John 11:1-44: Like many other chapters in John’s gospel, this one contains a story followed by another section. But here the story and the sayings of Jesus are intermingled. What follows is a description of the developing plot against Jesus. The story related in this chapter is dramatic and the miracle performed an extraordinary one – though Jesus also brought others back to life in stories told in the other gospels. Such stories may be the most difficult miracle stories of all for the modern reader. Remember, again, however, that the point of the stories is less on what “actually” happened than on what the story says about Jesus and about God’s work in and through Jesus.
The story of Lazarus is told only in John’s gospel. He is the brother of Mary and Martha, and it is Mary who will anoint Jesus in chapter 12. The story begins with Lazarus falling ill and a message being sent to Jesus. According to the message, Lazarus is a good friend of Jesus. We know nothing of this relationship to this point. As with the story in chapter nine, Jesus claims that the illness will serve the glory of God. This need not mean that God had this planned from the beginning, only that God’s grace finds its way into situations of human need, and this will be demonstrated again. Jesus absolute confidence that Lazarus’ illness will be a situation God will address through him leads him to act almost cavalierly – waiting two days to go to Judea. This is difficult to understand, but for John, this is in keeping with who Jesus is – one through whom God acts in a powerful and unique way.
Returning to Judea is returning to dangerous territory, to the place where there are people who want to kill him. In the other gospels, Jesus seems well aware that going to Jerusalem represents a real danger. In John’s gospel, Jesus is not only aware of the danger, but willingly goes to Jerusalem to surrender his life. In John’s gospel, Jesus is always in charge of his fate. His time of daylight will be coming to an end, but at his own initiative.
As Jesus and the disciples prepare to go to Bethany, there is some confusion over just what has happened to Lazarus, one of the few places in John’s gospel where the disciples seem to have a significant misunderstanding, in contrast to the other gospels where there is a great deal of this. Jesus does not let their misunderstanding linger – Lazarus has died. Thomas’ comment (verse 16) is a bit confusing, but reflects the real danger that awaits them in Jerusalem.
As Jesus approaches Bethany, Martha meets him and this conversation provides the context for another “I Am” statement by Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus is about life here and now, not just in the future – a new life oriented toward God. Even though they will die, they will remain alive to new life. In the “I am” saying, Jesus announces that the promise of the resurrection is not lodged in some distant event, but is available now in him. Jesus shares completely in God’s ability to give life. As the resurrection and the life, Jesus defeats the power of death in the future and in the present (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). “Resurrection is a certain state of being” (Sanford, Mystical Christianity, 224). Martha provides a strong confession of faith – “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” “The content of the faith is Christ, the act of God in Christ. It is personal, not doctrinal.” (People’s New Testament Commentary).
The plot continues. Mary comes to see Jesus, and as she does, she weeps, others with her weep, and seeing this Jesus becomes “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He ends up weeping. In some ways this seems strange, given his previous confidence that God is up to something great in this situation. But this Jesus is “a real human being, with all the range of human emotions, although at the same time he is the Deity who is a God of heart and compassion for the sufferings of his/her children” (Sanford, Mystical Christianity, 225). Sanford goes on to write, the fact is that we do not comprehend the greater mysteries nor find the larger insights without passing through the pathos and suffering of life.
Jesus remains deeply disturbed as he approaches the tomb, a cave. The stone is rolled away, though there is a concern expressed for the smell of death. “It is precisely in this stinking world of death and decay that the power of the resurrection has been let loose” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Jesus prays to God – it is from God that Jesus power comes, though for John, that power resides in Jesus already. At the voice of Jesus, life comes forth, a life to be unbound and let loose. Read metaphorically, and symbolically, this story speaks to our lives. How often we feel bound and entombed, and the message is that Jesus heals and frees. As we listen for his voice, and the disciplines of the Christian spiritual life are meant to be ways to do that – worship, prayer, Scripture reading, acts of compassion, acts of justice, we are able to come out of our tombs into new life.
John 11:45-57: This remarkable event causes many to believe in Jesus, but others are concerned that he is disrupting the status quo. The chief priests and Pharisees (some, not all) are concerned that Jesus activity will bring Roman authority down on them. Of course John writes this well-after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome. Did some of the Jewish people and leaders blame the activity of Christians for the demise of Rome? In another way, this indeed reflects that political calculations figured heavily in the death of Jesus. Silencing him was intended to keep the peace of Rome. In the face of threats, Jesus retreats with his disciples.
John 12:1-11: Jesus retreat away from Jerusalem does not last long. The Passover is coming and Jesus begins his return trip. Here he stops in Bethany. A banquet is held. Martha serves. Lazarus is a guest. And Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with costly perfume. The word used for “wipe” here is the same word that John will use in describing Jesus’ action in wiping the feet of his disciples on holy Thursday. Mary’s action of love is contrasted with Judas’ anticipated action of betrayal. Is John suggesting that there are two alternatives when it comes to Jesus – love or betrayal? That may be a little stark, but it may not be far from John’s point of view. Up to now in John’s gospel, the poor have gone unmentioned. Here the implication is that Jesus’ disciples care for the poor. Judas is a thief and does not do so. Crowds gather, reminiscent of the other gospels. Many are believing in Jesus, so some leaders decide that Lazarus too is a threat and should be killed. The animosity displayed here more accurately reflects John’s time than the time of Jesus himself.
John 12:12-19: In these verses we have Jesus entry into Jerusalem, his final entry. John narrates this in his own way (and it is the most abbreviated of the accounts), but some of the comments previously shared about this event in the other gospels bears repeating. Entry processions were important occasions during the time of Jesus. Rome was good at pomp and circumstance, and their imperial processions reflected their power and prestige. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their book The Last Week propose that there were two processions entering Jerusalem that day, one an imperial procession in which Pontius Pilate rode into the city to reinforce Roman rule during Passover week and one, the procession with Jesus riding on a donkey. Jesus riding the donkey is a distinct contrast to an imperial procession – which may have been taking place in another part of town. Here there is spontaneous joy at the arrival of Jesus. There is a sense of anticipation that something wonderful may happen. The crowd that is hailing Jesus is the crowd that saw him raise Lazarus or that had heard about this event. One might contrast this joy with a sense of fear and foreboding that may have accompanied the imperial procession. Here are a few lines from Crossan and Borg’s book: Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast – between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar – is central… to the story of Jesus and early Christianity (p. 4-5). Jesus is taking his work and message into the heart of a city that embodied Roman domination and a Jewish collaboration with that system. It is a place where the plot to kill Jesus is alive and well. The language of these accolades would have been seen as subversive of Roman imperial rule. Rome provided any “king” and was the guarantor of peace. Like Jesus, we are invited to bring good news about God’s love into difficult places, sharing a message that will sometimes challenge the way things are. Where are some of those places in your life or in our world today? The Pharisees despair of their ability to quell the enthusiasm for Jesus – “the world has gone after him.” This reflects John’s view of the Jewish response to the growth of the Jesus movement in his own time.
John 12:20-26: The Greeks mentioned here may be Jews who have adopted the Greek language and some Greek customs. Paul was one such Jew. They may also be Gentiles. By John’s time, the Jesus movement had become primarily Gentile, and he anticipates that here, in one way or another. The word comes to Jesus that these Greeks are seeking him. This provides a context for a brief discourse on giving up one’s life to follow Jesus. The words here have a familiar ring, but John states them in his own unique way. One wonders how these words are a response to the request to see Jesus, but in a way they are – along with the words and events in the next section. To “see” Jesus rightly is to see one who is like a grain of wheat, giving up his life as a seed might, to bring life to others. To give our lives to the cause of God, to God’s dream for the world, is to see that dream of life grow. We are to follow Jesus.
John 12:27-36: Here we have Jesus agonizing over his death. There will be no such garden scene later on. But Jesus is resolute. This is what he came to do in John’s view. His reflective prayer is answered by a voice from the heavens. Jesus continues – when he is lifted up in death, he will draw all people to himself. The image here is almost of a magnet. Here again, this is the truth about Jesus that he wants others to “see.” Jesus uses “light” imagery to also bring home the point about seeing him truthfully, especially while he is in their midst. We are not only to see the light, but become “children of light.”
John 12:36-43: Jesus retreats, goes into hiding. The hiddenness of Jesus is not only physical, but spiritual. Many, though they have witnessed the signs Jesus performed, still did not believe that God was at work through him in such a way that to understand Jesus was to understand the very person of God. Jesus remains hidden to such persons. John also chastises those who believe, but keep it secret.
John 12:44-50: John intends these verses to provide something of a summary to Jesus public teaching, which now draws to a close. There will be a great deal of teaching in the coming chapters, but it will be directed toward the disciples. In the other gospels, the focus of Jesus’ teaching was the kingdom of God, God’s dream for the world. In John, the focus is on Jesus himself. But these are not so different. In the other gospels, Jesus is seen as one who not only speaks about, but also embodies God’s dream for the world, and to understand that dream more adequately is to understand who God is more completely. John simplifies the equation, when we believe in Jesus, we believe in God. Jesus appeals to the imagery of light once again to describe what he is about. For John, the point is to help readers come to some decision of their own about Jesus. Light has come into the world – are we going to let it draw us in, or are we going to flee into darkness?