Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Come out!”
The dead man came out…
Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Please note that references in parentheses (X) refer to books of the Bible unless otherwise noted.
The Truest Fairy Tale
One of my favorite memories from when our family was younger, when I was also doing seminary studies, is the times my young daughter and I shared together in telling her bed-time stories. Her favorite story for a time was John 11: Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. I am reminded now, what better use could there be for bible study activity than to translate this into telling our children the story?1 And what a bedtime story it is…
Here and now Jesus turns a horrific tragedy into a glorious fairy tale, in the truest sense – Jesus raises this man to new life. Jesus declares: “Lazarus, come forth” – and he does, alive. What better way to drive away a child’s fear before night-time than with the story of Jesus conquering the nightmare at the bottom of the world,2 and turning it all into God’s light of life! This story sings a soaring lullaby: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it!” (John 1:1-5)
Experiencing Jesus’ Story
As we reflect through this story together here, first please read John 11 now, with your courage on, and the following invitation. I encourage you to enter into the deep pathos (personal pain, profound passion) of this event. Be honest: who are you in this story? And how is it that you need to know its impossible promise beyond death into surpassing life?! With that question of all questions, read John 11 again now, for you personally…
Now let’s unpack those questions. Are you the cynical Thomas, who cannot see beyond his surety that on this day in Jesus’ life following this man into danger will cost an ultimate price? Are you the emotional Martha, angry and protesting because it seems Jesus came too late to do anything about her crisis? Are you Mary, weeping for loss with a broken heart at Jesus’ feet again? Are you a neighbor who cries with someone suffering, but doesn’t know anything else worth saying? Might some of us doubt that Jesus can do a miracle – or even that he is any such Messiah? What about each of us who will yet be Lazarus, Jesus’ friend who fell ill and passed out of this life (unless Jesus comes earlier…)?
For the Love…
To begin to glimpse some insight here, let’s go back to the first problem in this story. “Now a certain man was ill.” Why does this text begin with this specific emphasis? Lazarus was not any “nobody” on the streets of the land – though Jesus made a practice of stopping for these ones to give them a life, too! This time, to show us most intensively what this is all about, this was a certain one, a particular person, a special relationship in Jesus’ life. Lazarus was Jesus’ friend, indeed, one whom Jesus loved (John 11:1-3). From the beginning, and in everything that follows unto Jesus’ own death triggered by Lazarus’ resurrection (John 11:49-53), Jesus did it all for his friend.
All that Jesus did and does, he does for the love of his friends. That is everything.
The Remains of the Questions
Ultimately, that is true. Life is also a process. When Lazarus died, the remains of this day left everyone around him with the deepest human sorrow, and lots of questions. The many friends of Jesus in this story, facing the terror of death suddenly intruding so violently into their lives, blurt out many pains of this problem. I for one am very glad the apostolic writers included these kinds of honest gut-wrenching details in their witness to Jesus. It all becomes the truest fairy tale – but along the way gathers into itself all of our tragedies. Here, humanity, including the weeping human Jesus, faces the worst of it, what Apostle Paul identifies as the final enemy: death (1 Corinthians 15). This story can embrace this dirge because its truth speaks with utter confidence that Jesus himself is God’s overcoming answer to these doubts and dilemmas.
Admittedly, in much of contemporary cultures, especially in America, a great deal of human busy-ness is spent denying death and running from it, because fearing it is too much to face.3 Not so in the event of John 11. To the point, the greatest test of every faith, life-vision, worldview, ideology, or philosophy, is whether it can face death with total honesty, and truly live to tell the story.
In a dramatic way, this brings us to one of the central issues of every faith or life-vision in human history:4 What is the bottom-line human problem? In the whole biblical story, and here in what overwhelms Jesus’ to weeping in the depth of his spirit, the problem is death. And honestly, none of us can do anything about it. When human questions are asked and real tears are wept, with honest doubts and protests and sorrows, nothing more remains but to wait for it, to watch, what Jesus will do.
The Overcoming Hope
“When Jesus saw [them] weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit… He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said…, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So [they] said, ‘See how he loved him!’ …Then Jesus… came to the tomb.” (John 11:33-38) This moment encapsulates one of the most incredible dimensions of Jesus’ life among us. Jesus came and saw our greatest misery. It moved him to begin weeping for our brokenness in the depths of his heart. So Jesus “cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out… Jesus said, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” (John 11:43-44). There and then, Jesus conquered death.
So this event brings us to the heart of this universal matter, not only of what is the human problem, but more importantly still, what is the solution? Christian faith is known well throughout the world and history for its proclamation of “salvation” as the answer. What does this mean? This story presents a poignant revelation of God’s work with this whole matter in Jesus. In the light of this story and all of its shocking consequences, what does God-in-Jesus do about the darkness of death? God destroys it. When it is gone, all that remains is light and life. And this light already shines in the darkness, where the darkness does not overcome it (John 1:1-18). The ultimate consequence of this divine work in Jesus’ life is God’s overcoming light of life. Put another way, this is also the beginning and heart of what Jesus so often proclaimed as his good news of God’s kingdom come and coming among us: God’s new reality of glorious life.
To return to the start, Jesus first remark on Lazarus’ illness is an astounding declaration: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). If Lazarus’ experience here – and the Jesus event as a whole – ended in death, it would have, well, just ended. And the story would have been forgotten, like that of the many other would-be Messiah-claimants of that era of history.5 The Lazarus story – and ultimately the Jesus event – did not end in death. It came to new life, in Jesus’ resurrection. So will ours. Indeed, this is the greatest reason I believe and follow Jesus: to live!
And THAT – resurrected life! – is a hope big enough to bring into a world running from the fears and crying out from the pains of death, in all its personal, social, and cultural forms. This is God-in-Jesus’ solution surpassing enough for healing the human condition and human culture: the promise of life beyond death. As Jesus reveals to Martha, when all other hope is gone: “I am the resurrection” (John 11:20-27). In facing our ultimate crisis, this is what Jesus does: “Unbind [them], and let [them] go!” In Jesus, we are delivered from the darkness of death; we are set free to live in God’s overcoming life.
For all of us, Jesus’ friends still walking through the shadows, and sometimes the nightmares of this still-broken world, on this one day in Jesus’ life, Jesus did this one resurrection for the love of one friend, so that we, too, can know what he certainly will do for his love for all of us his friends. Yes, Jesus calls us his friends, the ones he loves, to lay down his life so we can live (John 15:9-17). God-in-Jesus loves us (John 1:1-18; 3:16-17). Jesus is our resurrection, our overcoming life.
Readers are also encouraged to explore other posts in this series: Vintage Jesus.
1 This thought is inspired by the movie, Yentl.
2 See Robert Capon, The Third Peacock.
3 On predominant practices of American culture as the fear of death, see Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death.
4 On universal foundational questions of meaning and worldviews, see James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door.
5 I draw this insight from the works of N. T. Wright, for example, The Challenge of Jesus.
God so loved the world… God is love!
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…
and the tree of life…
at the middle of the great street of the city…
and the leaves of the tree
are for the healing of the cultures.
John 3; 1 John 4; Revelation 21, 22