during my Bible study time, God surprised me with a question. While I was reading 2 Chronicles, the question, “Why did Lazarus have to die?” popped into my head. The question wasn’t really in fitting with my reading, so I figured God had to be prompting me. Obediently, I abandoned Solomon to his temple building and sat down to study John 11 instead!

I want to share with you my thoughts and reflections on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John 11:1-47. This is, of course, just one intepretation of the Scriptures – but it might not be the one you’re familiar with!

The story of the resurrection of Lazarus is a familiar one. Familiarity is dangerous – it leads us to assume that we know everything about a story. We can NEVER know all we need to know about a story when Jesus is behind it!

The essence of John 11 is building faith and bringing glory to God.

But, digging deeper, there is a more subtle lesson. As I read, Jesus kept asking the same question – why did Lazarus have to die?

Because our hearts and our lips are not always aligned.

Let’s take a look at John 11:1-44:

John 11 Raising Lazarus

So Why Did Lazarus Have to die?

Lazarus would have already been dead by the time Jesus got to Bethany. That’s what scholars have deduced, at least. Chances are, Jesus knew that. And He sent the messenger back to tell Mary and Martha that it was okay, that the sickness wasn’t going to end in death.

The Greek says, “sickness is not unto death.” Jesus was making a clear statement: “listen up, Lazarus might be sick (and by the time the messenger got back, actually dead), but I’m telling you, this story doesn’t end with death.”

He waited a couple of days before going to Bethany, and when He arrived, both Mary and Martha said to Him, “If you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t be dead.” By that time, Lazarus had been dead for four days.

See, they believed that Jesus had power over death and that He could heal and save and deliver people from sickness. They had faith because, in likelihood, they had seen the signs that Jesus worked. But they didn’t understand His true power, and their faith was shallow. Lazarus had to die so that Martha and Mary could have faith in things that they couldn’t see, not just in what they could see.

Shallow Faith: Only Trusting When You Can See God At Work

But how much faith did they have? Their faith was based on what they had seen. Their confidence was in Him as a healer. “If only you had been here” was probably undercut with a silent accusation – what took you so long? Why didn’t you drop everything and come running? I thought you loved Lazarus. I thought you loved us?

Those are questions we probably all ask of the Lord at some time or other – when an answer to prayer is slow to come or doesn’t even seem to come at all. We find ourselves asking, “Why are you letting this happen to me, Lord?”

God Doesn’t Break His Promises

Mary and Martha missed the point. Jesus had sent His response with the messenger. He had spoken a promise. He arrived in Bethany to see how that promise had been received.

Martha declared her faith to Jesus. She told Him that she knew that if He’d been there, her brother would not have died, and she said that she knew that God would give Jesus whatever He asked. But despite the last part of her statement, she was despondent at the loss of her brother.

Jesus told her that Lazarus would rise again, and Martha replied, perhaps a little impatiently, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha knew her doctrine. She understood the resurrection of the dead in the end.

And Jesus was about to turn the doctrine on its head when He declared that He was the resurrection and the life – He was moving the doctrine of resurrection out of a book into the flesh – His flesh.

He asked Martha if she believed this, and she said yes, that He is the Christ, the son of God made flesh. Four times in this short passage, Martha declared her faith. Mary, too, declared that she believed Jesus would have been able to save Lazarus.

Would have? Both Mary and Martha believed that Jesus’ power was limited to fixing a problem in the moment, not after the fact.

A Fixed and Settled Faith is Not What Jesus Wants From Us

Mary and Martha declared to have a faith in the perfect tense, meaning a fixed and settled faith – “I have believed, and I will continue to believe,” but when Jesus commands that the stone be rolled away, Martha is quick to protest. “But Lord,” she says, “Lazarus has been dead for four days. He’ll stink.” (I love the KJV – “he stinketh”).

And Jesus looks at her and says, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you’d see the glory of God?”

Martha had declared her faith with her lips, but her heart-directed protest reveals that her faith is limited. She believes Jesus is the Son of God. She believes He can perform signs and wonders. She believes that there will be a resurrection of the dead.

But her faith is limited to what she sees. What Jesus asks for is a faith that goes beyond the evidence before us. Anyone can be convinced by what they see, but it takes a much deeper faith to simply take Jesus at His Word in face of evidence to the contrary.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 

Hebrews 11:1

Jesus didn’t weep with the mourners that day. He wept for them because the outpouring of their grief reflected a shallow faith that could be so easily shaken by persecution, trials, and difficulties. The mourners believed what they saw and discounted what He had promised.

People in the presence of Jesus seemed to need a constant supply of signs and wonders to fuel their faith. But Jesus knew that His time was limited. He desperately longed for faith that was not dependent on the next miracle, for disciples that could take Him at His word instead of constantly demanding proof and evidence. He knew that shallow faith could not sustain.

Raising Lazarus a reflection on the meaning of John 11

“Do you believe in your heart that I am who you declare me to be with your lips?” Jesus asks us in this story. “Do you believe what I say or place your trust in what you see?”

Lazarus had to die so that Jesus could show Martha that whilst she thought she believed and said that she believed, her heart revealed a shallow faith rooted only in sight: she saw that her brother was dead and decaying in his tomb instead of believing Jesus’ promise that death wasn’t going to be the end of Lazarus’ sickness, the glorification of God was.

She saw death and believed that over Jesus’ alternative. How would a deep faith have responded to Lazarus’ death? With calm surety, and a declaration that “because Jesus said that the sickness wouldn’t end with death, it isn’t going to, because Jesus has something else planned, we don’t need to grieve and lament, we just wait and see what Jesus is going to do when He gets here.”

The Story of Lazarus Challenges Our Faith

The story of Lazarus and his sisters reveals an uncomfortable truth: we can think that we believe Jesus is who we say He is, and we can make bold declarations of His sovereignty and power and deity. But it’s what we do when something bad happens, not what we say, that reveals the depth of our faith.

Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead to prove that He doesn’t break His promises. If He says it, it will happen. Would Mary and Martha have believed Jesus more deeply if He’d come rushing back with His promise instead of sending word with a messenger? Probably, yes. But that’s the true test of faith.

Jesus asks us, “Do you still believe me when evidence suggests that I’m wrong, or do you only believe in me when the road is smooth? Can you trust Me and take Me at My word in the face of trials and persecution?”

Jesus knows that the enemy will always be there to try to thwart our faith. That is why Lazarus had to die. We live in a sin-ravaged world with trials and sickness.

If our faith can’t stand up against those trials, if we are limited by what we see instead of what Jesus says, we are already living defeated lives outside of the fullness of what Jesus wants for us.

What Jesus is looking for in each and every one of us is a faith that stands firm, with hands on hips, and declares, with childlike boldness, “Yeah, this world sucks sometimes, but my Daddy says that He’s overcome the world, and whatever you throw at me, world, I trust my Daddy way more than I’m scared of you.”

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Frequently Asked Questions About Lazarus

Who was Lazarus in the Bible?

There are actually two characters named Lazarus in the Bible. The one in John 11 is the brother of Martha and Mary (who may or may not be the same Mary that’s known as Mary Magdelene.) The other Lazarus appears in a parable in Luke 16:19-31, in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which is a very different tale!

Why did Jesus cry when Lazarus died?

The shortest verse in the whole Bible is “Jesus wept,” but it’s hotly debated exactly why Jesus wept. Some people say it’s because of how much He loved Lazarus, but that doesn’t really make a lot of sense since He was about to bring Lazarus back to life. My interpretation is that Jesus wept because of how shallow His friends’ faith was and how much they underestimated the power of God.

How many days was Lazarus dead?

The Bible tells us that Lazarus had been in the grave tomb for four days before Jesus resurrected him from the dead. Jewish tradition is for bodies to be buried within 24 hours of the death, so Lazarus is likely to have been dead for a maximum of five days by the time Jesus arrived.

Why did Jesus wait four days before raising Lazarus?

Jesus waited four days before resurrecting Lazarus to teach His friends, disciples, and followers about what it means to have faith in things that you can’t see. He needed to show them His power in order to deepen their faith.

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