The ancient Jewish rabbis believed that when a person dies, his soul hovers near his body for three days, which meant it was theoretically possible for the soul to reenter the body during that period and bring it back to life. After day three, the soul would depart and death was irreversible. The body would remain in the grave until the resurrection at the end of the age.
Given that belief, John’s mention that four days have passed since Lazarus’ death when Jesus arrives at Bethany is an important detail (John 11:17). All hope of a natural explanation for Lazarus’ resurrection has passed, so when our Lord raises Him, it will be a particularly clear proof of His supernatural power and authority. When He calls Lazarus forth from the grave, it will prove that He possesses life in Himself (vv. 43–44; see 5:25–29).
John tells us that when Jesus arrives, “many of the Jews” had already come to console Martha and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters, concerning the death of their brother. Commentators suggest that this indicates the family has some degree of prominence, for Bethany was near Jerusalem and many of these Jews would have come from there. That Mary owned such an expensive bottle of perfume would seem to support the idea that the family had some wealth and would have been well known (12:1–8). If this is true, Jesus’ miracle takes on some additional significance. By raising a well-known person to life, Jesus is ensuring that many people will hear of this act and see who He is.
In any case, the first person Jesus speaks to is Martha, who expresses regret that Jesus did not come sooner, for He could have prevented Lazarus’ death (11:20–22). Our Lord tells her that Lazarus will rise again (v. 23), which itself is an ambiguous statement. It could mean only that Lazarus will rise from the dead on the last day, and that is how Martha interprets Jesus’ words (v. 24). Jesus does not immediately correct her; instead, He takes the opportunity to reveal Himself as the One who will bring about the resurrection and eternal life. By calling Himself “the resurrection and the life” (vv. 25–26), Jesus indicates that there is no life apart from Him. He alone is the initiator and sustainer of life, and if we are not in Him, we will suffer eternal death under the wrath of God (14:6). If we rest in Him alone, however, we will live forever. John Calvin comments, “Christ is the life . . . because he never permits the life which he has once bestowed to be lost, but preserves it to the end.”