Lazarus, Mary, and Martha

John 11:5 describes Lazarus, Mary, and Martha of Bethany as close friends of Jesus. Luke is probably referring to this same Martha and Mary when he records a visit of Jesus and his disciples: “as they went, he entered into a certain village and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister, Mary, who also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. But Martha, encumbered with the work of serving their guests, came to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Ask her to help me.’ But Jesus replied, ‘Martha, Martha, you care and are troubled about many things. But one thing is needful, and Mary has chosen that good thing, which will not be taken away from her.’”

Mary had found the only thing really needed in life, the top priority: loving and serving her savior. The next encounter with Martha and Mary is recorded in John's Gospel, in chapter 11, where an emissary of the sisters tells Jesus that Lazarus, “he whom you love, is sick.” But Jesus says the sickness “is not unto death but for God's glory” and he stays on in Jerusalem several days longer. His disciples, meanwhile, urge him to return to Judea because the opposition to him in Jerusalem is getting intense.

Lazarus Asleep

“Our friend Lazarus is sleeping;” he replies “but I'm going to awake him from his sleep.” The disciples replied, “Lord, if he's asleep, he'll do well.” But Jesus was speaking of his death, though they thought he had meant taking rest in sleep. Then said Jesus plainly, “Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may be caused to believe. Now, let us go unto him” (John 11:3–15). Jesus is making certain that the disciples know that he waited before going to Lazarus to demonstrate his power over death. And this miracle will seal Jesus' fate with his enemies in Jerusalem who seek to have him put to death.

Martha and Mary Speak to Jesus

When they arrived at Bethany, only about two miles from Jerusalem, they were told that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days already, and when Martha met Jesus on his arrival, she said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now, whatever you will ask of God, God will give it to you.” To which Jesus replied, “Your brother shall rise again.”

Martha said, “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But Jesus replied, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he is dead, shall yet live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” Martha replied. “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who should come into the world.” And having said this, Martha left and called Mary, her sister, privately, saying, “The Master is here and calls for you.”


Traditionally, these events are considered to have taken place on the Sabbath before the Crucifixion. This Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday, is a prelude to Holy Week in Orthodoxy, where it is called Lazarus Saturday.

Jesus is taken to the tomb of Lazarus, and seeing that his friend is dead, he weeps for him and his skeptical followers are impressed, saying, “See how he loved him.” He orders the stone sealing Lazarus' grave removed, and after praying, “‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but because of the people who stand by I said it, so they may believe that you have sent me.’ And when he had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ And he who was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave clothes and his face bound with a napkin. Jesus said to them, ‘Loose him, and let him go.’”

The next day, six days before Passover, Jesus goes to a dinner hosted in his honor by Simon of Bethany, a leper whom he had healed. And when Jesus' enemies saw Lazarus there with Jesus, they added Lazarus to their list of people to kill to end Jesus' claims to being the Messiah, and the human Son of the Eternal God.

It was at the dinner at Simon of Bethany's house that Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus' head with oil and washed his feet with her tears and precious perfume. This is considered an indication of Mary's consummate faith in Jesus, and her recognition of what the disciples were refusing to receive, that his death was near.

Roman Catholic tradition says that Lazarus was shipped out of Israel and became the first bishop of Marseilles, in what is now France. Orthodoxy records him as the first bishop of Kition, Cyprus, and commemorates him each year on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. The tradition also says that Mary and Martha lived with him in Cyprus and spent the rest of their lives there. The ancient liturgical hymns describe Lazarus' resurrection as a preview of the general resurrection of the believers in Christ.

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