Jesus has claimed that he is the author of life, the possessor of life, the granter of life, and Life itself. He claims to have power that is unearthly, and that belongs to God alone. He claims to be giving plenty of evidence of who is really is. All of it converges in this story.
A man is sick. Superficially this seems like no big deal. People are sick all the time, even more so in the ancient world than in our own.
The sisters send for Jesus, which again was not unusual. His reputation was such that often people seek him out to relieve their physical problems. (An aside: Too bad people didn’t more often seek him out to relieve their spiritual problems.)
Despite that they are close friends of Jesus, he dawdles where he is, waiting two days. One who didn’t know any better could interpret Jesus as being apathetic or callous, or even evasive when a situation is beyond him, but there is already a hint in the story of a plot far different: Jesus prophesies that “this sickness will not end in death,” and “he is asleep and I am going to wake him up.” The plot conflict is mounting. What will happen? What kind of person is Jesus? What kind of power does he really have?
Meanwhile Lazarus dies. Again, someone who didn’t know any better could interpret that, “as usual,” God didn’t do anything to prevent the tragedy. God just let it happen, and now people grieve. There was a need, and Jesus was nowhere to be seen. But the Bible gives us a different view: Jesus had something important to teach and it wasn’t healing the sick.
When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead four days. By Jewish reasoning, a corpse started to decay on the fourth day. The fact that Jesus arrives on the fourth day is a key point in the story: Jesus had intentionally waited until the body had already begun to decay, when there was no chance it was merely an unconsciousness due to sickness. By the fourth day, no one could claim that Lazarus had been mistakenly pronounced dead. The point is that Lazarus was certifiably, unquestionably, and genuinely dead.
Mary and Martha went out to meet Jesus, definitely disappointed. “If you had come sooner, you could have helped him.” But Jesus goes for the core of the truth: I’m not here to heal, but to raise the dead. Whoever links their life with mine won’t know death. This is the real point of his coming. People are so interested in physical healing, but Jesus is here to give life.
The reality here, though, is that the guy is dead. DEAD. And Jesus did nothing. The people pick up on that very point, and are flabbergasted that nothing was done. Again, was he callous, or just powerless? Either way, he is indicted by the people’s attitudes and words.
Jesus approaches the tomb and orders the removal of the stone. People are probably thinking he wants to see the corpse and grieve, since he was not around during the previous days of mourning, dressing the body, and grieving. Martha objects: Oh, Jesus, by now the body smells. This is not a good idea.
Jesus retorts: “But didn’t I tell you you’ll see the glory of God?” He prays a simple prayer, then calls in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” HE had to use his name, or all the dead would have risen at the power of his life-giving word. When Jesus raised the dead, he always used the name or some identifying words to restrict his power to the person in front of him.
Can you imagine the utter shock of the people when the corpse appeared at the entrance to the tomb, still wrapped in the grave clothes, but vertical and breathing?
Surprisingly enough, with this powerful evidence of his deity, it was the final straw for many people concerning what they believed: The people who believed he was God were absolutely convinced, and those who didn’t began definite preparations to destroy him.