Fred B. Craddock is professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 21-28, p. 299, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
What is really going on here is not only a family crisis in Bethany but the crisis of the world, not only the raising of a dead man but the giving of life to the world.
I am the resurrection and the life; they who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die" (John 11:25-26) . The church clings to these words like few other sayings of Jesus. The scene of Jesus with two grieving sisters, weeping at the grave of their brother and his friend, has offered comfort and hope unmatched by any other resource, biblical or nonbiblical. Most Christian funerals allude to these words or this scene.
However, sometimes the popular appropriation of a text inhibits further exploration for richer and deeper meanings. One is hesitant to remove an old chapel even if it is for the purpose of erecting a larger and more accommodating sanctuary. Even so, a few comments will not diminish the blessing of this text to those who have clung to it in an hour of death.
John’s account of the raising of Lazarus (John alone reports it) is one of several sign stories in this Gospel. A sign story consists of a miraculous act of Jesus usually surrounded or followed by a theological discussion of its meaning. Such is John’s presentation of Jesus turning water to wine, healing a cripple at the pool, feeding the multitudes, giving sight to a man born blind and raising Lazarus. At least two features mark sign stories. First, Jesus acts according to his own time and not according to external pressures. For example, Jesus separates himself from his mother (2:4) before acting at the wedding feast at Cana. The reader should not, then, be disturbed by Jesus’ response to the urgent message about Lazarus’s illness (11:3-6) : Jesus stayed two days longer where he was. In this Gospel, Jesus’ actions are "from above." Second, to say this is a sign story is to say that its primary function is revelation. Some truth about the meaning of God’s glory and presence in the world is made known through Jesus’ ministry. For the stories to function this way, they must be seen to operate on two levels. On one level Jesus heals a cripple, opens the eyes of the blind or raises the dead, but on another level he reveals a truth about life eternal which God makes available in Jesus Christ.
The story of the raising of Lazarus is prefaced by a statement of its purpose: it is not only for the glory of God but "that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it" (V. 4) . This is to say, the raising of Lazarus will effect the Son’s return to God by means of his death and resurrection. The reader, therefore, is alerted to what the characters in the drama do not know; that is, what is really going on here is not only a family crisis in Bethany but the crisis of the world, not only the raising of a dead man but the giving of life to the world. On one level the story is about the death and resurrection of Lazarus, but on another it is about the death and resurrection of Jesus. The sisters want their brother back, to be sure, but Jesus is also acting to give life to the world.. Jesus declares this truth to Martha at the heart of the narrative: "I am the resurrection and the life."
With these two meanings in mind, the passion of Jesus bleeds through the surface of the story. Jesus was "deeply moved in spirit and troubled" (v. 33) , he was "deeply moved again" (v. 38) , and he wept (v. 35) . Why? He had deliberately delayed coming until Lazarus was dead and buried. The crowd said, "See how he loved him!" (v. 36) , but in this Gospel they never understand what is really going on. Jesus is experiencing something like a Gethsemane, for he knows that calling Lazarus out of the tomb means that he must enter it. The narrative will shortly make that fact abundantly clear: the belief in Jesus generated by his raising Lazarus prompts the religious leaders to plot Jesus’ death (vv. 45-53) . But for Jesus there is no other way because only in this act can he be the resurrection and the life for the world. And so the reader sees in and through the Lazarus story the Jesus story. Notice: Jesus is troubled and weeping; the tomb is not far from Jerusalem; the tomb is a cave with a large stone covering the opening; the stone is rolled away; Jesus cries with a loud voice; the grave cloth is left at the tomb. Sound familiar?
Let there be no misunderstanding: Martha, Mary and Lazarus are not simply props for a spiritual story. They are real people trapped in death and grief, and Jesus brings comfort and life. Jesus was a real human being ministering among the suffering. But John wants us to understand that God’s blessing did not come solely to certain people who happened to be in that place at that time. There was not simply one spot called Camelot where cripples were healed, the blind could see and the dead were raised. It is not the case that subsequent generations in other times and places would have to be satisfied with the thin diet of reading and recalling the wonderful days when Jesus was here and said, "I am the resurrection and the life; anyone who believes . . ." Although we were not there, Jesus also said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (20:29) . Faith is always first generation, with an immediacy about it that does not distinguish between our being there and his being here.