Death may seem like the final curtain, but what if it’s actually the opening scene? Tombs pepper the landscape of the gospels, hosting scenes of regeneration rather than decay: the deliverance of the Gerasene demoniac, the resurrection of Jesus, and the subsequent reappearance of countless saints. If new life is the good news, then into the grave we must go.
To get the most out of this study, read John 11. But first, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into the truth available in this passage. Give yourself permission to ask questions that may not have answers. Wonder aloud, imagine the scene, and take note of anything that surprises, confuses, or even offends you. Above all, trust the Lord. He’s the best teacher.
Key Passage: John 11:1-44
Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were close friends of Jesus. The Lord often stayed at their home in Bethany, which was less than two miles from Jerusalem. John 11 opens with the two women sending word to Jesus that their brother is very sick.
Notice Jesus’ initial response to the news of Lazarus’s illness (John 11:3-4).
How do you think the disciples interpreted the phrase “is not to end in death”? At that point, do you suppose they expected him to die?
Unlike the disciples, we know that the emphasis belongs on end rather than on death—in other words, that dying will be part of Lazarus’s sickness, but not its conclusion. What does that tell you about Jesus’ view of the path to recovery? In terms of your own life, what worst-case scenario might He be asking you to face in order to receive complete healing?
In John 11:8, the disciples caution Jesus against returning to Judea. Considering the threat against His life, what does the Lord’s persistence in going say about both His affection for Lazarus and His commitment to God’s glory (John 11:4)?
Continuing the Story
After purposely delaying two days, Jesus and His disciples arrive in Bethany, where Lazarus has now been dead for four days.
Remember that Bethany is not far at all from where Jesus was staying (John 11:18). That means Mary and Martha would have realized He could have been there in time to heal Lazarus, especially since they gave Him advance notice. As they saw it, His absence allowed their brother’s death. Even more distressing, the Lord actually tarried in coming to comfort them. In light of these things, how do you imagine the sisters felt toward Jesus?
Look again at Martha’s interaction with Jesus in John 11:20-27. When He prophesies that her brother will rise again, she affirms her belief in Lazarus’s resurrection but adds the phrase “on the last day.” This subtly implies her reservations about trusting Jesus with her hope again. Can you think of a time when your hope in God’s intervention was deferred? After that, was it more difficult to trust Him and His promises?
Reread John 11:32-35, which describe Mary’s conversation with the Lord and His emotional response. Since Jesus already planned to resurrect Lazarus (see John 11:4; John 11:11-14), why do you think He wept? Note that Jesus not only made space for the sisters’ grief but also entered into it Himself. Does that change how you expect Him to relate to your pain—and how you might approach others experiencing grief?
Jesus’ absence allowed their brother’s death. Even more distressing, the Lord actually tarried in coming to comfort them.
In John 11:39, Martha expresses reluctance to open Lazarus’s grave on account of the possible smell, but Jesus reminds her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40).
Imagine exhuming the corpse of a recently deceased loved one—what emotions would you experience at the thought of having to face the corrupted body? Of exposing it to an audience? It’s easy to accuse Martha of simple doubt, but in reality, her reaction probably involved protecting herself and her family from shame and further pain. With that in mind, how does positioning yourself for healing require courage?
Pay particular attention to John 11:43-44. Lazarus’s resurrection could have been accomplished only by the Son of God, but whom does Jesus task with the responsibility of removing the grave clothes? What does that tell you about the role of community in healing and recovery?
The word believe occurs nine times in John 11—and many of the witnesses to Lazarus’s resurrection did put their faith in Jesus as Messiah, which deeply disturbed the ruling religious leaders (John 11:45-53). What does that say about how God can use supernatural intervention in our lives to confront others?
Jesus not only made space for the sisters’ grief but also entered into it Himself.
REMEMBER Healing testifies.
Over the next several weeks, use this section to review the study and consider how its message applies to your life.
In reading John 11:4, those of us suffering illness or a loved one’s bleak prognosis may feel disregarded. If we’re honest, in fact, Jesus’ words about glorifying God through sickness could actually sound callous. When all we want is unlabored breathing, a clear scan, or nights free from anxiety, the promise of a future testimony may be inadequate to sustain hope in God, much less His healing. And the longer hope is deferred, the sicker our hearts can become (Prov. 13:12). So, when prayers for healing go unanswered, where do we turn?
As a human being who lived among mankind, Jesus can identify with our every emotion—including the disappointment of unanswered prayer. Picture Him in Gethsemane the night He was arrested. His prayers to be excused from the horrors of the cross weren’t answered in a way any of us would have wanted, had we been the one kneeling in the garden, sweating blood. Yes, He obeyed, but not without facing His Father’s “no.” How does realizing we have a Savior who can empathize with us impact the way you feel about your own times of suffering and unanswered prayers?
Take a moment to imagine being Lazarus. How much agency, power, and responsibility does a dead man possess? What did Jesus require of Lazarus in order for him to be resurrected? Does knowing he was powerless to effect his own healing change how you think about surrendering to God? Do you find it easy to embrace that kind of all-encompassing vulnerability and trust God? Why or why not?
The sisters felt crushing disappointment when Jesus failed to prevent their brother’s death. But the grave wasn’t the end for Lazarus, nor is it for any of God’s children. Even when it all appears to be over, God is still writing—still righting—our story with Him.
Illustration by Adam Cruft