Updated: Feb 23
But really, this chapter is about Martha and Mary.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 11
In this beloved passage of the raising of Lazarus, we learn that Jesus experienced the pain and sorrow with Lazarus's sisters Martha and Mary, that He endured their rebukes, and that He exhorted them to faith. In raising Lazarus from death, Jesus proved His authority to say everything He has about life, death, faith, and God.
The dead man came out. (11:44)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
It's the Season of Lent
In disclosure, I write these articles on the Wednesday before we study this passage. Today is "Ash Wednesday", the formal start of the season of Lent.
Many Baptist churches don't do anything with Lent (and by extension Ash Wednesday), and I certainly understand why. It's not in the Bible; it's a man-made season. I'll give two reasons in favor of observing Lent -- (1) it was formally created by the Council of Nicea, the same council that gave us the Nicene Creed (which we're cool with); (2) I think we can all agree that emphasizing Easter is better than not emphasizing Easter. Doing so with fasting and prayer and self-reflection is appropriate.
Lent reflects the 40 days Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness, enduring temptations, while He prepared for His public ministry. If you do the count, Ash Wednesday is 46 days before Easter. What's the 6? Sundays don't "count" because Sunday is always a day of celebrating the Resurrection.
Sadly, Lent is now primarily marked by "what are you going to give up for Lent?". You might remember my rant against New Year's Resolutions -- if you should do something, don't wait until an arbitrary date to start. Just do it. Likewise, people now treat Lent as a kind of detox, giving up things they already know they shouldn't be doing/eating. If it's good for you at Lent, why don't you do it year-round?
But I digress.
Your discussion is this -- what do you think should be the point of Lent? Once you've established that, then ask -- what are things we should do during this time to achieve that purpose?
Today's passage is fantastic to get our minds set on the right thing: Lazarus is going to die, and then he is going to be raised from the dead. Martha and Mary are going to mourn, and Jesus is going to mourn with them. And then Jesus is going to reveal the glory of God. (And all this happens essentially a week before the Crucifixion.)
Life is fragile. The world is broken. Our sin has created this mess, and it would cost Jesus' life to fix it. I'd say that taking a few weeks out of the year to focus on mourning our sin and committing to "surrender all" to Jesus is a valuable idea.
Revival: The Asbury Awakening
I don't know that this would be an opening idea as much as something that might come up during the discussion. We're going to talk about the resurrection of Lazarus. The words that I will distinguish below are "resurrection", "resuscitation", and "revival". But the moment anyone hears the word "revival", someone might ask about the "Asbury Revival".
I'll let others give you the details on what happened:
As well as the poor president who had to get it under control:
I really appreciate the author who suggested that if we call this an "awakening" instead of a capital-R "Revival" (or a Capital-A "Awakening"), we could bypass most of the ugly, cynical accusations that have been thrown around. I think that's correct. The word "Revival" has been used to put this event (involving a few thousand people) on the same level as "The First Great Awakening" or "The Second Great Awakening", both of which fundamentally changed hundreds of thousands of lives and the entire country. Social media has been heavily involved, with a lot of people doing the "I was there" post. And yes, truth be told that has looked like a lot of attention-getting. (What do you think Jesus meant by "don't let your left hand know what your right is doing"?)
But if we look at this as a spiritual awakening on a small Christian campus (ignoring the individuals who are clamoring for attention), is that a bad thing? Is that not something we should desire for every Christian campus? Every Christian church? Every Christian ministry? Certainly for ourselves?
So, here's how I think you might try to use this as a discussion. First, establish the basics of the story. Then ask, how many of you are skeptical the God is behind this? And finally ask why. Is it possibly because you don't think that God does this anymore?
I read an article that suggested that Baptists are hardwired to be cynical about these kinds of revivals/awakenings, and it's an interesting read. I don't agree with everything the author said, but I do agree that any Christian's initial response to a story like this should be one of celebrating God, not looking for the deception.
We don't know what's going on in the hearts of the people there. Let's not pretend that we do. I would challenge your group to take this story as an opportunity to do three things: (1) pray that God is moving in the hearts of those young people, (2) pray that God would help us be discerning about what we hear, and (3) pray that God would bring revival to our churches.
To tie this in to the first topic, I suggest that as a spot-on Lenten prayer.
This Week's Big Idea: Where We Are in John
Our passage starts in verse 32, but we kinda need the rest of the chapter to understand what's going on. I'm going to cover as much background as I can, and I hope you'll realize how easy it would be to get lost in the setup and not save enough time to talk about the focal passage. Be very intentional about not spending too much time on the background.
In last week's passage, Jesus really stirred the pot by declaring, "I and the Father are one." By then, some people are violently angry with Jesus, so Jesus and His followers withdraw from Jerusalem. Here's a map that identifies the locations in this sequence of events (I'm not exactly sure about the arrows, though):
10:40, Jesus withdraws to "Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan"
11:1, Jesus hears about Lazarus and makes plans to visit him in Bethany -- a different village named Bethany that is near Jerusalem
11:54, Jesus withdraws to a village named Ephraim
12:1, Jesus returns to Bethany where Lazarus lived
12:12, Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday)
All of this happens within a few weeks of the crucifixion. This week's passage takes place in the village of Bethany near Jerusalem.
[Aside: if you want to learn a little more about the context of this event, we covered that in Luke's description of the Triumphal Entry:
Many things happened in the weeks leading up to the crucifixion, and each Gospel author focused on different things.]
This Week's Surprisingly Bigger Idea: Mary and Martha
It was weird for me to realize that the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead isn't really about Lazarus -- it's about Mary and Martha.
The way John describes them in 11:1 implies that they were "famous", that his readers would have heard of them. This makes sense -- assuming his is the last Gospel written, the readers would have known them well from the Synoptics. (Note: I believe that his description of Mary in 11:2 is pointing forward to the event he records in 12:1-11, but see next week for more.) By starting with the fact that Lazarus is Mary's and Martha's brother, John is making this an intimate event with people known to be close to Jesus.
There are SO MANY paintings of Mary and Martha. Vermeer is in the news, so I picked a Vermeer.
Mary and Martha are "famous" for two reasons -- Mary anointing Jesus with perfume in John 12, and the story in Luke 10.
38 While they were traveling, he entered a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who also sat at the Lord’s feet and was listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, and she came up and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? So tell her to give me a hand.”
41 The Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her.”
It's such a short story, and yet it has made such a huge impact on so many lives! My guess is that John's readers would have collectively responded with "Oh, it's about Mary and Martha! Tell us more!"
I bring up the Luke 10 passage because we tend to put ourselves in the personalities of Mary or Martha. (I'm a Martha, btw.) Warning: you can't reduce a person's personality to a single sentence. Plus, time has passed since Luke 10, and we must assume that both women have grown quite a bit via their time being around Jesus. BUT, while we study, I want you to look for differences between how Mary and Martha interact with Jesus in this chapter.
[Aside: you could spend your entire time talking about Luke 10. Just remember that we're focused on John 11 this week 😊.]
Now -- back to the context.
Lazarus has gotten sick, and we aren't told with what, and Mary and Martha have sent word to Jesus about it. This suggests that the sickness is clearly serious. But Jesus remains where He was for two days (11:6). We don't know why. Many scholars write in such a way that implies that Jesus wanted Lazarus to die so He could raise him from the dead. I don't like the way that comes across. Being clear that Bible doesn't say why He delayed, I think it's pretty clear based on the timeline that Lazarus was already dead by the time the messengers got to Jesus. Perhaps there were other miracles or teachings still to be done beyond the Jordan. And it sounds like Martha and Mary had a lot of support with them during this time. Jesus and His followers are quite aware of the risk of traveling back to Jerusalem --
16 Then Thomas said to his fellow disciples, “Let’s go too so that we may die with him [Jesus, or maybe Lazarus].”
There's a brief exchange when Jesus has to spell out for the disciples that Lazarus is dead. And then we get the key detail in 11:17:
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
(Of course, Jesus knew that already.) The point is that there is no doubt that Lazarus is dead. No one can suggest that Jesus and Lazarus set up some kind of trick. There have been very public "funeral services" and Lazarus has been in a sealed tomb.
One thing I think very important to cover is the initial exchange between Jesus and Martha in 11:21-27. Below, I attach some clips of different movies about Jesus. Screenwriters love this exchange because it's so incredible. I just really wish they had all left it as is -- this can't be "improved for television".
21 Then Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Yet even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
23 “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus told her.
24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who comes into the world.”
This is the "I AM" statement that puts what we talked about last week into focus. Jesus is life itself. Everything we talked about last week with respect to the "I AM" statements finds its meaning in this -- all of it, even resurrection, are aspects of life. Jesus is the beginning and the end of life and everything in between.
Verse 27 is the key, and it shows us just how important Martha will be to the future Jesus movement. Jesus has said something impossible -- unless He is indeed the Son of God. Martha has understood that the Messiah was not going to be a political or military figure but the Son of God. It is the clearest statement we have had about Jesus' identity.
[But it's not "perfect" -- after you read the rest of this week's passage, you'll see where Martha is still limited. Personal homework: skim through John's Gospel and write down all of the declarations made about Jesus. Which people are "on the right track", and in what ways?]
Then, Martha goes and gets Mary who comes to Jesus, and that's where this week's passage picks up.
This Week's Visual Bible Clip
Following the John 11 clip, I have two famous cinematic depictions of the event.
"The Greatest Story Ever Told"
Yes, that is Max von Sydow as Jesus.
"Jesus of Nazareth"
This is Jesus' "greatest sign" to the non-believers.
This story is really about Jesus' caring interactions with Mary and Martha.
Here, we realize that Jesus truly has power over death.
The Sanhedrin unequivocally decides to have Him killed (see 11:47-57).
The Unanswerable Question:
Why is John the only one who records this miracle? This is such a big deal! Well, we don't know. It of course makes perfect and complete sense in the Gospel of John, being the greatest of the "signs". My only guess is that this event is so overpowering that it would distract the readers from the other author's intentions. Both Mark and Luke have very carefully crafted Jesus' mission as a "bee-line" to Jerusalem for Holy Week, and they have focused on Jesus' teachings along the way. Did they perhaps think that the raising of Lazarus from the dead would "suck the air out of the room"? I don't know. But John has written his Gospel is such a way that it fits neatly as the climax-before-the-climax.
Part 1: Wept (John 11:32-37)
32 As soon as Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and told him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”
33 When Jesus saw her crying, and the Jews who had come with her crying, he was deeply moved in his spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you put him?” he asked. “Lord,” they told him, “come and see.” 35 Jesus wept.
36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Couldn’t he who opened the blind man’s eyes also have kept this man from dying?”
First thing to notice: people recognize a pretty clear difference between "keeping someone alive" and "bringing someone back from the dead". Let's be clear -- a miracle is a miracle is a miracle. But these verses establish why "raising Lazarus from the dead" would be considered Jesus' "greatest sign" of His identity.
And let's also be clear about this -- both Martha and Mary have rebuked Jesus. There is no other way to interpret this. But how does Jesus respond to Mary's "rebuke"? This is your key question for discussion.
He empathizes with her. He mourns with her. He weeps with her.
That's the One True God. That's the God we serve. Not some distant deity but a God who walks with us through the dark valley (in this case, quite literally in the shadow of death). This is the clearest way John the author could help us realize that Jesus is our Good Shepherd (see last week). (This is why John has chosen to record the events he has.)
But I want us to focus on one word -- the word translated "deeply moved". Other translations might use "deeply touched" or "groaned". The Greek word either means (1) an expression of anger or (2) an expression of emotion. The majority of the time, this word clearly emphasizes the emotion of anger. I understand why the translators might want to avoid that word, but I think that "anger" makes the most sense in context, or perhaps "outraged". Stick with the word whose connotation gives you the fewest hangups.
So, what is Jesus outraged about?
Most importantly, Jesus is not angry at Mary and Martha. (This might be the primary reason the translators don't use "angry" here.) John the author has gone out of his way to say how much Jesus loved them.
So again, what is He outraged about?
Here are some possibilities, but you guys talk it out as a group:
Jesus is outraged at all the grief caused by death.
Jesus is outraged at all of the death caused by sin.
Jesus is outraged that the world is broken and dying.
Jesus is outraged that people will not believe like Martha has.
Jesus is outraged what sin will still cost.
Note that His initial response to His outrage is to ask where Lazarus' body is, if that helps give your discussion some direction. Also note that Jesus soon begins to cry (the famous "Jesus wept" is probably best translated "Jesus began to cry"). And finally, the Jews have the right of it in realizing how much Jesus loved Lazarus -- and also Mary and Martha.
I love Mary's "come and see". It's the same phrase Jesus used all the way back in 1:39. John the author was intentional about capturing this. It would be entirely our speculation, but how do you think this "come and see" relates to Jesus' first "come and see"? (Speculation: this might have fueled some of Jesus' heavy emotions, thinking about how His ministry has led to this moment.)
A lot of discussion about these verses focuses on Jesus' humanity. Okay, but I think that's missing the point. Are we saying that God can't cry? (Well, okay, yes, not physically, but work with me here.) Are we saying that God can't grieve?
Jesus' weeping is just as much divine as it is human. With one key difference -- He never sins. His grief does not overcome Him; it does not drop into despair or lashing out.
So here's a discussion idea: what does it mean to you that Jesus wept with Lazarus's sisters over Lazarus's death?
And maybe this: what does it mean to you that weeping and being angry are something Jesus did?
I think both of those ideas are critical to a healthy Christian life -- knowing that God is experiencing and shepherding you through your sorrow, and also that there is a holy way to grieve. [But this lesson is just getting started!]
Part 2: Believe (John 11:38-40)
38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 “Remove the stone,” Jesus said.
Martha, the dead man’s sister, told him, “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
As you have guessed, "deeply moved" is the same word as before. The difference is that in the previous verse, Jesus was "outraged in spirit" and in this verse He is "outraged in Himself". I don't think there is a secret meaning there; this might be as simple as how our feelings are sometimes deep inside, and sometimes they are simmering right under the surface.
Jesus is in an emotional wringer.
Sadly, all of us have experienced something akin to this. For kids, it might be the day they found that their dog had died. (I hope and pray that would be the worst of it for them.) For you, I know that some of you have been called in to identify a body. Or you've found a loved one dead after calling for them without response. Those are terrible, terrible memories we don't want to dwell on (which is why this shouldn't be a group discussion topic). But they do help us get a glimpse of what Jesus was probably experiencing as He walked to Lazarus's tomb. The difference between Him and us? He was "remembering" the death of every person in history, while we were focused on the one in front of us.
"Remove the stone" is essentially the same as saying "dig up the casket" or "pry open the vault" or some other outrageous and insensitive thing. I hope you can sympathize with Martha's hesitancy. My guess is that the onlookers would have been horrified. This is tasteless, heartless, and cold -- to anyone who did not know what Jesus had just said to both sisters.
I don't know if we can put ourselves in Martha's headspace. But not just because of the jarring rawness of what Jesus said, but also because it was Jesus saying it. I don't know what our equivalent experience could be today.
Note that Jesus tells Martha about the "glory of God" (which is something He mentioned to the disciples in 11:4). There does seem to be a continuing (and understandable) misunderstanding about Jesus' relationship with God the Father. Yes, Martha believed that Jesus was the Son of God, but that still meant that He was somehow less than God. (This might be similar to what Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses believe about Jesus. The difference? Martha didn't have the rest of the Bible to make it clear.) But no -- when Martha sees Jesus act, she will see the glory of God [the Father].
Aside: The Glory of God
These two times in John 11 are the only times we find the phrase "Glory of God" in the Gospels. I don't have a clear answer for you, but I think you should ask the question, What do you think "glory of God" means here? If you land on "clear evidence of God working", that's fine, but I think it has to mean something more than that.
There are only a few times we can find "glory of God" in the Old Testament in a context that seems applicable -- when Moses sees God's glory while hidden in the rock (Ex 33:22), when the glory of God filled the temple (2 Chron 5:14), and when Ezekiel saw God's glory leave the temple.
The word "glory" basically means "heavy/weighty", and "giving glory to" someone means acknowledging their "weightiness" (importance). But those cases in the Old Testament seem to emphasize that God's glory has a "weight" to it (I think we're beyond our ability to understand and express with words) in the sense that His presence is unmistakable (or ignorable).
Whatever Martha (and the others) would see, it would be clear that God was there.
Aside: "If You Believed"
There's one discussion you might want to have, depending on your group. There are professing Christians today who use this verse to justify what they call "faith healing". They tell people not to use medicine and/or do outlandish things, and if the thing fails or the person gets sick/dies, they blame their lack of faith.
What's wrong with that interpretation of this verse, and what makes it dangerous?
Because my capacity is limited, let me restrict my comments to what Jesus meant when He said these words specifically to Martha. What exactly had Jesus told Martha before?
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Based on that -- how can anyone go from "if you believed you would see the glory of God" to "if you believe hard enough, you can raise the dead"??
The experience of Lazarus is a classic Gospel "lesser-to-greater" illustration, like we read in the story of the four friends and the paralytic:
Which is easier to say but harder to do -- heal a man of paralysis, or forgive sins? But if Jesus has made a lame man walk, perhaps He can forgive sins.
Similarly in our passage, which is easier to say but harder to do -- raise a person from the dead, or open the door of heaven? But if Jesus can raise someone from the dead, perhaps He can promise heaven to those who believe in Him.
This passage is about realizing that Jesus can unlock the grave unto eternal life after death. It has nothing to do with faith healing. There are other passages that bring up other aspects of that debate. This passage is not one of them.
Part 3: Returned (John 11:41-46)
41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you heard me. 42 I know that you always hear me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this, so that they may believe you sent me.” 43 After he said this, he shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out bound hand and foot with linen strips and with his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go.”
45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came to Mary and saw what he did believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.
Jesus, of course, doesn't have to pray out loud. This is one of those precious instances when He explains why He did what He did -- make it clear to the skeptical or fence-riding crowd that what He did was in perfect alignment with the will of God.
No one could deny that Jesus had raised a dead man to life in the name of God.
So many Bible studies of John 11 have used the question "what do you think Lazarus experienced?" We have no idea, but why not ask the question?
Note that Lazarus came out wrapped up in cloth. This is how they prepared Jesus' body after the crucifixion:
19:40 They took Jesus’s body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the fragrant spices, according to the burial custom of the Jews.
Why did Lazarus come out still wrapped in the cloth, but Jesus' cloths were still in the tomb? (I'll let you think about that for a moment.)
Anyway, I love the "unwrap him and let him go". Your materials focus on the "last vestige of death" part, but I want to focus on the imperative. Mary and Martha got to participate in unwrapping their brother -- "reversing the death" in a way. It was something they got to share, got to be a part of. If we can't imagine what Lazarus experienced, we certainly can't imagine what Mary and Martha must have experienced in those next minutes!
And yeah, that got people's attention. That knocked down the last barrier of unbelief for many of the Jews.
But not all of them.
Some of them went to the Jewish leaders, and those leaders decided to kill Jesus.
I have two closing discussion topics, both of which touch on the "Asbury awakening" I mentioned at the top.
(1) Remember that Lazarus died again. John 12:10 explains that people wanted to kill him, and we don't know what happened to him after John's Gospel. Yes, Lazarus was physically resurrected, but it was not the final resurrection. We've talked about "resurrection" many times (include every Easter Sunday)
The Bible speaks of three resurrections:
Those who were temporarily resurrected by miracle but then died again. There are 8 mentioned specifically (1 Ki 17:17–24, 2 Ki 4:18–37, 2 Ki 13:20–21, Luke 7:11–17, Luke 8:49–56, Acts 9:36–43, Acts 20:7–12, and Lazarus). Each one of those people eventually tasted death again.
There is the resurrection of the righteous, of which Jesus is the "firstfruits" (see 1 Cor 15).
There is the resurrection of the unrighteous unto damnation (see Rev 20).
Jesus resurrecting Lazarus from the dead is a picture of what God will do for all of us in the last day. Yes, each one of us will die, but our death is not the end. That truth is the great hope Christians have and celebrate every Sunday.
Along with this, note the difference in meaning for two other words -- resuscitation and revival. Resuscitation is bringing someone back who is on the verge of death. Well, Lazarus was truly dead. He was resurrected.
Revival means "give life again", and it is almost always used in a spiritual context. Our experience of being born again was not "revival" because we were spiritually dead. That was receiving life for the first time. But when we are refreshed/awakened/rekindled by the Holy Spirit, that is a revival. And that leads me to the second topic.
(2) Why did the Sanhedrin hate Jesus so much, particularly in learning that Jesus raised someone from the dead in the name of God? There's going to be a little bit of fear and a whole lot of jealousy (envy).
I read those sentiments in a lot of the naysaying of the Asbury awakening. There are those who don't understand how the Spirit moves, and so they reject those reports out of fear. And there are those who are so wrong-mindedly jealous of reports of God's actions elsewhere that they lash out against them.
We are confusing revival with Revival.
Revival (with a capital "R") is something people have coined to explain large movements of the Spirit with long-lasting and wide-ranging impacts, much like Pentecost. I am in agreement with the part of the naysaying crowd that says that label should only be used with historical perspective. We will find out years or decades from now if this is the start of a Revival in the church-history sense.
But revival is just about having our souls enlivened/awakened/rejuvenated. It's something we pray happens to every one of us every Sunday worship service. Really, it's something we should pray every day of our life. I put it in the semantic field of being "filled with the Spirit".
Should we be surprised when God revives spirits in a worship service? Haven't you heard someone say "I really felt the Spirit move on Sunday"? (And if you haven't, I suggest you should be more concerned with that than with what happened in Kentucky.)
Jesus only raised three people from the dead (that were recorded in the Bible). Did the onlookers rejoice with Martha and Mary, or were they jealous that Jesus didn't resurrect their dead brother?
We should rejoice when we hear that God is moving, not be jealous or cynical. And after the final resurrection, we will all enjoy the unblemished abundant life we have been reading about in John's Gospel.
God bless you all, and your churches!