Compassion and power in John 11

lazarus-raisedIf someone is in a fix, do you listen sympathetically and show you understand, or do you try and remedy the problem? Of course, that is a false dichotomy, but it a challenge we face often. If you want to take a stereotyped or generalised view of sex difference, by and large women tend to do the first, and men (when they get around to it) tend to do the second.

But these two tendencies also manifest themselves in churches, and in spiritual and theological traditions. Some churches and theological traditions have a reputation for activism rather than for contemplation, and this often reflects their wider view of God. Humanity has a problem, usually understood as ‘sin’, or as disconnection from either God, the world or the self (or a combination), and the message of ‘salvation’ is that God has come and fixed this problem. Other traditions have the opposite approach. Humanity does indeed have a problem, but God (and therefore the church’s or Christians’) primary role is not so much in ‘fixing’ the problem as in understanding it. In some ways, this characterises the two theological focusses on either atonement or incarnation: in prioritising atonement, we focus on God’s way of fixing our problems; in prioritising incarnation, we might be focussing on God’s way of understanding our problems.

There is a parallel dynamic in our thinking about the work of the Holy Spirit. The traditional focus on spirituality and discipleship draws us to the fruit of the Spirit listed by Paul in Gal 5.22–23—the way the presence of the Spirit in us transforms us by a renewing of our lives to shape us more and more into the character of Jesus. But the charismatic movement, and in particular influenced by the theology of John Wimber, has made us consider more closely the ‘signs and wonders’ done by both Jesus and the apostles, empowered by the presence of the Spirit. For many, this has introduced an exciting dynamic into discipleship; we no longer just grow in our compassion, and in Jesus’ way of understanding people, but we now also grow into Jesus’ way of addressing the challenges people face. But we then also face the paradox that is ever-present in the NT: you can pray for someone, see that prayer answered, and yet still not see faith come as a result. As John Finney’s research highlighted some years ago, people are in general more influenced by the fruit of the Spirit than by the gifts of the Spirit, even those working in power.

My reason for thinking about this is that I have been writing some Bible reading notes for Scripture Union on John 11. This chapter is pivotal in John’s gospel, and not just because it comes almost exactly half way through. Scholarship has, for some time, seen John in two main halves (between the Prologue of chapter 1 and the epilogue of chapter 21): the so-called Book of Signs from chapters 1 to 11, and the Book of Glory from chapters 12 to 20. Chapter 11 is key in this, since the episode is an extended narrative, and includes both the characteristic dialogues between Jesus and individuals (Martha then Mary) as well as Jesus’ action before a crowd. It looks back to the previous signs, and there is some debate about whether the raising of Lazarus or Jesus’s own death and resurrection constitute John’s seventh sign (with the miraculous catch of fishing in chapter 21 being an eighth?); the word ‘sign’ is not used in John 11, but the event is referred to as such in John 12.18.

The episode also refers back to the early parts of John, with talk about life and death, light and dark, God and glory—but the disalogues about resurrection firmly connect it with the anticipation of Jesus’ own resurrection.

One key focus of the passage is on compassion and understanding, and this is offered at several different levels. The contrast between Martha and Mary is in continuity with Luke’s description (in Luke 10.38–42), Martha being direct and practical and Mary being more reticent and reflective. Jesus’ encounter with the two offers something of a study in diverse responses to grief. Martha is explicit in articulating her feelings, and Jesus engages with this directly in the form of discussion; her words evoke words from him in response. But Mary’s articulation is more implicit and muted, though expressive of an equally deep distress. Jesus engages with this in quite a different way; Mary’s feelings evoke deep feelings in Jesus leading to probably the strongest emotional language in all the of the New Testament: ‘Jesus was deeply troubled in spirit and greatly distressed’ (John 11.33). The words suggest a deep sense of indignation and portray someone who is in acute emotional distress. It has connections with the strange language in Mark 1.41, as well as with other gospel language about Jesus’ compassion. But it is most developed and extended here; Tom Wright comments that, if we do not sense the importance and force of this, we either lack feeling or don’t know how to read texts, or both! It reaches its climax in what is, deliberately, the shortest verse in the Bible: ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11.35).

But if there is a focus on compassion, there is also a focus on power. This is not the only account of Jesus raising someone from the dead; he does the same for the son of the widow of Nain in Luke 7, and indeed Paul revives Eutychus even though he fell asleep and dropped out of a third-floor window whilst Paul was preaching (Acts 20.9). But John makes this the climactic demonstration of Jesus’ power over death, thus foreshadowing his own resurrection (not in an enforced or constructed way; Lazarus is raised on the fourth day, not the third) as well as provoking the opposition which leads to his death. The impact of this is expressed most clearly in the response to Jesus’ great cry ‘Lazarus come out!’, the rather bizarre phrase ‘The dead man came out’. Dead men don’t walk! Although presented here as a narrative of what happened, like all John’s writings, it is rich in symbolic second meaning. Paul talks in Ephesians 2 of us having been ‘dead in our sins’. It is as if, in calling Lazarus out, Jesus calls each of us out of death into new life:

‘Ian Paul, come out! Come out from the tomb of your own self interest, emerge from the darkness of your insecurities and petty jealousies! Come out into the sunshine of God’s grace and breath again the air of life where there is no fear of death! Unwrap those signs of death and defeat which constrict you and prevent you living life in all its fulness!’

In doing this, Jesus is not just showing understanding of the human condition—he is demonstrating his power in remedying that condition.

By holding these two things together in this pivotal passage, John seems to be saying to us: this isn’t about incarnation or atonement, it is about both. It isn’t about compassion or power, it is about both. And the two are intimately connected. It is Jesus’ compassion which leads him to fulfil what is anticipated by Lazarus, and offer himself to put an end to death. And he exercises his power in compassion, not as a way of controlling others or asserting himself, but to serve others and put an end to their pain.

I find this challenges me in my thinking about my own growth in discipleship. I don’t find it difficult to pray ‘Lord, make me more compassionate; grow in me the fruit of the Spirit’. (It is another question how far that prayer is answered…!) But I hesitate to pray ‘Lord, make me more spiritually powerful’. (You might find it the other way around). But if discipleship means walking in the path that Jesus walked, don’t we need to pray for both—and that the two will be held together as they were in Jesus?

(And by the way, you should use Bible reading notes and promote them in your churches!)

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3 thoughts on “Compassion and power in John 11”

  1. Hi Ian

    I wonder if there are shades of Mark 10:43-45 and Phil 2:5-11 here. The man with the greatest power who ever walked the earth used his power in the service of others, ultimately giving his life on the cross for their life. Deeply humbling, and of course a model for us.

    (Interestingly, we had a midweek service this morning with the theme of ‘Fruits of the Spirit’!)

  2. Ian, I think your hesitation at praying ‘make me more spiritually powerful’ could be a God-given inhibition. I haven’t given this a lot of thought, but were not the people in the Bible whom God used to the most powerful effect (Moses and Elijah spring to mind as examples) often at various times reluctant to do anything for Him at all let alone perform powerful acts – yet God chose them in their very weakness and gave them great power?

    So, too, in the parable of the talents the recipients did not appear to have put in requests for what they should receive but were commended (or not) simply on their willingness to do the best with what they were given. And when the seventy two returned from their mission Jesus told them not to rejoice at their power over demons but that their names were written in heaven (Luke 10. 17-20).

    I remember a Christian years ago saying that rather than pray ‘use me’ we should pray ‘make me useable’ – presumably leaving the choice as to what kind of spiritual gifts we might be granted should be up to God. I don’t mean to suggest it’s a good thing to have a lack of ambition for Christian ministry, but perhaps the worry that our own gifts may not be as spectacular as those of others in any particular area might be something we can leave to God. Just a thought…

    • Don,

      In holding compassion in tension with spiritual power, we should remember that asking for empowerment was part of the early Church’s prayer in response to the Sanhedrin’s intimidation to abandon its divine calling:

      “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.””?? (Acts? ?4:29-30?)

      The focus here is not so much on spectacle, but it is on revealing that the Kingdom of God is truly at hand. overcoming destruction, harm, despair and spiritual deception. While I’d agree that the overall distribution of spiritual gifts is God’s prerogative, the church is encouraged to: ‘“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort…So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say.” (??1 Cor.? ?14:1-3, 12-13?)

      I would add that, in contrast with the initial diffidence of some prophets, there are numerous other prophets (e.g. Abraham, Noah, Joseph, David, Daniel and Samuel) and apostles who accepted their calling without hesitation, motivated as they were by the paramount importance of demonstrating that God continues to rule (and overrule) in the affairs of men.

      The bulwark against spiritual pride is God’s assurance that ‘no flesh shall glory in my presence’. For Paul, that vow resulted in a ‘thorn in the flesh’. If there are they who are ambitious for personal pre-eminence through spiritual power! their motives are probed by Jesus’ question: ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’ (Mark 10:38)


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