“Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this.” So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days. Finally, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” [John 11:4-7 (NLT)]
Jesus was in Perea on the east side of the Jordan, about 18 miles away from Bethany, when he learned that Lazarus lay on his sickbed. Why didn’t He immediately return when told that his dear friend had taken ill? Although the timeline is unclear, it was a day’s journey for the messengers and Lazarus was probably dead by the time they reached Jesus with their news. Nevertheless, even though Jesus knew that He’d miraculously resurrect the dead man, He seemed strangely unconcerned. Why didn’t Jesus return immediately to comfort Martha and Mary and cut short their time of mourning by performing His miracle? Instead, He waited two more days before returning; by the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days and was in his tomb.
Jesus never seemed to do anything by accident and this delay was deliberate. In fact, he told the disciples “For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there, for now you will really believe.”[John 11:15] The Midrash, an ancient commentary on Hebrew Scriptures, helps explain why Jesus waited before returning to Bethany. There was a Jewish belief that the soul remained in close proximity to its dead body, trying to reenter it, for three days. It was not until the fourth day, when the body started to decompose that the soul finally departed. 2nd century Rabbi Shimon Bar Kappara explained that, “Until three days [after death] the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking that it will go back [into the body]; but when it sees that the facial features have become disfigured, it departs and abandons it [the body].” [Genesis Rabbah 100:7]
Jesus had already raised two people from the dead. Both miracles, however, had been within that three day window when it was believed that the soul was still present and unbelievers had discredited His power. The resurrection of Jairus’s daughter was done privately and immediately after her death. The widow’s son was resurrected during his funeral procession which was probably within a day of his death. The raising of Lazarus, however, was going to be an in-your-face all-out undeniable miracle. A respected member of the community, Lazarus had been dead four days and, without a doubt, the man was dead and not coming back! His remains had started to decompose and the lingering soul would have departed. Not only would Jesus raise him from the dead, but Lazarus would be able to walk out of his tomb unassisted. All of this would occur in full view of the many people who’d come to mourn with the sisters when, according to Jewish belief, resurrection was no longer possible. By waiting four days, there could be no denying this miracle. Jesus wasn’t being cold or unresponsive when He didn’t come immediately. He had a far bigger and greater plan and deliberately staged this scene for “the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this.” Indeed, Jesus was the resurrection and the life!
John’s gospel tells us that after the raising of Lazarus, the Jewish leaders plotted the death of Jesus. How ironic that, by giving life to Lazarus, Jesus set in motion the very circumstances that would lead to His own death.