There is popular interpretation of John 11 (the death and resurrection of Jesus’ friend Lazarus) that goes something like this: Jesus heard the message that his friend Lazarus was sick, but decided to wait two days until Lazarus was dead (rather than going immediately to heal him) before going to him and raising him from the dead. This interpretation then needs an explanation for why Jesus waited for Lazarus to die, which is usually along the lines of either: a) so that God would get greater glory (v4); b) for some greater purpose of teaching/training/revelation, e.g. to stretch the disciples faith; c) a mysterious purpose that we cannot understand/should not question.
I’m not in any way trying to put this across in an emotive way or as a silly interpretation — it’s one that almost all christians I’ve ever heard talk about this passage assume/accept, and one that I would have assumed must be more or less correct at one time.
The problem for me is not any emotional or wider theological objection that this interpretation might present to me or anyone else (although it doubtless raises theological problems). The problem for me is that it is simply exegetically not the best reading of the text. So here is a summary of what I consider to be a far better exegetical reading of the events of John 11, both in its immediate and wider context in the gospel of John, and paying close attention to the details of the text:
The context of this passage is that Jesus was travelling away from Jerusalem (and Bethany) because the Jews were trying to kill him. There are two themes that run throughout John’s gospel which are particularly relevant here. Firstly, Jesus keeps travelling up to Jerusalem and down to Galilee (although Galilee was in the north and Jerusalem in the south, Jerusalem was on a hill), a regular journey that would have been normal for a devout Jew observing the Jewish festivals in Jerusalem, and which we do not read about in the other three gospels (eg 2:13; 4:1-3; 5:1; 6:1; 7:10; 11:55).
The second is that Jesus (presumably praying, listening to the Father, and somehow only doing what he sees the Father doing: 5:17, 19-20) is waiting for the right time to go to Jerusalem and die, ready to lay down his life but avoiding reaching the climax of his ministry too early and dying prematurely. Therefore, as antipathy from the Jews grows, the specific reason for him leaving Jerusalem becomes that the Jews were seeking to kill him (4:1-3; 7:1; 10:39-40). These two themes come together in chapter 7:1-10, where Jesus is walking in Galilee and not Judea because the Jews are seeking to kill him (7:1), tells his brothers he won’t go to the feast in Jerusalem because the time is not right (7:4-8), but then goes up in secret (7:10).
When Jesus hears the news about Lazarus, He is staying away from Jerusalem beyond the Jordan because the Jews are seeking to seize him and it is not yet time for him to die (10:39-40; 11:54). So the idea of Jesus going back to Jerusalem not only seems mad to His disciples (11:8), but to Jesus it goes completely against the plan — led by the Father (everything he does is led by the Father), He is deliberately staying away from Jerusalem because they want to kill him. So when verse 6 says that Jesus ‘stayed two days in the place where He was’, it is not that the obvious thing was for Him to go to Jerusalem, but He chose to stay for two days — the overwhelmingly obvious thing for Jesus to do — and what He was in fact doing — was to go away from Jerusalem. He was deliberately moving away from Jerusalem. In doing so, His usual pattern was to go back to Galilee in the north, but perhaps as the temperature is really rising now, and the Jews are after Him and know where He could be found in Galilee, He instead goes beyond the Jordan (10:39-40) and is perhaps heading out into the wilderness as He eventually does at the end of chapter 11 (v54). The disciples were shocked that He would even consider going back to Jerusalem (11:8), and believe that it will end in certain death not only for Him, but for themselves (v16).
So this is no easy decision, and Jesus has a great deal to contemplate — is now the moment to ride into Jerusalem and die? According to 10:39-40 and 11:54 it clearly is not. Can Jesus, led by the Father, be confident of deliverance, as at other times (7:44; 10:39; Lk 4:29-30)? If so this is a very surprising step, and an apparent change of plan. All sense compels Jesus to go away from Jerusalem, but His love for Lazarus compels Him to wait.
All this makes far greater sense of the fact that it is because Jesus loved Lazarus (and Martha, and Mary, 11:5) that He stays two days there — not instead of going into Jerusalem, but instead of going away from Jerusalem, as every factor would suggest that He should. Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his sisters is emphasised (11:3, 5, 33-4), and because of His love and these changed circumstances He wants to go back against reason. What does Jesus usually do when He has a big decision to make? He prays to the Father (Lk 6:12-13), and that is what He needs to do in this crisis situation. During the two day stay He is praying and seeking the Father’s will. This is borne out by the fact that when Jesus prays outside the tomb of Lazarus, He emphasises to those listening that He has already prayed, and the Father has already heard Him. All this fits perfectly with the wider context of John and His emphasis on Jesus co-operating with the Father, and doing everything at the right moment/time/hour (2:4; 5:17, 19-20; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20; 12:23). It is an interesting touch that the word used for Jesus ‘stayed’ there two days is the Greek word μενω (meno — to ‘abide’ or ‘remain’) which Jesus uses particularly in John 15 (just four chapters later) to refer to close relationship and prayer to the Father (John 15:1-11; vv7-11 emphasising prayer to the Father).
This reading also sheds a little light (no pun intended) on the somewhat cryptic verses 9 and 10. Jesus is letting the disciples know (or not, as the case may be) that although His actions seem surprising and dangerous, they need not have any fear of danger or stumbling, because He is now confident (presumably after two days of seeking the Father in prayer) that despite walking back into great potential danger, He is walking in the light of the Father’s presence and guidance and He will not stumble.
It is worth pointing out that regarding these alternative interpretations, Jesus’ statement in verse 4 is basically neutral. When Jesus says ‘this sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of Man may be glorified by it’, it can be read either as a statement that Jesus is going to deliberately wait for Lazarus to die so that God will get more glory from the greater miracle, or as a statement of faith, confidence and determination that Jesus will not allow this episode to end in Lazarus’s death, whatever happens next. Jesus is simply stating a fact, not declaring His purpose for allowing Lazarus to die. We should not forget that in John chapter 4 Jesus healed a boy ‘at the point of death’ with a simple word over a long distance (Jn 4:46-54), and presumably could have done the same here. Jesus’ response at 11:4 is exactly what we would expect from the God of love made flesh, Father’s heart revealed in the Son, who is determined that the friend He loves is not to die at this time and in this way. The fact that Jesus had a particular love for Lazarus and his sisters and a personal friendship could also well explain why He wanted to go to the family personally rather than heal from a distance.
So to sum up, I count roughly 15 exegetical reasons why this reading is superior to the popular one (I am not repeating in this list all the verse references given above):
1 The immediate context (Jesus travelling away from Jerusalem because the Jews were seeking to kill Him)
2 The wider context of John’s gospel:
1 Jesus continuous movement up to Jerusalem and down to Galilee
2 Jesus continuously seeking the Father in prayer and obedience
3 Jesus waiting for the right time/hour to lay down His life, and avoiding death until that moment
4 The growing antipathy of the Jews towards Jesus
5 A similar pattern of behaviour as 7:1-10
6 More consistent with Jesus normal attitude towards sickness, death and healing in the gospels
3 A better and simpler explanation of the fact that Jesus’ love for Lazarus and His sisters is emphasised as the reason for Him staying two days longer.
4 A better explanation of the disciples’ reactions in verses 8 and 16
5 Sheds more light on Jesus’ statement in vv9-10
6 A better explanation of the purpose of Jesus staying for two days in the same place
7 John’s use of the word μενω (meno) in verse 6
8 Correlates with Jesus’ emphasis in vv41-42 that He has already prayed
9 Accounts for Jesus’ desire to go to the family in person rather than heal from a distance, without the awkwardness of at the same time explaining His delay