Why Did Jesus Wait?

A Jewish tomb from the 2nd Temple period (Photo: Tom Powers from http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/)

John tells the story of the death and subsequent resurrection of Lazarus, whose name means in Hebrew “My God is my help”. The author warns the reader that what he is about to find out would not make sense, unless the reader would keep in mind that that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus (John 11:5).

What was the problem exactly?

When all personal and communal means were exhausted and Lazarus’ health still took a sharp turn for the worst, Mary and Martha thought of the obvious – they must let their now famous miracle-working rabbi-friend know, so that he can come as soon as was possible to help Lazarus.

This is where the stunning detail I want to bring to your attention occurs:

When Jesus got that message, he decided to stay where he was for two more days (John 11:6).

If we are reading this text honestly, we would probably not be moved to open a hymnal and sing the famous hymn: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” at this point in the story just yet. However, there is something very important from Jewish culture and context that we are missing here that will help us to make sense of this story.

We read in Jerusalem Talmud: For the first three days after death the soul floats above the body, thinking that it will return to the body. When the soul sees the body, that the appearance of the face has changed, it leaves the body and goes its way. (Yebamot 16:3)

But was this idea present in Jerusalem Talmud was already there at the time of Jesus? The answer is yes!

In a fairly recent discovery of an ancient stone, found in the same geographic location where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were also found, there is an intriguing phrase that can be translated as: “In three days, live, I, Gabriel, command you” (Gabriel’s Revelation Stone, Israel Museum). While resurrection of Lazarus is surely not the event described there, the discovery shows that the idea of resurrection within three days was not a foreign concept to the ancient Jews.

Jesus waited for two more days, timing his arrival in such a way that he got to Bethany on the fourth day – when resurrection was no longer possible! When Lazarus was finally resurrected a very important point emerged – resurrection is not something that Jesus does, resurrection is something that Jesus is (John 11:17-40).

This article originally appeared on Israel Study Center and reposted with permission.