Sunday, October 14, 2012

"See How He Loved Him!": Lazarus, the Love of God, and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part II)

Below is Part II of my final theology paper for my Resurrection in the New Testament class. You can find Part I here. In Part III, I will conclude my remarks about Lazarus and discuss the resurrection of Jesus and the eschatological resurrection of the dead.

The One Whom Jesus Loved

I would here like to briefly consider the possibility of identifying Lazarus as the literary figure of the Beloved Disciple in the Fourth Gospel. Though the argument that the raising of Lazarus was motivated by the love of Jesus by no means requires this premise to be true, and a thorough examination of other possible identities of the Disciple-Whom-Jesus-Loved is beyond the immediate extent of this study, it is nevertheless insightful to my assertion that the Gospel of John undoubtedly characterizes the return of Lazarus from death primarily as an act of divine love.

Floyd V. Filson and Basil S. Davis are among those who believe the Fourth Gospel points to Lazarus as the Beloved Disciple. Filson argues strongly and convincingly that the only serious contender for the role is Lazarus, and that identifying him as the disciple in question creates a literary and theological cohesion to the second half of the Gospel that has been largely ignored by modern scholarship.[1] The character does not make his first appearance until after Lazarus has been called forth from the tomb, and following this momentous final sign performed by Jesus the Gospel repeatedly places the disciple within the most theologically profound moments of the narrative: at the last supper, reclining against Jesus (13:23); at the crucifixion, where Jesus charges the disciple to care for his mother, Mary (19:26-27); with Peter at the discovery of the empty tomb (20:1-9); and the final post-resurrection appearance of Jesus by the Sea of Tiberias at the close of the book (21:7, 20-23). In each of these appearances, the Beloved Disciple serves as a theological literary device to remind the reader that love is present even at those events in the narrative where love seems remote.

It is significant to note that when Jesus is initially sent word of Lazarus’s illness, he is informed by Mary and Martha that “he whom you love [i[de o{n fileiæV] has fallen ill” (11:3). Later, following the death of Lazarus, Jesus reveals to the disciples that “our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep” (11:11) In this case, the word used to denote “friend” shares a root along with fileiæV in v 3. Though it may be argued that two separate Greek words are used to illustrate Jesus’s relationship to Lazarus and the Beloved Disciple (filevw and ajgavph, respectively), and that the two characters should therefore be understood as distinct from one another, a variant of ajgavph is also used to describe Jesus’s love for Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha (11:5). This has led some scholars—Filson among them—to conclude that filevw and ajgavph are virtually interchangeable synonyms in the Fourth Gospel.[2] Moreover, having been raised from the dead by Jesus, who was himself later resurrected, it is not inconceivable to imagine a rumor arising among the early Christian community that regarded Lazarus as immortal, which is exactly what happened to the Beloved Disciple, supposedly providing the warrant for the composition of Gospel in the first place (21:23).[3] The purpose here is not to prove definitively that Lazarus was in fact the Beloved Disciple, but to illustrate that the writer of the Fourth Gospel goes out of his way to ensure that the reader is absolutely aware of the fact that Jesus loved Lazarus. If this is indeed true, then the case is strengthened for the raising of Lazarus as an act of love carried out by a divine Messiah.
Repeatedly throughout ch. 11, it is revealed to the audience that Jesus possessed great affection for the man he brings back to life. It is this affection in the face of death that leads to the climactic and familiar account in v. 35: “Jesus began to weep.” The basis for this very poignant human outburst from Jesus has long been speculated: Are his tears brought about by frustration with “the Jews” who misunderstand his ultimate theological purpose?[4] Are they tears of grief that “legitimate human agony in the face of death”?[5]  Tears of anger at the power that death continues to hold in this life? Though the text by no means demands a single interpretation of this emotionally moving incident, the simpler and more viable reading is that Jesus is indeed grieved by the death of a friend whom he deeply loved.[6] Regardless of attempts to isolate the precise cause for Jesus’s weeping, I would agree with Stephen S. Kim’s assertion that love is the lens through which this great miracle must be viewed: “Jesus’s display of his love and compassion…sets the stage for his miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead.”[7] Despite the fact that the man has been dead four days, the stone is rolled away. “Transformative love pursues the ultimate good of the other.”[8] If this is indeed true, it is with Lazarus’s ultimate good in mind that Jesus approaches the tomb, offers a prayer of thanks to God, and—knowing that this decisive moment will invariably lead to his own execution—he cries, “Lazarus, my beloved friend, come out!” By the power of transformative love the dead are recalled to life.
            Though we may ostensibly perceive of this story as having a happy ending, I must here call attention to the theological caveat at the close of the pericope. While it is true, as stated above, that there is no linguistic difference in the Fourth Gospel between resuscitation and resurrection, a subtle distinction is nevertheless maintained in the words of Jesus following Lazarus’s exit from the tomb, still in his grave clothes: “Unbind him and let him go” (11:44). When Lazarus does come forth, he remains restricted by the very trappings of death. This side of the eschatological final resurrection of the dead, the shroud of decay still clings to Lazarus’s body.[9] The great and true final act of love in the Fourth Gospel is the one that sees death itself folded and laid aside when the risen Lord emerges vindicated from the tomb on Easter.

[1] Floyd V. Filson, “Who Was the Beloved Disciple?” Journal of Biblical Literature 68, no. 2 (June 1949): 88.
[2] Floyd V. Filson, 85
[3] Basil S. Davis, 231
[4] See Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: a Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 846.
[5] Sandra M. Schneiders, “Death in the Community of Eternal Life: History, Theology, and Spirituality in John 11,” Interpretation 41, no. 1 (January 1987): 54.
[6] D. Moody Smith, John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 225.
[7] Stephen S. Kim, “The Significance of Jesus' Raising Lazarus From The Dead in John 11,” Bibliotheca Sacra 168, no. 669 (January-March 2011): 59.
[8] Lyle K. Weiss, “The Public Significance of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ” PhD Diss., St. Mary's Seminary and University, 2008), 201.
[9] Andrew T. Lincoln, “”I Am the Resurrection and the Life“: The Resurrection Message of the Fourth Gospel,” in Life in the Face of Death: The Resurrection Message of the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 141.


  1. I was first presented with this idea a few years ago by conservative scholar Ben Withertington. Here's his old school blog post about it:

    He brings up some interesting points about the content of the gospel of John being from Lazarus.

    Just thought I would pass this along!

    1. Excellent thoughts. I generally enjoy Witherington's New Testament scholarship (it's when he starts talking theology and orthodoxy that I begin to have problems with him).

  2. According to the Bible, how many Old Testament prophets raised people from the dead? Answer: Two. Elijah and Elisha.

    That's it. And they only did it three times. So the act of raising someone from the dead would have been seen as a very, very big deal. It was not like healing someone of a disease or casting out demons. Lots of people, it seems, could do those miracles. Nope, raising someone from the dead was the big kahuna of all miracles!

    In the Gospel of John chapter 11, we are told that Lazarus had been dead for four days. His body was decomposing to the point that he stunk. Lazarus death and burial were very public events. His tomb was a known location. Many Jews had come to mourn with Mary and Martha and some of them were wondering why the great miracle worker, Jesus, had not come and healed his friend Lazarus; essentially blaming Jesus for letting Lazarus die.

    Let's step back and look at the facts asserted in this passage: Only two OT prophets had raised people from the dead, and these two prophets were considered probably the two greatest Jewish prophets of all time: Elijah and Elisha. If this story is true, the supernatural powers of Jesus were on par with the supernatural powers of the greatest Jewish prophets of all time! If this event really did occur, it should have shocked the Jewish people to their very core---a new Elijah was among them! This event must have been the most shocking event to have occurred in the lives of every living Jewish man and woman on the planet. The news of this event would have spread to every Jewish community across the globe.

    And yet...Paul, a devout and highly educated Jew, says not one word about it. Not one. Not in his epistles; not in the Book of Acts. Think about that. What would be the most powerful sign to the Jews living in Asia Minor and Greece---the very people to whom Paul was preaching and attempting to convert---to support the claim that Jesus of Nazareth himself had been raised from the dead? Answer: The very public, very well documented raising from the dead of Lazarus of Bethany by Jesus!

    But nope. No mention of this great miracle by Paul. (A review of Paul's epistles indicates that Paul seems to have known very little if anything about the historical Jesus. Read here.)

    And there is one more very, very odd thing about the Raising-of-Lazarus-from-the-Dead Miracle: the author of the Gospel of John, the very last gospel to be written, is the only gospel author to mention this amazing miracle! The authors of Mark, Matthew, and Luke say NOTHING about the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Nothing.

    To continue reading: