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Jesus did not arrive until Lazarus had been dead for four days. The normal thirty-day period of mourning for the dead (Deut. 34:8) was divided as follows: the first three days were for weeping, as there might still be hope that the dead would suddenly come back to life; the next four days were for mourning, after all hope was gone; and the remaining 23 days completed the month allotted for mourning.
So Jesus waited until the three days of weeping had concluded, and when all hope was gone, He raised Lazarus from the dead. No doubt this was to fulfill the saying about the lost sheep of the House of Israel, pictured as dry bones from an ancient battlefield, in Ezek. 37:11-14,
11 Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off. 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them, Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel… 14 I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done it, declares the Lord.
We see from this that Lazarus prophetically represented the whole House of Israel who, by that time, had been in exile for more than 700 years. The prophets spoke often of Israel’s restoration in the end, and Ezekiel sees this as a national resurrection from the dead.
Most Bible teachers today fail to understand these prophecies, because they apply them to the Jews and the nation of Judea, rather than to the lost tribes of Israel who were exiled to Assyria. Although there are times when the prophets use the term Israel to include all twelve tribes, they never fail to distinguish between Israel and Judah after the United Kingdom was divided.
The term “Jew” is simply short for a Judahite (Greek: Judean). Hence, they teach that the present Jewish nation which men call “Israel” is the fulfillment of these prophecies. The solution is to understand the difference between Israel and Judah in prophecy, so that they do not misapply the prophecies, thinking that the Jews are the Israelites in prophecy.
In Jesus’ parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), we find once again that these two main characters represent Israel and Judah respectively. That parable is the climax of a series of five parables of the Kingdom, which set forth the character and destiny of Israel and Judah. See my series of four brochures entitled, God’s Marvelous Plan for Creation. Part 3 is a brochure entitled The Rich man and Lazarus.
One cannot fully identify the flesh-and-blood man, Lazarus of Bethany, with the hypothetical Lazarus in the parable, and yet both of them are prophecies of the lost House of Israel. Jesus apparently saw them in terms of the Hebrew name Eliezer, “Whom God helps,” which is a reference to the Holy Spirit giving life to the dead and to the dry bones in Ezekiel.
After Martha’s confession of faith, John 11:28-30 says,
28 When she had said this, she went away and called Mary her sister, saying secretly [lathra, “secretly, privately”], “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and was coming to Him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village but was still in the place where Martha met Him.
Jesus had stopped near the edge of town, wanting to talk to the sisters before dealing with the public. Apparently, Jesus had sent a messenger to the house to fetch Martha first. Martha had immediately gone out to meet Jesus. Jesus prepared her for Lazarus’ resurrection and then sent her home to find Mary. All of this was done quietly and privately, so that He would not be disturbed while talking to the sisters.
John 11:31 says,
31 Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and consoling her, when they saw that Mary got up quickly and went out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
It was customary in those days for mourners to comfort the bereaved by surrounding him or her and reciting certain prayers. This continued until the mourner would nod his/her head toward them. This was the signal that the mourner no longer needed comfort.
This is the meaning of the statement that Rachel, when she was “weeping for her children… refused to be comforted” (Matt. 2:18). In other words, she had fully accepted her loss and had dismissed the mourners, refusing any further comfort from them.
But in Mary’s case, after four days of mourning, she had not yet reached that point of acceptance. Perhaps this was because Jesus was still gone, and she still hoped that He might be able to do something. All natural hope was gone after three days, but deep down in her heart hope still lingered until Jesus Himself might confirm that Lazarus was beyond hope.
So the mourners were still there to comfort her, and when Martha broke into that circle and whispered to Mary that Jesus was calling for her, she left the circle. One might think that the mourners would then surround Martha and remain in the house, for she too was in mourning. But instead, they followed Mary. Apparently, Martha had given them the nod, whereas Mary had left the house in haste without the nod.
The mourners assumed that Mary was returning to the gravesite with the impossible hope that her brother might yet return. As was customary, Mary was barefoot during her time of mourning. No doubt she ran ahead of the mourners, and yet they were not far behind. Jesus had very little time to talk to Mary privately.
John 11:32 says,
32 Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
From her perspective, this was a statement of faith in Jesus’ ability to heal. But from Jesus’ perspective, He could not come right away, because Lazarus was a prophetic type of the dry bones of the whole House of Israel that was still in exile. Some decades later (about 95 A.D.) the Jewish historian, Josephus confirmed this:
“Wherefore there are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans; while the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now; and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers” (Antiquities of the Jews, XI, v, 2).
In order for Jesus to manifest the glory of God in this seventh sign, He had to wait until Lazarus was dead and all hope was gone, for this was Israel’s condition at the time. Mary did not know this, of course, for to her, Lazarus was just her beloved younger brother. Her perspective was personal and earthly, whereas Jesus’ perspective was prophetic and heavenly.
John 11:33, 34 says,
33 When Jesus therefore saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, 34 and said, “Where have you laid Him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.”
We do not know where Lazarus had been buried. There was a cemetery nearby on the Mount of Olives along the road to Jerusalem. If he were buried there, we might connect this with Jesus’ own burial two weeks later, for He too was buried on the Mount of Olives. But John does not tell us precisely where Lazarus was buried. We can only assume that it was not where Jesus had been waiting, for He had to ask, “Where have you laid Him?”
John 11:35, 36 continues,
35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!”
Yes, Jesus did love Lazarus. Recall that Mary and Martha had sent Jesus a message in John 11:3, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” Jesus was not devoid of human emotion. No doubt He had wept even as a baby, in spite of the Christmas carol that asserts, “no crying He makes.” Medieval piety would have it that Jesus would never cry, even as a baby, as if somehow such crying was a sign of sin or imperfection.
John 11:37 says,
37 But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?”
The mourners knew about the miracle where Jesus had healed the blind man (John 9:1), and they even believed in Jesus ability to heal Lazarus. But they were totally unprepared for what was about to happen, for they were unaware of the prophetic significance of the seventh sign.
John 11:38-40 says,
38 So Jesus again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
The same kind of cave-tomb, hewn from the Mount of Olives and having a rounded stone to seal the entrance, was to be Jesus’ tomb soon afterward (Luke 23:53; 24:2). Of course, the time of weeping was customarily three days only, because on the fourth day the dead began to decompose and had “a stench.”
Martha did not want to dishonor the dead by opening the tomb and causing all to smell his decomposing body. But Jesus told her, “if you believe, you will see the glory of God.”
All who were present would see this miracle, but only those who believed would see the glory of God. Seeing the miracle and seeing the glory of God were not the same thing. Because Martha believed, she gave her consent to open the tomb.
John 11:41, 42 says,
41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around, I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.”
Public prayers accommodate those who are within range of hearing. Jesus’ prayer thus began with this introductory assertion that the Father always hears the prayer of the Son. This was done “so that they might believe that You sent Me.”
John 11:43, 44 says,
43 When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” 44 The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
John gives special emphasis to the graveclothes and the cloth wrapping Lazarus’ head. When we compare this resurrection with that of Jesus, we see a contrast. Lazarus was raised differently, because he was not raised to a glorified body, whereas Jesus was. Hence, Jesus’ graveclothes and face cloth remained in the tomb when Jesus, in His glorified body, passed through them when He stood to His feet. John 20:6, 7 says,
6 And so Simon Peter also came, following him [John], and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.
By contrast, Lazarus was raised to his old mortal body, and so they had to “unbind him” from his graveclothes.
The story of Lazarus’ resurrection concludes in John 11:45, 46,
45 Therefore many of the Jews who came to Mary and saw what He had done, believed in Him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them the things which Jesus had done.