While on first inspection the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead in John chapter 11 appears to be just another story about Jesus working miracles, hidden within are several important lessons about prayer, intercession, and the necessity of awaiting God's time rather than asserting our own. We'll take the story apart and examine each piece:
11 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”Mary and Martha did exactly what every believer should do when they find that their brother (whether literal or metaphorical) is sick: They asked for help from Jesus. They model for believers charity in their concern for his needs, faith in their confidence that he will come, and hope because they believe that he will fulfill the promises he has made to them. Right up to this point they are absolutely blameless in their actions. This is important to keep in mind as we examine the response Jesus has to the message.
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”Notice that Jesus does not drop everything and immediately come running to Mary and Martha's side. He stays to finish the work he is doing. This may seem callous, especially given that it says that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Most of us wouldn't stay to finish our work, we'd have dropped everything and run to the side of our loved ones. It seems like a really odd reaction from him.
His disciples have a different point of view. They can't believe he is going to go back to Bethany at all, given that the people who lived there just tried to stone him to death.
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”Jesus knows it is time to go. So, he tries to explain to his disciples.
9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”His disciples are puzzled by this. They don't understand what Jesus means by the whole sleeping thing, and they can't understand why Jesus is worried about going to see Lazarus if all he's doing is sleeping. So, Jesus becomes more clear;
11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.Finally, and for the first time, we begin to get a glimpse of why Jesus wasn't in a hurry to get to Lazarus. Jesus held off so that he could use what is about to happen to help them believe that he truly is the messiah.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Thomas, ever the doubter, is convinced that the only thing they're going to find when they get to Bethany is death. Still, he is determined to follow Christ no matter what the stakes.
16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”So, Jesus and his disciples leave their place of safety across the river Jordan and travel two days to reach Bethany.
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles[b] from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.As Jesus arrives, he is greeted by Martha. Mary, however, is too upset with him to even come speak with him. How much this must have hurt Jesus' heart, and it tells us two things about the sisters. First, that Martha tends to be the sort who is quick to forgive and whose love is greater than her hurts. Second, that Mary is not so quick to forgive and who tends to nurse her hurts alone.
Martha confronts Jesus on his perceived failure, but reaffirms her trust in him by telling him she's sure he can bring her brother back to life.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”Jesus reassures her that her prayers have not gone unanswered and that what she has requested she will receive.
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”Martha mistakes his statement as a reminder of the future resurrection, and she affirms that she believes in this resurrection.
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”Jesus corrects her mistake, telling her that HE is the resurrection, and that he will bring life to the dead.
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”Martha finally gets it and runs home to Mary, to tell her that Jesus wants to speak with her.
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”\
28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.Mary goes out to meet Jesus and everyone who had come for the funeral goes with her. Mary's accusation against Jesus is immediate and harsh. Unlike Martha, Mary doesn't add that she believes Jesus can do anything about the situation. Her faith in him has clearly been shaken.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”Jesus hurts for her as she weeps at his feet, and he knows the time is right for God's plan to be enacted.
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.The crowd, uncomprehending of what is really going on, takes Jesus to the tomb.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.Some of them are amazed by how openly Jesus shows his love for Lazarus, and the cynics among them wonder why - if he loved him so - couldn't Jesus have saved him from death.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”Jesus ignores them all as he approaches the tomb. He orders them to remove the stone that covers the grave. Martha, in her usual fashion, is shocked by the impropriety of it.
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”Jesus reminds her of their earlier conversation, and those who have gathered finally do as he asks. Then Jesus lifts up a prayer to God so that those who are witnessing this might know the source of the power he is about to reveal.
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”At last, the moment arrives and Jesus orders Lazarus to awaken and for the burial clothes to be removed. The whole crowd watches as Lazarus is literally freed from death.
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.What we learn about unanswered prayer from this passage is that Christ will answer - in his time, not our own. We also learn the reason that he waits - that others might believe. You see, Mary and Martha already believed that Jesus Christ was the messiah, but many of those who came to visit the sisters at the graveside of Lazarus did not yet believe. In allowing Lazarus to die and the funeral to be held, he brought together many people all at one time and thus was able to bring about good for more people than just the three siblings. God will always answer our prayers, in his time. He will wait to do it until the maximum amount of good can be achieved by answering that one prayer.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
We also learn from this passage that God doesn't usually answer our prayers exactly the way we expect it to be done. Mary and Martha expected Jesus to heal their brother's illness. He didn't do that. He resurrected their brother from death, instead, and used it as an opportunity to bring joy to many hearts instead of just the two.