The compassion of God in John 11

The new edition of Scripture Union’s Encounter with God has just been published, and this is the first part of my contribution reflection on John 11–13.

Even to the casual reader, John’s gospel seems to be in two halves. In the first, we have a series of seven ‘signs’ performed by Jesus (including the water into wine in Cana and the feeding of the 5000), interspersed with encounters between Jesus and individuals or groups. The second half of the gospel, from chapter 12 onwards, has a change of tone. Whereas earlier Jesus repeatedly says ‘My time has not yet come’, now, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the ‘hour’ has come, and the gospel reaches its climax.

Because of this, an earlier generation of commentators split the gospel into two: the Book of Signs, and the Book of Glory. This was attributed to the idea that John was drawing on two different (written) sources, because (it was thought) the gospel itself was written late, in the second century. That looks less and less convincing today. There is good evidence that John represents eyewitness testimony, as the gospel writer claims, and that the book includes much historical material. But it is also full of symbolism and double meaning; when Judas goes out ‘at night’ (13.30) that was the time of day—but it was indeed the deepest, darkest night in human history. The Light of the World has come among us, but Judas has continued to walk in darkness and betrayed him to death.

The gospel is also remarkably integrated in its language and ideas. Many of the themes introduced in the Prologue (John 1:1-18) recur throughout the gospel, and come up time and again in our passages. Light and darkness, life and death, acceptance and rejection, grace and glory, God and the world all come back to us both in the words of Jesus and his actions. Conflict is ever present, as the different witnesses share their testimony about Jesus and invite us to come to our own judgement. Like the Greeks who want to ‘see Jesus’, we are invited to ‘come and see’, to look not just with our eyes, but with our heart, and respond in faith.

Waiting for God (John 11:1–16)

Lazarus is only mentioned here and in the next chapter of John’s gospel. He does not feature in the other gospels at all, but John appears to assume that we will already have read the account of the anointing by Mary from Mark’s gospel (Luke does not mention Bethany) and John will give his own account (in chapter 12) after this episode. Some have speculated that Lazarus is the ‘beloved disciple’ who reclined next to him at the Last Supper (13.23) and with Peter was first to the tomb (20.4), but it makes more sense to understand this as John himself.

The central puzzle in this passage is Jesus’ response to the message he receives about Lazarus’ illness. His comment, that ‘this illness will not lead to death’ appears to be made to the messengers, since only later (v 7) does he disclose it to his disciples. Why does Jesus delay, and what is he doing in the intervening time? Is he weighing up the risks of returning across the Jordan (10.40), where he had been so recently threatened with death by stoning? Does he continue his ministry where he is, leading more people to faith—or is he immersed in prayer about the situation?

There are some things we can be sure of. His delay did not arise from indifference; we are told emphatically ‘Jesus loved Martha, and Mary and Lazarus’ (v 5). Yet, in some mysterious way, they would not see what they needed to see unless Jesus delayed. The themes here are ones that John has spoken of from the beginning—light and dark, life and death, and the revelation of God’s glory and all found in chapter 1. It is only by walking in the path of trusting Jesus, despite the delay and apparent lack of action, that they will walk in the light and see fulfilled his promise of life, triumphing over death—the revelation of God’s glory in the raising of Lazarus.

Pray for those you know for whom it looks as though God has tarried—perhaps too long. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’

Life and Death Decision (John 11:17–27)

It turns out that Jesus’ delay did not mean he had missed the death of Lazarus; even if he had left immediately, Lazarus would have died two days earlier. John reminds us of Bethany’s proximity to Jerusalem, the site of the pilgrim festivals that Jesus repeatedly attends, but also the seat of opposition to him. We must take care in interpreting John’s use of ‘the Jews’; at times he is clearly referring to Jewish leaders; at other times, he means Jews opposed to Jesus; here, he appears to be referring to ‘Judeans’, those who live in and around Jerusalem in the south of the country.

We know of the differences between Martha and Mary from Luke 10.38–42, with Martha being the more direct and practical. She comes straight out to Jesus, and she comes straight out with her feelings in grief: ‘if only…’ She expresses perhaps the universal response to such moments: ‘if only’ it had been different; ‘if only’ I hadn’t said that; ‘if only’ we had spent more time…Jesus speaks into her regrets from the past and points her to hope for the future, a hope that she, along with most of her contemporaries, understood—resurrection to new life at the end of this age when the Messiah came to restore all things. The national hope of life from what appeared to be death in Ezekiel 37 had by this time become hope of life from personal death through texts like Daniel 12.2–3.

But Jesus redirects her again, from an ‘if only…’ to an ‘if Jesus…’ He is God’s anointed one, and he brings not simply resurrection-in-the-future, but resurrection-in-person. Jesus brings the hope of the future into the reality of the present, and that begins to transform life in this age. ‘The old has gone; the new has come’ (2 Cor 5.17). Martha has come to realise this, though she does not yet understand its implications.

What promises for the future are you holding to? How might life be transformed as you begin to live in the light of these in the present?

The God Who Weeps (John 11:28–44)

Martha returns to call Mary, still in the house, and refers to Jesus as ‘the Teacher’ (compare 1.38 and 13.13). Jesus is not just someone who cares, but the one who might have the answers to the deep questions that death brings and the challenges of grief and disappointment. Mary is much more reticent in her grief. She cannot bring herself to come straight to Jesus, and when they do meet, she cannot bring herself to look him in the eye, but falls at his feet. Where Martha’s words to him evoke words in response, the expression of Mary’s grief evokes his own emotion—he is ‘deeply stirred’ and ‘troubled’, perhaps the strongest emotions in the whole New Testament, expressing Jesus’ indignation with the pain that grief brings.

When he asks where the tomb is, the response is the simplest of invitations: ‘Come and see’ (v34). It is the invitation Jesus issues to the enquiry of the first disciples in 1.46; it is our invitation to him when we bring our own grief and brokenness before him. And now it is John’s invitation to us—come and see how ‘Jesus wept’. The shortest and most poignant verse in the Bible doesn’t just tell us that in Jesus, God became fully human, and lived life with all its joys and sorrows—though it does tell us that. Much more, though, it tells us that the Creator, the one through whom the world came to be, sees and understands our grief, and, in his extraordinary grace, weeps with us.

Perhaps Jesus has been spending those two days in prayer, because his Father has heard him (v 41). And now the most extraordinary command—‘Lazarus! Come out!’—and the most extraordinary response—‘the dead man came out’. ‘He speaks, and, listening to his voice, new life the dead receive.’ After compassion comes power, and both are needed.

As you encounter grief and disappointment—whether your own, of friends, or on the news—picture Jesus, standing, weeping. Then picture Jesus commanding new life and hope.

Being Saved or Being Safe? (John 11:45–57)

All through his gospel, John has hinted that not all will respond to Jesus with faith. In the prologue he comments with poignancy: ‘He came to his own, but his own did not receive him’ (1.11). And in this narrative, he highlights the division between those who accept and those who reject him. The scepticism in v 37 ‘Couldn’t he have done something…?’ anticipates the abuse Jesus receives on the cross ‘Save yourself!’ (Mark 15.30).

John’s account of the Jewish leaders’ dilemma is full of irony. The only mention in the NT of the ‘Romans’ (v 48) identifies a real problem—the oppression of Roman rule and the danger of military action. But it also identifies the leaders’ real failing—their anxiety is not who Jesus really is, but whether people believing him will get them into trouble. And the ultimate irony is that it is their rejection of Jesus that leads to the Romans destroying ‘the holy place and the nation’. ‘If only you had recognised the time of God’s visitation—but you would not!’ (Luke 19.42–44). Because of their own self-interest, they actually put Caesar in place of God; their later acclamation ‘We have no king but Caesar!’ (19.15) is a re-writing of the Jewish prayer ‘We have no king but God’!

John’s constant use of double meaning includes the words of Caiaphas. He thinks that Jesus’ death will save the nation from the Romans, but in fact it will save the nation from the power and penalty of sin. He is the sacrificial ‘lamb of God’ (1.36) who gives his life ‘as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45). And not just this nation, but to the ‘scattered children of God’, those ‘other sheep’ (John 10.16) ‘who believe in his name’ (1.12). Where grace is hemmed in by unbelief, it spills over to others who will respond to the good news.

Take time today to attend carefully to what God is doing in your life and your world. Where can you see God’s grace spilling over to the unexpected?

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2 thoughts on “The compassion of God in John 11”

  1. As we meditate upon the culmination of Jesus’ healing ministry in raising Lazarus, let the words of this song be our battle cry against all the woes, limitations and hardships we may face.

    Let us remember that this Jesus is the same, ‘yesterday, today and forever’.

    In this very moment, however human impossible and unbearable the situation which crosses our minds, let us defiantly call on Him to ‘break every chain’ that might hinder the joy of our walk in His light:

  2. Very useful and timely blog for preachers still with work to do for Sunday – including me. The abiding view on authorship of John still seems to be the Raymond Brown ‘Johannine Community’ which inherited historical and eyewitness material, possibly from directly from the apostle John himself, and cherished and developed it after eviction from synagogues in Asia Minor after AD 70 (if I’m remembering it correctly in this cafe in Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales!). Do you think this still holds water?


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