Wednesday, October 15, 2014

St. Lazarus of Bethany:4 Days Dead and the Friend of Jesus by Chris White

The story of St. Lazarus is forever intertwined with his personal friendship with Jesus of Nazareth and the miracle wrought on his behalf by the Lord.  Lazarus, whose name means “God Helps”, and his two older sisters Martha and Mary are some of the few people we know by name who were actually personal friends of the Lord.  They had a large home in Bethany (2 miles from Jerusalem) which Jesus visited several times and we know that during Passion week it is likely this same home that served as headquarters for Him and the other disciples.

Mary, Martha and Jesus
From what we read in the Gospels, Jesus loved all three of this family which shows his love and appreciation for the different varieties of personalities one finds in the world.  Mary, the quiet one, Martha the busy and active one, and Lazarus, the retiring one, all have a place in his accepting love.  In John’s gospel chapter 11 we read that Lazarus fell sick and his sisters sent for Jesus to come, but Jesus delays coming to his sickbed for the purpose of working his greatest miracle (aside from His own resurrection).

When Jesus arrives in Bethany from Galilee he finds himself at a house of mourning.  In this we learn a couple of things about the customs surrounding death in this culture and time.  First of all Martha is surrounded by mourners as she greets Jesus.   It was the sacred duty of Jews to come and assist a family in mourning.  They would accompany to the grave and file around the family of the deceased and speak to them words of consolation.

 Alfred Edersheim notes that Lazarus, though a friend and follower of Jesus, was not considered an apostate in his synagogue.  For in the time of Jesus there was an elaborate code of behavior surrounding the death of someone in the synagogue that had apostasized or was considered fallen away from God.  They would dress in white, and instead of being somber, they would be festive and full of laughter.  It was to show complete disrespect to the dead to be glad they were gone.  Obviously Lazarus had lived a good and holy life and was being mourned appropriately in his passing.

Jesus’ delay in coming was neither neglect nor a denial of their request.  The sisters believed if the Lord just heard about it, he would make the illness go away.  Jesus did come but his delay was purposeful that it might glorify God and sharpen the faith of his friends and followers.  There is reason to believe that the Jews held the belief that the spirit of a person hovered over the body until the end of the third day when corruption set in.  Jesus made certain that it was understood by all that Lazarus was sleeping in the dust of death.

Lazarus Tomb in Holy Land

In the Bible, we are given nothing about Lazarus as to what he said or did.  We are told by the Apostle John that Jesus loved him deeply and wept over him as he stood at the door of his tomb.  Did he weep over what Lazarus had gone through in the journey of death or was he weeping because of what this would cost Lazarus personally to return from the grave and leave heaven behind.

Jesus then had, to the horror of the family because of the odor, the door of the tomb opened, and after a prayer, called Lazarus by name to come forth.  If you believe Jesus is who He said He was, the specificity of the name being called becomes an important detail.  Had Jesus said “come forth” all the dead in the family tomb would have come back to life.   Thus we read that only Lazarus came forth and needed to be unbound from his burial linens and was restored to his sisters and friends to the astonishment of nearly everyone.

Our curiosity about this experience is not satisfied.  We know nothing of what Lazarus experienced or if he even had a memory of it.  We know nothing of whether his values or thinking in any way changed through this experience.  What we do learn are a couple of things here:

1. That the wisdom of divine love does not always shield its subjects from suffering, sorrow, and    death.  The Lord sometimes puts His loved ones in uncomfortable places for a greater purpose.

2. Man and God are combined in the miracle.  As the man, Jesus sympathizes in our sorrows, as God he has the power to banish them.

3. He alone is the resurrection and the life.  He is our resurrection and he is our life.  When we die, we are beyond the help of anyone except the one who has the power to raise from the dead.  What we know from Lazarus’ resurrection is that in like manner, the Lord will come for us in our death.

Like everything related to Jesus’ life and ministry, this event brought about different responses from different people.  Some who witnessed this miracle believed in Jesus completely, while others for fear that Jesus would surpass their place in the religious establishment began plotting immediately to have Jesus murdered (which eventually took place not long afterward in Jerusalem).  Still others plotted to kill Lazarus as well to destroy him as evidence of Christ’s power to raise people from the dead.

From this point we move beyond the pages of scripture to the traditions of the church about what happened to Lazarus after this event.  It is believed he was raised from the dead at age 30 and lived an additional 30 years.  There is also a legend that Lazarus never smiled again the remainder of his life because he knew that once again he would have to undergo death.  From here the story of Lazarus of Bethany diverges in two directions that might be contradictory but also might be true with a little reconciliation.

 According to one version of the story, Lazarus escaped to Cyprus because of death threats by the Jews.  When he arrived, he was appointed by Paul and Barnabas (who first brought Christianity to Cyprus) as the bishop of Kition (modern-day Larnaca).  There he lived out the remainder of his days and died being buried inside the church he had led for so many years.  Later, representatives of the Eastern Roman Emperor came in search of his relics taking at least some of his bones from Cyprus to Constantinople to be placed in a new cathedral there.

Another version of the story is that the Jews in a rage put Lazarus, Martha, and Mary to sea in a boat with no oars or sails and they drifted to France where they lived the remainder of their lives with Lazarus preaching and becoming the bishop of Marseille.  There is also a legend that he died as a martyr after making many converts in Gaul.  There is a tomb to St. Lazare that possibly contains bones taken from Constantinople in the 4th Crusade (1204 AD) by the Franks as the spoils of war.  This would explain their presence in France.

At first these might seem like contradictory facts but both are certainly possible.  In the Mediterranean of Lazarus’ day, travel from Judea to Marseille and back again could have been done readily over the sea.  Could it be that he never went back to Judea for fear of the Jews and lived in Cyprus until his death but indeed had gone to France first?

There is another story that Lazarus longed to visit with Mary the mother of Jesus, whom he knew and sent her a letter.  She wouldn’t think of him coming to see her because of the danger in Jerusalem but offered to come to Cyprus.  Lazarus being a man of means sent a boat for her and John the Apostle whom Jesus had placed in charge of his mother’s care.  The boat was blown off course by a storm and they ended up in Ephesus (Asia Minor) but eventually did visit Cyprus.  It is said the bishop’s robe that Lazarus wore was made by hand and given to him by Mary.

Lazarus Church in Cyprus

Today’s Church of Lazarus in Larnaca is a beautiful and peaceful place.  At the front of the nave is a reliquary with part of a skull bone visible that was taken from the tomb of Lazarus beneath the church.  An inscription reads “Lazarus, 4 days dead and the friend of Jesus”.  I have visited this wonderful church and consider it a great place to pray and meditate on the wonderful story of this resurrection miracle performed by Jesus on his dear friend. 

As we must all contemplate our own mortality it is especially comforting to know the Lord who calls us His friends, is one and the same as who called forth Lazarus.   For this story is the story of everyone who dies in the grace of Christ.


Blaiklock, E. M.  Today’s Handbook of Bible Characters.  (Minneapolis : Bethany House Publishing, 1979)
Edersheim, Alfred.  The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.  (McClean : McDonald Publishing, 1886)
“Lazarus”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.  McClintock and Strong Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1981)
“Lazarus of Bethany”  Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible Vol. 2   Walter A. Elwell Ed. (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 1988)
“Lazarus of Bethany”  Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.  Green, McKnight, and Marshall Eds.  (Downers Grove:  Intervarsity, 1992)
Lockyer, Herbert  All the Miracles of the Bible.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1961)

1 comment:

  1. Icon of St Lazarus by the hand of Julia Bridget Hayes