The Four Days of Lazarus – John 11


This is one of the great, great events in the lives of those who surrounded the Lord Jesus. I have preached from this chapter three times, as far as I know. One message was entitled “The Gospel according to Lazarus,” and was exactly that – a gospel message. One lesson was a part of the series which examined the subject of pain. And a third sermon looked at Christ – our Brother, our God and our Life. This morning, I’ll try to add another perspective to our understanding of what took place here. But that doesn’t mean we’ll answer all our questions – either yours or mine. If you ever find someone who has all the answers about John 11, turn away and look for another teacher.

For example, why is there no reference to the father or mother of Mary, Martha and Lazarus? An educated guess would be that they both had passed away – and a guess is all that it is. Well then, why were none of the children married? And how old were they? Some say that the parentless family was too impoverished to afford dowries for the girls. But chapter 12 tells us that was not the case because Mary had a huge quantity of spikenard to give to the Saviour which could have been used as a marriage dowry. Three hundred penney-worth was equivalent to nearly a year’s salary. So why weren’t these young women married? Were they widows who have returned to live in their brother’s house? Were they too old to remarry? And does this have anything to do with the fact that Lazarus isn’t married either? Could it be that all three may have been far younger than we ordinarily picture them to be? These are questions to possibly be answered in Heaven, but not today.

Another question is exegetical and arises from the parenthesis in verse 2. “Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.)” The event to which John refers is described by John in the next chapter 12:1-11. This called a “proleptic statement” – a descriptive inversion of events for some specific purpose. Both the raising of Lazarus and Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet were so well known to the saints by the time John wrote this gospel, they could be used to highlight each other. In fact, John 12: says, “Much people of the Jews therefore knew that (Christ) was there: and they came not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also, whom he had raised from the dead. But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus.” No one should be concerned that a reference to chapter 12 is made in chapter 11, because both were penned years later. And besides, the omniscient and timeless God could have given John special knowledge if it was necessary.

My next point may not be a question per se, but let’s consider the timing of these events. This is, after all, a study of a special four days “in the life” of Lazarus. The three siblings lived just over the ridge to the east of Jerusalem in the community of Bethany. At the end of John 10 it appears we find the Lord Jesus at a place called “Bethabara.” When God’s enemies “sought again to take (our Lord) he escaped out of their hand, And went away again beyond Jordan into the place where John at first baptized; and there he abode. And many resorted unto him, and said, John did no miracle: but all things that John spake of this man were true. And many believed on him there.” John 1:28 tells us that John based his ministry at Bethabara “the house of the ford” – at the crossing of the Jordan. The exact location of Bethabara is open to debate – it could have been southeast of Jericho or almost up to the Sea of Galilee. For our purposes, to know the location isn’t important, but it was less than 30 miles from Bethany.

Mary and Martha saw their brother deteriorating rapidly – his disease was about to take his life. “Therefore his sisters sent unto (Christ), saying Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.” Someone used to walking can travel 25 to 30 miles in a day, especially on a smooth road. So if the sisters sent a messenger to Christ, leaving on Monday, he could have arrived that night. “When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby…. he abode two days still in the same place where he was.” So Tuesday and Wednesday Christ and His disciples remained in Bethabara. But then on Thursday morning the Lord said,”Let us go into Judea again.” Despite a bit of protest from the disciples, I believe they set out and arrived in Bethany Thursday night. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday add up to four days. Then the emotional meeting with the mourning sisters took place, and Martha made the statement, “Lord, by this time he stinketh; for he hath been dead four days.” I am not guaranteeing my understanding about the timing, but I am absolutely certain that Lazarus had been dead four days – about 96 hours when Christ arrived in Bethany. At this point, I am going to say that the man died shortly after the sisters’ message was sent.

During those four days, what was the LORD JESUS doing?

In whatever things He was spending his time, it was with love – He was loving. The sisters pleaded, “Lord, behold he whom thou lovest is sick.” John himself said, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.” And even the Jews said, “Behold how he loved him!” Coupled to His holiness and His grace, one of the attributes of the Triune God is love. And thus, it was with love that the Lord stayed in Bethabara two days after receiving the news. And remember, he didn’t need a report from the sisters, because He already knew. But the timing was important in order to draw out the upcoming lessons for His disciples, the sisters and everyone else. Obviously verses 5 and 6 live together“Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.”

The point is, don’t doubt the Lord’s love just because you are in pain. I know you believe in God’s sovereignty, so this means that God has ordained this death and its grief. But that doesn’t mean He has withdrawn His love. Your pain may be meant to teach you something, or it might be meant for someone else. Whatever the lessons – no matter how painful – lean upon the Saviour. Jeremiah 31:3 – “The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.” Sometimes in order to draw us closer to Himself, we must be dragged through terrible circumstances. But that divine love guarantees God’s blessing through it all.

Another aspect of Christ’s four days was His glory. “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” It greatly adds to the pain of the unbeliever, but in one way or another every human event is designed to bring glory to God – glory of the Son of God. The questions become how much or in what way is God to be glorified? For example, which of these three miracles would you say glorifies God more: the prevention of a disease; the curing of that disease, or the restoration of the life of the man who died of that disease? Christ remained on the other side of the Jordan, teaching and preaching while the disciples thought little about Lazarus. In the mean time the sisters heard their brother’s last few pulls of breath and saw his life ebb away. For both groups, when Lazarus later exited that tomb, Christ was glorified. “Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him.”

What was Christ Jesus doing during the two days He remained in Bethabara? He was teaching. Remember, this was the place where John had been baptizing. This may have been the place where, while pointing to Jesus, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” How many of John’s disciples had stayed at “the house of the ford” on the Jordan now that John had been martyred? Was there a little community of infant saints, young believers? Whether any of John’s disciples remained, I guarantee that Jesus was not taking a relaxing vacation. He was teaching and preaching. There was no time for idleness. There were needy souls in this place.

Christ was teaching by example. The disciples were learning, whether they saw it or not at the time; they were learning a lesson in patience. God has a time for everything, and very, very often it is not on the schedule we think it should be. The sisters essentially accused Christ of their brother’s death – “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” No one should try to tell God what He should do and when. We need to learn to submit to His perfect will – timing and method.

Now what were the DISCIPLES doing during these four days?

John 10:41 suggests that the ministry in Bethabara was not confined to the people living there. “And many resorted unto him, and said, John did no miracle: but all things that John spake of this man were true. And many believed on him there.” Oh, how I wish I could go back to that little village and watch what was going on there at this time. Does that verse imply that Christ was working miracles? I’m not sure it does, but maybe. If so, how involved were the disciples – were they distributing food and collecting the remnants? Did they have the responsibility of burning the crutches and puss-infected blankets? Was it necessary for the disciples to keep order around the Lord as people pressed in to touch the hem of His garment?

And how did the visitors come to learn that “all things that John spake of (Christ) were true”? I am sure, they heard the words of the Lord and perhaps witnessed a miracle or two. But then, as it is today, the disciples probably had the ministry of explaining, expounding and applying the Words of Christ to those who had an interest. Every visitor came to the Lord with different backgrounds, problems and agendas – baggage. It is the disciples’ job, our job, to take what we know of the word of Christ and give the hearer an opportunity to ask his questions and digest the spiritual feast. The disciples were working around the Lord just as they will be doing for three years. I won’t say that Christ can’t accomplish his work without disciples, but it is will to use disciples like us.

What about the SISTERS? What were they doing during Lazarus’ four days of death?

It shouldn’t be hard to imagine – they were doing what surviving loved-ones must do. Did they have to tell some appropriate authority about their brother’s death? I am not sure. But there were people who came up from Jerusalem, so they certainly did tell some people. Probably the local Rabbi was informed, and he took whatever steps were necessary for the burial.

At some point grief set in. Grief is an intense emotion which most people experience only once in a while. And the truth is, we are rarely prepared for it, so it manifests itself in different ways depending on our spiritual and emotional make-up. People can talk about the various steps of the grieving process, but there is no universal consistency or development. Some people become angry – at the doctor who failed, at the deceased for leaving, at themselves for not being as loving or helpful. Another person might become withdrawn and unresponsive toward the friends who come by. Others just cry and cry uncontrollably. There are all kinds of reactions to death.

We know a little bit about these two sisters – Martha and Mary. Martha was the woman who was so practical in her service of the Lord, she would forget to worship. Mary was so filled with love for the Lord, she was willing to sacrifice her future life for Him. So I picture Martha as once again very busy about the house, receiving people’s condolences, but at the same time trying to serve them with the very casseroles they brought to Bethany. As soon as she heard that Jesus had arrived, she was out the door. “Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.” Can we say that Martha had a somewhat fleshly faith? She knew the Lord could have cured her brother, and she believed in a future resurrection. And “Lord, I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God.” Apparently, soon after making that statement she was headed back to the house.

When Mary reached the Lord, the initial conversation was almost identical, but the attitude was different. Just as it was at the dinner when Lazarus was there, Martha was busy serving and getting angry when others weren’t as busy as she was. But in ardent love, Mary was at the feet of the Lord in worship. And here “When Mary was come where Jesus was, and show him, she fell down at his feet.” She still loved the Lord, and she trusted His love. But grief had rubbed some of the shine off her faith and she too chided her Saviour. This prompted the Lord’s groan.

No one who has ever suffered the loss of a loved one should ever point a finger at these sisters. Yes, there are things to criticize in them, but we must give them a break for the circumstances. And at the same time remembering that we may react even worse the next time grief visits our house.

Last of all, what was LAZARUS doing during those four days?

Probably if I was smart, I would not even go in this direction – there just isn’t any direct information. And despite my penchant for using my imagination, this is probably not a good place for that. But we do have a few potential hints into the four days of this dead man’s life.

Christ said that he “sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.” The disciples misunderstood, thinking that the Lord was referring to the “taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.” There are those who believe that when people die their souls go into some sort of spiritual hibernation. But there is plenty of Biblical evidence proving the SOUL does not sleep. Christ was saying that the body of Lazarus was dead – it was a temporary death like a night’s sleep. In fact, every death is a temporary sleep as far as the body is concerned – in one way or another. It will eventually turn to dust, but at the appropriate time, as Martha says, “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

But what about Lazarus’ soul, which was a live and well by the grace of God? We learn somethings about the state of soul after death, during this time in history from Luke 16. Confusing some people, there was a redeemed man in Luke 16 who had the same name as our Lazarus of John 11, but they were not the same person. Luke’s Lazarus died and his soul was carried by God’s angels into “Abraham’s bosom” which appears to be another name for “Paradise.” Whatever else was involved, the soul of that man was awake, alert and as Christ tells us “comforted.” Apparently, whatever the man had suffered in life was being somehow improved on the other side of his death. I am not saying that every negative point was compensated by an equal but positive point. But the Lord made whatever sufferings he had to be forgotten through the blessings of grace. On the other hand the nemesis of that poor Lazarus also died and his soul immediately began to experience judgment – he was “in torment.” Now, as far as we know, the condition which those two dead men experienced was permanent. We are not told that either man was resurrected during Christ’s earthly ministry. They didn’t get a second chance to correct their sinful lives or to improve their eternal situation. So basically nothing changed from that point – the rich man remained in torment, and Lazarus remained in the comfort of God’s grace. There were apparently changes in regard to “Abraham’s bosom” later, but we don’t need to go there today.

Did John’s Lazarus go to this same Paradise? The Lord knew that at about 96 hours after his death, he would be returned to his earthly life. So were these two Lazaruses treated differently because of their different circumstances? I am not smart enough to know. But I will say this, Lazarus was well-treated by the Lord during his four day “sleep.” He may have seen things in Paradise, “and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man utter” while in this world. I wonder if like Paul, Lazarus was given a thorn in the flesh to carry until his second physical death? It would be so good to know what were Lazarus’ blessings during those four days, but we may never be given that information.


I hope you can see that there are several interesting questions which arise out of Lazarus’ four days. They aren’t simply academic questions. Some of them relate to you and me – the disciples of Christ. But the most important relates to the death of this man – and death in general.

Are YOU prepared to die? You are going to die. It is guaranteed, and no amount of scientific advancement is going to stop it. You are going to die, but as Martha reminds us we shall all arise in the resurrection which is to come. Hebrews 9:27 adds, “It is appointed unto men once to die and after this the judgment.” So this chapter reminds us that death is a reality. But one final lesson is that Christ is the key to it all. The lesson from Lazarus is that we all must PREPARE to face Christ, because we WILL face Christ. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

Lazarus was a child of God by faith in Christ Jesus. He was dearly loved by the Saviour. Are you?