Martha and Mary: When Faith Feels Hopeless (John 11:1-44)

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Jesus’ teaching had so angered the Jews in Judea that they had tried to stone Him on more than one occasion, and the synagogue leaders there were trying to have Him arrested and executed. So Jesus left Judea and was preaching on the other side of the Jordan River, where many people were coming to Him and accepting His teaching.

A Delayed Response

John 11:1-8, 14-16:

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.
3 The sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he 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?”

14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died,
15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 

When He had been in Judea, Jesus often stayed with Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary. Practical, hands-on, and direct, Martha was the older of the two. Mary was quieter and more sensitive, given to impulsive acts of devotion. So when Lazarus became gravely ill, his two sisters sent a messenger to Jesus, with instructions to simply inform Him that Lazarus was ill. They were confident that this simple message would be enough to move Him to take care of the situation. But instead of either rebuking the illness or coming with the messenger to heal Lazarus, Jesus simply informed the messenger that the end of the illness would not be death, but, rather, God’s glory.

Read verses 5 and 6 carefully. Notice that it says that Jesus stayed where He was because He loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He cared deeply enough that He did not immediately rush to their aid! He knew that what was about to happen would hurt; it would shake them to their core; it would test their faith in ways they could not understand; but it would be best for them. He was willing to put them through the pain and anguish for their own good!

Think about it: How often have you prayed, and it seems like He does not answer? He has something greater in mind than you do. He’s willing to remain silent and aloof for a time in order to bring you a greater victory later.

When you pray and God does not seem to answer, He has something greater in mind than you do.

After two more days, Jesus declares His intention to return to Judea. His disciples protest, pointing out that the Jews had tried to stone Him the last time He was there. Jesus’ response can be summed up as “Trust Me—I know what I’m doing.” Once His disciples realize they can’t dissuade Him from His purpose, Thomas responds with remarkably pessimistic courage: “OK, let’s go and die with Him.”

Although he didn’t sound very happy about it, Thomas and the other disciples trusted Jesus enough to follow Him. Greater faith would have brought them greater comfort, but the important point is that they had obedient faith.

Focus on the text: If you note the time carefully, you will find that after receiving the message, Jesus remained where He was for two days and then traveled to Bethany. When He arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days. This means the messenger must have taken a day to travel to Jesus, Jesus took a day to travel back to Bethany, and Lazarus must have died soon after the messenger left. So when Jesus said, “This sickness is not unto death,” Lazarus was already dead! Although on the surface it looked like He was either mistaken or lying, the reality is that He had a different perspective. His statement reflected the big picture.

The Sisters

John 11:20-27, 32-37:

20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.
21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from 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. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,
26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
28  And when she had said this, she went away, and called Mary her sister, saying secretly, “The Teacher is here, and is calling for you.”

32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.
34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus wept.
36  So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

Going deeper: We first meet Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Martha is busy and stressed by serving an elaborate meal, while Mary is sitting and listening to Jesus. Martha comes to Jesus and tells Him to make Mary help her. Based on this interchange and Jesus’ rebuke, we often picture Martha as harsh, impatient and domineering, while Mary is the spiritual one who understands what is truly important. But this oversimplifies the sisters. 

Martha is the action-oriented one. Even after Lazarus’ resurrection, we find Martha serving dinner again. She shows her love for Jesus by doing—but her love is no less real and deep for that. In fact, her over-doing dinner in Luke 10 is probably itself an expression of her love for Jesus.

Mary is the sensitive one. She shows her love for Jesus by just being with Him, listening to Him. At the dinner after Lazarus was raised, her instinctive love overflowed as she anointed Jesus’ feet with extremely expensive perfume and dried them with her hair (Luk 12:2-3). Though impulsive and maybe even a bit inappropriate, it was a deeply meaningful expression of love and gratitude. 

In John 11, Jesus’ interaction with these two sisters is as different as the sisters themselves. And that’s the point: they both loved and trusted Jesus but expressed it in very different, though not always equally good, ways. While they both needed Jesus, what they needed from Him was very different, and He met both with exactly what they needed.

Someone told Martha that Jesus was coming, so true to her take-charge, hands-on nature, Martha heads out to meet Jesus and talk with Him. It’s probably significant that the visiting friends and family did not follow Martha: they see her as the strong one who can handle herself. And so Martha receives what she needs in that moment—the opportunity to privately interact with Jesus, to pour out her hurt, and also reaffirm her love and faith in Him. There’s more to their conversation than might be obvious on the surface. Let’s look more closely at these verses. 

Verse 21: “Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” There’s a lot of hurt in this exclamation, and probably a bit of accusation as well. But there’s also faith: “I still believe in Your power to heal, even though You didn’t.”

Verse 22: “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” She’s not expecting Jesus to raise Lazarus, but she is expressing faith in Him. “Even though You disappointed and hurt me, I still trust You.”

Verse 23: “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’” Jesus knows what He is about to do, even if Martha has no idea.

Verse 24: “Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’” Martha takes Jesus’ words as simple comfort, a reminder of the eternal life of the righteous. It’s the sort of comfort and response that you may hear at any Christian funeral.

Verses 25-26: “Jesus said to her, ‘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. Do you believe this?’”  Jesus is testing her faith. She claimed to still trust Him as the Son of God. Now He is challenging her to trust Him as the Lord of Life, even in the face of the death of her beloved brother.

Verse 27:  “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.’” Notice that she does not say “Yes, I believe that You are the Resurrection,” or “I believe that You are the Lord of Life.” She does not really understand what He is saying––but the vital point is that she believes in Him. And it’s enough.  For Martha, like for us, believing in Jesus is always enough.

During this conversation, Mary has remained behind in the house. Martha goes and gets Mary quietly, to allow her some private time with Jesus as well. But as Mary quickly leaves the house, the crowd of people follow her, reasoning that she is going to the tomb and will need support there. Unfortunately, this means that Mary gets no chance to have a private conversation with Jesus. She greets Jesus with exactly the same words as Martha did: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then, overcome with grief, she dissolves into tears. 

Jesus, seeing her and all those who came with her weeping, is Himself moved to tears. In light of Jesus’ obvious grief, His failure to heal Lazarus is inexplicable to those around, and they wonder aloud why He did nothing.

It’s OK to grieve, to struggle, to feel loss. Jesus joins in your grief, even at your darkest time.

Think about it: There is incredible empathy reflected in that simple phrase in verse 35: “Jesus wept.” He knew that He could have healed Lazarus, and the grief and pain would have been avoided. Yet He did not try to shoulder the blame for Lazarus’ death. He knew that He was about to “fix it,” that Lazarus would soon rise, and that their grief would turn to incredible joy. Yet He did not try to gloss over the grief, to rush through it as though it did not matter. He understood grief, and that grief is real and powerful. So He simply wept with His friends—He entered into their grief. And in so doing He affirmed that, even given the reality of resurrection, grief is an appropriate response to loss. It’s OK to grieve, to struggle, to feel loss. Jesus joins in your grief, even at your darkest time.

An Impossible Resurrection

John 11:38-44:

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it.
39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.
42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”
44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

So Jesus, accompanied by the whole group, comes to the tomb. As was customary in that day, Lazarus had been laid to rest in a cave, with a stone sealing the opening. Jesus orders that the stone be removed, whereupon Martha protests. After four days, decomposition would have set in, and opening the tomb would merely release the stench of death. Surely they didn’t need another horrific reminder that Lazarus was dead. 

Focus on the text: The Jews believed that when a person died, the person’s spirit stayed around the body for three days, then departed. Perhaps this is why Jesus waited till Lazarus had been dead four days—to emphasize His absolute control over life and death.

Again, Jesus’ response was essentially, “Trust Me.” It was up to Martha: they would not open the tomb without her consent. She had claimed to still believe in Jesus, and now she must decide whether or not to act on that faith. Even now, Martha’s faith was strong, and she agreed.

So they opened the tomb. 

And Jesus prayed. 

It’s not the sort of prayer that we would expect, perhaps most of all because of what He does not say. He does not ask for the ability to raise Lazarus, nor ask the Father to raise him. He has known all along what the Father planned, even claiming four days before that the final outcome of Lazarus’ sickness would be to glorify God. So He approaches the tomb in complete confidence, knowing what He was about to do, knowing that it was the Father’s will, and, therefore, knowing that the Father would provide the ability. He simply thanks Him for hearing Him, then explains that His prayer is for the sake of those listening. And again we see the emphasis on faith—the purpose of Jesus’ prayer was that those listening would believe that the Father had sent Jesus. 

Think about it: How often do we pray for the ability to do what we know we should, as if we must beg God for the strength that He has already promised?  If we have clear direction from His Word or have already prayed and know what God would have us do, we can move forward confidently, knowing that He will also enable us to obey.

And Jesus calls to Lazarus, and Lazarus emerges from the tomb. He is bound hand and foot by graveclothes, yet he manages to struggle his way to the mouth of the cave. The onlookers are apparently so awestruck that Jesus has to prompt them to release Lazarus from his bonds.

Focus on the text: A number of older commentators feel that, in addition to bringing him back to life, Jesus’ command to “come forth” actually brought Lazarus to the mouth of the cave without his having to struggle there hampered by the restrictive graveclothes. While this is possible, there is nothing in the text that indicates this, and the most natural understanding is that Lazarus came back to life, arose, and walked as best he could to the opening of the tomb.

And so Martha’s faith is vindicated. As is Mary’s faith. And, for that matter, the disciples’ faith. None of them knew what would happen—they just trusted Jesus even when all seemed lost.

Irrational Opposition

John 11:45-53:

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him,
46 but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.
47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs.
48  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all.
50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”
51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation,
52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

Some of the witnesses reported what had happened to the Jewish leaders. And even when faced with absolute proof of Jesus’ power, all they could think about was themselves and their positions. While they claimed to be concerned for the welfare of the people—“not that the whole nation should perish” (v. 50)—their real concern is reflected in verse 48: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” 

Going deeper: If this story was just about Lazarus’ resurrection, it would have ended at verse 44. But the story is not just a tale of resurrection—it’s a contrast between faith in Jesus and opposition to Jesus. Back in the first chapter of his Gospel, John made the point that everyone either believes in Jesus or opposes Him. There is no middle ground. And the story of Lazarus serves as a practical example of this truth. The stark contrast between those who believe and those who do not is presented in John 1, and here we see an extreme illustration of this truth. The raising of Lazarus engendered faith in some and solidified opposition in others.

Everyone either believes in Jesus or opposes Him. There is no middle ground.

Mary, Martha, and the disciples are examples of people who believe Jesus in spite of all apparent evidence to the contrary, and because of that faith, they are willing to go to extreme lengths to obey Him. But the narrative continues, and we see the other side of the contrast: those who oppose Him are willing to go to equally extreme lengths in their fight against Him.

So on the advice of Caiaphas, the High Priest at the time, and under the guise of “protecting the nation,” the Jewish leaders begin laying specific plans for Jesus’ death. There is great irony in this passage, as the leaders decide to kill the one Man who has demonstrated power over death. This scene shows the culmination of the opposition to Jesus that had been growing throughout His ministry. It began as a grassroots movement among the synagogues, with the threat of excommunication for any who dared to follow Jesus. It was also seen in various impulsive attempts to stone Jesus and in the Jewish leaders’ attempt to arrest Jesus for questioning. But only now does the opposition become a formal plan among the Jewish leaders.

While God primarily works through the willing obedience of His children, He can and does use even those who oppose Him. Here, Caiaphas made a selfish recommendation, that it would be better to kill an innocent man than to risk the wrath of the Romans. But in God’s providence and in spite of himself, Caiaphas phrased his statement in a way that was actually a prophecy about the salvation that Jesus’ death would bring, just as his actions would bring about that death and salvation.

Conclusion

This story contains two examples of God using negative events for good. Lazarus’ sickness and death turned into a stellar example of Jesus’ power over death, and Caiaphas’ rejection of Jesus became a beautiful prophecy of salvation. God will use every circumstance for His glory, and to accomplish His purposes. It’s up to us whether we freely submit to Him as joyful servants of God, or whether we submit only unwillingly, in spite of all that we can do to resist Him.

 

Steve Oliver
Steve Oliver is Lead Pastor of Troy Holiness Church in Troy, MO. He earned his PhD in New Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University.