Gospel of John: Grave Illness


Have you ever thought what it would be like to see the glory of God? What was it like for the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden to walk with God in all God’s glory, God’s radiance cascading all around them?

Or for Hagar, as she looked up and realized she saw the God who saw her?

Or for the Israelites as they saw the pillar of cloud and fire? I think about God’s Shekinah leading the people through the wilderness, descending onto Mount Horeb, filling the tabernacle and later Solomon’s temple.

What about Isaiah, seeing the train of God’s robe filling the temple with glory? Or Ezekiel, swept away by the sheer majesty and other-worldliness of his visions of God?

Then my mind moves to Jesus, when he was on the mountain talking with Moses and Elijah, and he was transfigured before John’s very eyes (and his brother James, and Peter). How that must have filled them with awe.

But how was God’s glory displayed in Jesus otherwise? Through this gospel, Jesus had so far said several times, in several ways, that he and the Father are one. To see Jesus was to see the Father. But . . . what about the glory?

What if glory is the reality of God’s active presence linked with the quality of what God does?

What God does is always a reflection of God’s character and in keeping with God’s glory, and all this is displayed in the lives of every believer.

Those who believe God see God’s glory in everyday circumstances.

In John chapter 11, the glory of God was not a glorious appearance, but rather Jesus’ demonstration that he could bring life to a physically dead person.


Gravely Ill

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By the end of chapter 10, Jesus and his disciples left Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan river back to where Jesus had first begun his work, along with John the Baptist. It was about a day’s journey from Bethany, which was just two miles outside of Jerusalem.

This is where our story opens up today.

Now a certain person was feeble with illness, Lazarus from Bethany—of the town of Mary and her sister Martha. Now Mary was who anointed the Lord [with] myrrh and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus ailed.

John 10:1-2

Just some notes on this: The word in Greek, astheneo, meant on the brink of death.

Also, by the time this gospel was finally written, edited, curated, and finally published, the story about Mary anointing Jesus’ feet had already become famous, so even though this story actually shows up in chapter 12, the writer wanted to identify how important these people were to Jesus, for those who might not have known.

Lazarus, Mary, and Martha

They were a well-to-do family, owning their own home and having a private family tomb. Some think it is possible that Lazarus was the rich young synagogue ruler who later did return to Jesus. The Lord had eaten many meals at their house, and spent many nights there too. It seems as though Bethany, and especially the home of these three young siblings, was a kind of sanctuary for Jesus and his disciples.

Jesus was only a few miles away, the sisters knew it. They knew Jesus loved them, and loved their brother, and in the reciprocity embedded in the patronage relationships of the first century Roman empire, it went without saying that if they asked, Jesus would come and do what he could.

  • They believed Jesus was Messiah.
  • They believed Jesus was imbued with the power and authority to bring even the gravely ill back to life.
  • They knew this was kingdom work.

So they sent servants with an urgent message to where Jesus and his disciples were preaching and baptizing along the Jordan river. They did not directly ask Jesus to come, but certainly the request was implied, knowing how Jesus loved Lazarus.

Not For Death But For Glory

It is possible that by the time Mary and Martha’s servants had reached Jesus with the news of their brother’s illness, Lazarus had already died. However, Jesus immediately recognized this was an opportunity for God’s glory, so he gave the messengers a reply to take back.

This malady is not toward death, but rather in behalf of the glory of God in order that the Son of God might be glorified through this.

Jesus’ message for Mary and Martha, John 11:4

Jesus had said the very same thing about the man born blind in chapter 9, this situation is an opportunity for God to be glorified.

The Lord’s words might have been hard to understand, this illness will not end in death, since Lazarus actually was dead. In fact, by the time they had received Jesus’ message, Lazarus had already been wrapped and put in the tomb. Teachers of the law in antiquity interpreted Deuteronomy 21:23 to mean that a person must be buried on the day they die. However, it was the custom to leave the tomb open for the next three days, in case the person somehow revived.

It was a strange message for the sisters. Maybe they thought Jesus was trying to comfort them with the thought that Lazarus was going to be with God, and was even now by Abraham’s side.

Or, perhaps they felt a faint tremble of hope, that in this three-day window Jesus might be able to resuscitate their brother.

Inexplicable Delay

Many had come, as they did every day, to hear Jesus teach, and to wade into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized. Often John was paired with his brother James, and Peter and Andrew would be close by, as they lowered someone together into the water, then pulled them back up again, spluttering, pushing heavy wet hair from their faces, yet smiling with great joy.

Shalom, they would say, and the ancient blessing, The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. The kingdom of God is coming and is indeed here, James would often add, as the person gathered their wet robes to climb back up onto the shore.

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As they were baptizing and blessing, movement in the distance caught John’s eye. Messengers, jogging toward Jesus. They were not far from Jerusalem, and he wondered if yet another summons had come from the temple authorities.

Now the messengers were speaking earnestly, their tired faces white with exertion, their robes grey with dust. Jesus’ face looked drawn. Then he smiled and raised a hand up to heaven. John looked up too, so engrossed was he with the scene.

Then John reached over to Peter and tugged his cloak, Peter, look.

James looked up as well, and Andrew noticed. Down the river, more disciples began to notice the shift of sound and movement, and raised their heads towards Jesus.

Then Jesus was walking towards them, still smiling, as the crowds of people were also turning towards the rabbi. He sat down and began to teach.

The messengers seemed anxious, waiting for Jesus to say more. But now he had grown still and only looked at them with warm intensity then nodded over to Bethany way. His gesture said go. Reluctantly, they drew back, then headed towards where they had come.

Later, remembering the story, John made a point of saying how Jesus loved Mary and Martha, and Lazarus and it was for this reason Jesus stayed two more days by the river, not even telling his disciples about the message he had received.

It seems a strange way to convey love, but I have been there, when I feel in extreme need, and though I know the Lord loves me, God seems absent and his word gives faint comfort . . .


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