John 11 — thoughts and questions

For foundational reading for this blogpost, I would point non-regular readers also to the prior posts:

So many good church kids memorize John 11:35.  Do you remember what that “verse”¹ states?  More important:  do you have a sense of its context?  What is John saying about Jesus in this section of the gospel?  There’s more than the act of weeping here.

Ratcheting up.  It seems to me, having spent some time in John 8 through 11 during the last couple of months, that chapter 11 constitutes some ratcheting-up.  Incidentally, a similar chrono-literary phenomenon may be seen in passages from Mark, as Jesus tells the disciples what’s going to be happening to Him.  In each successive telling (8:31-32, 9:31, and 10:33-34), the details are clearer, and the mood, heightened.  Here in John, we have a rather extended focus on a single incident, not unlike chapter 9’s healing of the blind man.  But the rhetoric in chapter 11 heightens the intensity, edging us toward the (literal)² “belief crucible” that is to come at the time of the Passion.  We might say that the magnifying glass comes out, and we look more intently into the faith of Mary and Martha than we looked into that of the blind man.  The comparison is sharp in 11:37, where Jesus’ power is figuratively “thrown down” for both them and us to believe in (or not).  The tenor of chapter 11 is more intense, more theological, more personally consequential.

Finer points.  The themes of death and resurrection are of course present in this story, and the death concept might be even stronger when specific words are noticed — such as the four different (primarily, two) Greek words translated “death,” “die,” etc.  The topic is present in many of John’s sections:  chapters 4,5,6,8,11,12,18,19,21; concentrations may be seen in chapters 8 and 11-12.  Following the crucifixion, we also have the curious conversation with Peter that mentions three times the kind of death he was to die.  Sleep and waking, by the way, are not major concepts in John, appearing only here in chapter 11.

11:9-11 seems to recall the events and words of chapter 9:3-5.  In both places, Jesus calls attention to light/day vs. dark/night, and doing the works of God in the day.  The thrust of making the most of time by working is present, as is the implication that Jesus is the light of the world — which harks³ back to the chapter 1 prologue.

We cannot miss the obvious prefiguring of Jesus’ tomb in 11:38-39.  Compare 19:40-20:10 . . . although it seems, at a glance, that Matthew and Mark make more of the stone and the tomb than Luke or John.

The glory of God is again a theme, manifested in the words of 11:4 and 11:40.  (In a negative sense, in 9:24, the Jews had pointed to God’s glory.)  There seems to be a literary development to note:  here, for the first time in 11:4, the glorification of the Father is tied to glorification of the Son.  Actually, more accurately, I should say that the stage was set for this linkage way back in 1:14 and 2:11, but in the narrative progression, Jesus is not again linked to glory — a concept that, not inconsequentially, has some strong Jewish background — until 11:4.  Then, here in 11:40, God’s glory is notably enveloped in belief — belief in what the Son is about to accomplish.

The narrative’s drama has reached its apex as Jesus commands loudly, “Lazarus, come forth.”  The details provided by John are matter-of-fact, yet significant: 1) Lazarus had died, and 2) his feet and hands were bound, and his face was wrapped.

11:45 points up the continuing, conflictual separation between those that believe and those that don’t.  The latter individuals become the tattlers, and the Jews convened a council.  The major Bible versions are divided on whether this reference is to the Sanhedrin or a common-noun, ad hoc sort of council.

The very prophetic words of Caiaphas (“. . . expedient . . . that one man should die for the people . . . “) are intriguing.  Further investigation is called for:  e.g., into

  • the use of prophecy in John
  • the portrayals of Caiaphas and the S/sanhedrin
  • any other “legal proceedings” in John’s narrative.

Moreover, the mention in v. 52 of gathering together all the children of God seems to hint at inclusion of more than merely the scattered Jews, a la the “other sheep” of 10:16.

The starkly described homicidal plot (11:53) is not lost on even a casual reader, but the exegetically based student of the book-level context of John can discern more in terms of narrative progression in the final section of John 11.

As the murderous intent is solidified, and as we are told that Jesus no longer appears publicly, we are brought to a time just one week out from the crucifixion — reminding us that timetables and sequences in gospel records are not “to scale.”  In other words, the last 10 chapters (nearly half) of John are given to the last week of Jesus’ life.

Next in series:  John 5-7

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¹ “Verse” is here in quotes because there were no verse delineations in the original text, and I think it does us good to realize that these sometimes-artificial designations can serve as distractors.

² “Crucible” is of course related to “crucify” and “crux.”  This use of “literally” is appropriate, I suggest — unlike so many others.  (“I was, like, literally pumped up after we won the game.”  “I’m literally as healthy as a horse.  The doctor said my heart could literally pump rainwater back up the downspout.”)

³ I like indulging in minor notes on punctuation, capitalization, and usage from time to time — in the midst of more important matters.  (This potentially annoying tendency on my part has become a trademark, I suppose.)  “Harks back” means what I want it to mean here, while the more common “hearkens back” is a misuse.  “Hearken” means “to listen.”  Reference.  While I’m here . . . “refer back” is redundant.  “Refer” by itself is always sufficient.

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