Skip to content

Jesus and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-44)

Bereavement can produce a variety of emotions, can’t it? Grief, sadness, denial, despair, confusion – even anger. At its worst, bereavement has been compared to “a hole in the heart”. In our Gospel reading just now Martha and Mary were going through that same range of emotions. They had just lost their brother Lazarus. He had been taken from them in the prime of life. He had succumbed to some unknown ailment or infection and died. In the midst of Mary and Martha’s grief, Jesus arrives on the scene. 

But at first, Mary and Martha gave him a lukewarm welcome – they thought Jesus had badly let them down. Mary couldn’t even bring herself to go out and greet him – they thought he’d failed them when they needed him most. Verse 3 tells us that they’d ‘sent word’ to Jesus that Lazarus was ill, but by the time he and his disciples turned up their brother had already been in his tomb for four days. 

Neither Mary and Martha, nor his own disciples, could understand why Jesus had decided to  delay his arrival. Why was he was so late on the scene? The two sisters’ used the same sentence to express their dismay: ‘Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died!’ (v.21 & 32)

We can understand their confusion and disappointment, can’t we? After all, Jesus had already demonstrated an ability to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, calm a storm and turn water into wine. Surely, if Jesus had only arrived on time, he might have been able to heal Lazarus and save his life? But now Lazarus was dead, and they must have thought that there was nothing more that Jesus could do for him. Jesus might be a wise man, a good teacher and a great healer – but in death they thought he had surely met his match. They thought Jesus had as much chance of helping Lazarus as Crewe Alexandra have of beating Liverpool FC at football – i.e. next to none!

But Jesus was about to prove them all wrong, wasn’t he? He was about to perform the most spectacular sign of his Messianic ministry. He was about to display his status as God’s only begotten Son. He was about to demonstrate the full extent of his divine authority – even over death itself! That’s the real reason why he lingered and let Lazarus (temporarily) expire. 

Christ offers us compassion

Astonishing as it may seem, Jesus had told his disciples that Lazarus’ demisewas ‘for God’s glory, so that God’s Son might be glorified through it’ (v.4).

But we should not think that Jesus’ response to Lazarus death was aloof and uncaring. On the contrary, our passage shows that he was profoundly saddened by Mary and Martha’s grief. Verse 35 tells us that he was ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ at sight of Mary’s weeping. And when he saw the place where Lazarus was laid, ‘Jesus wept’. That may be the shortest verse in the Bible, but it speaks volumes. 

When we experience bereavement, the Lord Jesus knows our feelings and empathises completely. He too has wept at the graveside of a loved one, he too has been distressed at the death of someone close to him. God the Father has even seen his Son die a cruel death on a Cross. He can sympathise with you and your emotions in a way that no other human fully can.

Christ gives us a promise 

As well as offering us compassion, Jesus also offers us a wonderful promise. It’s the same promise he gave to Martha in our passage today. Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (v.25-26).

With those words Jesus was (and is) promising eternal life – life beyond the grave – to all who believe and trust in him. As the eternal Son of God, Jesus is the very source of life itself. In relationship with him, there can be no lasting death. When we are in his grip, the grave cannot hold onto us.

Jesus proceeded to back up his astonishing promise with a practical demonstration of his power. Jesus gave Martha and Mary a vivid display of his power over death. He requests the stone across the tomb of Lazarus be taken away, says a prayer to his Father, and proceeds to call the dead man out of his tomb. In a ‘loud voice’ he says ‘Lazarus, come out!’

In one of the most remarkable events in human history, Lazarus then walked straight out of his tomb – with his grave clothes still wrapped around his body, and his burial shroud still across his face!

Wonderfully, Jesus is doing the same thing today. To this day he continues to call his people from death to life. But whereas he called Lazarus out of the grave back into this world, today Jesus calls his people out of the other side – out into God’s everlasting kingdom, into God’s eternal embrace – into the place he called ‘Paradise’. Lazarus experienced resuscitation, but Christians will enjoy resurrection!

But the best reason for trusting Jesus’s promise of eternal life isn’t even his raising of Lazarus. The best reason for relying on Jesus remains his own resurrection from the grave on the first Easter Sunday. 

Because the raising of Lazarus began a sequence of events that over a few weeks culminated in Jesus’ arrest, trial, conviction and crucifixion – a series of events that we will be following in John’s Gospel over the next fortnight. A series of events that left Jesus, not Lazarus, lying dead in a tomb. 

But the tomb could not contain him, could it? Because we all know what happened next – the stone was rolled away, his body rose and 500 people witnessed him alive over the next forty days.

You see, the promises Jesus gave to Martha and Mary in our passage today were no empty words nor wishful thinking, but a trustworthy pledge from the one person with the power to defeat death and return to life. Jesus’s resurrection is the foretaste, the first fruits, of the resurrection that all God’s people will enjoy. A resurrection into a new world with new bodies. A resurrection into a world where death, disease and decay are no more.


So as I finish, the experience of Martha and Mary should reassure us that the Lord understands our grief and empathises with our sadness. It is OK to cry. Christ wept too.

But despite being a time to mourn and to shed tears, bereavement doesn’t need to include despair. At the height of her grief and sadness, Jesus invited Martha and Mary to trust him for life beyond the grave, to trust that he really could overcome death and open the door to God’s glorious kingdom. And he wants all of us to trust him for those same things too.

As Mary and Martha discovered, Christ can give us comfort today, and a sure hope for the future.