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Bible Commentaries

Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible
John 11

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-44

John 11. The Raising of Lazaras.

John 11:1-44. The Miracle.—The withdrawal to Peræa is brought to a sudden end by the illness of Jesus' friend Lazarus. Bethany, to distinguish it from the Bethany beyond Jordan (John 1:28), is described as the home of Mary and Martha, the younger sister being the better known in Christian tradition as the woman who anointed the Lord. The author assumes knowledge of the story, which he does not relate till a subsequent chapter. The sisters send to tell Jesus that His friend is ill. He announces that the illness is not fatal, but will prove (how, is not said) the occasion of the showing forth of God's glory. The delay in John 11:6 is usually now interpreted as deliberate, that He may not arrive till after the death and so perform the greater miracle. This is merely read into the story. To judge from other incidents (John 2:4, John 7:6), Jesus waits, as always, for the Divine admonition, especially necessary in this case, considering the danger of a journey to the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, which calls out the disciples' remonstrance. He answers that he who walks in the light of God-appointed duty is in no danger. Only in the night of disobedience is there danger of stumbling. In John 11:11, knowing of the death, He tells His disciples in symbolical language which they misunderstand, till He speaks openly. He expresses joy at what had clearly caused Him sorrow, His inability to help His friend, which He now sees will prove a help to their faith. Jesus gives the word to start. Thomas, true to the character he always bears in this gospel, anticipates the worst, and urges his companions to face it (cf. John 20:25, John 14:5). On reaching the neighbourhood Jesus finds that Lazarus has been dead already four days. The distance of Bethany from Jerusalem is given to account for the presence of "Jews," who have come, about two miles, to console the sisters, and so witnessed the miracle. The drawing of the characters of the sisters is not wholly dependent on the Synoptic account. It is Martha, not Mary, who expresses her faith, even if it be imperfect (John 11:27). Her cry is natural. "If only He could have come in time." Jesus' answer, interpreted straightforwardly, does not suggest restoration to physical life. Lazarus' faith in Jesus assures him of the higher life over which physical death has no power. Martha's reply suggests impatience with what seems merely conventional consolation. Jesus tries to raise her faith to a higher level. Those who have gained by faith the true life cannot die spiritually. Failing to understand, she falls back on her belief in His Messiahship. Apparently Jesus sends her to summon her sister. She at once goes out to meet Him, but the "Jews" follow, so that private conversation is impossible. The grief of Mary and that of the Jews, real or feigned, powerfully affects Jesus. He sternly "checks" His spirit (cf. Matthew 9:30, Mark 1:43; Mark 14:5) and "troubles" Himself (cf. John 12:27, John 13:21). These natural expressions of severe self-restraint necessary to prevent breaking down, where some of the company have given way, have been differently interpreted in various interests. Jesus then asks where Lazarus has been laid. On the way He can no longer restrain His emotion. "Jesus wept." Again interpretation has run riot. Anger at the Jews' hostility, or the insincerity of their mourning, or at their want of faith in His power, are surely strange, as well as unworthy, explanations of the wholly natural. As in other cases the "Jews" are divided. Some are touched at His sorrow, others are scornful. One who could really open blind eyes, they insinuate, could have saved His friend. The "four days" are significant. The spirit was supposed to remain for three days near the body, in the hope of being able to return. On the fourth, when change set in, it departed. After the removal of the stone, the narrative passes to the moment when Jesus knows that His prayer has been heard. It is this public thanksgiving, not the prayer itself, which Jesus says is made for the sake of the people. Failure to notice this has led to serious misrepresentations of this passage. The presupposition that The Johannine Christ cannot pray "has led to curious distortions of the passage, as of John 12:27. Reasonably interpreted, it points to the complete dependence of Jesus on the Father's will. The "Lazarus come forth" is probably recorded as uttered after the resuscitation has taken place. The grave-clothes, while hampering, need not be thought of as precluding all possibility of motion.

[John 11:25. Probably "and the life" is an addition to the true text. Some Old Latin MSS, also Syr. Sin. and Cyprian omit.—A. J. G.]


Verses 45-57

John 11:45-57. The Results of the Miracle.—The majority of the Jews who came to comfort the sisters were convinced, but some remained hostile, and gave information to the Pharisees. The chief priests, i.e. the Sadducees, always first when action is needed, and the Pharisees, summon a council. In face of the growing number of adherents their inaction is felt to be unsatisfactory. If it leads to civil disturbance, the Romans will intervene and hold them responsible for their failure to maintain order. Caiaphas, the High Priest "of that year," the notable year of the Passion, demands a policy which he pretends to be necessary in the interests of the nation. One must die rather than the whole nation perish. In this the author sees an unconscious prophecy. Jesus would indeed die "on behalf of the nation," and of all God's children scattered throughout the world. That the author supposed the High Priesthood to be a yearly office, like that of the Asiarchs of his own Asia, is inconsistent with his knowledge of Judæa and Jewish customs. It was the "irony" of the situation that the unconscious prophet would have in virtue of his office to offer on the Day of Atonement the sin offering on behalf of the people.

In the commentary on this chapter the attempt has been made to show that even m its present form, and therefore a fortiori still more clearly in the events which it records, or in the material (whether oral tradition or fixed in literary form) which the author used, we have something very different from what it is represented as being in most critical commentaries, viz. doctrinal instruction, under the guise of fictitious narrative, on the nature and work of the Incarnate Logos, thinly disguised in human form, and always acting in such a manner as to "fulfil the terms of His definition" (Loisy; cf. Scott, pp. 164ff.). The evangelist has, of course, told the story from his own point of view. As usual, by selection and by his process of "writing up," he has brought that point of view rather than the actual events as they really happened into prominence. He intends the narrative to present to us the Christ who is the author of life, to whom it has been given to have life in Himself, and to raise up whom He will. He also wishes to record the occasion of the final outburst of Jewish hostility which culminated in the events of the Passion. But if he has merely worked on Synoptic accounts of raisings of the dead, the Lucan story of Martha and Mary, and the parable of Dives and Lazarus, especially its final statement, "Neither will they believe if one rise from the dead," it is obvious that he has done his work very badly indeed. Behind the obvious points which he sets himself to teach, there is certainly another portrait, of a really human Jesus, not merely a few human traits thrown in as an antidote to Docetism. He is wholly dependent on His Father's will, and obedient to it. He cannot move, even to save His friend, before He receives the sign of the Divine approval. He accepts the delay with resignation, and even finds true cause for joy in what had been real sorrow to Him. Though absolutely sure of the Divine help, and confident that the pain of sickness, and even of death if that ensue, will issue in the glory of God and the vindication of His Messenger, He does not know in what way this will be accomplished, till His final prayer, the answer to which shows Him how it shall be. After severe effort to restrain His human feelings of emotion He breaks down. He has to ask where the sepulchre is. He prays a real human prayer, and announces publicly His thanks for its answer "that the people may know" that the boon comes from God, not from Him, and that God has really sent Him to His people. If the "terms of His definition" are Deity stalking in human disguise, it is certainly difficult to see how in all this the central figure is merely fulfilling them.

The difficulties connected with the event itself are the same as in similar Synoptic accounts. The heightening of the miraculous element, the interval of four days since the death, is a question of degree, not of kind. The difficulties connected with the history of the ministry are undoubtedly great, though in some quarters they have been exaggerated, and they have not been solved. No thoroughly satisfactory explanation of the silence of the Synoptists, and especially Lk., has yet been found. At the same time it must be remembered that the Synoptic Gospels confine their narrative to events in Galilee, to which is added a relatively long account of the last visit to Jerusalem. The story, therefore, belongs to a period which is altogether ignored in the Synoptic narrative, except in so far as it is suggested by the "great insertion" in Lk., in which, however, so much material belonging to different periods and occasions is accumulated that we can get very little help from it towards the reconstruction of the actual history of the period between the crisis in Galileo and the final catastrophe in Jerusalem. All that can be said is that the incident, if historical, did not form part of a tradition which is obviously fragmentary and incomplete.

When, however, we turn to the narrative itself it is clear that the difficulties of the "critical" explanation of its origin are equally serious. The material in this chapter, even as it stands, which does not help forward the chief objects that the author has in view in telling his story, is so clear that we are justified historically in presupposing as the basis out of which the narrative has been elaborated at least as much background in real history as lies behind the parallel narratives in the other gospels of the raising of Jairas' daughter, the widow of Nain's son, and similar accounts. The final question of what really happened can, of course, only be determined by the consideration of wider problems than those to which the literary and historical criticism here attempted can offer a solution. There will always be differences of opinion as to the limits which the verifiable experience of our own or other times should rightly impose on the credibility of the abnormal.

The view, now perhaps generally held by scholars, that the author, having used up the real cause of the final conflict, the Lord's action in defying the authorities by the cleansing of the Temple, at a much earlier date, had to invent an adequate explanation, is plausible; but it exaggerates the importance attached to that event in the Synoptic account. Even Mk.'s narrative, where the best case can be made out for the view that this incident was the determining factor in the tragedy, is not conclusive (Mark 11:15-18*). The rulers intervene subsequently to demand by what authority He does "these things," a general phrase referring apparently to His general teaching in the Temple and His attitude to the authorities at least as much as to the actual cleansing of the Temple. We must be content to wait for the final and satisfactory solution of the great difficulties of this chapter. Meanwhile it should be frankly acknowledged that the difficulties which await solution are not confined to either side in the Johannine controversy.

 


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Bibliography Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on John 11:4". "Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pfc/john-11.html. 1919.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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