The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:44)
The picture above is from the St. John’s Bible that we just finished hosting in Elgin for the last few months. It depicts Jesus, in the bright light, calling in to Lazarus who is still inside the tomb and from whose perspective we see this event.
This is the seventh of seven signs that John provides in order to help his readers know who Jesus is and what God is up to in Jesus. This one is a humdinger! In fact, this one takes all the others – each of which deals with a single issue (blindness, wine shortages, etc.) and caps them all by showing the Jesus has the power to overturn death itself.
In this case, the sign is provided to people closest to Jesus. Mary, Martha and Lazarus appear to be Jesus’ best friends. It is at their home that he will eventually spend his last night before being arrested, tried and crucified. It is in their company that he seems to feel most comfortable and at home. This sign is a big one. Mary and Martha are both hurt that Jesus didn’t come sooner and make Lazarus’ illness simply go away. The fact that he is now dead is painful for them. A few verses before the verse we have above, Jesus wept. It is painful for him.
This text is a foreshadowing of the resurrection. Jesus’ actions that lead to Lazarus being invited out of the tomb demonstrate in this final sign, that the God who created life in the first place is still able to crate life today, even when it looks like death has already won. When Lazarus comes out of the tomb, there is amazement. No one saw that coming!
People’s reactions varied. Some were ecstatic. Lazarus was alive and grief was turned to joy. But others were nervous. Healing a blind man on the Sabbath was bad enough, but overturning death brought things to a new level. If Jesus could do this, perhaps nothing was outside the realm of possibility for him.
Although this week’s lesson ends with Lazarus alive and well, the verses that follow are keys to understanding the story. This is not one sign among many. It is the final, seventh sign. They now add up to a complete picture. John’s readers have everything they need to understand what God is up to in Jesus.
The leaders, in response to this sign, decide that Jesus must die. Everything else in John’s gospel will now lead to the cross. The goal of the establishment? A dead Jesus.
But the gospel writer knows how the story ends. There is an eighth sign that he will share. The death of Jesus will put Jesus in exactly the same place Lazarus has been – in the ground. And the resurrection of Jesus will demonstrate the ultimate goal of John writing his gospel. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and in him we all find life.