(WT): Jesus Raises Lazarus ~ Bible Background and Lesson Set Objectives

Rotation.org Writing Team

Jesus Raises Lazarus

"I am the resurrection and the life"

Bible Background and Lesson Set Objectives


John 11:1-44

Key/Memory Verse: 

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die;  and those who live and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25,26 (Good News)

See the next post in this topic about why we recommend the Good News translation for this particular story.

Lesson Set Objectives

Students will:

  • Be able to find the story in the Gospel of John.
  • Be able to retell the story in their own words.
  • Appreciate that Jesus had close friends and he had emotions like us, including sadness and grief.
  • Believe that the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead demonstrates Jesus' power over life and death, including their own.
  • Believe, find comfort, and hope in the promise of their own resurrection from the dead.
  • Understand the "binding" visual metaphor that's often discussed in the story, that like Lazarus, we are too "bound" by sin and death without the saving love of Jesus Christ.


The story of Lazarus is one of the most important stories in the New Testament, and here's why:

1. In the story of Lazarus, Jesus directly and unequivocally asks the central question of our faith: "Do you believe?"

2. In the story of Lazarus, Jesus answers life's biggest question: what happens when you die? 

The Message of the Story

With a story so full of scenes, characters, dialog, and action, it's easy to lose sight of the central claim and question Jesus puts before us in John 11:25-26. 

I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; 
and those who live and believe in me will never die.
Do you believe this?

The claim and question about resurrection and whether we believe Jesus or not are not merely central to this story, they are THE central question and claim of our Faith and our own personal stories.

Most Gospel miracles are meant to reveal a glimpse of the identity of Jesus to his followers, on-lookers, and readers. But rarely does Jesus tell us what the miracle is intended to do –which is exactly what he does in the opening verses of the story. “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him. ... so that you may believe." 

And more than just revealing his identity as Messiah, in this miracle Jesus announces that he is the giver of eternal life. This is an Empty Tomb miracle–and not just that of Lazarus!- but our own empty tomb as well. 

This miracle story answers the most profound question facing every mortal: What happens when we die?  In that sense, short of the Easter story itself, the raising of Lazarus may be the most important miracle story in the Bible because in it Jesus answers that profound question.

Jesus promises eternal life and then asks the big question: "Do you believe it?

"Do you believe this?" Jesus says to Martha.  "Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.

Did Martha really understand what she was saying or believing?  Probably not. Do any of us? Jesus has to show them. Jesus is the One who shows us.

This story isn't going to explain everything about resurrection. The New Testament will spend a hundred more verses trying to fathom it. But one thing is for sure, if you believe it, then it's the best news you could ever hear. Resurrection is the fulfillment of the promise made by Gabriel to Mary, "Be not afraid, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all people."

Do you have to "believe" to be resurrected?

A lot of ink has been spilled on that subject. Did Lazarus "believe this" about Jesus prior to being resurrected?  Probably not, and here's why.  Nobody else in the story knew ahead of time either!  Not the disciples (who thought they were going to die), or Mary and Martha (Jesus' good friends who had wished he'd come earlier before it was "too late"), and none of the Jews in the crowd (who also thought Jesus could have saved Lazarus before he died).  

None of them "believed in Jesus" in that way. 

"Jesus, “if you had been here,
my brother would not have died." (v21 and v32)

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man
have kept this man from dying?” (v37)

Then Thomas said to the rest of the disciples,
“Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (v16)

Nobody, not even his closest friends, seems to know who Jesus really is until Jesus reveals his true identity to them. It reminds us that "believing" is not entirely learned, it is a gift that is revealed to us. (And many scriptures say as much.)  Just like it was a gift revealed to all those gathered that day around Lazarus' tomb. Grace is not earned, it is accepted.

Resurrection comes from God as an undeserved and incomprehensible gift that helps us to believe.  We are not here to earn eternal life, but to spread the good news of it.

Believe in me, Jesus said, and you have nothing to fear, including death itself. 

Lost? I will find you.
Blind? I will help you see.
Doubt? I can take care of that.
In hell? Its gates cannot stand against my will.

This is not merely "good" news, it's the greatest "news of a great joy for all people."
And if you believe it, then your mortal fears are over, and your resurrection to new life has begun.

But what if you don't believe? The story is comfort to non-believers as well, because non-believers are why Jesus came to Bethany in the first place. Nobody there expected this kind of Lord. God's love is relentless. Four days he waited, but then he came. We trust that God will reveal his glory to all in his own time, so that every knee will bow and tongue confess Jesus Christ.

Sin, Death, and Resurrection

Taking place in the Gospel of John about a month before Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, Lazarus' resurrection foreshadows the coming death and resurrection of Jesus and the message that the power of sin and death has been destroyed.

The old belief was that sin was a kind of entropy–an evil force of its own that eventually brought your life to a halt. In the early days of the Old Testament faith, you bought time through sacrifice—appeasing God's wrath. The hope for an afterlife was slow to evolve in the Old Testament. Early on it was more of a shadowy existence, a "Sheol" which was something like a shadowy land of the dead. Over time, and with influence from Persian and Greek conceptions of the afterlife, there emerged a late-Judaic concept of the afterlife and resurrection that sounds more familiar to us: heaven, hell, resurrection, judgment. 

By the time of Jesus, there was still debate about what happens when you die—as heard in the disagreements between the Pharisees and Sadducees—the latter not believing in a resurrection. Jesus squarely sides with the Pharisees on the issue of life after death and resurrection, but breaks with the Pharisees over the concept of "worthiness." Under their old Covenant, righteousness was earned. Under Christ's new Covenant, righteousness was given. Forgiveness and grace abound.

What to tell our children?

A survey of New Testament scriptures about the resurrection reveals a difference of opinion about "who" will be resurrected and "when" it will take place. Is it for everyone? Or just believers? Will we have the opportunity to repent after we die? Suffice to say that if you can't find a verse to support your own interpretation of the resurrection, you're not looking very hard. 

As Bible Background writers coming from the Reformed tradition, we join with Paul who believed that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8). And that we should look forward to the day when death is banished for all and "every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2 and Romans 14).  Especially when teaching the tender faith of children, we err on the side of grace, not judgment.

 Be sure to check with your pastor about your church's tradition and understanding of these subjects. And keep in mind Jesus' inclusive and loving approach to sinners, especially when teaching your children. Jesus came to sow love and hope, not fear. He is the Good Shepherd who looks for the lost until he finds them—every last one (Luke 15). 

We are all Lazarus

While the story is an important teaching about resurrection, we also can't lose sight that, other than Jesus, the central character of the story is Lazarus. And in many ways, Lazarus is a stand-in for each of us. 

 We are "Lazarus" because his name literally means "helped by God." Lazarus' name is the Greek form of the Hebrew name "Eleazar," which means “helped by God.”

  • How does this story help you?
  • How does resurrection help you?

Jesus is our friend
.  Lazarus was the friend of Jesus and brother of Mary and Martha. They lived in Bethany, a small town about two miles from Jerusalem on the eastern edge of the Mount of Olives, and often welcomed Jesus and his disciples to their home and table. 

  • Are you a "close friend" of Jesus?
  • How does Jesus try to get "close" to you?  How could you get "closer" to Jesus?

We are going to die.
Without Jesus, we are bound by death and oblivion.

  • Have you ever known someone who died? How did it make you feel? 
  • Have you ever been afraid of dying? What comfort does Jesus want to give you?

We are beloved by Jesus and he feels our pain. Jesus felt sorrow and pain over Lazarus' death and his friends' grief. He was "greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved" (v 33). They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” (and) Jesus began to weep (v 34-25).

  • Why do you think Jesus loves us so much?
  • What do people do that makes Jesus sad?

We do not deserve what Jesus gives us.
Lazarus said and did nothing to deserve his resurrection, it was a gift from Jesus to show "God's glory" (v4).

  • What have you done to deserve eternal life?
  • How does it make you feel knowing you will live with God?
  • What do you most look forward to asking God or doing in heaven?



Living a Resurrected Life Now

  • How was Lazarus' life changed after his resurrection?
  • How should your life be different now—knowing that death is not the end, but a new beginning of life with God? 
  • What attitudes, people, or situations in your life make you feel "bound" like Lazarus, holding you back from living a fuller life, from being who Jesus wants you to be?
  • What kinds of situations or problems feel like "tombs"–dark places, sealed up, hopeless-and how do you ask Jesus to open those tombs?
  • What would you say about the resurrection to someone who had terminal cancer or was about to die?
  • How can you live your life to signal the hope you have for a heaven that's coming? 
  • How can the way you deal with your own death be a witness to others about your great hope in the resurrection?
  • In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray for his Kingdom to come on earth as it was in heaven. We are supposed to be trying to make earth more like heaven. How can we do that?

Death and Burial

Many people fear death, fight against it, and go to great lengths to avoid it. How does believing in the resurrection change our fear and change our attitude about life?

In scripture, death is seen as the ultimate enemy. Being near it made you "unclean." By touching the dead and raising the dead back to life, Jesus demonstrates that death has no power over us. God is in control, NOT death, not sin, not our failings (for all fall short). Because of the resurrection, death does not cut us off from God's love. Instead, death is only a reminder in this life of the great debt we owe to God and joy which is to come, and the importance of treasuring those we love.

Jewish burials took place on the day of death due to rapid decomposition of bodies in the heat. The bodies were washed and rubbed with spices and scented oils. Sticky, strong-smelling ointments were then layered between long thin linen strips and wrapped tightly around the body. The limbs were kept straight and the chin and cheeks were wrapped to keep the mouth closed. A napkin or white linen square, possibly a yard square, was placed over the head or wrapped around it. This process of caring for the dead bodies rendered a person ritually unclean and required an elaborate and time-consuming procedure to restore cleanliness. But notice that Jesus showed no reluctance toward touching the bodies of the dead, sick, or injured, or approaching Lazarus' tomb (another example of the new understandings that Jesus brought). 

Once the bodies were prepared, they were taken in a funeral procession to the tomb, accompanied by family, friends, and even “professional mourners” hired to assist in the public grieving. Comforting and visiting the family of the deceased was considered an essential duty of piety for Jewish people. The first week of mourning or “shivah” (meaning seven days) is still practiced in Judaism today.

The dead bodies were then placed in a tomb, typically in a hillside cave. A large stone was rolled in a groove along the entrance to close the opening and thus prevent animals or grave robbers from entering. The bodies were left in place for one year, after which the family returned to collect the bones and place them in a box in a niche in the cave wall. Tombs typically could hold the remains of up to thirteen bodies.

In one of this set's lesson plans, we're going to get into how they prepared a body for burial in the time of Jesus. That lesson and every other one in this set will not look away from the uncomfortable "reality of mortality." Doing so would be a disservice to the scripture and our hope. But it will be up to you the teacher to handle the subject with care.

All of us are at a disadvantage when it comes to the subject of death because we live in a time when it is not part of most people's everyday lives. In pre-modern times, children were much more aware of the reality of death and the grief and loss it caused. Now in most modern parts of the world, we can keep death at an arm's length through hopsices and funeral homes, increased life-spans, medications, hospitals, and a social safety net that helps shield us from what our ancestors experienced. Thus, as Sunday School teachers, we seek to help our children grasp a sense of their own mortality and the reality of death, in order to highlight how wonderful Christ's ultimate gift–the gift of resurrection, really is.

It is our prayer that in these lessons both students and teachers will find the opportunity to discuss and contemplate life's most important subject and God's greatest gift.

Written by Jaymie Derden and Neil MacQueen
Copyright Rotation.org Inc.


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