Traditional Jewish belief had it that the soul of the dead person somehow remains with the body for three days. After three days the soul leaves the body never to return and that is when corruption sets in. When Martha objects to the opening of the tomb and says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days”, (John 11: 39) she is expressing the common view that this is now a hopeless situation. Is that why Jesus delayed coming to the funeral, to let the situation become “impossible” before acting on it?
G.K. Chesterton once said, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.” In traditional Jewish mentality bringing back to life a person who has been dead for four days and decaying is a unthinkable as the prophet Ezekiel’s vision in which the grey, dry bones of the dead are miraculously restored to life.
For the early Christians the story of Jesus raising Lazarus was more than a pointer to His own resurrection. Jesus rose on the third day; His body never saw corruption. For them this miracle is a challenge to never give up hope even in hopeless situations in which they find themselves as individuals, as a church or as a nation. It is never too late for God to revive and revitalize a person, a church or a nation. But first we must learn to cooperate with God.
How can we cooperate with God so as to experience God’s resurrection power in our lives and in our world? Faith, as everyone already knows. But that is not the point that John makes in this story. In fact there is no one in the story, not even Martha or Mary, who believed that Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life after being dead for four days. No one expected Him to do it, so expectant faith is not the emphasis here. Rather, the emphasis in the story is placed on practical obedience and doing God’s will. Jesus issues three commands and all of them are obeyed to the letter.
First, “Jesus said, ‘Roll away the stone’.” …. So they rolled the stone away. (Verses 39-41) Did the people understand why they should do this heavy work of rolling away the tombstone to expose a stinking corpse? You bet they didn’t. But it was their faith in Jesus expressing itself not through intellectual agreement with Jesus but through practical agreement with Him, through obedience. Why didn’t Jesus command the stone to roll away all by itself, without bothering the people? We don’t quite know. All we know is that the divine power seems always to be activated by human cooperation and stifled by non-cooperation. As C.S. Lewis said, “God seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures.” God will not do by a miracle what we can do by obedience.
The second command Jesus gives is directed to the dead man: ‘“Lazarus, come out!’ and the dead man came out.” (Verses 43-44) We do not know the details of what transpired in the tomb. All we know is that Jesus’ word of command is followed by immediate obedience. Lazarus gropes his way out of the dark tomb even with his hands and feet bound in bandages, and his face wrapped up.
The third command again is addressed to the people. “Unbind him, and let him go.” (Verse 44) Even though Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb by himself, there was no way that he could unbind himself. He needs the community to do that for him. By unbinding Lazarus and sitting him free from the death bands the community is accepting Lazarus back as one of them.
Are we ready to cooperate with Him? Are we ready to roll the stone away that stands between us and the light of Christ’s face? Are we ready to take that first step to come out of the place of death? Are we ready to unbind (i.e., forgive) one another and let each other go free?