“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” (John 11:1-6, ESV)
Moving from chapter 10 to chapter 11 of John we see a transition in content. Up to this point John had largely focused on Jesus’ public ministry, but with the beginning of chapter 11 we see that Jesus leaves public ministry and begins to focus on His disciples in preparation for His leaving. The occasion for His leaving is the distress of two women that He loved as a result of their brother being deathly ill.
We don’t know for certain how they met. It may have in Luke 10:38 when Jesus arrived at Bethany (about two miles east of the temple in Jerusalem) when Martha invited Him into her home. It was on this occasion that Jesus began to speak to His disciples while Martha was busy serving them. Her sister Mary was there also, and she pulled close to Jesus’ feet and began to listen. This did not sit well with Martha because she saw herself doing all of the work while Mary did nothing. It was then that Martha went to Jesus for some support saying, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me” (John 10:40). This is so familiar, as it is with anyone who has more than one child. One always seems to do more or at least sense that they do more and as such they feel that things are not quite fair leading them to complain.
In our home my tendency is to tell the other child to get up and help, but Jesus knew that His time was drawing close and His response to Martha concerning Mary was different. He told her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:40–42, ESV) He told Martha that the kinds of things that she was engaged in even for good reasons are the kinds of things that will always be there. They are here today and they will have to be done again tomorrow. But what Mary was doing was taking the time away to worship. She might also have known the tasks that were before them, but she sensed that the most important thing she could do at that time was to be with her Lord.
It is these two sisters who send word that their brother is dying and they ask Jesus to come to them. John writes again with the benefit of the perspective of time, saying that it was Mary who had anointed Jesus’ feet which was an event that had not yet happened (see chapter 12). But by adding these things John helps to knit these incidents together, which is especially helpful when you look at the number of Mary’s mentioned in the New Testament. In their sending for Jesus they spoke of their dying brother Lazarus as one that He loved, again emphasizing the depth of their existing relationship.
Verse 6 tells us because of Jesus’ great love for the three of them that He stayed two more days were He was. My tendency at that point might have been to drop everything and consider how I might be able to respond, but this is not what Jesus did when He heard about His dear friend and the distress of his sisters. Jesus was not panicked. He knew that He did not have to drop everything, but could finish up the details were He was before He left at the proper time to go see His friend.
Knowing why He was sent He knew that even if Lazarus were to die that He really would not die. We can all know this because of the promises of God’s Word where we read that all who believe are saved and are given eternal life. But Jesus knew more than that. He knew that Lazarus not only would receive eternal life, but He also knew the number of Lazarus’ days. He knew that his life in the body was not finished yet either. It was not his time, and Jesus knew it. He knew that through Lazarus’ illness (and death) that God was going to be glorified. In this sense the last major miracle that John records for us before Jesus went to the cross was demonstrating the power of God to give life to those who had lost it.
It was only in chapter 10 that we read, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” (John 10:17, ESV) Jesus has absolute power over life, and through Lazarus and before many witnesses He was preparing to demonstrate it.