We don’t know how Mary, Martha, and Lazarus became so close to Jesus. In fact, we don’t know much about the siblings at all, not their ages, or if they ever married and lost a spouse so that they needed to live together as adults. But Scripture does tell us that Jesus stayed with them in their home from time to time (Luke 10:38), and counted them dear friends. In fact, John 11:5 says,
Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
It’s interesting that Scripture names Martha first in this list of who Jesus loved. So often Martha gets maligned for being the pragmatic one, always about busyness, maybe missing the point. Remember how when Jesus came to visit, Martha attempted to make sure the event was properly catered, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and drank in every word, even when her sister fussed at her? So maybe Martha missed the point there, but this reference also suggests that Martha was the one who held everything together (perhaps she was the eldest of the three), and I imagine Mary (maybe the youngest) was the dreamer.
So when their brother becomes gravely ill, I can see Mary sitting beside him, sponging his brow, whispering in his ear as he is losing ground moment by moment. “Jesus will be here, Lazarus. Just hold on. I know He’ll be here soon.” Mary completely trusts in that. Jesus is a friend, and Lazarus’s name, after all, means “one whom god helps” (a bit of an understatement considering the rest of his story).
I can see Martha bustling around, working to get Jesus to them, sending messages, keeping the communications going. Maybe someone said to Martha: “Jesus is a very busy man. Lots of people want a piece of His time. What makes you think He’ll drop whatever He is doing and come here?”
Martha, no less trusting of Jesus than her sister Mary, might have replied, “I’m sure He’s on His way. He’s our friend. Lazarus is like His own brother. Jesus will know that if we ask Him to come, it must be very important. Trust me, He’ll be here.”
Only Jesus doesn’t come. Mary and Martha have sent word to Him from their home in Bethany, John 11:3 tells us.
“The one whom you love is sick,” their message reads.
Jesus is across the river Jordan, about twenty miles from them. It’s at least a good day’s walk, so the sisters must have expected Him to arrive the following evening.
But the evening comes and goes and, still, Jesus has not come.
Lazarus languishes. his breathing becomes labored. The death rattle begins.
Were Mary and Martha both with Lazarus when he took his final breath, or was Martha outside scanning the horizon, looking for Jesus? Can you imagine Mary holding her brother’s face and placing one hand on his heart, feeling for the beat, but instead feeling a cold, still shell? Or Martha, standing at the edge of their property, desperate to see Jesus walk toward her, sensing a sudden rush, the spirit of her brother leaving his body?
The moment must have been so sad, confusing, and devastating.
Where was Jesus? Why was this happening when He loved them so?
The sisters felt so alone. Lazarus was gone now. They must have not only grieved the brother they loved, but feared for their future. The reality was they were two single women in a culture where men controlled the purse strings and even within the tabernacle all expression and connection to church leadership. Mary and Martha now had no man to look out for them or protect them; the one man they had counted on, more than any other, had let them down.
The sisters’ thoughts must have fixed on certain questions, the kind that erode trust and repeat over and again in the mind when you feel abandoned: Why hasn’t Jesus come? Has something terrible happened? Why hasn’t He even sent word? Does He no longer care? Has He no real control anyway? Why?
Have you ever been there, prayed that God would let you in on what He’s doing so life doesn’t feel so out of control, but He is silent? Has it seemed He is busy helping others, maybe even those who don’t believe, and He’s withdrawn from you? Maybe you understand His love for the lost — you love them too. So you don’t want Him to change His plans. You just want to know that there is one. Yet you hear nothing.
Just a Stone’s Throw Away
Across the Jordan river, just twenty miles or so from Bethany, Jesus is with His disciples, ministering to the people. They have retreated to this place because some of the Jewish leaders have become so hostile toward Jesus that He is in danger of being stoned to death; they are on the watch for Him.
No wonder Jesus has their attention. He has been going around the country performing all sorts of miracles. The Gospel of John recounts seven miracles in the three years of Jesus’ public ministry: turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, healing the sick and lame at the pool in Bethsada, feeding a multitude of five thousand in the countryside with just two fishes and five barley loaves, walking on water in a stormy sea, giving a blind man sight, and in two instances bringing the dead back to life.
Jesus is the great Physician, He is their Savior. It’s easy to trust when you can see results.
Yet, amazing and miraculous as these restorations are, nothing prepares them for what is about to happen with Lazarus, for in the Jewish mind-set, there’s a huge difference between the just-dead body and one dead for more than one day.
By the time Jesus gets to Bethany, Lazarus will have been dead four days.
We’ll Just Die with You Then
The reality is Lazarus was probably dead by the time Jesus first heard that His friend was even sick. It would have taken one day for Mary and Martha’s message to reach Jesus, and then He didn’t exactly respond promptly. In fact:
When Jesus heard… He said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of god may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when He heard that He was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was. — John 11:4-6
How strange. Jesus hears His friends are in distress and He loves them… so He decides to stay right where He is, not coming to their call, not hurrying to offer His help. He knows it’s taken one day for Mary and Martha’s message to reach Him, and He lingers where He is two days more, even knowing it will take Him another day if He were to journey back.
The disciples are relieved for this decision, since returning to Judea could only mean trouble.
But after two days, when Jesus announces that He’s ready now to cross the Jordan and go back to Bethany, they are horrified. Have you forgotten, they remind Him, that just a few days ago the people there tried to stone You?
Jesus responds curiously. He says:
Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in daylight doesn’t stumble because there’s plenty of light from the sun. Walking at night, he might very well stumble because he can’t see where he’s going. — John 11:9-10 MSG
And then He announces that Lazarus has “fallen asleep” and “I’m going to wake him up.”
The disciples, of course, are thinking literally. They begin to rationalize among themselves. Why should they risk going back when they had just got away in time? Are they really needed anyway? Didn’t Jesus say that Lazarus was simply asleep and would not die? They suppose Lazarus must have recovered from a bad fever or something.
Jesus corrects them, and He’s explicit.
Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him. — John 11:14-15 MSG
To which Thomas, the disciple so many of us know today as “Doubting Thomas,” says to his companions,
Come along. We might as well die with Him. — John 11:16 MSG
Doubting Thomas? I’ve often thought it’s a bad rap that we’ve given Thomas, calling him this. Here, he shows me so. The disciple who later refuses to believe Christ has risen from the dead, unless he can see for himself the scarred hands, feet, and side of Jesus (John 20:25), shows us here remarkable loyalty, devotion, and trust. He has no certainty of the immediate outcome, and knows he cannot take Christ’s place, so he pledges:
If Jesus is going there, I’m going with Him.
Perhaps Thomas’s utterance of disbelief in the Upper room was not out of cynicism and complete disbelief, but out of the haze of grief and despair. how might an encouraging word have changed things? Would we know this disciple as Trusting Thomas, if he had made in the Upper room a rallying cry as he made here in John 11? And how was it the other disciples missed what Jesus was saying about following him and walking in the light?
George R. Beasley-Murray explains in a commentary on John’s gospel:
One can walk in the day without stumbling, because one is aware of the light of this world [the sun] shining on one’s path.
This is true of people generally and of Jesus in particular. He must walk in the [limited] time appointed for Him; while He does so He knows He will not “stumble” for He is under the protection of God… The application… is the necessity of the disciple to keep in His company even though He does advance toward danger and death.1
This is not a thought to rush over or take lightly. For me, this has become a daily prayer. Each morning I say like Trusting Thomas, “Lord, I don’t know where you are going today, but wherever it is, I’m coming with you.”
I decide I’m going to take the long journey with Jesus, whether that means walking through “discussions” and hard knocks, or into sheer joy because I have learned that the safest place to be is wherever Jesus is. Where He is may not always look the safest, but if it’s where Jesus is, then that is where I want to be. Also, when uncertainty nips at my heels, as surely it did the disciples’ that day Jesus led them back to Bethany, I think of another time they followed Jesus.
They were in a boat on the lake in the middle of a terrible storm while Jesus slept in the bow like a baby (Luke 8:22-25). The shore must have looked like the safest place to be, and from the tempestuous waters they cried out in fear. It’s at that moment of despair that Jesus rose and spoke and even the sea obeyed Him and calmed. Then the sea (or was it Jesus?) carried them safely to the other shore.
Of course, Jesus does not always lead us into safe, calm, and pleasant places, and He doesn’t always give us signs and wonders at the very moment we cry out in despair. As Beasley-Murray says, He advances us toward death, but He is always in control, ever-watching, good, and always has a plan — and the disciples, Mary, and Martha are about to see this firsthand.
- George R. Beasley-Murray, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 188.
Excerpted with permission from Beautiful Things Happen When a Women Trusts God by Sheila Walsh, copyright Sheila Walsh.
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Has Jesus ever delayed after you prayed? Has He left you wondering if He knew what was going on with you? Or even cared? Has He led you out of safe waters? Are you ready to say with Trusting Thomas and Sheila, “Wherever You’re going, Lord, I’m going with You”? Come share your thoughts with us on our blog! We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily