It’s the shortest verse in the entire Bible (John 11.35). It’s part of the narrative surrounding the death of Jesus’ friend, Martha and Mary’s brother, Lazarus. As the story goes, Lazarus was seriously ill. The sisters sent word to Jesus to come quickly so he could heal their brother. Instead, Jesus deliberately dawdled about four days before showing up. By then Lazarus had died, been embalmed, and was already in the sealed tomb in his grave clothes.
Understandably, Martha and Mary were rather perturbed with Jesus. I picture Martha with her hand on her hips, shaking a finger in Jesus’ face, when she says, “If you’d come more quickly, you could have healed Lazarus and spared him from death.” Jesus explained that he had something else in mind. Something even better than healing a sick fellow. Those in the crowd then saw Jesus crying. The message they got from Jesus’ tears was that he loved Lazarus so much that he was sad to have lost him to death. With that, he ordered the stone rolled away and commanded Lazarus to “come forth!” Lo and behold, the dead was alive – Lazarus, still wrapped in his grave clothes, stumbled out of the tomb, to the utter amazement of those standing around.
Until recently, I accepted that story at face value, including the explanation for why Jesus wept (i. e., his love for Lazarus). However, as I was listening to Sirius XM’s “enLighten” channel (Bill Gaither Southern Gospel music), I heard a song by singer/songwriter Mark Bishop called “Bring Lazarus Back” (from the album, “There Is Love … Then There Is HIS Love” — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NmYZapYyJk) I was struck with these lines which Mark put in Jesus’ mouth just before raising Lazarus:
“I didn’t cry because Lazarus died,
I cried when I had to bring Lazarus back.”
Yo! I had never looked at the event from that angle before. But, think about it – Lazarus was in heaven, relishing his eternity in God’s presence, knowing first-hand the difference between what he had left behind and what he was now privy to. Can you imagine the disappointment you would feel if you’d been in heaven for only four days and then called back to this imperfect (to say the least) world?
Certainly there are songs that celebrate the magnificence of what Jesus did in raising Lazarus and presenting him to his sisters and friends once again. I’m thinking of Carmen’s “Lazarus, Come Forth,” a powerful (and yet occasionally light-hearted) telling of this miracle. We would all very likely stand in awe if we knew for a fact that someone had died (Martha and Mary cautioned Jesus about opening the tomb, reminding him that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, and there would be a horrible stench), and then witnessing the dead come back to life. But it never occurred to me to ask what Lazarus was experiencing during those four days that he was in heaven.
The Bible doesn’t record how Lazarus reacted to his resurrection. Was he happy to see his sisters and Jesus again? Or was he supremely ticked off at having to come back to his bodily life after having so briefly experienced life in the spirit? We can only guess, because we don’t have a lot of information about Lazarus himself and what kind of guy he was personality-wise. (It kind of gives us some latitude to assign our own impressions on this fellow who was “born again,” but just in a different way from the one Jesus discussed with Nicodemus).
When I heard those lines from Mark Bishop’s song, it gave me something else to think about. I’ll never read those two words from John 11.35 the same way again.