“Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.” (13)
The disciples thought Jesus had told them that Lazarus was sleeping, not dead. He told them in verse 4 that the sickness would not lead to death and in verse 11 that Lazarus had fallen asleep.
Sleep is sometimes used as a metaphor for death. But not always. So should the disciples have had known that Lazarus wasn’t literally sleeping, but had actually died? Surely they had to be thinking, “but you just said our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep“, so how would we have known that you meant he was actually dead?
I’m pretty sure I would have been one saying, “he said the guy was asleep, so there’s nothing to worry about and there’s certainly no reason to return to Judea.” I most certainly would have not understood Jesus’ words as referring to the death of Lazarus.
Later Jesus tells them plainly that Lazarus is in fact dead. Why didn’t he just say so in the first place and avoid the confusion? That’s not intended to be a rhetorical question and this isn’t the first time Jesus speaks in a way that is misunderstood by his audience. It seems very intentional. But why?
Two stories seem to be unfolding here. The drama of the anticipated return to Judea with the disciples and the drama of a dying brother with the two sisters. Both stories seem to be headed toward a similar place: disappointment. Both the disciples and the sisters are turning to Jesus for answers and both seem to be equally confused by what Jesus is offering them.
Is it perhaps the case that Jesus is intentionally confusing both parties? But why would he do that?
The more understanding I have, the more the allusion that I am in control. Take away my understanding and I will, often, no longer feel in control. Take away my control and I’m left with despair or I am left trusting someone that is in control. It could very well be that Jesus is intentionally confusing his audiences in order to dispel the myth that they are able to control the situations they are experiencing. Those situations force them to recognize who Jesus is and what he is asking of them: to trust him and his control of the situation.
Here’s what they know:
1. Jesus loves them and has demonstrated this to them frequently
2. Jesus has power over things that they do not and has demonstrated this to them frequently (through the 6 prior miracles in the book of John for instance)
3. Jesus’ power over things puts him in control over those things
Here’s what is happening:
1. Events are occurring that are unpleasant
2. Jesus’ response is confusing
(to the sisters: why is he delaying?, to the disciples: why is he going to get us killed?)
There’s an application that I immediately find relevant because I can often relate to the two last points. Plenty of unpleasant events and subsequent confusion.