After the charge of blasphemy, the threat of death looms over Jesus and his little band. With the news of Lazarus’s illness, Jesus seems to have picked his moment. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that his prediction of glorification through Lazarus foresees more than simply the fame of raising a man from the dead. That act becomes the turning point in the story. It seals Jesus’s death sentence, which astoundingly becomes his glorification.
The disciples’ attitude about walking into certain death is revealing. They have not yet grasped Jesus’s intention. I find Thomas’s comment especially funny, as it is another instance where I read irony rather than seriousness. “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” There is a tone of comical resignation, as though he were saying, “Great. Lets go get ourselves killed.” It is, in retrospect, a statement of true discipleship. I just don’t think Thomas meant it that way.
There is obviously something special about Jesus’s relationship to this family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. The detail and emotion of the story conveys that much at least. Lazarus is the one whom Jesus loves (11:3) and “our friend” (11:11). Jesus’s well-known expression of his deep emotions seems to be in reaction to seeing Mary’s sorrow more than anything. The crowd commented, “See how much he loved him,” but I think he loved the whole family and wept for their pain. After all, Lazarus would shortly be raised.
Mary and Martha both bring the same conclusion to Jesus. “If you had been here, he would not have died.” This is often read as an accusation, at least in the case of Mary, who does not follow up with a statement of faith. Yet, I think they were both lamenting and mourning and, to some degree, simply stating their belief (which is a good thing). Their expectation is limited nonetheless. Even Martha, though she says that even now Jesus could ask for anything, really doesn’t expect resurrection. Jesus calls for her confession, and she names him, the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world, but she thinks of resurrection only in terms of the last day and believes that opening the tomb would be a bad idea. In fact, her confession, while beautiful, is something of a contrast with the “I am” statement just uttered by Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). There is a real struggle between faith in Jesus’s power and limited expectations that sets the stage for the culmination of his ministry signs. For power to heal is one thing; power to raise the dead is something altogether different. Jesus is clear that the point of the sign is that the onlookers may believe (11:42). It has just that effect on many.
The remainder of the chapter describes the fallout of this great miracle. The situation escalates to the point of calling a Sanhedrin meeting. Once again, John spells out clearly some of the thought that remains implicit in the Synoptics. Previously it was the theological threat that became apparent; now it is the political threat. If the whole of Judea goes after this so-called Messiah, Rome will take notice. And we all know how Rome deals with political dissidents. It is interesting that the answer is no longer clear to the counsel. Rather than, “Stone him!,” they say, “What are we to do?” They are in a political bind now that he has such acceptance among the populace. It is Caiaphas who speaks definitively. Like Thomas, his words are more on point than he realizes. “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). John notes that this was in fact a prophetic utterance. The die is cast. Or perhaps we should say the table it set. It is a Passover table, awaiting the arrival of the lamb.