Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. Martha then said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.” (11:20–27)
When word reached Martha that Jesus was coming into the village she went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. The actions of the two sisters are in keeping with the picture of them in Luke 10:38–42. Martha was the bustling, active one (“distracted with all her preparations”; Luke 10:40), Mary was the quiet, contemplative one (“seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word”; v. 39). According to Jewish custom, those who suffered the loss of a loved one remained seated while the other mourners consoled them. But Martha, in keeping with her forceful personality, left her house and went to meet Jesus as He approached.
When Martha reached Him, the disturbing thought that had been uppermost in her mind (and her sister’s; v. 32) for the last few days came pouring out: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Although obviously heartbroken, she was not rebuking the Lord for failing to prevent Lazarus’s death. As noted in the previous chapter of this volume, the sisters’ message had arrived too late, humanly speaking, for Jesus to have returned to Bethany in time to heal him. Martha’s words were simply a poignant expression of grief mingled with the faith she expressed in her next statement: “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” That confidence, however, evidently did not extend to Jesus’ ability to resurrect her brother, as her later hesitation when the tomb was opened makes clear (v. 39). She seems to have had faith in the Lord’s power to heal, but not in His power to raise the dead (perhaps the possibility had not even crossed her mind). Nonetheless Martha recognized that Jesus had a special relationship with God. She was therefore confident that through His prayers some good could still come out of the tragedy.
Jesus responded by assuring her, “Your brother will rise again.” He meant that Lazarus was going to be resurrected immediately, but Martha missed the point. She assumed that Jesus, like the other mourners, was comforting her by pointing out that Lazarus would rise again at the end of the age. Martha, however, was already familiar with that truth, and so she replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” The resurrection of the body was taught in the Old Testament (e.g., Job 19:25–27; Ps. 16:10; Dan. 12:2), and affirmed by the Pharisees (though not by the Sadducees; Matt. 22:23; Acts 23:6–8). It was also, as Martha knew, the teaching of Jesus (cf. 5:21, 25–29; 6:39–40, 44, 54). Ironically, while she believed Jesus had the power to raise her brother in the distant future, she did not think that He could also do so immediately.
Challenging Martha to move beyond an abstract belief in the final resurrection to complete faith in Him, Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” This is the fifth of the seven “I AM” deity claims in John’s gospel (6:35; 8:12; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 14:6; 15:1, 5). Martha’s focus was on the end of the age, but time is no obstacle for the One who has the power of resurrection and life (cf. 5:21, 26). Jesus will raise the dead in the future resurrection of which Martha spoke. But He was also going to raise her brother immediately. The Lord called her to a personal trust in Him as the One who alone has power over death.
Jesus’ next two statements, “he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die,” are not redundant. They teach separate, though related, truths. The one who believes in Jesus will live even if he dies physically because He will raise him on the last day (5:21, 25–29; 6:39–40, 44, 54). And since everyone who lives and believes in Him has eternal life (3:36; 5:24; 6:47, 54), they will never die spiritually (see the discussion of 8:51 in chapter 32 of this volume), since eternal life cannot be extinguished by physical death. As a result, all who trust in Christ can exult, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).
When Jesus challenged Martha, “Do you believe this?” He was not asking her if she believed that He was about to raise her brother. The Lord was calling her to personally believe that He alone was the source of resurrection power and eternal life. R. C. H. Lenski writes,
To believe “this” is to believe what he says of himself and thus to believe “in him.” It is one thing to hear it, to reason and to argue about it; and quite another thing to believe, embrace, trust it. To believe is to receive, hold, enjoy the reality and the power of it, with all that lies in it of joy, comfort, peace, and hope. The measure of our believing, while it is not the measure of our possessing, since the smallest faith has Jesus, the resurrection and the life, completely, is yet the measure of our enjoyment of it all. (The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel [Reprint; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998], 803)
Because of His infinite love for Martha’s soul, Jesus pointed her to the only source of spiritual life and well-being—Himself.
Martha’s affirmation of faith in Jesus stands with the other great confessions of His identity in the gospels (1:49; 6:69; Matt. 14:33; 16:16). It anticipates John’s purpose statement for writing his gospel: “These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31). Martha emphatically (the Greek text has the personal pronoun in addition to the verb) declared three vital truths about Jesus: Like Andrew (1:41), she confessed that He was the Christ, or Messiah; like John the Baptist (1:34), Nathanael (1:49), and the disciples (Matt. 14:33) she affirmed that He was the Son of God; and finally, like the Old Testament had predicted (cf. Is. 9:6; Mic. 5:2), she referred to Him as He who comes into the world—the deliverer sent by God (Luke 7:19–20; cf. John 1:9; 3:31; 6:14).
“I Am the Resurrection and the Life”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
About fifty years before the birth of Jesus Christ a letter was written by a well-known Roman, Sulpicius Severus, to the great orator Cicero on the occasion of the death of Cicero’s beloved daughter Tullia. It is a magnificent letter. It expresses deep sympathy. It reminds the orator that his daughter had only experienced a lot common to mankind and had passed away only when the freedom of the Republic was itself failing. It is warm and moving. But in spite of these great qualities the letter contains nothing of a hope of life beyond the grave. In reply, Cicero thanks his friend for his sympathy and enlarges upon the measure of his loss.
A century later the apostle Paul was in contact with Christians who had become similarly discouraged by the death of their friends, as the result of which he too has left us a letter. But Paul’s letter is different. True, it acknowledges sorrow; but it also breathes hope. It deals with death, but it also knows the comfort of a resurrection. In it Paul writes, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.… Therefore encourage each other with these words” (1 Thess. 4:13–14, 18).
These letters present a remarkable contrast, for they throw into relief that new awareness of the future life introduced by Christianity. Cicero was not unaware of Plato’s arguments for immortality or of any of the other arguments advanced in his day, but these were poor comfort in face of the cruel horror of death. Paul, on the other hand, moves in a new spirit of hope and confidence.
A Troubled Believer
Before we look at Christ’s statement regarding the resurrection and of himself as “the resurrection and the life,” we need to look at the one to whom he spoke it. For the person to whom he spoke was Martha, and Martha is an excellent example of a certain type of believer, of whom we have many today. These do not distrust the Lord, but neither do they believe with that full confidence that would allow them to lay aside their care and rest in his good provision. They believe, but they are always troubling themselves with questions of “How?” and “Why?” and “What if?” and so miss the blessing that could be theirs if they would only believe more simply.
Such faith always attempts to limit God or, which is the same thing, to scale down his promises. Notice that Martha limited the Lord’s working both to time and place, for she said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21).
We need to recall here that Jesus had deliberately delayed his return to Bethany for two days so that he eventually arrived in Bethany four full days after Lazarus’ burial. Some have felt that Jesus delayed until Lazarus had died (and have imagined this to be cruel), but a careful thinking through of the days will show that this probably was not true. If we number the days one through four, we can reconstruct what happened. On the first day, as Lazarus was getting worse, the sisters sent to Jesus. Apparently Lazarus died some time after the departure of the messenger and was quickly buried, so that this day counts as the first of the four in which he lay in the tomb. Quick burials were customary in such a hot climate. The next two days Jesus stayed in the area of the Jordan; that is, days two and three. Then, on the fourth day, Jesus returned to Bethany and performed the resurrection.
Lazarus was therefore already dead by the time word of his illness reached Jesus; Jesus knew of it and therefore delayed his return, not that Lazarus might die but for an entirely different purpose. The reason Jesus delayed his return from the Jordan was that there might be no doubt that Lazarus was dead and that there might therefore be no cause for doubting the miracle. Thus we know that from the beginning he intended to perform it.
Martha did not see this, however, so when Jesus returned to Bethany her first words were a bit of rebuke. And they expressed her own limited faith, as I have indicated. “If you had been here,” she said. That is, she felt that Jesus could have done something four days earlier but that he could not do what was obviously necessary now. True, one verse later Martha says, “But I know that even now, God will give you whatever you ask” (v. 22). But we know that her “whatever” did not include a resurrection, for she was quick to rebuke Christ later when he asked that the stone be rolled away from the tomb of Lazarus. Moreover, Martha also clearly tried to limit Christ by place; for she said, “If you had been here,” that is, in Bethany. It implied that Jesus could not have healed her brother from a distance. A little later she does the same thing when she reacts to Christ’s promise concerning her brother—“Your brother will rise again”—by saying, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (v. 24).
In the same way many of us also seek to limit Jesus. We believe that he is able to do all he says he will do—but not now and not here. At least we do not expect him to and are genuinely surprised or disbelieving when he does.
The second characteristic of Martha’s strange faith is that she treated the words of Christ impersonally. The first recorded words of Jesus after his return to Bethany were a tremendous promise. He said, “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23). But instead of taking this in the best and most personal sense—as a promise that Jesus was about to restore her brother to her—Martha pushed the words off into the future as though to say that they had no relationship either to herself or her situation.
This is also what we do with Christ’s promises, many of us. We believe them, in a sense, that is, as they apply to others or to a far distant time. But we do not receive them personally. For us, the glorious promises of God become something like a mighty fleet that has been put in moth balls, or like antiques in the attic. They have value, we suppose; but practically we get nothing out of them. The story is told of a gentleman who visited the home of a poor French couple a long time ago where he saw a note for one thousand francs papered to the wall. He asked them how they got that particular piece of paper. They answered that they had found a poor soldier, who had been wounded, and that they had nursed him in their home until he died. He had given it to them. It was such a nice memorial of him, they thought, that they had caused it to be plastered to the wall where they would always be able to see it. Naturally they were surprised when they were told that it would be worth quite a little fortune to them if they would turn it into money.
Unfortunately many Christians do that with God’s promises. But they should not—that is the point. As Spurgeon once wrote, they should have “grace to turn God’s bullion … into current coin.”
A New Revelation
We have looked at Martha, then. Let us now look at Jesus and at the way in which he dealt with her. She had come expressing a poor kind of faith, a faith that was half faith and half doubt. Even her words had a hint of rebuke about them. But Jesus did not get angry with her for her weak faith, or rebuke her in turn for her attitude. He could have said, “Martha, Martha, what poor thoughts you have of me. I have been with you for a long time and you still do not know that I am both willing to and will raise your brother.” He could have said something like that, but he did not. Rebuke in a time of great sorrow is not helpful, and is uncalled for. Besides, it would even have been misunderstood; for Martha thought she was expressing great faith in Jesus when she said, “But I know that even now, God will give you whatever you ask” (v. 22).
Instead, Jesus used the opportunity to teach Martha more of himself. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;. and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (vv. 25–26).
What did Jesus teach Martha? His first words were words to her condition specifically. She had attempted to push the resurrection off to the last day. Jesus replied by saying that he himself was the resurrection and that, therefore, wherever he is there is life. In this case, the Lord Jesus Christ was present physically; so there was going to be physical life. Lazarus would live again. When Jesus returns physically at the end of this age, there will be a physical resurrection then also. At other times, as today, Jesus is present spiritually; so there is a spiritual resurrection rather than a physical one. If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, you have experienced this resurrection. You were dead in trespasses and sins, but you have been brought to life by Jesus.
Likewise, all who know the Lord Jesus Christ will experience a physical resurrection. So at this point, having spoken directly to Martha’s situation, Jesus goes on to develop his teaching. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (vv. 25–26).
These comments can mean any of three things. First, both halves of Christ’s saying can be taken spiritually. If we do this, the sense would be, “Whoever believes in me, though he were spiritually dead, yet shall he become spiritually alive. And whosoever is spiritually alive and continues to believe in me shall never die spiritually.” The advantage of this interpretation is that it takes the terms in the same sense. If it is followed, the major thought is that the one who believes in Christ, having received the eternal life of God, will never be lost.
The second interpretation is one that takes the first half of Christ’s words physically and the second half spiritually. It would give us a meaning somewhat like this: “He who believes in me, even though he should die physically, yet he will live physically [that is, there will be a final resurrection]. And whosoever is spiritually alive and believes in me shall not die spiritually.” The advantage of this interpretation is that it relates to Martha’s problem directly—the problem of physical death answered by physical resurrection. The disadvantage is that the terms, particularly the term “life,” must be taken in different senses.
The third interpretation takes both halves of Christ’s statement physically, that is, as applying to the time of Christ’s second coming at which time those who are alive will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air while those who have died will be raised physically. This, while true, does not seem to relate to the situation in John 11. But if it were the meaning of the verses, we would have to read them like this: “He who believes in me, though he shall have died physically by the time of my return, yet shall he be raised. And whoever is a believer and is still living at the time of my return, shall never die physically but shall be caught up to heaven.” This was the interpretation of C. H. Spurgeon and some other commentators.
Which of these is to be preferred? It is probably impossible to say with certainty; for, since the statements involved in each view are true in themselves, each could be possible. In my opinion the second is the most likely in that it begins with Martha’s situation but then goes on to present a higher principle. If this is the case, then Christ’s promises are all-inclusive. There is a promise of spiritual life and physical life. There is a promise of life now and also life to come. Moreover, it is clearly stated that this life is only for those who believe on Christ and who are therefore members of his covenant people.
A Direct Application
This brings us to our conclusion, which is at the same time (let us note) the conclusion that Jesus pressed upon Martha. It is a conclusion in the form of a question: “Do you believe this?” (v. 26). Jesus had made a statement (“I am the resurrection and the life”); he had elaborated upon it. Now he asks, “Do you believe this? Do you really believe it?” This is the question I would like to leave with you also. Do you believe Christ’s teaching?
As you think about it, notice that Jesus speaks of faith and not feeling. He did not say to Martha, “Do you feel better now, Martha? Have you found these thoughts comforting? Do you feel your old optimism returning?” According to Jesus it was not how she felt that was important, but what she believed. Feelings are deceiving. Moreover, they come and go. On the other hand, faith is an anchor fixed in bedrock. To believe the words of Jesus is to believe in One whose promises are absolutely trustworthy.
Notice also that Christ was specific. He did not say, “Martha, do you believe generally?” He said, “Martha, do you believe this? That is, do you believe the specific truths I have taught you?”
I ask that question of you. I trust that your answer may be different. Do you believe this? You should be able to say, “Yes, Lord, I believe it. I believe all that is written in your Book.
“I believe in one great God, who has made this earth and has placed me upon it. I believe that I am sinful. I believe that this same God in love and wisdom sent the Lord Jesus Christ to die for me that I might be saved. I believe that Jesus existed with God and as God from the beginning, that he became man, that his death was a substitutionary death for me by which my sin has been removed as far as the east is from the west and on the basis of which it will be remembered against me no more. I believe in Christ’s historical, literal, and bodily resurrection, by which God has demonstrated that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is acceptable to him as an all-sufficient atonement for the sin of his people and in which he has also given a foretaste of the coming resurrection of all who believe on him. I believe in the person and power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that he opens blind eyes to see Christ and moves rebellious wills to embrace him to their salvation. I believe that he illuminates the written Word of God so that those who are saved can understand it and obey it. I believe in the fellowship of the saints. I believe in the church. I believe in God’s providence, by which nothing enters the life of the Christian that is not the product either of God’s direct or permissive will. I believe that God chastises his children. I believe that he is determined to perfect the character of Jesus Christ in all who are united to Christ by faith. I believe that Jesus will one day return from heaven even as he was seen to go into heaven—bodily and in time. I believe that in that day there will be a final resurrection of believers to the life of heaven and of unbelievers to judgment. In hell there will be suffering. In heaven there will be a life of blessing prepared in advance by God for those whom he has chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.”
There is much more that can be said, of course. But every Christian should be able to say at least that. “Do you believe this?” You should be able to echo the teaching of the written Word in answer to the question of the living Word, rounding it off with a hearty, “Yes, Lord, I believe all that is written in your Book.”
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 462–465). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 849–854). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.