March 29: John 12:1-8; 13:1-2

John 12:1-8; 13:1-2ff

In the Synoptic Gospels, the Passion Narrative begins with a trio of narrative episodes, firmly established in the tradition at an early point, probably well before the Gospel of Mark was composed; and, using the Markan narrative as the point of reference, the three episodes are:

    • Mk 14:1-2—The introductory episode, establishing the Passover setting, and the plans of the religious leaders to arrest Jesus
    • Mk 14:3-9—The anointing of Jesus by a woman (unnamed) at Bethany
    • Mk 14:10-11—Judas agrees to betray Jesus

The central Anointing scene is bracketed by the two short passages relating to the plans to arrest Jesus. It is interesting to consider how these components of the historical tradition were adapted within the Gospel of John, perhaps reflecting a distinctive Johannine line of tradition (for more on this, cf. my study on the Anointing scene, and also the supplemental study on Judas Iscariot, in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”). In fact, the Anointing scene in the Gospel of John differs little from the Synoptic (Matthew-Mark) version, with the exception of two major details:

    • Identification of the woman with Mary, sister of Lazarus (vv. 1-3), and
    • Identification of the objecting disciple(s) with Judas Iscariot (vv. 4-6)

Whatever the relationship of these details to the historical traditions, they are significant to the Johannine narrative, both in literary and theological terms; and, each detail has considerable thematic importance to the narrative, which may be summarized as:

    1. The defining place of the Lazarus miracle, and
    2. The role of Judas Iscariot among the disciples

1. The Lazarus Miracle (Resurrection)

The raising of Lazarus (chap. 11) is the last and greatest miracle (or sign) of the “Book of Signs” (chaps. 2-12), and it clearly shapes the way the Passion Narrative is introduced and presented. It affects the early episodes of the Tradition, including the Triumphal Entry scene (cf. the previous note)—11:45ff; 12:1ff, 9-11, 17-18—and provides an effective transition between the first half of the Gospel (“Book of Signs”) and the second (Passion Narrative). From a thematic standpoint, the significance of the Lazarus miracle is three-fold:

    • It shows Jesus to be the Son who possesses the same life-giving power as God the Father (cf. 5:19-29).
    • Resurrection to new life is symbolic of the eternal life that believers experience through trust/union with Jesus (cf. especially the discourse in vv. 20-27, and my earlier notes on this passage).
    • The reference to resurrection establishes the emphasis on “realized” eschatology in the Gospel of John (cf. the recent article in the series “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”).

All three of these points run through the Johannine Discourses, and are developed, especially, in the great Last Discourse (with its Last Supper/Passion setting).

The specific detail of the location of the Bethany anointing scene (the house or neighborhood of Lazarus) joins these aspects of the resurrection theme to the death and resurrection of Jesus himself (i.e. the Passion Narrative). Here is how the Anointing scene is introduced:

“Then Yeshua, six days before the Pesaµ [i.e. Passover], came into Beth-‘Aniyyah, where Lazar was, whom Yeshua raised out of the dead. So they made an (extensive) supper for him there, and Marta served, and Lazar was one out of (those) stretched out (at the table) with him. And then Maryam, taking a litra of myrrh-ointment…” (vv. 1-3a)

The reference to Lazarus being raised out of the burial-tomb is paralleled with the idea of Jesus being anointed in preparation for his own burial (v. 7b), a detail (saying of Jesus) that is central to the core tradition (Mk 14:8 par). Similar Passion traditions are adapted and developed in the subsequent discourse of vv. 20-36 (discussed in the recent daily notes).

2. The Role of Judas Iscariot

The Johannine portrait of Judas Iscariot, however brief, is distinctive, though very much rooted in the established Gospel Tradition (cf. again my earlier study in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”). The negative aspect of Judas is strongly emphasized in the Johannine Gospel (“…one out of you [i.e. one of the disciples] is a dia/bolo$ [i.e. devil]”, 6:70-71, cp. Mk 3:19 par), and the identification of Judas as the disciple who objects to the woman’s anointing of Jesus is part of this wider tendency (esp. the ugly additional detail in v. 6). Beyond this, however, the presence of Judas in the Anointing scene is significant in the way that it prepares for his role in the Passion Narrative.

In the Last Supper scene (chapter 13), we find another example of the special way that the Gospel of John adapts and develops the traditional material—namely, Judas’ presence at the meal and his departure (going out to betray Jesus). Consider how Judas’ presence is introduced in vv. 1-3:

“And (then), before the festival of the Pesaµ [i.e. Passover], (with) Yeshua having seen [i.e. known] that his hour (had) come, (and) that he should step across out of this world toward the Father, (hav)ing loved his own, the (one)s in the world, he loved them unto the completion (of it) [i.e. of his hour]. And, (with the) coming to be of (the) supper, (and) the (One) casting (evil) throughout [i.e. the Devil] having cast (it) into the heart of Yehudah (son of) Shim’on ish-Keryot that he should give him along [i.e. betray him], having seen [i.e. known] that the Father gave all (thing)s to him, into his hands, and that he came out from God and leads (himself) under [i.e. back] toward God, he rises out of the supper…”

The syntax is a bit awkward, especially the clause referring to Judas in v. 2; however, the main point to note is that, as part of the “hour” (cf. the prior note on 12:23) of Jesus impending suffering and death, the Devil puts the impulse to betray Jesus into Judas’ heart. In the Synoptic tradition, it is implied that Judas does this, in part at least, out of greed, a motive fully in accord with the detail in 12:6. However, ultimately, the betrayal is the result of the action of the Evil One (the Satan/Devil). Above, I have translated the term dia/bolo$ rather literally, as one who “casts [vb ba/llw] (evil) throughout”, to capture the word play—i.e. the Devil here “having cast” [beblhko/to$] the evil impulse (to betray Jesus) into Judas’ heart. This evil/diabolic influence becomes even more pronounced as the narrative continues:

    • The foot-washing episode, where Jesus states that one of his disciples there (i.e. Judas) is not clean— “…you are clean, but not all (of you)” (v. 10f)
    • The identification of Judas as the one who will betray him (vv. 21-26, cp. Mk 14:18-21 par)
    • The dramatic moment of Judas’ departure (vv. 27-30)

In one of the most striking moments of the entire Gospel, the Satan enters Judas as he eats the morsel of food given to him by Jesus:

“And with the morsel, then [i.e. at that very moment] the Satan went into that (one) [i.e. Judas].” (v. 27a)

The actual departure of Judas is equally dramatic:

“So (then), (hav)ing taken the morsel, that (one) went out straightaway. And it was night.” (v. 30)

The concluding statement “And it was night” is hardly an incidental detail; it is charged with symbolism, reflecting the darkness of the scene as Jesus’ hour comes. Fair or unfair from the standpoint of the historical tradition, in the Johannine Gospel Judas represents and embodies the evil and darkness of the world, and, as he leaves the group of disciples he goes outside, into the world, where it is night.

It is only after Judas (representing the evil of the world) has left, that Jesus is able to deliver his great Last Discourse to his close disciples. This body of teaching begins in 13:31, precisely after Judas’ departure. A central theme of the Last Discourse (and the Prayer-Discourse in chap. 17) is the relationship of the disciples (believers) to the world. This world (ko/smo$), the order of things in the present Age, is dominated by darkness and evil, and the Evil One (i.e. the Satan/Devil) is himself the “chief (ruler) of the world” (o( a&rxwn tou= ko/smou, 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The true believer does not belong to this world anymore than Jesus does, but is united with God the Father and (Jesus) the Son through the Holy Spirit. In the Johannine Gospel, Judas Iscariot represents the false believer (cp. 1 John 2:18-19; 4:1ff, etc) who belongs to the world, instead of to God.

 

April 20: John 11:25

John 11:25

Jesus’ response to Martha in vv. 25-26, which also expounds the meaning of his saying in v. 23, can be divided into four parts, though it makes up a single sentence:

    • “I am the standing up [i.e. resurrection] and the life”
    • “the (one) trusting in me, even if he should die away, he will live”
    • “every (one) living and trusting in me, no he does not die away into the age”
    • “do you trust [i.e. believe] this?”

Each of these will be discussed in turn, beginning with the declaration in v. 25a:

e)gw/ ei)mi h( a)na/stasi$ kai\ h( zwh/
“I am the standing-up and the life”

There are three elements to this saying: (1) pronoun (subject), (2) verb, and (3) dual predicate. The first two are taken together, as the phrase “I am” (e)gw/ ei)mi) marks this as one of the famous “I am”-sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John.

e)gw/ ei)mi—There are at least 17 “I am” sayings or statements by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, and these can be divided into: (a) those with a predicate, and (b) those without a (specific) predicate. I begin with the latter, since they are necessary for a proper understanding of the former. There are three important occurrences in the discourse of Jesus set in Jerusalem during the festival of Sukkoth (Booths/Tabernacles) in chapters 7-8:

    • “for if you do not trust that I am [e)gw ei)mi], you will die away in your sins” (8:24)
    • “when you lift high the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [e)gw ei)mi]…” (8:28)
    • “…before Abraham(‘s) coming to be [gene/sqai], I am [e)gw ei)mi]” (8:58)

To these may be added Jesus’ wording in verses 18 (“I am the one witnessing about myself…”) and 23 (“I am out of [i.e. from] the things above”), which have more in common with the sayings with a predicate (below). The statement in 13:19 is similar in aspects of thought and vocabulary with the three sayings above:

“From now I say (this) to you before (its) coming to be, (so) that you may trust, when it comes to be, that I am [e)gw ei)mi]”

In two other instances, the expression e)gw/ ei)mi is understood, in the context of the narrative, as “I am he“—6:20 and 18:5.

The background for this Johannine usage of e)gw/ ei)mi by Jesus is to be found in the self-declaration by God (YHWH) in the Old Testament: “I am YHWH…”. This formula of divine revelation, occurs in key passages such as Gen 28:13; Exod 6:6-7; 7:5; 15:26; 20:2, 5; Lev 18:5; Isa 45:18; Hos 13:4; Joel 2:27, etc. This involves the pronoun yn]a& (“I”) but no specific verb (a verb of being is implied). A similar declaration, “I am He” (aWh yn]a&), occurring in Deut 32:39 and frequently in (Deutero-)Isaiah (41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6) is translated in the Greek version (LXX) as e)gw/ ei)mi—”I am“. For Greek-speaking Jews in the post-Exilic period, “I Am”, e)gw/ ei)mi, could function effectively as the Divine name (i.e. YHWH), and this is important in the context of the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
For more on the name YHWH and the explanation provided in Exod 3:14, cf. the earlier Christmas season note.

A central theme throughout the Gospel, in the discourses of Jesus, is that Jesus (the Son) is making known the name of the Father to his disciples (i.e. to believers). In ancient thought, to make known a person’s name is essentially the same thing as making known the person himself. Thus the “I Am” sayings of Jesus should be understood in terms of theophany—the manifestation of God to human beings on earth. In this regard, even the sayings typically translated “I am he” (Jn 6:20; 18:5) still have the character of a theophany. This is especially clear in the case of 6:20, which is part of the walking-on-water episode, where Jesus appears to the disciples, in the midst of wind and storm (typical elements of a theophany), and declares: “I am (he) [e)gw ei)mi]—do not be afraid!”

A recognition of this religious and theological background of the expression e)gw/ ei)mi will help us understand the sayings which involve a specific predicate. In most of these, Jesus is identifying himself with a particular image or symbol:

    • “I am the bread of life” / “I am the living bread” (6:35, 51)
    • “I am the light of the world” (8:12, cf. also 9:5)
    • “I am the door of the sheep(-fold)” (10:7, 9)
    • “I am the excellent (shep)herd” (10:11, 14)
    • “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5)

Jesus appears to be taking details from the natural world and daily life, much as he does in the (Synoptic) parables, and interpreting them from a spiritual and divine standpoint—he is the true [i.e. eternal/divine] bread, water, vine, shepherd, etc. However, the saying closest in form to 11:25a is found in the famous declaration of 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life”. Both statements take the pattern “I am…the life”.

a)na/stasi$—This noun, derived from the verb a)ni/sthmi, literally means “standing up”, but is commonly used in the technical sense of “resurrection”, i.e. standing up from the dead. Martha uses it in the conventional religious sense of the end-time resurrection, as discussed in the previous note. Indeed, it is always used this way elsewhere in the Gospels (Mark 12:18, 23 par; John 5:29; and cf. also Acts 23:6, 8; 24:15). Eventually, early Christians applied it specifically to the resurrection of Jesus, as in Acts 1:22; 2:31; 4:2, 33, and throughout the letters. There is an interplay of both meanings in Acts 24:21 and 26:23 (cf. also 17:18, 32). Jesus’ statement to Martha in 11:25 combines these meanings and transcends them. By using the e)gw/ ei)mi formulation—”I am the resurrection”—Jesus is identifying himself with the effective power (of God) to raise the dead, and with God Himself who will raise them.

There are two aspects to Jesus’ correction of Martha’s misunderstanding, reflected in each of the two predicate nouns. First, he corrects her understanding of the resurrection (h( a)na/stasi$) by identifying himself as the resurrection—it is not simply something which will take place in the future, it is present now, in the person of Jesus. Second, he adds to it the life (h( zwh/).

zwh/—This word occurs quite frequently in the Johannine writings: 36 times in the Gospel, and 13 times in the letters; if we include the book of Revelation (17 times), that makes nearly half of all occurrences (135) in the New Testament. Based on the context of the narrative (the death of Lazarus), it would seem that ordinary physical life is in view. Certainly Martha has this in mind, thinking of the resurrection from the dead at the end time (v. 24). And yet, the word zwh/ almost always carries a deeper meaning throughout the Gospel and letters of John. In the Gospel, zwh/ occurs 17 times (nearly half of the 36) within the expression [h(] ai)w/nio$ zwh/, “[the] life of the age”, usually translated as “eternal life”. Even when it is used alone, it tends to denote eternal life, in the qualitative sense of spiritual and divine life—i.e., the life which is found in God the Father and the Son (Jesus). This fundamental identification is confirmed by the use of the e)gw/ ei)mi formula (cf. above), and is clarified by Jesus’ statement in 14:6. Jesus (the Son) reveals the life, truth, etc, of the Father and points/leads the way to Him.

I will be discussing the expression “life of the age” (i.e. eternal life) in more detail in upcoming notes. Here it is important to realize how Jesus (and the Gospel writer) makes use of the word “life”, and the idea of it, moving from the conventional understanding of the disciple (Martha), to a profound revelatory expression which even the committed believer can only begin to grasp. This will be examined as we proceed through the remainder of vv. 25-26 in the next few daily notes.

April 19: John 11:24

John 11:24

In the previous note, I examined the statement by Jesus to Martha in verse 23 (“Your brother will stand up [again]”), observing that it holds the same place in this dialogue as the central statement/sayings by Jesus in the major Discourses. Similarly, Martha’s response in v. 24 reflects the same discourse pattern, whereby the person(s) hearing Jesus misunderstand the true meaning of his words. This is indicated clearly here:

“Martha says to him, ‘I see [i.e. know] that he will stand up [a)nasth/setai] in the standing-up [a)na/stasi$] in the last day’.”

She is referring to the belief that human beings (the righteous, at least) will be raised from the dead by God at the end-time. While evidence for such a belief among Israelites in the Old Testament is ambiguous at best, in the exilic and post-exilic periods it appears to have been more common, as seen from references such as Daniel 12:2; Sirach 46:12; 49:10; 2 Macc 7:9ff; 12:43-46; and 1 Enoch 91:10. The promise of resurrection in these passages is for the righteous ones; evidence for belief in a universal resurrection (of righteous and wicked both) is not clearly attested prior to the 1st century A.D. (cf. 2/4 Esdras 7:32ff). According to both the New Testament and Josephus, some Israelites and Jews (i.e. the Sadducees) in the time of Jesus did not believe in a resurrection (Mark 12:18ff par; Acts 23:8; Antiquities 19.3-5ff; War 2.11ff, 154ff). Scholars continue to debate whether, or to what extent, an end-time resurrection was accepted by the Community of the Qumran texts. While early Christians held firmly to a belief in Jesus’ resurrection, there may have been some who had doubt regarding the end-time resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15:12-13).

The noun a)na/stasi$, derived from a)ni/sthmi (“[make] stand up”), came to be a technical term for both the end-time resurrection and, among Christians, the resurrection of Jesus. The noun is frequently used in this sense in the New Testament, both in the book of Acts and the letters. However, interestingly, in the Gospels, the resurrection of Jesus typically is referenced by the verb e)gei/rw (“rise, raise”), with the related noun e&gersi$ in Matthew 27:53.

Martha confesses a belief in the end-time resurrection (a)na/stasi$) and understands Jesus’ statement as referring to this event. From the standpoint of the Gospel writer, the misunderstanding involves wordplay and shades of meaning. While a)ni/sthmi and a)na/stasi$ can be used in the technical sense of the end-time resurrection, Jesus is using them in the more fundamental sense of giving life (i.e. to the dead). This can be seen by an examination of Jesus’ famous exposition in verses 25-26, which we will begin in the next daily note.

April 18: John 11:23

John 11:23

In verse 23, Jesus responds to Martha (vv. 21-22, cf. the previous two daily notes). His declaration has a place similar to that of the central statement/saying in the major Discourses (e.g., 3:3; 4:10; 5:17, etc). According the Johannine discourse-format, Jesus’ saying brings about misunderstanding by the person(s) hearing it, which then serves as the basis for the exposition which follows. Given the apparent faith expressed by Martha in v. 22, Jesus’ statement in v. 23 seems somewhat abrupt; he declares simply to her, “Your brother will stand up (again)”. Martha’s misunderstanding of this statement will be discussed in the next note. It is, however, important to consider first the significance of the verb a)ni/sthmi (lit. “stand up”). The verb can be used either in a transitive (“make [someone] stand up”) or intransitive sense. By the time of Jesus, among Greek-speaking Jews, it had come to have a technical meaning in reference to the raising of the dead—with the related noun a)na/stasi$ (“resurrection”). It was used previously (four times), in the Bread of Life discourse of chapter 6, in which Jesus identifies himself as “the Bread from Heaven”, i.e. which has come down out of Heaven. In verse 38 he declares:

“…I have stepped down from heaven, not (so) that I might do my (own) will, but the will of the (One) having sent me.”

This is followed by a dual (parallel) statement regarding the will of God (the Father):

  • “And this is the will of the (One) having sent me—
    • that every(thing) which he has given to me I shall not lose (anything) out of it
      • but I will make it stand up [a)nasth/sw] in the last day” (v. 39)
  • “For this is the will of my Father—
    • that every(one) th(at is) looking (closely) at the Son and trusting in him might hold (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]
      • and I will make him stand up [a)nasth/sw] in the last day” (v. 40)

This phrase “and I will make him stand up [i.e. raise him up] in the last day” is repeated in v. 44, and again in v. 54, where the reference is to eating (chomping) the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. Note the parallelism in these verses:

    • Everything (i.e. everyone) given to Jesus by the Father (v. 39)
      • Everyone seeing the Son (Jesus) and trusting him (v. 40)
    • (All) those drawn to Jesus by the Father (v. 44)
      • Those who eat his flesh and drink his blood (v. 54)

The second pair indicates a more immediate and dramatic experience by the believer—being drawn to Jesus, eating/drinking his flesh/blood—than the first, which reflects the essential dynamic of election (i.e. being chosen by God) and faith. That the eating/drinking of Jesus by the believer is primarily spiritual rather than sacramental is indicated by the overall context of the discourse, though there can be no doubt that there is a Eucharistic aspect to the language used.

The qualifying phrase of being raised “in the last day” is essentially eschatological, referring to the end-time resurrection, according to Jewish belief (to be discussed in the next daily note). However, it should not be understood exclusively in this sense. We can point back to the previous discourse in chapter 5, especially vv. 17-29, in which resurrection is a central theme, though there the verb e)gei/rw (“raise”) is used, rather than a)ni/sthmi. Jesus’ exposition in vv. 19-29 may be divided into two parts: (1) vv. 19-24, and (2) vv. 25-29. In the latter, it certainly is the end-time resurrection that is in view, but this would not appear to be the case in the former (vv. 19-24). There Jesus is referring to a more fundamental sense of the (eternal) life which he gives to the one who responds to his voice and trusts in him. The reality of this life is experienced even in the present by believers, and corresponds to the idea of being “born from above” (which can also be translated “born again“) in 3:3 (also “born of the Spirit” in v. 5). Thus the motifs of new life (from death) and spiritual life to believers (who not yet died) are interrelated and interchangeable in the Gospel of John. Both aspects will appear again, together, in the remainder of the Lazarus episode and the dialogue between Jesus and Martha, as we shall see.

April 17: John 11:22

John 11:22

If Martha’s statement in verse 21 (cf. the previous daily note) was spoken out of her human need and sorrow, that of verse 22 is spoken with a measure of true faith. Her words in this verse may be divided into three segments:

1. “And (yet even) now I see that…”—The conjunctive particle kai/ (“and”) relates to the condition expressed in verse 21, i.e. “if you had been here, my brother would not have died”, a situation contrary to fact—Jesus did not arrive in time, and Lazarus passed away. The conjunction opening verse 22 is adversative, establishing a contrast—”and (yet)”, “but”. In some manuscripts this is made more explicit by the use of the conjunction a)lla/ before kai/ (“but even”). The particle nu=n (“now”), used together with the conjunction, intensifies and dramatizes the statement—”even now“, i.e., even after her brother has died—and ties it to the present moment of her exchange with Jesus. The verb ei&dw literally means “see”, but also has the meaning “know”, used interchangeably with ginw/skw. In the Gospel of John, this extends to a thematic (and theological) interplay between seeing and knowing. In Johannine expression, to see Jesus means something more than physical sight, rather a recognition and understanding of who Jesus is—his identity in relation to the Father.

2. “whatever you should ask God (for)…”—The use of the (correlative) pronoun o%so$ (“as [much] as”) in the plural, together with the subjunctive particle a&n, indicates “whatever”, lit. “as (many thing)s as (you) would…”. In simple English we might say “anything that you would ask God (for)”, but it is worth maintaining the grammatical plural of o%sa, if for no other reason than that it gives a comprehensive sense to Martha’s statement—i.e., all the (individual) things which Jesus might ask of God”. The verb ai)te/w (“ask”) is important here, and must be understood in tandem with the following verb di/dwmi (“give”).

3. “God will give to you”.—The double-use of “God” (qeo/$) here is significant in the way that it (emphatically) introduces the theme of Jesus’ relationship with God (the Father). The future aspect of the verb di/dwmi (dw/sei, “he will give”) indicates fulfillment. This pairing of ai)te/w/di/dwmi (“ask/give”) must be understood at several different levels.

First, in terms of the immediate context of the narrative, that is, the raising of Lazarus, it refers to the miracle-working, life-creating power which God (the Father) gives to Jesus (the Son). Second, on a more direct theological level, it reflects the essential relationship between Father and Son. Third, this same relationship extends to Jesus’ disciples (believers), who are to follow his example after he has returned to the Father—they are to ask of the Father in Jesus’ name. This pattern indicates the fundamental unity of believers with Jesus.

The motif of asking/giving was introduced in the earlier discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (4:7, 10, 12, 14-15), involving the double-meaning and interplay of asking for water. The “water” which Jesus would give is life-giving and eternal (cf. also 7:37-39, where it is identified specifically with the Holy Spirit). In the Last Discourse, this motif shifts to the disciples asking the Father in Jesus’ name—14:13-14; 15:7-16; 16:23-24, 26. Ultimately, the basis of this is theological and Christological, deriving from the relationship between Father and Son. The loving and obedient Son (Jesus) asks his Father, and the Father gives it all to him—the work he does, the word he speaks, the power to give life, the authority to judge, etc. In 5:22, 26-27, 36, as in the Lazarus episode, this is expressed in the context of resurrection—both spiritual and eschatological. In the Bread of Life discourse, the emphasis shifts to Jesus’ sacrificial death, while retaining the association with resurrection, along with Jesus’ word identified with the life-bestowing Spirit. In 14:16 (cf. also 15:26; 16:7; 20:22), we read specifically of the Spirit being given by Jesus (and the Father) to believers. The most extensive use of the verb di/dwmi occurs in the great prayer-discourse of chapter 17 (no fewer that 11 times); and note also the important occurrence in the Jesus’ dialogue with Pilate (19:9, 11).

April 16: John 11:21

For the days following Easter, I will be presenting a short series of notes on the Lazarus episode in the Gospel of John (11:1-44)—specifically, the dialogue between Martha and Jesus in verses 21-27. This exchange is similar in certain respects to the dialogue format used in the Discourses, as for example, in the scenes with Nicodemus (in chapter 3) and the Samaritan woman (in chapter 4).

John 11:21

The exchange between Martha and Jesus partially follows the pattern of Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus in 3:1-10ff. Martha’s initial address—”Lord [Ku/rie]…”—is not all that different from how Nicodemus addresses Jesus (“Rabbi…” v. 2, cf. 20:16 etc), with an honorific title. The use of ku/rio$ (“lord”) may indicate a level of deeper relationship—i.e. of a disciple to his/her master—but it should not be understood here in its full Christological sense (cp. 20:28). The occurrence of the second Ku/rie (“Lord…”) from Martha in v. 27, however, may be intended to show a greater degree of awareness as to Jesus’ true identity, and so is set in parallel with the first address in v. 21, to bring out the comparison.

There are several points to note in Martha’s statement. First, she is giving emphasis on Jesus’ miracle-working ability. It is this which marks her understanding and appreciation of him, and corresponds with her desire to see her brother Lazarus healed of his illness. By all accounts, the working of healing miracles was the basis for much of Jesus’ fame and notoriety during his lifetime and the period of his ministry, as the Gospels (esp. the Synoptic narrative) make abundantly clear. In so far as Jesus was regarded as an Anointed (i.e. Messianic) figure during the (Galilean) ministry period, it was primarily as a miracle-working Prophet in the manner of Elijah, or the Anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff. Nicodemus certainly recognized this as well:

“Rabbi, we see [i.e. know] that you have come from God (as) a teacher, for no one is able to do these signs which you do, if God were not with him” (3:2)

While not used exclusively of miracles, the word shmei=on (“sign”) tends to have this meaning in John, as in the rest of the New Testament.

Second, the first half of her statement focus on the physical presence of Jesus in order to work miracles: “Lord, if you were [i.e. had been] here…” This is similar to the request by the official in 4:46ff, who asked “that (Jesus) come down and cure his son” (v. 47). Clearly he, like Martha, believes that Jesus is capable of working such a cure; yet, Jesus’ response, somewhat surprisingly, suggests that this indicates a lack of faith: “If you do not see signs and wonders, (surely) you do not trust” (v. 48). In fact, the man’s son is cured from a distance, without requiring Jesus’ presence, but only the power and effect of his word (vv. 50ff). In terms of the theology (and Christology) of the Gospel of John, the presence of Jesus is important, as he is the incarnate Son who makes the Father known to his disciples (believers), and yet an equally important message is that true faith (trust) in Jesus ultimately is not based on the observance of physical events and phenomena (such as miracles), but on acceptance of the living, eternal word [lo/go$] which Jesus speaks, and which is present in his person.

Third, it is significant here that Martha frames the question of healing and life by a negative. She might have said, “if you were here, my brother would have lived,”, etc; but, instead, her statement is, “…my brother would not have died away [ou)k a*n a)pe/qanen]”. In other words, life is not-death. This introduces the important interplay between life and death which runs through the dialogue of vv. 21-27 and the remainder of the episode. The verb a)poqnh/skw (“die away, die off”) first appears in the Gospel of John in the earlier episode of the official’s son who is healed (4:47), occurs in a number of the discourses which follow (6:49-50, 58; 8:21, 24, 52-53). The motif of the Son’s life-giving creative power, which even gives life to the dead (i.e. resurrection), is central to the discourse in 5:19-29 as well as the Bread of Life discourse (6:35-58). In both passages, it is fundamentally Jesus’ word (or words, command, “voice”) which gives life to the dead. As the Gospel progresses, the positive aspect—of Jesus’ word being not only life-giving, but life itself—becomes a more dominant motif. This shift is manifest in the very dialogue between Jesus and Martha, as we shall see.

April 4 (2): John 11:23-26

The wordplay typical of the Gospel of John—encompassing two levels of meaning at the same time—continues in the scene which records the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44). This is the last major event of the first half of the Gospel, sometimes referred to as the as the “Book of Signs” (largely due to the scholarly view of a separate [written] source used for chapters 2-11). These “signs” (shmei=a) are not simply “miracles (duna/mei$, te/rata), but include Old Testament themes, details of the Jewish feasts, etc., with which Jesus identifies himself. The “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6 is a good example: not only is there a miracle (feeding of the 5000, 6:1-14), but the Passover motif of manna (“bread from heaven”, 6:25-59) which Jesus uses to reveal something of his identity (as the Son of God). It is also an example of how listeners hear and often misunderstand the (deeper) meaning of Jesus’ words (see vv. 34, 41-42, 52, [60-61]).

In the Lazarus episode, the disciples at first seem quite to misunderstand Jesus’ words to them (11:11-16), the significance of “sleep” and “death”. There is a similar exchange between Martha and Jesus when she comes out to meet him (vv. 21-27); and it is this passage which I wish to discuss here.

1. “Your brother will stand up” (v. 23f)

The Greek reads a)nasth/setai o( a)delfo/$ sou. Now, a)nasth/setai, usually translated “he will rise [again]”, would be rendered literally as “he will stand up” with the sense of “he will stand again“. This word, along with the derived noun a)na/stasi$ (“standing up”), came to be a technical term for the resurrection of the dead. So, when Jesus tells Martha her brother “will stand up [again]”, she replies, “I know that he will stand up in the ‘standing-up’ in the last day” (v. 24)—a quite natural belief in a future (bodily) resurrection. Without denying this conventional belief, Jesus immediately points to a deeper reality:

2. “I am the standing-up (and the life)” (v. 25a)

e)gw/ ei)mi h( a)na/stasi$ kai\ h( zwh/, “I am the standing-up and the life”. Several manuscripts (Ë45 itl syrs, pal ms Diatessaronsyr) and Church Fathers omit kai\ h( zwh/, which creates an even more direct response to Martha: “I am the standing-up [i.e. I am the resurrection]”. Here Jesus goes beyond identifying himself (e)gw ei)mi) with an Old Testament theme or traditional religious detail (which represent eternal life), and identifies himself with life itself. In the Gospel of John, the word zwh/ (“life”) nearly always indicates “eternal life” (literally, in the idiom “life of the Age”). This idiom, quite unfamiliar to English, covers not only the future (“the Age to Come”), but also is used to represent an indefinite or long period of time (i.e., “forever”, “eternity”, “everlasting”, also “of old”, “ancient”). However, in early Christianity (and the Gospel of John in particular), the traditional juxtaposition of “This Age” and “the Age to Come” was widened, so that ai)w/nio$ could refer to anything which is not limited by time and temporal change. Specifically, this was language used to describe God and the Spirit of God, and, by extension, to the spiritual realm. In the Johannine context, all the works of God are ultimately made known and experienced at the spiritual level—that is, eternally—by all believers now. One does not need to wait for the future (bodily) resurrection to know the reality of resurrection in the present, in Christ.

3. “The one trusting in me…shall never die” (v. 25b, 26)

Jesus continues: o( pisteu/wn ei)$ e)me\ ka)n a)poqa/nh| zh/setai, kai\ pa=$ o( zw=n kai\ pisteu/wn ei)$ e)me\ ou) mh\ a)poqa/nh| ei)$ to\n ai)w=na, “the one trusting in(to) me, even if he should die, he shall live; and every one living and trusting in(to) me should not die into the Age”. One finds a good deal of ambiguity in the words here: does Jesus refer to physical life and death, spiritual life and death, both, or some combination of the two? I’m not sure one can divide it up so neatly, without robbing the words of much of their power. As I see it, Jesus starts at the point of physical life and death (the setting of Lazarus’ death)—in both phrases, a)poqa/nh| is the same (aorist subjunctive, “he should/might die” as a specific act or event), but with a contextual difference: (a) the first is a conditional clause (“even if he should die”), (b) the second has a negative particle (ou) mh\) + aorist subjunctive, which often carries the force of an imperative (“he shall not die!”); and (c) the second clause is also qualified (“he should not die into the Age“)—one may even say that the phrase “into the Age” (ei)$ to\n ai)w=na) in some way qualifies the entire exposition (“the one trusting in[to] me…into the Age”). The verb za/w (“live”) is handled in a different manner: (a) in the first clause we find a future middle indicative form (zh/setai, “he will [himself] live”) cited as a promise for “the one trusting” in Christ; (b) in the second clause, an active present participle (o( zw=n, “the one living”) acts as the subject, parallel to o( pisteu/wn (“the one trusting”) in the first clause; (c) the participle in each clause is qualified: by ei)$ e)me\ (“the one trusting in me“), and by pa=$ (“all the one[s] living” or “every one living”). “All…in Me”: for the believer, physical life and spiritual/eternal life are interconnected—they cannot be separated.

We could not expect Martha to have immediately captured the full meaning of Jesus’ extraordinary words—even after years of study and contemplation, we cannot entirely comprehend them. However, as believers we do know and experience their full reality, by the Spirit, our life in union with God and Christ.

(These verses are discussed in considerably more detail in a series of notes which will be posted here the week after Easter Sunday.)

Some commentators have theorized that the “Beloved Disciple” (literally “whom he loved” o^n h)ga/pa, once o^n e)fi/lei)—traditionally identified with the apostle John, and the source/author of the fourth Gospel—might actually be Lazarus. The main reason is found in the references (11:3, 5, 11, 36) which state that Jesus loved Lazarus (the only male figure in the Gospel where this is stated). Perhaps an even stronger argument is that references to the “beloved disciple” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20) only appear after the Lazarus scene, none prior. The traditional identification with the apostle John is very strong—and still to be preferred; however, one should be cautious about simply taking the identification for granted, since it is nowhere specified in the text of the Gospel.