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The resurrection of the first individual astonished those who witnessed it, while the second transformed the lives of Jesus' disciples, filling them with the faith and conviction to face the trials that were to come.
Lazarus lived with his two sisters, Martha and Mary, in the little village of Bethany. They were close friends of Jesus, who often stayed with them when He visited Jerusalem. When Lazarus became ill, his sisters sent a message to Jesus, “... saying, 'Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick'" (John 11:1-3).
There was an expectation that Jesus would set out to see His friend as soon as He heard he was ill, but instead He waited two days, and during that time Lazarus died (verses 6-7 and 11). When Jesus arrived, although Lazarus had been dead for at least four days, Jesus urged Martha to have faith and believe in Him, assuring her, "Your brother will rise again" (verse 23).
Martha responded that she knew Lazarus would "rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (verse 24), as she was aware of God's promise of a resurrection at the end of the age, but she did not believe she would ever see her brother again in this life. Jesus encouraged her again, assuring her that: "I am the resurrection and the life: he who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die…." (verses 25-26).
When Jesus saw His friends weeping He "groaned in the spirit and was troubled. He asked, 'Where have you laid him?'" (verses 33-34). As was common practice, Lazarus was interred in a cave with a large rock covering the entrance to keep out predators. The rock was removed and, after a short prayer to His Father, Christ said in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!" (verse 43). A figure of a man then appeared, struggling to walk because he was still wrapped in the strips of linen in which he had been interred. And he…came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and … Jesus said to them, 'Loose him, and let him go.'" (verse 44).
When word of this remarkable event reached the religious authorities in Jerusalem, they regarded Jesus as a threat to their authority and began to plot His death. Little did anyone realize the stage was being set for another death and resurrection far more significant than that of Lazarus.
After Jesus Christ was crucified on the afternoon of Passover day, and Joseph of Arimathea had claimed his body, he hurriedly placed it in a tomb. It was already around 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and there was not much time before the "high day" (John 19:31), one of seven biblical annual sabbaths (Leviticus 23), began.
After the Sabbath was past "... Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him" (Mark 16:1). When the women arrived at the tomb, they discovered the stone had been rolled back and the tomb was empty. God had resurrected Jesus Christ as He had said would!
But what was the evidence of this miraculous event? It was not the empty tomb, or the announcement of an angelic being proclaiming that "He is not here, but is risen" (luke 24:6). Among the Gospel writers, only John records that when Simon Peter went into the tomb “...he saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the napkin which had been round His head, not with the wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself” (John 20.6-7).
What Peter and John saw was a neat, collapsed cloth form. The grave clothes were lying in their regular folds as if the body of Jesus had simply evaporated out of them. This resurrection was not like that of Lazarus, this was the resurrection of a spirit body (1 Corinthians 15:44).
In a footnote on John 20:7 The Companion Bible explains John's original wording "implies that the cloth had been folded round the head as a turban is folded, and that it lay still in the form of a turban. The linen clothes also lay exactly as they were when swathed round the body. The Lord had passed out of them, not needing as Lazarus (John 11:44), to be loosed. It was this sight that convinced John (v. 8)."
The Apostle John recorded significant differences in these two resurrections. In the first, the stone covering of the tomb was removed so Lazarus could get out. The stone covering of the other was rolled back, not so Jesus could get out, but so the disciples could see inside and then draw the inescapable conclusion that Jesus had already gotten out! Of the two who were entombed, the first had to have others remove the wrappings so he could walk about. The other did not, for He had passed through His wrappings in a body of spirit.
Later John made it clear that Christ's true followers will likewise be resurrected to immortal spirit life: "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! ... now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure" (1 John 3:1-3).
The Good News Magazine (Mar-Apr, 2001)