I can’t tell you how many times in decades of Bible study I have read the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead:
“When [Jesus] had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’” (John 11:43)
Confession: Every single time I’ve read or heard that story, the movie that plays in my head has Lazarus walking out triumphantly, arms raised in praise and smiling victoriously. Rays of heavenly light are streaming across the horizon behind him, and a crescendo of soul-stirring music magnifies the miracle.
As it turns out, my version is more Hollywood than history, because read the rest of the passage:
“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.” (John 11:44)
This is more like a Zombie movie than the angelic scene I’ve always pictured! Lazarus had been entombed for four days.
He was not newly-deceased, waiting for burial; he was dead and buried. Even his sister, the sensible Martha, cautioned Jesus with great understatement, “there will be an odor.”
Unfazed, Jesus promised she would see the glory of God displayed. Then Jesus prayed, called to Lazarus—and out came this mummy, still wrapped head-to-toe in linens! As if the emerging deadman were not terrifying enough, Jesus then turned to the people and instructed, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
It’s probably safe to say there wasn’t a rush to be the first to assist Lazarus.
Maybe it’s the contrast between my faulty rendering of the scene and the actual story, but I really pondered the story afterwards. Why leave the grave clothes? After all, Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus from decidedly dead to life. Surely He also could have raised him smelling all sweet and dressed in a less appalling outfit. Wouldn’t that have been an even more glorious, powerful, and decisive resurrection?
Except — just maybe — Jesus was revealing a much bigger picture than simply one resurrection at one point in time. Maybe Jesus had Lazarus leave the tomb in grave clothes to give an illustration for future believers.
Lazarus could represent many of us. Ephesians 2 teaches that prior to faith in Christ we are all spiritually dead, but because of God’s great mercy He makes us alive in Christ. When Jesus called him out of the tomb, Lazarus was unquestionably resurrected. He was alive. Likewise, when we turn from our sin and ourselves to trust Jesus, we are spiritually resurrected instantly.
But like Lazarus, some of us have been in the tomb a while. We stink.
Sometimes in our faith communities there will be people (like me) who fully trust Christ, but who initially come out of their spiritual tomb still wrapped in the grave clothes of deeply engrained sins, habitual attitudes, and ignorance. They are new creations, yet bound.
It is vital for us to realize that even though these believers are bound, they are absolutely alive in Christ despite their appearance. Christ provides justification at the moment of decision, but sanctification is a lifelong process, so redeemed sinners might not all fit the mold of sweet and shiny Sunday morning church goers. However, they are our brothers and sisters, whom we are commanded to love just as Jesus loved us.
In fact, according to this passage, what these believers need at this point is us. Because of the way grave clothes were applied, Lazarus was unable to loose himself from the linen wrappings that bound him. Jesus instructed those at the grave—Lazarus’ faith community—to “unbind him and let him go.”
This again is a vivid illustration. Jesus doesn’t ask His followers to unbind themselves. He did what only Christ can do when He died on the cross. His grace alone provides our justification. However, our relational God never intended for sanctification to be a solo act. For that, He gave us His Spirit, His Word and each other.
This somewhat alarming scene of Lazarus’ resurrection is a beautiful portrait of the way Christ calls us to live: praying for one another’s healing, mourning for spiritual “death,” and being willing to step in and unbind our brothers and sisters so that they can live freely. It’s perhaps not the miraculous way we might expect God to reveal His glory, but it is the way a watching world can understand.
Original article written by Grace Oviedo member Mary Odell.