Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 11.1-45
Fifth Sunday of Lent - Year A

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NOTE: In the older Lutheran Lectionary, the lesson continued through v. 53 -- which includes an ironic twist to this event. It is a resurrection that leads to death. Jesus, by returning to Judea to give life to another, will give up his own life as the chief priests and the Pharisees decide to put him to death in order to protect the whole nation from being destroyed by the Romans. At the time John was written, the readers knew that such fears were well founded; the Romans had come in and destroyed the temple in 70 AD, although not because of the insurrection of Jesus or his followers.

Especially as we look at this text on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, its connection with Jesus crucifixion should be noted. Jesus great power for giving life only raises the anger and power of those who want to take life.

"John's Gospel begins with a wedding and closes with a funeral." These are part of the opening comments on these verses by Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John). I don't know what significance it has to understanding our passage, but thought it was a nice tid-bit to share.

As usual in John, this miracle has both a more literal meaning -- the raising of Lazarus from death -- and a more symbolic meaning -- the giving of life to all people whom Jesus loves. There is physical death and life illustrated by Lazarus. There is spiritual death as separation from God and spiritual life as connection with God. Both are part of John's message in this text. [A similar double meaning was part of last week's story about the healing of a blind man -- there is both physical and spiritual blindness.]

My comments are set within the outline suggested by Brown (John, Anchor Bible).


The name Lazarus (= God helps) is also used by Luke in a parable in ch. 16. Are there connections between the two? Probably not.

Mary & Martha are found in Luke 10 with no connection to Lazarus. John tells us before the event about Mary anointing Jesus with ointment, but that won't happen until the next chapter (John 12:3). It is quite possible that Mary and Martha, as single women, were dependent upon Lazarus. His death would be more than just the loss of a brother, but of their means of living (Malina & Rohrbaugh, p. 195).

Often in John phileo is synonymous with agapao. In v. 3 Lazarus is described as "the one whom Jesus loves" (phileo). In v. 5 it says that Jesus was loving (agapao -- imperfect tense) Martha, her sister, and Lazarus.

On one level, the text talks about these three people whom Jesus loves. On another level, it is about all disciples whom Jesus loves. Lazarus may represent the believers who die before Christ returns. What happens to them? That was a question in the early church (1 Thess 4:13ff.).

V. 4 is filled with irony. "This sickness is not leading to death," Jesus says, but Lazarus' sickness does result in death. Does this mean that Jesus was lying? One way to respond to this is that John defines life as being connected to God and death as disconnection. Although Lazarus had physically died, that death did not disconnect him from God.

Another irony is the fact that Lazarus' sickness (and resurrection) will lead to Jesus' death -- but again, at least in John, Jesus' death did not disconnect him from God.

"This sickness ... [is] for the glory of God; so that the Son of God might be glorified by it." First question: What does the last word "it" refer to? Is it the sickness that glorifies the Son of God; or is it "the glory of God" that glorifies the Son? Both "sickness" (astheneia) and "glory" (doxa) are feminine nouns; to which the "it" could refer. If we assume the general rule that a pronoun refers to the closest related noun; then "it" is "the glory". Thus, Jesus is not glorified by sickness and death. Jesus is glorified by God's glory.

A more important question is "By what deed is the Son of Man glorified?" On one level, Jesus is glorified by the resurrection of Lazarus. On another level, the hour of Jesus' glory is his suffering and death (John 12:23; 13:31; 17:1). Lazarus' sickness (and resurrection) is for the glory of God not just because of itself, but because it will ultimately lead to Jesus' death.

This may explain the very strange act of Jesus of remaining where he was for two more days. As Bultmann (The Gospel of John, p. 398) says, "The work of Jesus has its own hour." By choosing his time to return, Jesus is choosing the time of his death. (In a similar way, in last week's text, Jesus purposely healed the blind man on the Sabbath. I doubt that waiting one more day for the miracle wouldn't have made any difference to the blind man.) There is a purpose for Jesus' timing.

A theme I have presented in other notes, and one that Moloney (John, Sacra Pagina) gives in this text: "The motivation for Jesus' decision to go to Bethany is a response to God's designs, not to human need" [p. 326].

How do we as clergy (or even as ministering lay people) learn to discern "God's designs"? It is not healthy to try and take care of every need within the congregation or the world, but how do we know when and what is God's will amid all the needy people both in and out of our congregations; our own needy family -- spouses, children, parents; and our personal needs, e.g., personal devotions, exercise, hobbies, etc.?

GOING TO JUDEA -- TO DIE (7-10, 16)

In these verses, there is no mention of helping Lazarus.

The Jews had tried to stone Jesus in 10:31.

The image of the day (similar to John 9:4-5) seems to indicate that the time of Jesus' work is limited.

Thomas' comment in v. 16 has an ironic twist to it. On one level, he is talking about possibly being stoned with Jesus if they go back. On another level, we are called to die with Jesus through baptism (Ro 6:8); and to deny ourselves, and seek not to save our lives (Mk 8:34-35).


Confusion about the meaning of words: "sleep"/"death". Jesus means one thing. The disciples understand it another way. NOTE that "he will be all right" of v. 12 NRSV; is a translation of the word sozo usually translated "to save" or "to heal".

In these verses, the purpose of the delay is "So that you might believe." (It was "glory" in v. 4.) I'm inclined to think that this entire passage is centered on the theme of faith rather than resurrection or life. They come as results of faith. More about this later.


The four days: One day for the messenger to travel and tell Jesus' about Lazarus' illness. Two days of waiting. One day for Jesus and the disciples to travel to Lazarus. There was a tradition that one's soul hovered near the body for three days. After that time, there was no hope of resurrection.

The presence of many Jews (v. 19) will become witnesses to the miracle and then believe in Jesus (v. 45), which scare the chief priests and the Pharisees into the decision to kill Jesus in order to save the nation (vv. 48-52).

Without embalming technology, bodies were buried on the day of death and the mourning followed the burial.

MARTHA & JESUS (20-27)

It is not clear from v. 20 if Mary also hears what Martha has heard about Jesus coming.

What tone of voice would Martha have uttered: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died"? Is this a statement of faith that Jesus could have done something? Recited like we usually do the creeds in worship? Is it a complaint or a lament, which were part of the language of faith in the OT? Was it spoken with anger? With sorrow?

The Jews believed that God could give life to the dead (Dan 12:2; 2 Macc 7:9, 14). The second of their 18 benediction declares: "You, O Lord, are mighty forever, for you give life to the dead."

Martha, as an example of faith, has all the right answers -- she knows her Bible and Christological terms. She knows that God will answer Jesus' prayers. She believes in the resurrection of the dead. Apparently she had listened and remembered Jesus words about the resurrection on the last day (Jo 6:39, 40, 44 54). She believes that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. She believes that Jesus is the Messiah/Christ, the Son of God, the One coming into the world.

The question raised earlier about the believers who had died before Christ returned is answered in v. 25 -- they will live. I'm sure that many of us have emphasized that passage when preaching at a funeral.

Perhaps the more important issue when preaching on the fifth Sunday of Lent is in v. 26 -- what do we say to the people who are living and believing now? How does "they will never die" fit into their lives? They know that they will die. What is meant by this phrase? (See similar phrases in John 6:51, 58; 8:35, 51, 52; 10:28). One answer is to define "death" as separation from God. Those who are now living and believing (present tense participles) have established a relationship with God that will never end. As Paul says, "[Physical] Death . . . will not be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Ro 8:38-39).

Anyway, back to Martha's confession of faith -- none of us could do it better. After this great profession of faith, what does Jesus do for her? He does nothing. He doesn't even move from the spot where Martha finds him (v. 30). Martha's confession of faith did nothing to move Jesus. Martha goes and gets Mary by telling her a little lie: "The Teacher is here and is calling for you" (v. 28).

MARY & JESUS (28-33)

While Martha's faith is centered on knowing, Mary's is much more emotional. She moves "quickly". She begins by saying exactly the same words as Martha: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (v. 32), but she is saying them while crying at Jesus' feet. She says nothing else. She doesn't utter all the proper phrases like Martha about the all-powerful Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God or any belief about the resurrection of the dead. Mary just cries.

While Martha had depth in her confession, there was little emotion. Mary has great emotion, but perhaps little depth in the knowledge her faith. While it might appear that Mary's tears moved Jesus to raise Lazarus, that isn't the case. Jesus had told his disciples before they had arrived that he was coming to "wake up" "sleeping" Lazarus. He went there with the intentions of raising Lazarus before either sister came to him. Why not just go to the tomb and do the miracle? Why let both sisters come to him? A dramatic pause in the story? Giving them a chance to express their faith and concerns? Further evidence that Lazarus was really dead?

V. 33 presents a translation problem: how should embrimaomai be understood? (It also occurs in v. 38.) Usually it is a term of anger. (Its root brimaomai was thought to sound like the sound of horses snorting in anger.) It is always used of anger or indignation in the LXX. If it means, "disturbed" as in the NRSV, the emotion implied is a negative one. We might translate it with "he huffed."

Probably every parent of a teenage daughter knows what a "huff" is. It can happen every time they are asked to do something they don't like. It can happen when a pastor has just sat down to dinner with the family and there's a phone call from a parishioner who needs help right now. There may be a huff when the phone is hung up. They are angry that another family meal is disrupted. They are angry, not at the people who need their help, not at the chosen profession which requires them to respond to such needs, but that the world is in such a state that such emergencies happen. They are frustrated that their own plans are all blown to pieces by the needs of other people, by the requirements of their calling. Oh, to live in a perfect world where there are no traumatic events; where there are no accidents. Another disrupted family meal is an indication that we are not in control of the world – or, often, even our own lives. Emergencies, crises, people in need take control of our lives. We have times when we huff. If we get into a huff at times, it's quite possible that Jesus had the same feelings. We don't know exactly what Jesus was busy when he hears that his friend Lazarus was sick. Whatever he was doing must have been very important, because, even after hearing about Lazarus, he stays where he was for two more days.

What would Jesus have been in a huff about? Perhaps the people's inadequate faith (illustrated by Martha and Mary?). Perhaps coming face to face with the powers of Satan represented by his friend's death. However, given that we are told that Jesus has just seen "her weeping and the Jews who came with her weeping," could his anger be at the large crowd who would witness what he is about to do? Some in the crowd will "get the picture" and have a proper faith in Jesus. Some will misinterpret the miracle and have an improper faith in Super-Jesus. Some will be "turned off" by the event and actively seek to stop Jesus. These last two groups will make life miserable for Jesus. (These same types of reactions make life miserable for ministers, too.) If it had only been Jesus' disciples and Mary and Martha who were to witness the miracle, would Jesus have been so huffy? I think not.


John 11:35 has been a favorite memory verse for generations. In the Greek New Testament, it is not the shortest verse in the Bible. It contains three words and 16 letters. 1 Thess 5:16 has only two words and 14 letters.

This is the only occurrence of dakruo ("weep") in the NT. It is a different word used of Mary or the Jews "weeping" (klaio). Does John mean to imply that Jesus' crying was somehow different than the weeping (wailing?) of the others?

The question from the crowd is provocative: "Could Jesus have kept this man (or any person) from dying?" As far as I remember, there are no instances where Jesus kept someone from dying -- not even himself. There are other instances of Jesus (and his followers) raising up those who had died, which created a temporary situation. They would eventually die again. I think that the promise we proclaim is not that Jesus can keep people from dying; but that Jesus will raise up the dead and that (physical) death will never separate believers from God. This may also imply that Jesus may not keep people from traumatic events or suffering, but that he can pull them through such events to a new life on the other side.

Martha's statement about the smell may indicate that her faith in Jesus' ability to raise Lazarus was not so strong. She also reaffirms the reality of death -- four days -- the hovering soul would have left by now. Her lack of faith is pointed out by Jesus, "If you would believe, you would see the glory of God." On one level, there is the glory of God revealed in the resurrection of Lazarus. On another level, one's faith sees the glory of God in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and, perhaps, also in the midst of our human suffering and death.


Jesus' prayer doesn't ask for a miracle; but is one of thanksgiving to God and meant to be overheard by those standing by. Perhaps like the Great Thanksgiving in the Eucharist, while it offers thanks to God, it is also a proclamation to those who overhear the prayer.

The purpose of the miracle is so that the people might believe that God has sent Jesus (v. 42). As I said earlier, I think the main concern of this text is faith. The content of faith from this verse is that Jesus has been sent by God.

Jesus' shout (kraugizo) in v. 43 gives life. The same word is used of the crowds shouting for Jesus' death (18:40; 19:6, 12, 15). (Its only other instance in John is 12:13 where the Palm Sunday crowd shouts their Hosannas.) It is in response to Jesus' word that Lazarus finds life. (Could Lazarus have refused to come out?) It is also in response to Jesus' word that Lazarus is freed from his restrictive bindings, by other people. Not all of God's works take place supernaturally. Sometimes they require work on our part.

deuro -- "come" is used in the synoptics as a discipling word: Mt 19:21; Mk 10:21; Lu 18:22. (The related deuto is used even more often in Jesus' call "to follow" him.)

The dead are bound (deo of Lazarus in v. 44 and of Jesus in 19:40) in bandages. Jesus' act of releasing (luo) Lazarus results in Jesus being physically bound (deo) at his arrest (18:12, 24). These same two words (deo & luo) are used in Mt 16:19 & 18:18 as the authority given with the Keys of the Kingdom. Could resurrected Lazarus symbolize the "loosed" (luo) and "forgiven" (aphiemi -- used in the last line of v. 44 "let him go) sinners?

Two other pictures of faith in this text: The disciples -- they don't understand what's going on. They misunderstand Jesus' words about "sleeping". They are reluctant to go with Jesus, because they might die. They are pessimistic and discouraging in this text. They are still Jesus' disciples, but perhaps not the best models of faith.

Perhaps the most peculiar paradigm of faith is Lazarus. He is dead in the grave. Lazarus can do nothing for himself. All he can do is receive the power of God to give him new life. A similar illustration is given in the first lesson from Ezekiel 37. The call to faith is a call to die, so that God's power might be manifested in giving us life. Theologically, we died in baptism and we die in daily repentance, and God raises us to new life. However, sometimes after God has given us new life, we still want to keep ourselves wrapped up and bound in our grave clothes -- signs of the old life. We can keep ourselves bound up by holding onto those sins from which Jesus has freed us and has forgiven us. When we may keep punishing ourselves for our mistakes, we are, in a sense, placing ourselves above God. God forgives us. So should we.

I wonder how life was different for Lazarus after his death and resurrection event. Were his priorities the same afterwards as before? Did he work less and spend more time with family and friends? Could we imagine what his new life was like and then apply it to our own lives as resurrected people through our baptismal births from above?


O'Day (John, NIB) offers these "reflections" (with a lot of "big" words).

... Jesus' "I am" statement of v. 25a, one of the christological high points of the Gospel, loses much of its eschatological and soteriological significance if the only time the church engages it is at Easter or funerals. The church preaches about death and resurrection at the time of death, but shies away from such topics in the midst of life. Yet it is in the everyday rhythms of life that the church most needs to talk about Jesus'' power as the resurrection and the life, so that death can indeed lose its sting. To proclaim the power of resurrection only at the time of death is both to impoverish the proclamation and to weaken the power of its witness in the face of death. There is thus a critical need to include conversations about death and the theological significance of Jesus as the resurrection and the life in the ongoing theological reflection of the church, not just in its reflection about death.

In the moment of crisis, at the funeral of a loved one, the immediate need is for pastoral care and reassurance about the power of the resurrection. Indeed, funerals do provide gospel witness to the power of God in Jesus. But a funeral is not the moment for believers to reassess their lives in the light of the new eschatological reality in which the incarnation enables the church to live, because the power of grief and loss is so palpable. Why, then, does the church so often save its most powerful proclamation about death and resurrection for funerals?

Jesus' powerful announcement to Martha suggests that the church needs to embrace Jesus as the resurrection and the life not only at times of death, but also in the daily moments of human lives, because these moments, too, whether one names them so or not, are also lived in the face of death. John 11 asks the church to reflect that Jesus is the resurrection and the life not just for the crisis moment of death, but for all moments in life. Jesus as the resurrection and the life is the decisive eschatological announcement, because he announces that the world is now definitively under Gods' care and power. ... [p. 695]

How much more fitting are her reflections after 9/11? the death of soldiers and civilians in Iraq? the drowning of thousands in the tsunami? How much harder is it to believe that the "world is now definitively under God's care and power," as we are killing and being killed by wars, terrorists, and natural disasters? How shall we proclaim Jesus as the resurrection and the life to our world today?

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364