Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 11.32-44
All Saints Sunday - Year B

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Remarks about "Saints"

Our Lutheran practice is to celebrate All Saints Day on November 1 or the Sunday that falls after that date.


Traditionally, the commemoration of martyrs occurred on the anniversaries of their deaths. However, for all those whose death-dates were unknown, a commemoration for "all the martyrs" was established perhaps as early as c. 359 in Edessa (presently Urfa, Turkey) and certainly by 411 in Eastern Syria. So this feast day is nearly as old as Christmas, which began in the 4th century.

By the 7th century, this feast had begun to include non-martyrs as well.

The date for the festival varied in different parts of Europe and Asia. The use of November 1 for this feast is first recorded in England in the 8th century. "According to John Beleth (died c. 1165), Gregory IV in 835 transferred the feast from May 13 to November 1 after the harvest so that there would be sufficient food in Rome for the pilgrims. In the twelfth century the date of May 13 for all saints disappears from the liturgical books" (Philip H. Pfatteicher, Festivals and Commemorations: Handbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship).

This Sunday would be a good time to discuss "What is a saint?" Some quotes on this topic (which have been posted before) follow.


A young man once came to a great rabbi and asked him to make him a rabbi.

It was winter time then. The rabbi stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the rabbinical candidate was droning into his ears a glowing account of his piety and learning.

The young man said, "You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I perform austerities. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. Also daily, the shammes [a synagogue sexton] gives me forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance."

And as the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, and then it rolled in the snow, as horses sometimes do.

"Just look!" cried the rabbi. "That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it a horse?" (from A Treasure of Jewish Folklore, page 109)


The Greek word usually translated saint is hagios. Literally it is an adjective meaning: "holy" It can refer to "holy things" or "holy people". The word "holy" means "to set apart". I frequently paraphrase it to mean "special". Holy Communion is a "special" fellowship between God and us and each other. The Holy Bible is a "special" book. The Holy Spirit is the "special" breath or wind from God. God said, "Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy" means to make that day "special". A form of that word is used in the Lord's prayer: "Hallowed be thy name." That means to make or treat God's name as holy -- to make it a "special" name.

So what's a saint? A saint is a holy person. What's a holy person? A holy person is special person.

How do you become a saint or a special person?

In the Old Testament, things became holy through contact with other holy things. For instance, Exodus 29:37 gives the command:

For seven days make atonement for the altar and consecrate it. Then the altar will be most holy, and whatever touches it will be holy.

A similar command is given in the next chapter concerning the Tent of Meeting and many of the things used for worship: "You shall consecrate them so they will be most holy, and whatever touches them will be holy."

What makes a book the Holy Bible? It has been in contact with the Holy God. What makes a wind or breath the Holy Spirit? It has been in contact with the Holy God. What makes a fellowship a Holy Communion? When we are in contact with the Holy God. What makes a person a saint? When he or she has been in contact with the Holy God.

In the Old Testament, it was only a few people -- the priests who could come in contact with the holy things. Jesus changed that. Jesus opened the way for all of us to approach and come near to the holy God and become holy ourselves.

Being a saint comes as a gift from God. You are a saint because you are in contact with the Holy God -- or better, because the Holy God has come in contact with you. Being a saint is not something you do for yourself, although we often use the word in that way. We often think of a person as a saint because they live a very good life, but a saint is a saint because of his/her contact with the Holy God.

At a retreat where Leonard Sweet spoke, he commented that the contemporary world is not so interested in believing in God (as an intellectual exercise), but to experience God. "Taste and see" God, the scriptures say. Worship needs to be a time to connect and experience God. However, it needs to be more than just a wonderful experience, but an experience that leads one to exclaim, "What a wonderful God!" It is that connection with the wonderful, holy God that makes one a saint -- a holy person.


When I read the following from Kennon Callahan, I had to confess that I had been guilty of making All Saints Sunday a backward-looking memorial service. Last year I followed the suggestion and also highlighted all the new "saints" who had joined the congregation during the previous year.

I once attended a Sunday morning worship that included a memorial service in which the congregation, once a year, remembered all those who had died during the previous year. At one point in the service the pastor thoughtfully read the names of each person who had died. As the names were read, the organ played softly in the back-ground, and outside, the church bell tolled slowly. The service climaxed with a prayer of thanksgiving for those lives and a hymn of victory.

Afterward, when the pastor asked me what I thought of the service, I told him, "It was excellent, most helpful, most meaningful." Then I asked him, "When do you do the same for each new baby born this past year, for each person who has discovered Christ during this past year, and for those who have significantly advanced God's mission during this past year?"

"Oh," he replied. "Well, when a baby is born, we place a rose on the altar.'

I said, "Yes. One rose, one service. And when a person dies, you often have flowers on the altar from the funeral service, and people take food over to help the family in the midst of their grief. You offer prayer for the person and the family during the illness; then you offer prayer for them on the Sunday following the funeral service. You do all these things for those experiencing grief at the end of a life. And you do this excellent memorial service once a year. You are celebrating the past. Celebrate the future as well." [Kennon Callahan, Dynamic Worship: Mission, Grace, Praise, and Power, page 89]


I find the two gospel lessons assigned for this day (All Saints B = John 11:32-44 & Proper 26 B = Mark 12:28-34) present a two-sided truth to sainthood.

The lesson from John is about the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This text illustrates that our sainthood comes solely through the power of God. Dead Lazarus could do nothing for himself (or for God). He could only passively receive the new life God gave him.

The lesson from Mark is the question about the great commandment: Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. This text suggests that our sainthood comes from our own abilities and actions in loving God, neighbor, and self. However, when the scribe agrees with Jesus about the importance of these commandments, Jesus tells him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Knowing (and perhaps even obeying these commandments) doesn't get one into the kingdom of God. "Close, but no cigar," as an old saying goes.

To return to the John text, one might look at Mary and Martha as examples of saintliness. Although there isn't much said about them in our lection, there is Mary's passion when she comes to Jesus and Martha's skepticism when Jesus asks that the stone be removed for the tomb.

John 11:32-44 exegetical notes

As usual in John, this miracle has both a literal meaning -- the raising of Lazarus from death -- and a symbolic meaning -- the giving of life to all people whom Jesus loves. There is physical death and life illustrated by Lazarus. There is spiritual death as separation from God and spiritual life as connection with God. Both are part of John's message in this text.

MARY & JESUS [(28-31) 32-33]

While Martha's faith is centered on knowing, Mary's is much more emotional. She moves "quickly". She begins by saying exactly the same words as Martha: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (v. 32), but she is saying them while crying at Jesus' feet. She says nothing else. She doesn't utter all the proper phrases like Martha about the all-powerful Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God or any belief about the resurrection of the dead. Mary just cries.

While Martha had depth in her confession, there was little emotion. Mary has great emotion, but little depth to her faith. While it might appear that Mary's tears moved Jesus to raise Lazarus, that isn't the case. Jesus had told his disciples before they arrived that he was coming to "wake up" "sleeping" Lazarus. He went there with the intentions of raising Lazarus before either sister came to him.

V. 33 presents a translation problem: how should embrimaomai be understood? (It also occurs in v. 38.) Usually it is a term of anger. (It's root brimaomai was thought to sound like the sound of horses snorting in anger.) It is always used of anger or indignation in the LXX. If it means "disturbed" as in the NRSV, the emotion implied is a negative one. What would Jesus have to be angry about? Perhaps the people's inadequate faith (illustrated by Martha and Mary)? Perhaps coming face to face with the powers of Satan represented by his friend's death? However, given that we are told that Jesus has just seen "her weeping and the Jews who came with her weeping," could his anger be at the large crowd who would witness what he is about to do? Some in the crowd will "get the picture" and have a proper faith in Jesus. Some will misinterpret the miracle and have an improper faith in Superman-Jesus. Some will be "turned off" by the event and actively seek to kill Jesus (see v. 53). These last two groups will make life miserable for Jesus. (These same types of reactions make life miserable for ministers, too.) If it had only been Jesus' disciples and Mary and Martha who were to witness the miracle, would Jesus have been so distressed in his Spirit? I think not.


John 11:35 has been a favorite verse for generations. In the Greek, it is not the shortest verse in the Bible. It contains three words and 16 letters. 1 Thess 5:16 has only two words and 14 letters in my Greek NT.

This is the only occurrence of dakruo ("weep") in the NT, meaning that it is a different word than used of Mary or the Jews "weeping" (klaio). Does John mean to imply that Jesus' crying was somehow different than the weeping (wailing?) of the others?

The question from the crowd is provocative: "Couldn't this one, who opened the eyes of the blind, do something so that this one would not have died?" First of all, they recognize Jesus ability to heal the blind (John 9). Secondly, as far as I remember, there are no instances where Jesus kept someone from dying. There are other instances of Jesus (and his followers) raising up those who had died. I think that the promise we proclaim is not that Jesus can keep people from dying or even suffering; but that Jesus will raise up the dead -- neither (physical) death nor suffering will never separate believers from God.

Martha's statement about the smell strongly suggests that they were not expecting a resurrection of the dead. Her comments also affirm the reality of Lazarus' death -- four days -- the hovering soul would have left by now.

pisteuo -- "to believe" could be a theme that is explored as that which defines us as "saints". The word is used frequently in John 11 (vv. 15, 25, 26, 27, 40, 42, 45, 48).

In v. 40, faith is related to seeing "the glory of God" in the miracle of raising Lazarus. Apparently those who want to kill Jesus after this event (see v. 53) did not have the faith to see the glory of God.

Could we expand this notion of faith -- that it is required in order to see the glory of God in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus? or in our own lives? or in the little events that happen around us? Faith sees God where others do not.


Jesus' prayer doesn't ask for the miracle; but is one of thanksgiving (eucharisteo -- present tense = "I am giving thanks") to God and meant to be overheard by those standing by. Perhaps like the Great Thanksgiving in the Eucharist, while it offers thanks to God, it is also a proclamation to those who overhear the prayer.

The purpose of the miracle is so that the people might believe that God has sent Jesus (v. 42). As I said earlier, believing could be a thematic approach to this text. Here, the content of faith is that Jesus has been sent by God. That is a "faith-theme" that reoccurs throughout the gospel of John. Jesus is the one sent by God.

Jesus' shout (kraugizo) in v. 43 gives life. The same word is used of the crowds shouting for Jesus' death (18:40; 19:6, 12, 15). (Its only other instance in John is 12:13 where the palm Sunday crowd shouts their Hosannas.) It is in response to Jesus' word that Lazarus finds life. (Could Lazarus have refused to come out?) It is also in response to Jesus' word that Lazarus is freed from his restrictive bindings, by other people. Not all of God's works take place supernaturally. Sometimes they require a lot of work on our part.

deuro -- "come" is used in the synoptics as a discipling word: Mt 19:21; Mk 10:21; Lu 18:22. (The related deuto is also used in Jesus' call "to follow" him -- Mt 4:19; 11:28; Mk 1:17.)

This text might be used as an allegory of discipleship -- answering the call "to come" and follow Jesus. The call means leaving the old, (dead) life behind.

The dead are bound (deo of Lazarus in v. 44 and of Jesus in 19:40) in bandages. Jesus' act of releasing (luo) Lazarus results in Jesus being physically bound (deo) at his arrest (18:12, 24). These same two words (deo & luo) are used in Mt 16:19 & 18:18 as the authority given with the Keys of the Kingdom -- "to bind" and "to loose". Could resurrected Lazarus symbolize the "loosed" (luo) and the "forgiven" (a frequent translation for aphiemi which is used in the last line of v. 44 "let him go")?

Two other pictures of faith in the larger context of this text: The disciples -- they don't understand what's going on. They misunderstand Jesus' words about "sleeping". They are reluctant to go with Jesus, because they might die; but by going with Jesus, they will see God's glory and God's power to give life to the dead! They are pessimistic and discouraging in this text. They are still Jesus' disciples, but perhaps not the best models of faith.

There is Lazarus who is dead in the grave. Lazarus can do nothing for himself. All he can do is receive the power of God to give him new life. The call to faith is a call to die, so that God's power might be manifested in giving us life. Theologically, we died in baptism and we die in daily repentance and God raises us to new life beyond our sins. However, sometimes after we have been given new life by God, we still want to keep ourselves wrapped up and bound in our grave clothes -- signs of the old life. We can keep ourselves bound up by holding onto those sins from which Jesus has freed us and has forgiven us -- or even holding onto our goodness and obedience to the Law, which Paul said is as good as garbage.

I wonder how life was different for Lazarus after his death and resurrection event. Were his priorities the same afterwards as before? Did he work less and spend more time with family and friends? Could we imagine what his new life was like and then apply it to our own lives as resurrected people through our births from above in baptism?

O'Day [John, New Interpreter's Bible]:

... The church preaches about death and resurrection at the time of death, but shies away from such topics in the midst of life. Yet it is the everyday rhythms of life that the church most needs to talk about Jesus' power as the resurrection and the life, so that death can indeed lose its sting. To proclaim the power of resurrection only at the time of death is both to impoverish the proclamation and to weaken the power of its witness in the face of death. There is thus a critical need to include conversations about death and the theological significance of Jesus as the resurrection and the life in the ongoing theological reflection of the church, not just in its reflection about death.

In the moment of crisis, at the funeral of a loved one, the immediate need is for pastoral care and reassurance about the power of the resurrection. Indeed, funerals do provide gospel witness to the power of God in Jesus. But a funeral is not the moment for believers to reassess their lives in the light of the new eschatological reality in which the incarnation enables the church to live, because the power of grief and loss is so palpable. Why, then, does the church so often save its most powerful proclamation about death and resurrection for funerals?

Jesus' powerful announcement to Martha suggests that the church needs to embrace Jesus as the resurrection and the life not only at times of death, but also in the daily moments of human lives, because these moments, too, whether one names them so or not, are also lived in the face of death. John 11 asks the church to reflect that Jesus is the resurrection and the life not just for the crisis moment of death, but for all moments in life. Jesus as the resurrection and the life is the decisive eschatological announcement, because he announces that the world is now definitively under God's care and power.... John 11 thus offers a promise about how those who believe in Jesus will live their lives, not just about how they will end them. [p. 695]

Similarly, our "sainthood" doesn't happen after our deaths, but it is part of our lives in the present time. We are connected with the holy God now.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901