Fifth Sunday in Lent (Series A)
April 2nd, 2017

Gospel: John 11:1-45 (46-53) or John 11:17-27, 38-53
Epistle: Rom 8:1-11
Lesson: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm: Psalm 130

CLB Commentary – Prof. Brad Pribbenow

This pericope appears less than half way through John’s Gospel, but records events which take place merely days before Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. This chapter also reports the seventh and final sign of Jesus’ in the book of John (the previous signs being recorded in John 2:1- 11; 4:46-54; 5:1-18; 6:1-14; 6:16-21; and 9:1-7). As with “signs” (אוֹת, ‘oth) in the OT (especially the 10 plagues/signs described in Exo 7-12), John’s “signs” (σημεiον, semeion) serve the dual purpose of demonstrating God’s power and glory, as well as pointing people to faith in him. Jesus makes this fact explicit in 11:4 where he says, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.”

Of course, the greatest of Jesus’ signs is his own death and resurrection, confirming him as the Savior of the world! John powerfully sums up the purpose of these “signs” in his book when he writes, “Therefore many other signs [σημεiα, semeia] Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that by believing you may have life in His name” (20:30-31).

Two significant observations can be drawn from the opening verses of this pericope. First of all, we should note that even though Jesus says that this event will have a happy ending (i.e., “this sickness will not end in death,” vs. 4) this fact does not save Lazarus, Mary, Martha or even Jesus from experiencing pain and suffering. As the Apostle Paul so aptly puts it in 2 Cor 12:1-10, instead of protecting us from trials and suffering, God’s work in our lives often brings us more deeply into an experience of them. In this, too, is gift, though, as we learn to rely on the grace of God in the midst of our trials (2 Cor 12:9-10).

A second similar observation is drawn from the surprising sequence of statements in John 11:5-6, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was” (emphasis added). This, too, speaks to the unique relationship and purpose God has with suffering in our lives. We might have expected to read, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick” …he went right away to be with them! But this is not the case; instead, Jesus remained where he was for two more days. In the mystery and grace of God, he allows suffering while at the same time providing for our needs through his presence (vs. 11, 17), his compassion (vs. 33, 35, 38), and the promise of an ultimate and eternal end to all suffering (vs. 25-26).

An early (and central) tension point in this pericope comes in vs. 20-27. As Jesus meets Martha he proclaims the powerful Gospel truth, “I am the resurrection and the life…” (John 11:25-26). Jesus’ words are meant to deliver immediate comfort to Martha in her time of suffering; yet they also ring out with a much larger, eschatological message: death has come upon all people because of the Fall, no one is immune; in fact, Jesus, too, will be taken by death in his humanity, but death will not and cannot hold him! Jesus is resurrection! Jesus is life! This is the Gospel, spoken to create faith in the hearer. And, so the question follows: “Do you believe this?” (26). Be careful you don’t make this question into Law (e.g., “do you really believe this?). Instead issue this question to your hearers trusting that the LORD is speaking to them as you proclaim this incredible Word: “he who believes in me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (25-26). Some will doubt; others will wholeheartedly receive this promise. Many others may say in their hearts, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24).

The “positive” answering of this question should not force one to think that there is no room in our hearts for faith-filled questioning. Three times in this passage (vs. 21, 32, 37) we read the emotional plea, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It is perfectly acceptable to voice these feelings to God. Suffering stinks; death is devastating! But the Gospel is Good News and reveals how Jesus comes to us in our present suffering and provides comfort and hope through his perfect death and powerful resurrection.

In your study, you might also consider more closely the emotional and visceral response Jesus had to the havoc brought about by the death of Lazarus (see vs. 33, 38). A study of the Greek words ενεβριμήσατο τω πνεύματι (embrimaomai), and ετάραξεν (tarasso) will be very valuable for this.

But to conclude, in this pericope, Jesus speaks (like we would hope to) words of comfort to those who are suffering—comfort found temporally and eternally in the resurrection of Jesus. Yet unlike us, Jesus not only speaks about comfort, he creates it. Jesus not only talks about hope in the resurrection, he is that hope! Jesus alone is our champion, both in death and in life! Faith in him delivers to us all that he has won!

May God bring comfort and hope to you as you “live in” and study this text in the coming days. And may he use you to boldly proclaim the true, everlasting comfort and hope found only in Jesus!


Palm Sunday
Fourth Sunday in Lent