The season of Lent is a time of waiting, and waiting is one of the great themes of the Christian life. In John’s Gospel, we wait for Jesus and we wait with Jesus as the question of his contested identity presses in. Who is Jesus Christ? Many answers are given: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, Messiah, Son of God, the King of Israel, the Son of man, a teacher who has come from God, the bridegroom, the Savior of the world, a sinner, a Samaritan, a demon-possessed man, a blasphemer, Joseph the carpenter’s son—“Didn’t this guy play basketball for Nazareth High last year?” Jesus, of course, answers the question of his identity with his powerful “I am” (ego eimi) statements, including the climactic “I am the resurrection and the life” in John 11:25.
But behind the persistent Christological focus of the Gospel of John, there is a bigger or, if you will, a deeper question: Who is the God that Jesus of Nazareth has come to reveal? As C. K. Barrett put it, “There could hardly be a more Christocentric writer than John, yet his very Christocentricity is theocentric.” This recognition of what we might call “the theology behind the theology” in the Gospel of John has been explored by several scholars, including Marianne Meye Thompson. In her insightful book, The God of the Gospel of John, the question is: What kind of God is the God whom we know in Jesus Christ? Or, as Thompson quotes her teacher D. Moody Smith:
The fundamental question of the Fourth Gospel is the question of God, not whether a God exists but who is God and how God reveals himself. Thus the fundamental question or issue of the gospel can be stated as the nature of revelation. What God is revealed and how is God revealed.
In John 11, the character of God, “the God who raises the dead,” to use a distinctive Pauline expression (see 2 Cor 1:9), is revealed in three surprising, unexpected actions that Jesus took. Each of these acts poses a question about the character of Christ and the nature of the God he came to reveal. Jesus waited (11:6): Why the delay? Jesus wailed or raged (11:33): Why the anger? And Jesus wept (11:35): Why the grief? These acts give insight both into Jesus’s intentionality and his emotionality, and they do so with an intensity found nowhere else in the gospels. It is no wonder that commentators across the centuries have been confounded by the Jesus of John 11.
The raising of Lazarus took place in wintertime, around the Feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem. The immediate context shows Jesus in peril as his adversaries among the Judeans threaten to stone him to death because, as John tells us, he, being a man, had “made himself God” (10:33). Earlier they had demanded of Jesus, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (10:24).
This is the favorite text of evidentialists of all kinds, including King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar: “Just to prove that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool!” (cf. Luke 23:8-9). Tell us plainly. Don’t be so elusive. Show us your stuff! In the synoptics, when the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign, they are told that no sign shall be given this generation, and Matthew adds, “except the sign of Jonah” (Mark 8:12; Matt 12:38-42; Luke 11:29). But in John seven great signs are given. This “tell us plainly” in John 10 is answered by Jesus’s public raising of Lazarus in John 11. But the clarity of the miracle is shrouded in ambiguity because Jesus does not come to Bethany immediately. When Jesus hears that Lazarus is ill, he deliberately delays. He stays where he is and waits two days longer. In the meantime, Lazarus dies. Why this strange delay?
One answer is to say that Jesus wanted Lazarus to be really dead, good and dead, before he brought him back to life. This theory refers to the rabbinic belief that the soul hovered around the body for three days after the time of death, departing only when decomposition had set in. The fact that the body of Lazarus gives off a malodorous stench after four days in the grave makes the miracle more verifiable, more undeniable, more spectacular. This motif fits the pattern of the other sign-miracles in John, all of which are, we might say, miracles-plus. In John 2, Jesus turned water not just into wine but into Cabernet Sauvignon of exquisite quality; the man healed in John 5 had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years; in John 9 the man given sight had been blind from birth; there were twelve baskets of leftovers after the feeding of the 5,000, and so on.
But there is more to it than this, for this is not the first deliberate delay in Jesus’s ministry. At Cana, Jesus’s irritation with Mary is not so much with what she asked him to do but with the insistence that he do it right then and there, on the spot. “My hour has not yet come,” Jesus told Mary. Jesus will not be coerced into action, even by those close to him, as Leon Morris says. In John 4, there is a foreshadowing of John 11 when Jesus stays with the Samaritans for two extra days before departing for Galilee. Again, Jesus’s delay there, as in John 11, resulted in many coming to faith (4:39-42; cf. 11:45). More troubling is the delay of Jesus when the disciples are on the sea in the storm. We are told that “it was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them” (6:17). Why did he wait when, from his perch on the mountain above, he could clearly see that his disciples were in distress? Now, as Lazarus lingered at the portal of death, Martha and Mary are wracked with anxiety. They strain every nerve waiting to hear any word from the Master. It was again dark, the storm was raging, and Jesus was nowhere to be found. He had not yet come to them.
While he waited, Lazarus died. Almost as though to fend off the thought that Jesus might be indifferent or callous to the plight of his friends in Bethany, the author of the Fourth Gospel inserts this comment: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5). We need to be reminded of this because of the unbearable tension between Jesus’s love and his inaction, his delay. It is this tension that carries the story forward, seen and felt in the same question repeated three times in John 11—first, from Martha’s lips in verse 21: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died”; and Mary in verse 32: “Lord, if you had been here…”; and finally from the Judeans in verse 37: “Could not he…have kept this man from dying?” If only he had been here.
John gives us a God who does not fit neatly into the comfortable theodicies of our postmodern sensibility: the god of process or openness theology, a god who means well, perhaps, but who, at the end of the day, is impotent in the face of radical evil. John’s God is closer to the God of the Negro spiritual, born of slavery and suffering: “The Lord, he may not come when you want him to, but he’s always right on time.” This is also the God of John Calvin, who in his Commentary on John (11:6) declares: “But as Christ is the unique mirror of divine grace, his delay teaches us that we should not judge God’s love through present circumstances….Although Christ may delay, he never sleeps or forgets his own people.”
John’s way of accounting for Jesus’s delay is to connect it with the manifestation of God’s glory. The illness of Lazarus, Jesus says, is not unto death (pros thanaton), though he will die, but is rather for “the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it” (11:4). The theme of glory frames the miracle story, as Jesus will later say to Martha: “Did not I tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (11:40).
Glory, of course, is the great theme of the entire Gospel of John, announced at the beginning in the key verse 1:14 (“We have beheld his glory”). Glory connected directly to the signs (2:11; 7:39; 9:3; 11:4, 40). But glory in John, though it breaks through in the miraculous signs, is not primarily about the glitter and the glow of the supernatural. In John, Jesus is glorified when he is “lifted up,” when he is lifted up on the cross (see 3:13-15; 12:16, 31-43).
The glory of God is seen in the Lazarus event not merely in Jesus’s bringing back to life a man four days dead—one who must, after all, die yet again—but in the significance of this event in propelling Jesus toward the cross, toward his being glorified by being lifted up. The irony of the miracle in John 11 is that Jesus calls forth Lazarus from one grave in order that he himself might enter another one.
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.