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Together, Apart Bible Study: The Raising of Lazarus

This is the third of our Bible Studies to explore together, apart, with God, as Coronavirus keeps us from gathering in person. You can leave comments on our Facebook page @FlitwickChurch and join in the conversation.

Raising of Lazarus – Vincent Van Gogh 1890

John 11: 17 - 45

Verse 17 – 27: When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

Verse 28 – 37: When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Verse 38 – 45: Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Ways to explore the passage

Choose the one or two ways of exploring the passage that feel best for you, or try all four – but not at the same time!


The story of the raising of Lazarus is the last of the great signs in the Gospel of John. It is also the last story before Jesus enters Jerusalem residing on a donkey to the adulation of the crowds. In John’s Gospel, this miraculous resuscitation is presented as the last straw; ‘the Jews’ who had witnessed it were coming to believe in Jesus, to follow him in their droves. Who wouldn’t after seeing a man brought back from the dead?! And the chief priests felt threatened by his following. Remember that Jesus was seen as seditious in many ways, he fraternised with the wrong people, he was derisive about piety, he questioned the power structures of the day. So, by raising Lazarus, Jesus puts the final nail in his cross – his path is set.

It seems to me that there are many resonances in this passage. Each of us entombed with Lazarus in some way by the current outbreak of Coronavirus. Entombed in isolation, entombed in illness, in anxiety, in tiredness, in grief. Each of us longs to hear a voice that calls us by name and says ‘Come out.’ Each of us longs to be reunited with family or friends.

You have probably heard this story before. Read it again now. Slowly. Really slowly.

What words spring out at you? What do you notice that maybe you have never noticed before? What seems strange? What don’t you understand? What comforts you? What questions do you have?


Sit in a comfortable position and take your time on each step. This might take several minutes. Now read verses 17 - 28 again. Close your eyes and enter the scene. Imagine yourself in that grieving household in Bethany. Lazarus has died and Jesus, on whom all your hope was pinned, has come to late to save him. Pause and then read the passage again,

What can you see, smell, touch, hear? What does the house look like? What is the surrounding landscape like, the road, the weather? Who is there with you? How are you feeling, physically, emotionally?

News arrives: Jesus is on his way. How do you react? How do you feel? What do you do? What is the mood in the room?

Imagine now that you run out to meet Jesus with Martha, just the two of you, away from the crowd. What does Jesus look like? How does he react to seeing you?

What do you want to say to him? How would you greet him? What rebukes would you give him? What would you ask him? Look at his face as you speak. What do you see?

What answers do Jesus give?

Do his answers comfort or unsettle? Or both?

What else would you want to say to him as you stand on the road?

What might you want to do as a result of this encounter?

You might like to write your thoughts down in a journal and come back to them, or share them with the online group.

Thoughts and Questions

What are you grieving for at the moment? Loss of freedom, health, work, school, purpose, access to family and friends? Name these things out loud or write them down.

In the story we read about a form of grieving very typical of the Middle East. Mourning is a public ritual, done in company, with wailing, song, tearing of clothes and beating of chests. Would it be helpful to you in the current crisis to have a means to express your grief? The more Western approach to grieving is to privatise it, supress the feelings. Is that helpful at this moment?

Grief brings with it a range of emotions: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. We might be feeling any one or more of these on any given day. How are you feeling today? Name that emotion and offer it to God.

This passage contains one of the most famous verses in the Bible, verse 35, sometimes translated simply as ‘Jesus wept.’

Why do you think Jesus was weeping? For Lazarus, whom he knew he could raise? For the dead man’s friends and family? For himself and the future death he know was imminent? What might you be weeping for at present – name it to God.

Imagine Jesus, tears coursing down his face, snotty, hiding his head in his hands, just as we do. God knows that pain and death will end yet still God in Jesus weeps. God takes seriously our pain and sorrow. He weeps with us and for us. What difference might that make?

You might like to write your thoughts down in a journal and come back to them, or share them with the online group.

Vincent Van Gogh’s Raising of Lazarus

Van Gogh’s religious pictures are perhaps less well known than his landscapes or still lifes. He often took well known Biblical paintings (in this case he apparently drew inspiration from Rembrandt’s painting of the same scene) and approached them with fresh eyes.

Traditional renderings of the raising of Lazarus often focus on the figure of Jesus outside the tomb, with his arm raised in command or invitation. Here the point of reversed and we are looking out from the back of the cave.

What do you notice about the painting? Do you have an emotional response to it?

We are clear which figure is Lazarus. But who are the other two figures? If you have an immediate response, look again. Who else might they be? What might that be saying?

The raising of Lazarus is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection. What elements of the picture resonate with the Resurrection account?

But the raising of Lazarus is to this earthly life not resurrection life. What elements of the picture show us that we are witnessing resuscitation and not Resurrection?

Van Gogh’s Raising of Lazarus is a study of light and dark, great Biblical themes. How do you think he uses light and dark? What is he trying to express through his use of light and shade?

We are invited to imagine that we have been with Lazarus in the dark of the tomb for four days. What would it have been like to have the space suddenly flooded with dazzling sunlight? After the days of darkness in our isolation because of COVID19, what will it be like to step out into the sun again? What readjustments might we have to make?

You might like to write your thoughts down in a journal and come back to them, or share them with the online group.

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