Scripture: Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
John 11:1-16 ESV [Click here to read the entire chapter.]
Observation: Yesterday’s Daily Focus concludes Jesus’ time in Jerusalem at the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah). Pressed by the Jewish leaders to confess if he perceived himself as Christ, Jesus evades a direct response and exposes their disbelief in his works that witness his Sonship and their lostness. He adds that those who hear and obey his voice possess eternal life, for no one can steal them away from his or his Father’s grip. Enraged, the Jews seek to stone him. So Jesus questions their motive. Seethingly, they reply that they seek his life based on his blasphemous statement that he is God. Referring to Psalm 82:6, Jesus points out that Scripture declares that we are all gods and questions how he, whom God consecrated, has blasphemed God when he is the Son of God. Jesus then implores they at least believe in his godly works, for even a modicum of faith will lead to a greater understanding that Jesus is one with the Father. Jesus then retreats to the east bank of the Jordan.
Today’s reading marks Jesus’ return to an outlying community of Jerusalem: Bethany (located just east of the Mount of Olives, about two miles from the city center). Luke tells us that he visited Mary and Martha at their home in Bethany earlier in his ministry (Luke 10:38-42). Matthew (Matthew 26:6-12) and Mark (Mark 14:3-9) chronicle that Jesus stayed at their home during the last days before his arrest (which John mentions in verse 2 of our text regarding Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair). However, Mary and Martha’s brother’s illness sparks Jesus’ return in this story. But Jesus, who always discerned his Father’s will, delays responding to the sisters’ urgent plea to come and heal their brother.
After two days pass, Jesus tells his disciples it’s time to go to Judea. Shocked that he would lead them into hostile territory, they beg him to reconsider since he had earlier said that Lazarus’ illness would not lead to death. But Jesus responds with a proverb about walking upright in the light versus stumbling in the darkness (more said below) and adds that Lazarus has fallen asleep. Missing his point of the proverb and the euphemism about falling asleep (that symbolizes death), the disciples counter that Lazarus will recover now that he is sleeping. So Jesus clarifies that Lazarus has died and explains that the unfolding events will strengthen their faith. So Thomas impertinently challenges the rest to go with their Master and face death with him.
Takeaway: When earlier addressing his disciples’ misguided understanding of the relationship between sin and congenital disabilities, Jesus cites a similar proverb: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:3-4). But neither saying recalls the wisdom literature of the Hebrew scrolls. Most likely, Jesus quotes an aphorism of his day. So what do both mean? Theologian Merrill Tenney contends that, in part, Jesus addresses his mission according to his Father’s will, leading him to Jerusalem to fulfill his redemptive duty (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John, p.115).
But Jesus addresses “anyone” and adds that those who walk in the night stumble because the light is not in them. Thus, its meaning must be universal to the human condition. Indeed, John incorporates Jesus’ teaching in his first epistle letter: If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7). Moreover, all three declarations reverberate from Jesus’ earlier comment to Nicodemus: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:19-21).
Our takeaway? The correlation is inescapable: The Light of the World guides our paths to where we can fulfill the good works God has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). Conversely, the evil one dwells in darkness and seeks to seduce us in his ways of sin and rebellion which so easily entangle us, causing us to stumble in our faith journey (Hebrews 12:1). Craftily, the devil allures us by subtle means that evoke fear of the light and entice us to rationalize why our way is better. We see this play out with Jesus’ disciples. Their fear of dying if they return to Judea sparks resistance based on what they deem best for Lazarus: sleep. But when Jesus clarifies that Lazarus has died, Thomas sulkily suggests that he and the rest must go and die with their Master. In contrast, Jesus, who always walked by the light, waited for the right time to return to hostile territory and perform his last miracle (a prelude to his resurrection) and, thus, strengthen his disciples’ faith to prepare them for their mission. And like Jesus’ disciples, if we want to lead a life of significance that glorifies the Father and Son, we must labor in the Light of the World.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, who always walked in the light of your will. And we thank you for his disciples, who later learned to follow your Holy Spirit’s lead and labor in the light of day to grow your and his kingdom and pass on their faith to future generations. Still, like the disciples, we sometimes succumb to fear and selfishness and resist the light. So would you please help us submit to the guidance of the Holy Spirit by confessing our sins, receiving forgiveness, and laboring in your Son’s light? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling