We now start the holiest week in the Church calendar, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter.
The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches (Byzantine Rite) as Lazarus Saturday, recalling Jesus’s last healing miracle when he raised his friend from the dead (John 11:1-45, ESV). Read more about the story and the traditions behind it:
Our Church of England parish had John 11:1-45 as last Sunday’s Gospel reading (April 2, 2017). Our priest’s sermon centred around God directing events in His own time, not ours. Jesus’s timed his response to Lazarus’s death in obedience to His Father.
Lazarus was Martha and Mary’s brother. The three, who lived in Bethany, were good friends of Jesus. When Lazarus fell ill, Martha and Mary sent word to Him:
4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus[a] was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then, He told the disciples that Lazarus had fallen asleep and He would go to awaken him. The disciples thought that He spoke of normal sleeping:
14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
When they reached the outskirts of Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem, they discovered that Lazarus had been buried for four days. Mary was in the house, as many people were paying their respects. Martha left to greet Jesus, and showed that she understood Jesus and His Father, although she was not expecting what was to come (emphases mine):
21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
What followed is one of the most beautiful exchanges in the New Testament:
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.[d] Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
Martha went home to fetch Mary, saying that the Teacher wanted to see her. Of course, the mourners also followed. Note the varied reactions:
32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved[e] in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
They walked to the tomb. The King James Version of verse 39 is more striking than any other:
39 Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto Him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.
Returning to the ESV for the rest of the story:
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
It is important to note that God wanted Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead in front of others, not just Martha and Mary, who already believed in Him. Observe that the first thing Jesus did was to thank His Father for giving Him this opportunity to foreshadow His own Resurrection:
41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him,
However, others went to report the resurrection to the Pharisees. Our Lord’s raising Lazarus from the dead was the final straw. Look at their thought process:
47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
Caiaphas, the high priest, responded saying that it was better that one man die rather than a whole nation perish. John points out:
51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
John MacArthur says that this was not a holy prophecy, yet God put the words into Caiaphas’s mouth:
He said what he said. It just so happened that God ordered every word and gave it a completely different meaning, but every word was correct. This is a backdoor into understanding verbal inspiration, verbal inspiration …
Do you know what this man did, this autocratic, self-exalting, dictatorial, brutal, sly, corrupt man? He gave a clear statement on the substitutionary atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He talks about substitutionary atonement. He has no idea what he’s saying. Not surprising … He meant one thing, but God meant something different.
53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.
Jesus knew what was coming, so He and the disciples left Bethany for Ephraim — Ephron — away from the crowds.
MacArthur says that Lazarus was probably raised from the dead on the Wednesday preceding Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we know as Palm Sunday.
By the time Jesus was ready to enter Jerusalem the next day, news of His raising Lazarus back to life had spread like wildfire.
The Jews were headed for Jerusalem for purification rituals prior to Passover. They wondered if He would show up or remain in hiding.
John 12 tells the story of our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem:
12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
Jesus fulfilled a prophecy from Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9), which John calls our attention to:
15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
When I last heard a sermon on the donkey in my Anglican parish several years ago, the priest mentioned no prophecy being fulfilled. Yet, that is highly important to this event. John tells us:
16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.
John has the crowds — and the Pharisees’ — reaction:
17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”
Then there is the controversy over whether people laid cloaks (Luke’s version) or palms (John’s) before Jesus. Matthew’s and Mark’s say that they had both. However, I read a post several years ago wherein a layman wrote that palms were unbiblical, which is why I made the above highlight in purple.
Another post from 2011 explains why people used palms historically and on that particular day:
On that subject, it seems these days that most palms have already been made into crosses. However, if you are fortunate enough to receive plain palm fronds, this post tells you how you can preserve them the rest of the year:
Two other posts describe the human frailty and sinfulness on display in the days ahead. The crowds were fickle, the religious hierarchy devilish:
Our Lord knew that only too well.