A Summary and Analysis of the Raising of Lazarus

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

The raising of Lazarus is one of the miracles performed by Jesus. Like the miracle of turning the water into wine at the wedding at Cana, the raising of Lazarus is mentioned only in the Gospel of John. In the miracle, Jesus raises Lazarus of Bethany from the dead four days after Lazarus had been entombed.

Raising of Lazarus: summary

The only account of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead is found in John chapter 11 verses 1–44.

John tells us that a man named Lazarus, of the town of Bethany, was sick. Lazarus is the brother of Mary (who is often identified with Mary Magdalene). Mary and her sister Martha sent for Jesus to come and help their brother, whom Jesus loved, as he loved Mary and Martha.

But despite this, Jesus remained where he was for two more days, and didn’t rush to Bethany to help Lazarus. Only then did he return to Judea, with his disciples. They tried to warn him off such a course of action, reminding him that Jews had sought to stone him to death. But Jesus responded cryptically that people who walk by day see the light, whereas those who walk at night stumble because there is ‘no light’ in them.

And with that, he went to Bethany to wake Lazarus from his ‘sleep’ of death.

It then became clear that Jesus had delayed from going to Lazarus immediately because he wanted to wait until Lazarus was dead, so that he (Jesus) could prove his divinity to his disciples once and for all.

When they arrived on the outskirts of Bethany, they discovered that Lazarus had been dead for four days already. Martha, who had come out to meet them, told Jesus that if he had got there sooner, she knew he would have healed Lazarus. But she also had faith that if he asked God to restore Lazarus to life, it would be granted.

Jesus then declared: ‘I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live’ (John 11:25). In other words, those who believe in God will live for all eternity in heaven, even after their mortal life has come to an end. Martha told Jesus that she believed he was the Son of God; she then called Mary out to them.

When Mary saw Jesus, she fell at his feet, and said what Martha had said: that if he had been here when Lazarus lived, she knew he would have been able to save him. Jesus asked where Lazarus had been buried, and when they showed him, he wept. (This section of the Lazarus story is responsible for the shortest verse in the whole of the Bible. John 11:35 is just two words: ‘Jesus wept.’)

It was clear to the onlookers how much Jesus loved Lazarus, and they all knew he could probably have saved Lazarus. Jesus groaned as he came closer to the grave, which was a cave with a stone across it. Jesus told them to roll the stone aside, but Martha told him that it was four days since Lazarus died and his body would smell.

Jesus told her to believe in the glory of God, so they took the stone away from the cave and Jesus lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed to God. Then Jesus cried out for Lazarus to come out of the grave. And ‘he that was dead came forth’ (John 11:44), as Lazarus, bound in his funeral garments, stepped out from his grave, alive again.

Raising of Lazarus: analysis

The raising of Lazarus is the last of the miracles or ‘signs’ of Jesus’ divinity which John relates. It is clearly offered to us as the summation of Jesus’ divinity, representing his ability to conquer death itself, through bringing the dead back to life.

But the positioning of this miracle in John’s narrative of Jesus’ life also suggests that the event is meant to complement, and dovetail with, Jesus’ own imminent death. He has returned to Bethany to restore Lazarus to life, in full knowledge that he will pay with his own life. Sure enough, he will be arrested and crucified not long after this.

However, Jesus’ raising of Lazarus also prefigures Jesus’ own triumph over death through his resurrection, three days after the Crucifixion. As the last miracle he will perform in this life, it paves the way for his own resurrection, with the detail of the stone rolling away from the tomb also paralleling Jesus’ revival of his friend.

Who was Lazarus? Lazarus was known in full as ‘Lazarus of Bethany’. Bethany is now the West Bank town of Al-Eizariya, which translates to ‘the place of Lazarus’. Through being brought back to life by Jesus, Lazarus became famous. Confusingly, though, there are two Lazaruses mentioned in the New Testament.

They appear to have been different people. Luke (chapter 16) tells of Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but this Lazarus (a beggar) isn’t the one whom Jesus raised from the dead. But only John mentions the story of Jesus raising Lazarus (the other one) from the dead. It’s possible (as the authors of the Dictionary of the Bible suggest) that John is expanding the parable of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke’s gospel (in which Lazarus, the humble beggar, goes to heaven but the rich man does not).

Whatever the truth of it, there are examples elsewhere in the Gospels of Jesus raising the dead. In Luke 7:14-15, Jesus raises the dead son of a widow, with the wording of Luke (‘And he that was dead sat up’) being echoed by John’s ‘And he that was dead came forth’. However, Luke’s account of this event is much briefer than John’s Lazarus story, and it happens much earlier in Jesus’ life. John clearly saw the Lazarus event as the last great deed Jesus performed as proof of his divinity before his arrest and crucifixion.


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