The story of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead has become one of my favorite parts of the Bible, revealing so much about the character of God and the heart of Jesus toward people who are suffering and grieving.
Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to him, saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.”
When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
Don’t you love how John phrases this last section? Jesus loved these people, so when he heard that they were going through something difficult, he…stayed right where he was. He didn’t hurry to be with Mary and Martha. He didn’t rush back to heal Lazarus, or even heal him from afar, as he did with the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:13). He stayed where he was for a few more days.
Why? Because he loved these friends. And “for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Jesus knew just what he was doing and how this was going to end. He had a plan.
…and then [Jesus] told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.”
So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
John 11:11-15, 17, 20-21
I can relate to the feelings behind Martha’s statement. Mary goes on to say the exact same thing to Jesus in verse 32.
Because our understanding of the way things work is limited by our humanity, it can be tempting to assume that God must have been absent when something painful happens. Maybe we didn’t pray in the right way or with enough faith. Perhaps he was distracted, preoccupied with more important matters and not paying attention to us. Maybe he just doesn’t care.
“Where were you?” is what I was tempted to think after our tiny daughter survived in utero surgery and heart surgery only to succumb to a bacterial infection. “How could you have let this happen?”
If I were the one writing this story, I might have had Jesus rushing back to comfort his friends and to heal their brother as soon as he heard the news that he was ill because he loved them so much. Whew! Good thing Jesus made it back here in time, no one had to suffer too much, and everything is going to be okay now. That was close!
This would have alleviated the suffering of some of the characters in the present, but would have resulted the eternal suffering of those people who might never have come to believe Jesus to be the Son of God had I been the author here.
But God is writing this story, and His ways are not our ways.
When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.”
And Jesus wept.
So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.”
But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it.
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.”
Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” And…he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
John 11:33-40, 43 (emphasis mine)
Here it is – that briefest of verses (some translations omit even the word “and”) – that shows Jesus, fully God and fully man, entering into the pain of his friends. The Jews interpret Jesus’ tears as love, and rightly so, but it is so much more.
The Bible doesn’t tell us why Jesus wept or what it was that deeply troubled him. This eyewitness account only tells what happened. But by doing so, it also shows us so much about his tender heart.
Jesus does not rebuke Martha and Mary for their “if you had been here” reproaches. He just gently asks them if they believe that Lazarus will be raised.
He knew from the start that Lazarus was going to die. In fact, he stayed away longer to ensure this would happen before he arrived.
He knew that raising Lazarus from the dead was completely within his power and part of his plan.
And still he wept.
He was deeply troubled. And I can’t help but wonder about the reason behind it. Love played a big part, as the Jews said. Love for his friends, demonstrated by his entering into their sorrow with them, fully present in their pain.
But also perhaps sadness because death and suffering in this world was not part of the original plan.
Maybe he wept because he knew what was coming shortly after this – that by raising Lazarus from the dead, he would seal his own fate of death and burial in a tomb closed with a stone.
Whatever the reason, in this story we see a Jesus who is moved with compassion for those who are grieving. We see a Jesus who sometimes orchestrates suffering both for the good of those he loves – for love always wills the good of the other person, even if that good is difficult or isn’t obvious on this side of eternity – and for the glory of God. We see a Jesus who demonstrates that there is more to our suffering than meets the eye.
And while it may be tempting to think, “You raised Lazarus. Why couldn’t you perform a miracle in my situation, too?” we can be assured that this same Jesus has this same two-fold motivation when he allows our own suffering – our good and God’s glory.
We only need to believe this about him.