Jesus Encounters Martha

John 11: 21 – 22

resurrectionlifeWhen Martha met Jesus, she repeated, in substance, what, in all probability, she had been saying so often during the illness of her brother. Then she—and also Mary (see on 11:32)—had been uttering the sigh of near-despair: “If only Jesus were here.” So now Martha says, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother would not have died.” This remark must not be viewed as an expression of reproach or resentment, as if Martha were saying, “Why did you have to dawdle for two whole days, remaining when you knew very well that we needed you so badly?” It is not the utterance of disappointment with Jesus. Martha knew very well that it would have been very difficult (if not actually impossible, except by means of a miracle) for Jesus to have reached the home at Bethany in time to heal Lazarus. Humanly speaking the message had arrived too late. Accordingly, we must look upon Martha’s words as the expression of poignant grief. Martha adds, And even now I know that whatever thou wilt ask of God, God will give thee. The striking character of this added statement must receive its full due. It is unrealistic to say that by means of these words Martha cannot have hinted that possibly Jesus might even bring Lazarus back to life. It is true that, on the surface, 11:24, 39 seem to point in the direction of the abandonment of present hope. But it must be borne in mind that a few days ago (day before yesterday?), Lazarus being already in the tomb, the messenger had returned from his interview with Jesus. And this was his message, quoting the words of the Lord: “This sickness is not unto death; on the contrary it is for the glory of God, in order that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” See on 11:4. We can imagine how again and again Martha, now that her brother was dead, had been repeating these strange, these very mysterious words, “This sickness is not unto death.” It is in that light that the words of verse 22 assume meaning: God will grant Jesus whatever he asks. In the mind of Martha, the raising of Lazarus is not excluded from this whatever.

In the heart of Martha the darkness of grief and the light of hope were engaged in deadly combat. Sometimes her lips gave expression to her near-despair, then again to her optimism. Hence, it is wrong, as we see it, to say that, in view of 11:24, 39, the words recorded in 11:22 must not be interpreted as the expression of half-revealed and half-concealed hope. Here is a woman, deeply emotional. Her soul is overcome by grief over the death of a brother whom she loved very dearly. But, here is also a disciple of Jesus, her soul filled with reverence for her Lord. Here is, consequently, a heart, stirred to its very depths, and swaying between grief and hope.

lazarusMartha looked upon the works of Jesus as done in answer to prayer. That was correct (see on 9:31). Nevertheless, when she said, “And even now I know that whatever thou wilt ask God, God will give to thee,” she used a word for prayer (αἰτέω: to ask) which Jesus never employed with reference to his own requests. The term which Martha used is proper upon the lips of an inferior asking a favor of a superior (4:9, 10; 14:13; 15:7, 16; 16:23, 24, 26). The term which Jesus employed with respect to his own requests generally implies the equality of the two persons (the one who makes the request and the one to whom it is made). The latter term (ἐρωτάω) means to make request, see on 14:16, 17:9, 15, 20; but also simply: to question or to inquire (in which sense it is proper on the lips of anyone), see on 16:19, 23. We might say, therefore, that Martha, who was about to make a beautiful confession with respect to Jesus, did not understand the full meaning of the relation between the Father and the Son. Nevertheless, the important fact to be emphasized is this, that in verse 22 the light of Martha’s faith, though still obscured by rising doubts, momentarily dispels the darkness of near-despair.

Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Vol. 2, pp. 147–149). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.