In John’s gospel, readers were told that when Lazarus of Bethany was on his deathbed, Martha and Mary sent Jesus an urgent message alerting Him that they urgently needed His assistance. However, Jesus stayed where He was for two more days (11:6).
The name Lazarus is synonymous with the Hebrew, “Eliezer.” It means “my God is help.” Bethany in Hebrew means, “house of the poor,” which may cause us to think that the area where the family lived was dedicated to the ministry of mercy in the Judean region that Josephus refers to in Jewish Wars (2.124). The irony here is significant.
Jesus was at least one day’s journey away from Bethany (10:40). By the time the message reached him, Lazarus had already died (11:11). Jesus waited for two additional days, timing His arrival to take place exactly on the fourth day after Lazarus’ death (11:17). But why?
The answer may lie in a Jewish tradition that can be traced back to the time of Jesus. The soul of a deceased person was believed to linger behind, hovering over the dead body for three days, desperately trying to get back inside the body.
“Berei and R. Pappi, R. Joshua of Sikhnin in the name of R. Levi: ‘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.'” (Jerusalem Talmud, Yebamot 16:3)
When Jesus arrived, He declared: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies…” (11:25). Being deeply moved by the sorrow of His fellow Jews over the death of Lazarus, He resurrected him from the dead at exactly the time He had planned to do so all along (11:36-38).