John 11:38-44, Lazarus Come Out

by Tony Miano

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me." When he has said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out." 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 11:38-44).

This is one of the best-known stories of the New Testament, even among those who do not profess to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Lazarus and Jesus were friends. Mary and Martha were Lazarus' sisters. Lazarus became very ill, so the sisters sent for Jesus, hoping he would heal their brother. But Jesus did not rush to Lazarus' bedside. He delayed two full days before making his way to his sick friend. Along the way, Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus had died. In so doing, Jesus gave yet another example of his deity, through His omniscience. Jesus said, "Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him" (John 11:14b-15).

When Jesus arrived, both Mary and Martha came to him.  They were disappointed and said that if Jesus that had he arrived sooner their brother would have lived. Jesus assured them that their brother would rise again. He asked to be taken where Lazarus was buried. What happened next is the miraculous, bodily resurrection of Lazarus.

There are several points in this story that attest to the deity of Christ. Jesus knew Lazarus had died before anyone told him. Jesus knew Lazarus would come back to life. Jesus assured Martha that those who, by faith, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ would never experience spiritual death. Only God could give such an assurance. And finally, Jesus brought a dead man back to life. This is something only Almighty God could do.

Lazarus was dead. He had no heartbeat. He was not breathing. He had no brain function. His body, after four days in the tomb, would likely have begun to show signs of decay. Lazarus was dead.

What could Lazarus have done four days after his death to bring himself back to life? Could he have willed himself to start breathing again? Could he have told his heart, "Beat?" Of course not.

Lazarus' physical condition was consistent with his spiritual condition, and it is consistent with the spiritual condition of every human being before God sovereignly and graciously saves him or her. Lazarus was not only dead physically, but apart from saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, he was also spiritually dead. That is the case with every person who is not born again.

"And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience--among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind," (Ephesians 2:1-3).

Salvation is Entirely the Work of God

"Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people," (Psalm 3:9; see also Jonah 2:9). Salvation is entirely the work of God. Man does not participate in his salvation, and the story of Lazarus serves as a beautiful illustration of this profound and essential truth.

Many Christians believe salvation is a works-free process in which a person repents and believes the gospel, and as a result receives the free gift of eternal life. Of course, I agree that salvation is by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone -- free from any works performed by the one receiving the gift of eternal life. 

Lazarus was a dead man. There was absolutely nothing he could do to cause or assist in his physical resurrection from the dead. Lazarus could not obey Jesus' command to come out of the tomb until God first made him alive again. Such is the case with salvation also. Since there is no good and no inherent desire to seek after the things of God in man (Romans 3:10-12), and since he is dead in his trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-3), man cannot and will not, of his own will and accord, initiate salvation by choosing to repent and believe the gospel.

But people do choose to repent and believe, don't they? Yes. Every born-again follower of Jesus Christ, at one point in his or her life, repented and believed the gospel. But it was not his/her repentance and faith that led to his/her salvation. A person repents and believes the gospel as a result, as the first-fruits of the gracious, merciful, and loving God breathing new spiritual life into him. Until God, by His supernatural and miraculous power, breathes new life into a person; until God the Father, through faith in God the Son, and by the power of God the Holy Spirit causes a person to be born again, a person cannot and will not repent and believe the gospel. God, according to His sovereign will and divine plan, uses the verbal and/or written proclamation of His gospel to bring about the first fruits of genuine repentance and faith in those whom He has caused to be born again--caused to be made spiritually alive.

What About Free Will? 

Those who disagree with this theological position, believing that it is a person's free will choice to repent and believe, leading to their salvation, are faced with an insurmountable dilemma. "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 1:18; 2:14).

If a person is made alive in Christ as a result of repenting of his sin and believing the gospel, then how can a spiritually dead person make such a good decision on his own? How can people who, in and of themselves, have no good in them (and "good" is defined as moral perfection according to God's holy standard of goodness) and on their own cannot seek after God (Rom. 3:10-12) make the good decision to choose salvation in Jesus Christ? How can a spiritually dead person see the message of the cross as anything other than foolishness when the Word of God makes it clear that the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing? Until God makes a person alive in Christ, that person is counted among the perishing; because how can a natural man, dead in his trespasses and sins, discern and accept that which is spiritual--namely the message of salvation by and through Jesus Christ alone?

The clear and inescapable answer to these questions is that a dead person cannot and will not do anything a living person can do--and that includes obeying the physical command to come out of a tomb, or the spiritual command to repent and believe the gospel (Rom. 3:10-12; 1 Cor. 2:14; John 6:65). Man's depravity and spiritual deadness prevent him from responding by faith to God's loving call to come out of the tomb of sin and death and into everlasting life, in Jesus Christ.

Not only does man's depravity prevent him from choosing salvation, but it is God's divine, predetermined, and unconditional election that is the only way by which man can be chosen for salvation. Lazarus would not have been brought back to life unless Jesus Christ had chosen to bring Himself and the Father glory by raising Lazarus from the dead. Remember what Jesus said when told about the illness of Lazarus. "But when Jesus heard it he said, 'This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it'" (John 11:4). God, and God alone, determines who will be saved, and God made that determination in eternity past (Ephesians 1:3-14).

It was God's Will to Save Lazarus

It was not Lazarus' will to live that saved him. It was God's will to save Lazarus that saved him (John 1:12-13; Titus 3:4-7).

Finally, the story of the physical resurrection of Lazarus serves as a testimony of the irresistible grace of God. Having been made alive again by God, and having been commanded by the One who saved him to come out of the tomb, Lazarus had no choice but to respond as he did. He gladly came out of the tomb. Think about it. If you were dead and buried for four days and you were miraculously raised from the dead, would you elect to remain in the tomb? Would you choose to remain buried alive wrapped in the putrid garments of death and decay? Of course not.

So irresistible was the gift of life that Lazarus could not help but obey Christ's command to come out of the tomb. It is likewise true of those God has lovingly and sovereignly chosen to make alive in Christ--to be born again. All of those to whom God gives new life in Christ will respond with repentance and faith and become imitators of Christ--loving Him and loving to keep His commandments (John 14:23-24, et. al). "For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of me we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word with much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia" (1 Thessalonians 1:4-7). The gift of eternal life, the gracious and loving gift of salvation, is so irresistible and so precious that no dead person made alive in Christ will ever reject it or discard it after receiving it.

If a person could resist the manifold grace of God and His sovereign choice to save a person, then, in that theological construct, it is man who is sovereign, not God. But only God is sovereign. It was by the will of God that He crushed His own Son to make possible the redemption, justification, sanctification, and eventual glorification of sinners (Isaiah 53:10). Likewise, it is by that same sovereign and omnipotent will that any person receives so great a gift--the gift of eternal life.

I love the story of Lazarus. It serves as a beautiful and loving reminder of my own depravity and inability to save myself or keep myself alive spiritually. It reminds me of the sovereign power of Almighty God who alone has the power and ability to save sinners. Finally, it reminds me of the amazing and irresistible grace my Lord and Savior has lavished upon a wretch like me.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.