Continuing our look at the story of Lazarus and Christ’s raising him from the dead, we see in today’s passage that the disciples initially were not aware of how ill Lazarus was. They did not think that his sickness would result in his physical death.
We know this is the case because when Jesus tells them that Lazarus has fallen asleep, the disciples respond that he will recover. They are unaware, John tells us, that Jesus is talking about death, not physical rest (John 11:11–13). Of course, when Jesus refers to Lazarus’ sleeping, He is using a metaphor for death drawn from the Old Testament. The books of Kings and Chronicles, for example, often refer to a king’s death by saying, “He slept with his fathers” (for instance, see 1 Kings 2:10; 2 Kings 8:24; 2 Chron. 9:31). In light of the Bible’s teaching on the resurrection of the dead, sleep is an apt metaphor for death. Just as we fall into unconsciousness when we sleep, so it can appear that death brings about a kind of unconsciousness for our physical bodies. However, properly speaking, any “sleep” that occurs is true only of our bodies. Our bodies lie in the grave after our deaths, and our spirits do not go to sleep but go to be with the Lord until the resurrection of our bodies on the last day (Phil. 1:23).
First-century Jews did not expect the resurrection until the end of the age, so the disciples likely are not thinking of resurrection when Jesus speaks of going to awaken Lazarus (John 11:11). But in speaking of going to wake up Lazarus, Jesus begins to show the extent of His authority. As John Calvin comments, “Christ shows that he is Lord of death, when he says, that he awakes those whom he restores to life.”
To clear up any misunderstanding on the disciples’ part, Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus has died and that his death, while evil in itself, will be used to bring about good for the disciples. Lazarus’ death, Jesus says, will provide an opportunity for the disciples to grow in their faith (vv. 14–15). And this is the case because Jesus is going to resurrect Lazarus, giving them a sign that will confirm their faith and sustain them in grace. This, in turn, helps us see one of the purposes that our Creator has for allowing us to experience grief and suffering. Pain, while in itself not a good thing, is a means through which the Lord works for the final good of our redemption. Calvin comments, “When God permits us to be overwhelmed with distresses, and to languish long under them, let us know that, in this manner, he promotes our salvation.”