The Fourth Gospel is our only contemporary account of the 'raising' of Lazarus - and its central and pivital position in this most important of all scriptures suggests that the event is crucial.
One way it is crucial is consequential - in that it provoked the Chief Priests and Pharisees to decide that is was expedient that Jesus be killed for the greater good (a misunderstood true prophecy).
The Fourth Gospel - as nearly always - tells us the story as evidence that Jesus really is the Christ, sent by God, and would become (after his ascension) fully the Son of God.
Beyond this, there are two possible interpretations. The usual is that the miracle was restoring Lazarus to normal life; the other, which I think is the one we are meant to infer, is that the miracle was resurrecting Lazarus to the eternal life that Jesus promised to all who 'believed on' his name.
The Gospel is really pretty clear that we are meant to understand the raising of Lazarus as a real resurrection, that same resurrection which we are all promised by Jesus following our mortal life and death - and which Jesus himself experienced.
1. The Gospel establishes that Lazarus really is dead, properly dead, irrevocably; such that (because he is rotting - 'stinketh') he cannot be brought back to mortal life. Because of this, Jesus shares the general grief and wept - as is appropriate with real, permanent mortal death.
2. In the discussion between Jesus and Martha, he makes clear that Lazarus is to be resurrected.
3. Lazarus is entombed in a cave, blocked by a stone - which explicitly prefigures the death and resurrection of Jesus.
4. The references to the people witnessing the glory of God are appropriate to a resurrection. Glory is associated with the ascension of the resurrected Jesus - for people to see the glory of God in the resurrection of Lazarus suggests more than simply restoring him to mortal life. I am not sure; but I think it means that, in the act of resurrecting Lazarus - with the assistance of his Father, Jesus is displaying the power he will attain after his ascension to full divinity
With such in-your-face evidence - it is hard to explain the general mainstream view that Lazarus is Not resurrected. This I regard as an example of the way that scholars read the Bible through their pre-existing general theological considerations; and they seldom see the obvious, but only confirmation of the pre-existing theories of what they expect to find.
Most regard it as theologically vital that Jesus is the first Man to be resurrected - and therefore even the possibility of the resurrection of Lazarus is edited out of consideration.
Perhaps the supposed lack of further reference to Lazarus in the Fourth Gospel is seen as another problem - in that the first resurrected Man would presumably have some part to play in God's plan for Men.
But this is only a problem if you regard the author of the Fourth Gospel (never self-named, but self-described as the 'beloved' disciple) as John the son of Zebedee - however, if you regard the author of the Fourth Gospel as the resurrected Lazarus (as I do) then 'it all fits'.
Relevant passages in bold...
John 11: 1 Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha.
2 (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.)
3 Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.
4 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.
5 Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.
6 When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.
7 Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again.
8 His disciples say unto him, Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again?
9 Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world.
10 But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.
11 These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.
12 Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well.
13 Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep.
14 Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.
15 And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him.
16 Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples, Let us also go, that we may die with him.
17 Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.
18 Now Bethany was nigh unto Jerusalem, about fifteen furlongs off:
19 And many of the Jews came to Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother.
20 Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house.
21 Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.
22 But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.
23 Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again.
24 Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.
25 Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
26 And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?
27 She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.
28 And when she had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee.
29 As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came unto him.
30 Now Jesus was not yet come into the town, but was in that place where Martha met him.
31 The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there.
32 Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.
33 When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.
34 And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!
37 And some of them said, Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died?
38 Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.
39 Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.
40 Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?
41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.
42 And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.
43 And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.
44 And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.
I think that Jesus' knowledge that Lazarus' spirit has departed his body (while still physically far distant from the buried body) is the most certain indication that Lazarus is actually dead, the condition of the physical body as verified by someone only competent in medicine by the standards of that time is not quite so firm an evidence (I've smelled sick people, they can stink quite badly).
It does seem that at least one of Jesus' disciples (and possibly others) were destined to await His return. However, there are prior scriptural accounts of holy people being taken up into immortal life without any clear confirmation of their mortal deaths. So what importance Lazarus' apparent death has is the issue...Jesus treats the matter somewhat lightly, He only says that Lazarus is dead in order to clarify for the disciples that the situation is serious, otherwise He says only that Lazarus is sleeping.
I take it that the implication is that reversing mortal death and restoring to life a body physically rotting in the grave is no more difficult for Christ than waking someone from normal slumber...but of course He knows that our perspective is that one is "impossible" and the other a commonplace.
But however commonplace it may be, it only ever happens because God makes it so.
@CCL - That, yes, but the Evangelist is also telling us more; as above.
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