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Gems in the Gospel of John

Part 49 – John 11:44

Unbind him and let him go.

The NIV that I have been using adds in extra words in this verse 44 that have no equivalent in the original Greek. I prefer to use the shorter, more accurate and more significant wording of the NRSV, “unbind him and let him go”. Although John was clearly applying the words to the situation in front of Jesus we may see some deeper meanings in what he said. John probably intended that these were to be seen. We can think about how these refer to Lazarus, to Jesus and to us.

Lazarus must have been an amazing sight as he tottered out of the tomb. With his feet bound together and doubtful vision through the bandages round his head he will have had a fair old struggle to make any progress. No doubt he was delighted to find he was back to life with his sisters. In the beginning of the next chapter we find him feasting with Jesus. What an honour! He will have been less pleased to find himself the centre of a large crowd of sightseers shortly after. Then he had to hide away because he heard plans were being made to kill him as well as Jesus just because he was attracting that crowd. And, of course, he still had to die again – poor chap.

When Jesus called him out of the tomb he said, “let him go”. Jesus passed no comment on his spiritual state. He did not say ‘go and sin no more’ or anything similar. We may conclude that all that had happened to Lazarus, his fatal illness, was one of those things that may happen to anybody for no apparent reason. Life seems to be completely chaotic to us. Most of the time we cannot understand why a good and gracious God should allow the things that happen to us. We just have to accept that these are his characteristics and this is the way the world he has given us to live in works.

Much of what happened to Lazarus seems to be a forerunner of what was shortly going to happen to Jesus. But there is also one interesting contrast, which John may well have meant us to see. Lazarus left death behind but not his grave wrappings. When Jesus rose from the dead, not to his old life to continue for a few more years as Lazarus had to do, but to new life, resurrected life, he left his grave clothes behind. John records that when Peter went into the tomb where Jesus had been laid, “He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen”. Jesus had, so to speak, melted out through the grave wrappings. He was still Jesus, recognizably the same yet different. Even those who knew him well struggled to recognize him after his resurrection yet were quite sure it was him. He would eat with his disciples shortly after but he would no longer be in fear of his life. He did not have to hide, as Lazarus did. He was in his resurrected glory.

And then there is the message to us. ‘Unbind him and let him go’ can refer to us too. We have been unbound when we met Jesus just as Lazarus was. Paul uses a clothing image writing to the Colossians. “Put off the old self” he says, strongly suggesting an unclothing. He goes on to say, “clothe yourselves” with various good things. And, as an overcoat, put on love over everything else. And when we have done so at conversion or, pictorially, at baptism we are to return to the world to live our lives in the same place and among the same people as before but differently, as I am sure Lazarus did after his death experience. Jesus will ‘unbind us’ from our former lives of sin and pointlessness and send us on our ways to better and greater things.

What a wonderful story this culminating sign-miracle of John’s Gospel is. Jesus conquered death for himself and for Lazarus – and for us.

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