A Tomb with a View—John 11:38-57; 12:9-11

Studies in John’s Gospel — Bible Study Lesson 29

by Reta Halteman Finger

Ancient Tomb
An ancient tomb in Jerusalem like the one in which Lazarus was buried.
Photo by Reta Finger

This is the third and final lesson on John 11. We are standing at the tomb of Lazarus. It is a cave in the rock, and a stone covers the entrance. A crowd stands there in the hot sun—the sisters, the neighbors, friends and onlookers from Jerusalem, even spies who report back to the temple priests. The gossip network is poised to pass along news of honor and glory—or of public shame.

“Roll away the stone!” commands Jesus. But Martha knows the smell of death, and she cannot bear to go through it again. Jesus reminds her of his earlier statement.“Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”  Strong men roll away the stone.  Then Jesus prays, not for himself and not for Lazarus, but for the crowd so that they might believe. Read John 11:38-44.

And then, if you read this literally, death reverses itself. Beyond imagination, a voice calls to dead bone and dried blood and gray, decaying flesh. Bone connects to bone; skin turns pink; blood begins to flow in collapsed arteries; brain cells connect to neurons; memories return. The dead man, shrouded from head to toe, sits up; and if his face wasn’t covered, he’d have a tomb with a view!

We could stop the story here at verse 44, where Jesus tells the sisters to “unbind him, and let him go.” Lectionaries do that. We could spiritualize the unbinding of Lazarus and connect it to the bound-up places in our lives that need to be freed. It would be inspiring and perhaps sometimes legitimate. But it’s not what the author intended his audience to conclude. Because the story is not over.

Irony piled on irony

Read John 11:45-57. Using language from Lesson 27, what is fortunate for some people is unfortunate for others. Some people are not happy about Lazarus’s resuscitation. In this culture, honor is a zero-sum game. If someone gains honor, others lose. Jesus is clearly gaining honor at the expense of his elite religious rivals.

They don’t say it that way, of course. They see themselves collaborating with the Roman occupation as a way to protect the Jewish people from being destroyed by the Romans. If people no longer trust them and instead believe in Jesus, “the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (11:48). So the high priest Caiaphas proposes sacrificing Jesus as a way to save the nation. We must not miss the irony here, for we know that only a generation later, the nation will be destroyed in spite of one nonviolent man’s unjust death. Caiaphas prophesies the truth—but he has no clue what it really means.

Remember the pitchfork in the haystack in Lesson 27? Now we can see how the plot of John’s Gospel pivots on this story and drives home its dramatic irony. Unfortunately, Lazarus gets sick and dies, but that’s fortunate, because Jesus raises him to life. But that’s unfortunate because this very act is the catalyst leading to Jesus’s death. But that’s ultimately fortunate because Jesus’s death leads to his bodily resurrection and consequently to resurrection and eternal life for all who believe. In that ironic way, Jesus is sacrificed and thus “saves the nation.”

Why is this story missing in the Synoptic Gospels?

The miracle of raising the dead is the last and greatest of Jesus’s “signs” in this Gospel. But can it be literally true? In our experience, dead people do not come to life again. And if it did happen, why do the other Gospels omit such a dramatic event?

We find a clue in the next chapter, in 12:9-11. With a plot against his life, Jesus flees to the safety of a town near the Judean desert (11:54), but a week before Passover he returns to Bethany to visit his beloved friends, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (12:1). The gossip network draws a great crowd to their home to see both Jesus and Lazarus. So many have switched sides to believe in Jesus that the chief priests decide Lazarus has to be eliminated as well.

In his groundbreaking volume, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2007), Richard Bauckham reasons that the other evangelists omit this story in order to protect Lazarus’s life. Although oral tradition passed it on, it could not be safely written down, even anonymously. Thus Mark, the earliest Gospel, omits it entirely. Depending on Mark for most of their narrative material, Matthew and Luke also leave out this story. But by the time John was writing independently of the others in the later first century, Lazarus would no longer be alive, and the temple and its priests completely wiped out by the Romans. Finally, this great sign pointing to Jesus’s own resurrection could be recorded in pen and ink.

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1.  What is your opinion of the historicity of this account? Do you think Lazarus was physically raised from death to life?

2.  Contrasting with the Synoptic Gospels, John’s Jesus emphasizes “realized eschatology”—meaning that eternal life can begin here and now. How might this story encompass both realized and futuristic eschatology?

3.  Jesus weeps more in this story than any other. Why does he weep at the tomb? Can this help us connect to a human Jesus who suffers with us?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.