Bible Answer

Explaining Lazarus’ Death

Please explain what the Bible means when it says that Lazarus' sickness was not to end in death, since we know the sickness did kill him. 

We find that statement in John 11:4. Here is the entire passage from John 11 describing Lazarus' death:

“1 Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. 3 So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” 4 But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was. 7 Then after this He said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to Him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” 9 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. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 This He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.” 12 The disciples then said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. 14 So Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” 16 Therefore Thomas, who is called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.”

As we read, Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, became sick. His sickness was obviously quite serious, or else they would not have sent for Jesus to heal him. Jesus, who knows all things, clearly knew that Lazarus would die if He did not heal him. Jesus chose not to heal him for one clear reason: so that God and His Son would be glorified, and so that the disciples would believe in Him.

Although Lazarus was clearly killed by his sickness, the reason his sickness was not to “end in death” was because Jesus knew what He was going to do. It was God’s will that Lazarus would die from this sickness so that Jesus would raise him up from the grave. In so doing, God and His Son would be glorified, and the miracle would cause the disciples to believe in who Jesus was. 

We see something similar in John 9 when Jesus heals the blind man. Scripture says he was born blind that works of God may be displayed in him. In these examples (and others), we are made aware of God’s complete sovereignty over our lives. Jeremiah 18 describes Israel as clay in the potter’s (God’s) hands, which is echoed in Romans 9.  The Lord has complete control over our lives, including even being able to raise us from the dead.

Reading further in John 11, we see how Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead:

“17 So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off; 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother. 20 Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. 21 Martha then said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”

Reading further, we see how Lazarus is raised:

“38 So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” 43 When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” 44 The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  45 Therefore many of the Jews who came to Mary, and saw what He had done, believed in Him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them the things which Jesus had done.”

It has been said that if Jesus had not said “Lazarus come forth!”, but only said “Come forth!”, then all the dead would have arisen!  In this passage, Jesus clearly demonstrates that He is God by raising Lazarus from the dead. This is a beautiful picture of the resurrection that all believers will ultimately experience the power of God. 

As our Lord says, he who believes in Him will live, even if he dies. Just as we are bound by sin while we are spiritually dead, once God gives us faith and causes us to be spiritually born (“born again”), God unbinds the chords of sin that ensnare us. It is in this sense that when Jesus says when the Son sets you free, you are free indeed (John 8:36).

Like Lazarus, we have a resurrection to which we can look forward.  While Lazarus’ resurrection in John 11 was temporary (Lazarus eventually died), our resurrection will be with a new body. 

Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians 15:

“50 Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; 57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We will lose this mortal, perishable body and put on an immortal, imperishable body. This will happen because death has been conquered by our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. May we bring glory to Him until then, and forever more.