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.