John 11: 17 – 27
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother.
20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
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24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God,who is to come into the world.”
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As we look into this passage, we will need to keep in mind the cultural and religious background of the Jewish people of the 1st century. The very first thing we need to consider is the process and issues involved when a person died back then. There were some cultural groups, such as the Egyptians, who regularly practiced the embalming of dead bodies. But even for the Egyptians, it would have been done only for the royal families and very rich people.
For a Jewish family then, when someone died, it would be necessary to immediately take care of the body and place it in a grave. But this would not be a six-foot hole in the ground that we are used to in the West. So much of the ground of Palestine was rocky ground that it was much more common for the people to dig out caves into the rock face of a hill. Corpses would be wrapped up in linen clothes along with perfumed spices, and then within the cave/tomb, the bodies would be placed upon carverd out ledges.
We see from verse 17 above, that Lazurus’ body had been in his grave/tomb for four days. Obviously, the body would have decayed quite a bit by this point and had quite a bad smell. What is not obvious to us unless we know ancient Jewish culture, was the belief that a person’s spirit might remain nearby for up to three days before finally departing. And so when John wrote that Lazurus was in the tomb for four days, it would be understood by readers that there would not be any chance for Lazurus’ spirit to rejoin his body and produce a “resurrection”.
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There is no question then that Lazurus was very, very dead. And yet we see in Martha, who ran immediately to Jesus when she heard that He had arrived close to her town of Bethany, a very strong faith that He had the power to overcome death itself. Her statement is what is called a “contrafactual” statement and might sound like she is critical of Jesus. It would read more completely like this: “If you had been here [but you weren’t], then my brother would not have died [but he did].”
Jesus tried to reassure Martha that her “brother will rise again.” To her credit, Martha agreed that Lazurus would rise again from the dead “at the last day”, which refers to when God would resurrect all people and have them stand before Him on the Day of Judgment. But Jesus had been given power by God to have control over life and death even now, not just at the end of time.
Jesus went on to speak one of the most powerful statements in all of Scripture, “I am the Resurrection and the Life!” Wow, what a statement. But do we really understand all that Jesus is saying in this one statement. I think not. Mainly because this statement contains nouns “resurrection” and “life”, and for most of us, we understand verbs (or action words) more than nouns.
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Let me try to unpack this statement by using verbal language then and see if it will bring home better for us the meaning of Jesus’ words. One way we might translate this could be, “I am the One who causes people to rise again after they have died, and I am the One who causes people to really live.” The source of real life, both here in this world and in the world to come is found in Jesus. And access to this life is made possible when one puts his/her faith in Jesus.
Jesus then challenged Martha directly to see if she did possess this kind of faith. And she did. As a good Jewish person, she had awaited the coming of the Messiah, the “Promised One of God”, the One who would rescue the nation of Israel, and ultimately all people of the world. Martha went one step further to recognize that not only was Jesus the coming Savior, He was the Son of God. Other than Peter, no one else within the Gospels, prior to the resurrection, had made this statement of faith.
What an incredible moment that must have been. In the midst of great grief, faith rose up within Martha as she stood in front of the One who is the Giver of Life. She recognized that death was not final, and that Jesus was the One who could overcome death and grant the promise of a resurrected life. What she didn’t realize was that she would see this come to pass right in front of her that day. But that part of the story will be next week’s article.