Death is the great enemy, though many of us live in denial of it. Our culture tries to hide death. We don’t see bodies in the streets, as in some parts of the world. Corpses go straight to the morgue or the funeral home — out of sight and out of mind. Many of us have never seen a dead body. Fewer have witnessed a person actually die. We would rather not think about death, we don’t like to talk about it, and we’d prefer to pretend it won’t happen to us.
But it will happen to us. In fact, in one hundred years from now, everyone reading this will be dead. Does that sound harsh? That’s because it is harsh! But it is also true.
Only as we confront the reality of death will we appreciate the hope of resurrection. There is nothing like death to make us desire resurrection.
John 11 begins with a sick Lazarus. His sisters Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus to come to Bethany (John 11:1–3). But Jesus does not go right away. He delays. In fact, he waits two days — until Lazarus is dead (John 11:4–7, 11, 14) — because he knows exactly what he is about to do.
Grieving with Hope
As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was approaching the village, she went to meet him, while Mary remained seated at the house (John 11:20). This is a little strange, isn’t it? Why does Martha go out to meet Jesus while Mary stays put? Is it simply that Martha is the more active of the two? Is it because she is the one who gets things done, while Mary likes to sit (Luke 10:38–42)? Maybe. Or maybe there is something else going on.
Martha’s words to Jesus must have been hard to hear: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Given his great power and the signs he has performed already, Martha believed that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’s death. But what she says next is extraordinary: “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (John 11:22). Martha does not know the end of this story, as we do. She has no idea what Jesus is about to do and she does not expect him to raise Lazarus from the dead. And yet she expresses hope even after death has occurred. It is as though she is saying, “I don’t know what you can do now, Jesus, but I have hope that you can do something.”
Jesus immediately comforts Martha by saying, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23). He tells her exactly what he plans to do, but Martha misunderstands: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). While she misses Jesus’s direct meaning, her response is a good one. She expresses hope through theology. Martha holds to the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead that will occur on the last day (Daniel 12:1–2; John 5:28–29).
The Resurrection and the Life
Jesus takes Martha’s belief in resurrection at the last day and redirects it toward himself.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26a).
I don’t think Martha understood at that moment what Jesus said. How could Jesus be the resurrection? What does that mean? Why does resurrection occur for those who believe in Jesus? While she may harbor such questions, she responds again with belief when Jesus asks, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:26b). “Yes, Lord,” Martha says, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27).
But why does Martha respond this way? Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life, and Martha says yes, you are the Christ. What is the connection between the Christ and resurrection? Again Martha shows herself to be a theologian as she seems to understand the connection. In 2 Samuel 7:12–13, the LORD promises David that one of his offspring will rule on the throne that God will establish forever. If this Messiah is to rule forever, then surely he will not be ended by death. Either he will never die, or if he does die, he will not stay dead. There is thus a connection between resurrection and the Messiah, and Martha seems to understand that.
Grieving Without Hope
While Martha exhibits hope through theological insight, Mary’s interaction with Jesus is noticeably different. While Martha immediately went out to meet Jesus, Mary doesn’t go until Martha gets her (John 11:28). Then it is striking that Mary says the exact same thing that her sister said to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).
Mary utters the exact same words as Martha. But do they mean something different? Notice what Mary doesn’t say. She does not follow up this statement the way Martha did, with the words, “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (John 11:22). No, Mary just says that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’s death — period. But now he’s dead, so that’s that. There is no hope expressed.
It seems like Mary did not entertain the idea that Jesus could do anything now that death has come. Death, after all, is the great enemy. Jesus might be able to heal the blind (John 9), turn water into wine (John 2:1–12), and prevent death (John 4:46–54), but no one can do anything about death once death comes. Right?
Mary’s lack of hope in the face of death is understandable. Sure, Jesus is powerful and can do amazing things, but even today no one can do anything about death. With all our advanced science and medicine, the best we can do is delay death. We can put it off a while. But we cannot prevent it from happening in the end. And once it happens, there is nothing we can do about it. The finality of death is clear to all humanity — past and present. Mary accepts this finality and there is no hope.
Jesus Can Always Do Something
Jesus’s response to Mary also contrasts Martha. After Martha expressed hope, Jesus comforted her with the amazing words that Lazarus would rise again and that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. But what is his response to Mary? There is no word of comfort. There is no theological promise. He just says, “Where have you laid him?” (John 11:34).
But it’s also interesting to note Jesus’s nonverbal response to Mary: “When Jesus saw her crying, and the Jews who had come with her crying, he was angry in his spirit and troubled” (John 11:33). Most translations smooth out the phrase, “he was angry,” but this is what the text literally says. It is smoothed out because it is not clear why Jesus is angry. Why is he angry when he sees Mary’s grief?
The usual explanation is that Jesus is angry at the tyranny of death. He is angry to see what death does to relationships and to those left behind. It is awful. It is wrong. This reason for Jesus’s anger makes sense, but there might be another explanation. Could it be that Jesus is angry and troubled because Mary grieves as one without hope? After all, he was not angry in his encounter with Martha, who expressed hope.
In fact, Jesus gets angry a second time (John 11:38), but this is in response to what Mary’s fellow mourners say: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). Ignoring the paragraph break, Jesus’s immediate response is again to become angry. Could it be that he is angry because they too lack hope in the face of death? Yes, the crowd knows Jesus is powerful — he opened the eyes of the blind man — he could have prevented Lazarus’s death. But once death has occurred? Not even Jesus can do anything about that, right?
Neither Martha nor Mary knew that the story would end with a resurrected Lazarus. Mary saw death as the end, and not even Jesus could fix that. But Martha put her theology to work together with a trust that Jesus could always do something.
We should be more like Martha.